Squirrel Nut Zippers will swing into Deer Valley
The New Orleans, French Quarter swing of the Squirrel Nut Zippers will kick off the Park City Institute’s St. Regis Big Stars, Bright Nights concerts at Deer Valley on Sunday.
And no one is looking forward to the show more than the band’s multi-instrumentalist founder Jimbo Mathus.
“This show is one of our first in more than a decade, I reckon,” Mathus said during a phone call form Taylor, Mississippi. “I just wanted to get the best band together to represent those songs as best as possible. So, I’ve recruited musicians from New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Texas and the Carolinas, and all of these guys are young cats and they are phenomenal.”
The band has another thing to celebrate — the 20th anniversary of its breakthrough album “Hot.”
“I think it’s a great milestone and honor that people still appreciate that album,” Mathus said. “Many people actually revere that album and I have such good memories of making that album.” Those memories include the build-up that included gigging, songwriting and recording.
“We had a good idea of how special this album would be because we had seen something explode after starting from this small, eccentric art project,” Mathus said.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers performed a private, invite-only party in the basement of a little French bistro in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1995.
“It was the end of the summer and it was going to be just a little opening for the band and that was it,” Mathus said. “We only knew 10 songs and we had to play them five times that night because people wouldn’t let us leave. But at the end of the night, I was on a payphone in the parking lot with the local record company called Merge Records that wanted to sign us.” So, the band was on point when it began writing and rehearsing for “Hot.”
“We found the perfect studio that I arranged through my contacts in New Orleans and that New Orleans, French Quarter vibe just seeped into the record, which was exactly what I wanted,” Mathus said.
The trumpet player on the album was Duke Heitger, who is now one of the premiere trumpet players in New Orleans. He had replaced the Zipper’s original trumpeter Stacy Guess, and the way things went down was very tragic, according to Mathus.
“Stacey, by all accounts, should have been on ‘Hot,’ but some past addictions that he had resurfaced through the stress of being on the road,” he said. “Being on the road was something new to all of us, and it was a hard decision for all of us to have Stacy stay at home.” Mathus arranged for Heitger to come down and take over the trumpet parts.
“Duke added that New Orleans virtuoso feel to our little ‘janky’ sound,” Mathus said. “It was really quite nice.”
Unfortunately, Guess passed away a short time after “Hot” was released; however, the band is happy to honor the late trumpeter on the 20th anniversary reissue of “Hot” with a bonus track called “The Puffer,” which was written 20 years ago, Mathus said.
“Stacy and I were close collaborators when the band first started,” he said. “He helped hone the sound as much as anyone, because we would get together at his house every night for months to listen to records, transcribe and write horn lines because the horn world was new to me.”
That said, the only thing Mathus wrote on ‘The Puffer’ was the lyrics.
“We wrote that song close together with the other songs, ‘Bedlam Ballroom’ and ‘Memphis Exorcism,’“ he said. “We had a nice lineup when we recorded ‘The Puffer,’ so to have it on the rerelease is a good closure for us.”
The song captures that Squirrel Nut Zippers sound that Mathus helped develop during his formative years.
“I’ve always been a musician and also a student of American culture, particularly American music,” he said. “Coming from a background of country, bluegrass, gospel, blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll here in the Deep South, I naturally traced down the roots of the music.” Mathus followed the line back and became intrigued with composers such as Stephen Foster and others who worked in the Vaudeville era and Tin Pan Alley.
“It was such a large subject, but I wanted to know how those forms worked and what make them tick,” he said. “Of course, being a creative person myself — I’m an obsessive-compulsive artist — I naturally started writing my own songs in the style even before I really had a grasp on it. And that experiment of music became the first Squirrel Nut Zippers Band.”
The first incarnation of the band was like the old 1930s serials, “Little Rascals,” which were short-film comedies about the adventures of a group of poor neighborhood children.
“It was interesting because I had to teach several of the musicians in the band how to play and sing that kind of music,” Mathus said with a laugh. “I was drawn to the music. I was drawn to writing and collecting. So, I knew this would be my life’s work from the start.”
Fast-forward to today and Mathus is ready to introduce the public to the new Squirrel Nut Zippers, while still paying tribute to the past.
“There is so much material there, that we don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “I’ve written all new horn charts with Charlie Halloran, the horn-section leader.” Still, Mathus promised longtime fans will enjoy the show as well.
“The Zippers always had a commentary on popular, modern culture, so we have that satirical, tongue-in-cheek, black humor,” he said. “So, we’ll always have something to say on the current state of affairs, but we adhere to the old-school maxim to do a show and have a good time. I think it’s about time, with the world climate as it is now, we could use some twisted American fun.”
The Park City Institute will present the swinging sounds of Squirrel Nut Zippers at Deer Valley’s Snow Park Amphitheater on Sunday, July 3, to kick off the St. Regis Big Stars, Bright Nights concerts. The music will begin at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $40 to $72 and can be purchased by visiting http://www.bigstarsbrightnightsconcerts.org.
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