There's a bit of a reunion bug going around these days -- The Police, Van Halen, Spice Girls, Genesis and Rage Against the Machine to name a few. You can add Squirrel Nut Zippers to the list, as well.
The '90s alt-swingers last toured in 2001, but have reunited for a handful of shows this year. "It's been so great 'cause there are a lot of people out there now who are young adults, who have kids of their own, and were too young to see us back then," says founding member James "Jimbo" Mathus from his Memphis home. "They couldn't get in the club when we stopped playing. It's been really cool to get this whole second generation bringing their kids with them, as well."
Best known for their part in the retro swing movement of the '90s and the hit single, "Hell," the Zippers sophomore album Hot sold more than one million copies. (Original singer Tom Maxwell and guitarist Ken Mosher later sued the band for royalties.)
The band's current lineup features most of the originals, with a few new names tossed in. Mathus (guitar/vocals) is joined by ex-wife Katherine Whalen (vocals/banjo), Chris Phillips (drums), Je Widenhouse (trumpet), Stuart Cole (bass) and Will Dawson, who Mathus refers to as a "pinch-hitter instrumentalist." Mathus adds of the new members, "Henry Westmoreland is our baritone saxophone player and Gabriel Telli is our fiddle player. They're all quite good and just fit right into the group. It's pretty smokin'."
While each member has gone their own way since their last tour, Mathus says they remained friends. "There was a lot going on back then," Mathus says of the breakup. "The business had just gone south cause of different things. We'd been through a lot in a short period of time. It was just ... there was no plan made. We're stopping. Just over time, we've all remained real tight and just big fans of what each other does. That's really the best reason to get together, is just to do the music again."
While one might suspect some tension between the divorcees up front, Mathus, who has since remarried, says he and Whalen have remained friends and respect each other's work. "It's been very smooth and just a lot of fun," he says of working with her. "She's so talented and so wonderful -- it's just undeniable to me." Both released solo albums last year, Whalen's Dirty Little Secret and Mathus' Old Scool Hot Wings.
During the time away from the Zippers, Mathus has remained busy. He opened a studio in Clarksdale, Miss. (Delta Recording Service, which is now in Como, Miss.), toured and recorded with Buddy Guy and released a few albums with his band, Knockdown South. Of his time with Guy, Mathus says he learned a lot about longevity and "fearlessness on your instrument."
He's currently working on a new solo album -- Jimmy the Kid -- either with the Starlight Wranglers or Knockdown South, he hasn't decided which title they'll use. "I just call it interplanetary honky tonk," he says. "It's based on a lot of honky tonk music with pedal steel and occasionally exploding out into psychedelic Southern rock."
His recording studio has afforded Mathus the opportunity to record some big names -- Elvis Costello, The Hives, North Mississippi Allstars -- while serving as mentor to some younger groups. He says he worked on approximately 80 albums in two years. The recording slowed down a bit this year so he could focus more on the Zippers.
The band reunited thanks to the efforts of Phillips who called up Whalen and Mathus after gauging interest from the public.
"It seemed like the right time," Mathus says. "We had some nice shows and people wanted to see us again. The band sounds better than ever. I didn't know I'd be able to get into it again, but I've been able to take all of the blues and country and Southern stuff I've been doing since then and sort of retranslate it back into the Zippers music. Everybody else has done the same thing. It's really neat."
Mathus says the band has been playing the same material -- "maybe one or two new things for the encore" -- but hasn't ruled out the idea of recording again. Noting that the band members are all busy with other projects, Mathus says they don't really like to plan out the future and will just "let it evolve naturally and see what next year brings."
In the meantime, he'll continue working with bands new and old and stay busy.
"It's all logs in the fire," he says. "Anything I do, I'm gonna put 100 percent into it. It's gonna be something I believe in or I'm not gonna do it. It all adds to it -- the producing, the blues, the country, the Zippers. I've always liked a mixed bag."
The Squirrel Nut Zippers will perform at the Neighborhood Theatre on Oct. 25. Tickets are $25 for the 8 p.m. show with seating on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors open at 7 p.m. The Firecracker Jazz Band will open. More information can be found at jimbomathus.net.