In March, the Squirrel Nut Zippers released Beasts of Burgundy. Recorded in New Orleans at the Marigny studio owned by producer-engineer Mike Napolitano and Ani DiFranco, it’s the band’s first album in 18 years. The return of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, said the band’s leader, Jimbo Mathus, isn’t a reunion—it’s a revival.
In 1996, the then North Carolina–based Squirrel Nut Zippers recorded what became their mainstream breakthrough, Hot, in New Orleans at the former Kingsway Studio. Napolitano engineered the recording in the Esplanade Avenue building Mathus calls the “haunted mansion.”
Hot featured the surprise hit “Hell.” Influenced by New Orleans music and Mathus’ decades of fascination with the city, the album mixed the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ unschooled enthusiasm for traditional jazz with an arty, post-punk aesthetic.
“It was my idea to take the band down to New Orleans to record,” said Mathus, a native of Oxford, Mississippi. “I wanted them to see what I had been experiencing my whole life. None of them had been to the city before. That was part of process, to get them there.”
Mathus also recruited ace local trumpet player Duke Heitger for the Hot sessions. As for the band’s trad-jazz musicianship, it was a work in progress. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we had raw energy and crazy creativity,” the blues-and country-based Mathus said. “My decision to learn about jazz came from my curiosity about how jazz works. Looking back 20 years later Hot was quite an achievement. The material is pretty complex and interesting and fun.”
The Squirrel Nut Zippers never expected the commercial success that Hot brought them. “We’d already finished our third album when ‘Hell’ jumped on the charts,” Mathus said. “Were we shocked? Yes. We were shocked the whole freaking time. We never expected anything to come of the band. It was just an art project, something to do over the summer. Our mad experiment turned into something.”
Making their mark on pop culture, Hot and “Hell” helped the Squirrel Nut Zippers sell more than three million albums between 1995 and 2000. The unexpectedly hot Zippers spread the wealth around by recruiting New Orleans acts to tour with them. “Yeah, for years all of our opening acts were from New Orleans,” Mathus said. “Royal Fingerbowl, Dirty Dozen, Klezmer All-Stars, on and on.”
But by 2001, novelty hit “Hell” and the band’s infectious enthusiasm had cooled. Mathus returned to the blues, the music he’d grown up with in Mississippi. From 2000 to 2005, he toured and recorded with blues great Buddy Guy. “It was a huge learning experience for me, to watch Buddy perform every night,” Mathus said. “He’s a great, great man.”
The Squirrel Nut Zippers reformed in 2006, but the reunion didn’t last. Mathus’ heart, for one, wasn’t in it. “We got back together, but there was no purpose, no plan,” he said. “It didn’t mean anything to me. If seemed phony to me and not right. After that I didn’t want to do the Squirrel Nut Zippers again. I wanted to do something authentic and vibrant.”
But the prospect of reviving the Zippers, especially if New Orleans musicians were involved, eventually intrigued Mathus again. “Once I realized I could get the dream team together, it became exciting for me,” he said.
To assemble that team, Mathus called a trombonist friend in New Orleans, Charlie Halloran (Allen Toussaint, Meschiya Lake, Palmetto Bug Stompers, Panorama Jazz Band). The new Squirrel Nut Zippers line-up, on stage and/or record, includes fiddler and guitarist Dr. Sick, singers Cella Blue, Tamar Korn and Vanessa Niemann (a.k.a. Gal Holiday), pianists Leslie Martin and Kris Tokarski, trumpeter Dave Boswell, saxophonist Hank West, drummer Neilson Bernard, trombonists Halloran, Steve Suter and Colin Myers, and bassist Tamara Nicolai.
“It’s a lot of New Orleans cats,” Mathus said. “They’ve got backgrounds not only in music, but in theater, burlesque, dance, costumes. It’s a crack team. Really exciting. And we spruced up the old material with bigger horns and better harmonies and arrangements. It couldn’t be better, man. It’s my dream band.”
The new edition of the Squirrel Nut Zippers has been touring since 2016, the 20th anniversary year of Hot. “So many people who grew up listening to us never saw us play because they were too young,” Mathus said. “The response has been over the moon. I didn’t know if we would be accepted, but the reaction was so good, and I was so inspired by the talent in the band, I started writing new songs for the Squirrel Nut Zippers.”
Reuniting with Napolitano in New Orleans to record Beasts of Burgundy was a given. “The musicians already live down in the Marigny,” Mathus said. “Mike is still down there, too, so it came full circle. We even used a lot of the same microphones and preamps we used 20 years ago.”
Before the sessions, the band rehearsed in a house behind Buffa’s, the restaurant and music venue. “That’s where I started getting everything together,” Mathus said. “Most of the album, as far as the lyrics, its New Orleans stories. Beasts of Burgundy is a love letter to the city and my friends.”