The Squirrel Nut Zippers are an American band formed in 1993 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States, by James "Jimbo" Mathus (vocals and guitar), Tom Maxwell (vocals and guitar), Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo, and ukulele), Chris Phillips on drums, Don Raleigh on bass and sideman Ken Mosher.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers' music is a fusion of Delta blues, gypsy jazz, 1930s–era swing, klezmer and other styles. They found commercial success during the Swing Revival of the late 1990s with their 1996 single "Hell", penned by Tom Maxwell.
After a hiatus of several years, the original band members reunited and took to the stage again in 2007, playing select dates around the United States and Canada through 2008.
In 2016, band leader Jimbo Mathus along with original member Chris Phillips reactivated the band with a brand new lineup to tour in support of the 20th Anniversary of their biggest selling album, Hot.
The band was founded by James "Jimbo" Mathus, formerly of Metal Flake Mother and Johnny Vomit & The Dry Heaves, and his then-wife Katharine Whalen in Carrboro, North Carolina along with Tom Maxwell, Chris Phillips, Don Raleigh and Ken Mosher. The group made its debut in Chapel Hill a few months later. Stacy Guess (formerly of Pressure Boys) joined shortly after.
"Nut Zippers" is a southern term for a variety of old bootleg moonshine, and the band's name comes from a newspaper account which related the story of a highly intoxicated man who climbed a tree one night, refusing to come down even after authorities arrived. The article's headline read: "Squirrel Nut Zipper." It is also the name of a Squirrel nut caramel candy dating back to 1890.
The band was initially lumped into the "lounge" movement, along with Combustible Edison, and credited as part of the brief swing music revival of the 1990s. The Zippers' sound incorporates a broad range of music, ranging in influence from Harlem Hot Music, Cab Calloway, Johnny Ace, Delta Blues, Raymond Scott, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, Tom Waits, and klezmer. The band's break-through single, "Hell", was distinguished by calypso rhythms, and helped push the band into further association with the "Neo Swing" movement.
Songs from the band's first album, The Inevitable (1995) were played on National Public Radio in the US. Their second album, Hot (1996) was certified platinum. (The Hot album was also one of the first ECDs - an "enhanced" audio CD containing an interactive presentation created by filmmaker Clay Walker.) In 1997, the band toured with Neil Young.
The band's next studio album, Perennial Favorites (1998) also received critical acclaim. Also released in 1998 was Christmas Caravan, a Christmas-themed album. The band then recorded Bedlam Ballroom in 1999, after touring. The band performed at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, on Prairie Home Companion, President Clinton's second inaugural ball, Comedy Central's Viva Variety, and major television shows: The Tonight Show, Late Show with David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve in 1998.
The band had recorded a version of "Under the Sea" which was going to be included on the DVD release of The Little Mermaid, but Disney decided against it. Disney had purchased Mammoth just months prior to this recording. The song was eventually released on the band's greatest hits CD. In 1999, both Maxwell and Mosher quit the band.
The early 2000s rendered the band largely inactive, with members pursuing other projects, but also because of Mathus and Whalen's divorce. In 2002, Maxwell and Mosher sued the remaining members of the band over management and royalty issues. The case was settled out of court for $155,000 to cover unpaid royalties.
Contact was a musical dance play made up of three separate dance pieces set to pre-recorded music. The show used Zippers' music along with the music of other artists and won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical. Movies that have licensed Zippers' songs include A Life Less Ordinary, Monkeybone, Dead Man on Campus, Flirting with Disaster, Fido, Blast from the Past and the animated feature film Happily N'Ever After.
The band performed in a segment on Sesame Street in January 2001. The single "Hell" was also featured on the pilot of MGM Television's Dead Like Me. In 2003, the Russian TV miniseries Brigada featured a cover of Meant to Be, sung by Yekaterina Guseva. During this period, Katharine Whalen released two solo albums, Jazz Squad and Dirty Little Secret. Jim Mathus toured with Buddy Guy before forming his band, Knockdown Society. Je Widenhouse and Reese Gray are recording and touring with Firecracker Jazz Band.
Chris Phillips spent two years playing with the Dickies, as well as William Reid from the Jesus and Mary Chain. His current side band, The Lamps, included members of the Bangles and The Connells. He also was the composer for the Comedy Central television show Lil' Bush and some contemporary films. Jimbo Mathus owns and operates a recording studio outside of Memphis, Tennessee, where he has worked on albums with artists ranging from Elvis Costello to the Hives
In early 2007, the band's official website and MySpace blog announced new tour dates, with a lineup consisting of founding members Jimbo Mathus (guitar, vocals), Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo, percussion, ukulele), Chris Phillips (drums), Je Widenhouse (trumpet), Stuart Cole (bass), and Will Dawson (piano/guitar/saxophone). With the proclamation "Ladies and Gentlemen... They're Back," the band performed concert dates throughout the United States and Canada in spring and summer of 2007 and through 2008.
In late February 2009, Chris Phillips sent out an e-mail announcing a forthcoming live album called You Are My Radio, recorded in Brooklyn in December 2008. The e-mail included a link to a free download of "Memphis Exorcism" from the album. The album title was later changed to Lost At Sea and was released on October 27 through Southern Broadcasting/MRI.
They also announced their plans for a new studio album in 2010. The band taped a new performance for NPR's Mountain Stage, which aired in mid-November.
The band announced a limited tour for the fall of 2016 with founding members Jimbo Mathus and Chris Phillips, joined by vocalist Ingrid Lucia from the Flying Neutrinos. Other members of the revived band will be forthcoming.
Jimbo Mathus — vocals, guitar, slide guitar, tenor banjo, trombone, piano
Chris Phillips — percussion, contraption kit, drums
Ingrid Lucia — vocals
Cella Blue — vocals
Tamara Nicolai — bass
Justin Carr aka Dr. Sick - violin, banjo, musical saw
Charlie Halloran — trombone
Ken Mosher — guitar, saxophone, vocals
Tom Maxwell — vocals, guitar, saxophone, gong
Don Raleigh — bass, gong
Stacy Guess — trumpet
David Wright — trombone
Reese Grey — piano
Tim Smith — tenor and alto saxophones
Andrew Bird — violin (honorary member)
Edward Clark — canjo
Carl Luparella — original saw player
Dylan Clark — clarinet
Tyler Nevil - oboe
Nathaniel Cole - Kazoo, mouth harp, and "The Jug"
Katharine Whalen — vocals, banjo, ukulele
Stuart Cole — bass
Je Widenhouse — trumpet, cornet
Henry Westmoreland — baritone saxophone
Robert "Griffanzo" Griffin - piano, keyboards
Charlie Biggs Halloran - trombone
Guess left two weeks prior to the recording of Hot, in September 1995. He died of a heroin overdose on March 11, 1998. In a 2014 interview, Maxwell said "Put a Lid on It" was inspired by Guess' addiction. Je Widenhouse (formerly of the Sex Police) joined the band in 1995.
Raleigh departed in the middle of the Perennial Favorites sessions in November 1996. He was replaced by Stuart Cole. In July 1999, Maxwell left the band. In October 1999, Mosher also quit. In 1999, Reese Gray, Tim Smith and David Wright joined the band and played on the Bedlam Ballroom record.
Duke Heitger played trumpet on "Hell."