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Winning One for the Zippers

How the Squirrel Nut Zippers landed calypso on modern-rock radio.

"I think there's a certain amount of the Southern myth that's true," says Tom Maxwell, vocalist, guitarist and sax man for the hippest "hot jazz" revivalists going, North Carolina's Squirrel Nut Zippers. "And I think we're a Southern band in many ways."
How so? According to Maxwell, "We talk different, our jokes are different, and we make wordplay that people in other parts of the country don't make." To illustrate his point, he cites a lyric from "Got My Own Thing Now," the raucous, Dixieland-ish opener on the band's new Mammoth Records release, accurately titled Hot. During the tune, Zipper guitarist/trombonist/vocalist Jim Mathus sings, "Broke away somehow...," a phrase Maxwell describes as "an old calypso term. When somebody 'breaks away,' they can be sort of losing themselves--really dancing and getting out of themselves. Or they can break away in an emotional, spiritual sense, like when black church women 'get happy' and start jumping around. And it can also mean removing one's self from stultifying environments. You break away if you rise above that kind of hell."

For the past three years, the Zippers have done just that by embracing music identified with bygone greats such as Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan and Billie Holiday. Though this sound doesn't seem all that commercial on the surface, it's proven to have unexpected appeal for members of the music press and jitterbugging hepsters throughout the land. As a result, the Zippers--Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo, ukulele), Ken Mosher (guitar, saxophone), Chris Phillips (drums), Je Widenhouse (trumpet) and new recruit Stu Cole (stand-up bass)--have found themselves walking in what folks below the Mason-Dixon line call "high cotton." For example, the combo had the opportunity a few weeks back to play an inaugural ball attended by one William Jefferson Clinton, President. As Maxwell remembers it, security for the event was mighty tight.

"They sequestered everyone," he notes, "and the Secret Service whisked everyone into these rooms for a lockdown. Just a couple people from each band got to go on stage and stand with the Clintons and the Gores while they did their thing." Mathus and Whalen were the Zippers who won stage honors, leaving their associates to fend for themselves. Several took refuge backstage near video monitors, but this vantage point didn't satisfy Maxwell. So he and some cohorts sought a better location. "When they walked through the lobby area, which was partitioned from our room by a big curtain, we peeked through the curtain," Maxwell reveals. "I saw the back of the president's head."

Back in 1993, when the Zippers concept began germinating, the view was considerably different. Mathus and Whalen had set up shop in an old farmhouse in a small, rural community outside Chapel Hill; there they painted, made puppets and indulged their jones for playing old-time jazz. Before long, the two were frying chicken and hosting potluck dinners for area musicians who'd accepted their invitation to drop in and enjoy some hospitality.

Mosher, Phillips and recently departed bassist Don Raleigh were among those who answered the call. They soon became regulars, as did Maxwell, a Chapel Hill rock-and-roller with an addiction to Fats Waller. From the start, Maxwell recalls, "it was just incredibly fun and liberating. The rock-and-roll thing had become almost a straitjacket, because your range of expression is profoundly limited. Here we could play songs in waltz time, or we could put a clarinet or Hawaiian guitar on there. We'd play a song, look at each other and laugh for a long time."

The laid-back mood of the Zippers' jam sessions filtered into the music itself. "We don't write anything down--it's all head arrangements," Maxwell points out. "That was the difference between Motown and Stax. Stax/Volt was much more loose; they played much more ballsy, emotional music. Those guys just played a song, came up with their parts and cut it. They didn't have some guy writing charts that they sat and read."

As this comment implies, the Zippers enjoy swirling disparate styles, including blues and gospel, into the group's swinging concoction. "There's also a certain way that Harlem people play jazz and a certain way that New Orleans people play jazz," Maxwell notes. "And we adopt elements from all of them."

Such eclecticism doesn't generally endear a band to radio. So it's a genuine surprise that KROQ-FM in Los Angeles, widely regarded as the most influential modern-rock outlet in the country, has been spinning "Hell," the Zippers' latest single. "They've added us to their playlist, and now a bunch of other so-called alternative stations are playing us, following the alternative edict set in stone by KROQ," Maxwell remarks. "We've gone from being the darlings of college radio, who will now probably abandon us, to this new level of FM thing, which we're dealing with now."

Maxwell finds all of this rather humorous. "It's so amusing to be an alternative band when you're playing music that's so accessible and so pleasing and cross-generational--and that makes you a freak...Personally, I can't understand why they're playing this stuff. I'm glad, but it's so different from what they seem to want. It's calypso--they're playing calypso! Chew on that one, man."

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