Squirrel Nut Zippers leader Jimbo Mathus calls as he’s driving through Tupelo, Mississippi. “The whole region here is quite historic,” he says. Tupelo is, of course, where Elvis Presley was, born and lived in his childhood. For a musician, then, this area is fertile ground, and Mathus clearly appreciates that.
Mathus has been paying homage to his musical forerunners since he founded Squirrel Nut Zippers in 1993. The Zippers, as they’re affectionately nicknamed, are beloved for their fun-loving take on swing, jazz, and blues music. This pattern continues with their latest album, Lost Songs of Doc Souchon (set for release on September 25), which includes original Zippers material alongside covers of early New Orleans jazz songs. “I think the music will bring a lot of joy and happiness. That’s a huge component of what we do,” Mathus says.
The inspiration for this new album came to Mathus last year. “I did a residency in New Orleans for two months last spring and I played all the clubs. I’d had a revival band, they’re all New Orleans cats, and I wanted to go down there and just be with them and just immerse myself in their world.” While there, Mathus says, “I started thinking back to my Doc Souchon record – these songs that go way back yonder.”
Souchon, born in 1897, was a celebrated jazz guitarist. He was also, Mathus says, “a folklorist and early proponent of keeping the roots of New Orleans jazz alive. He made a boutique record back in the 1960s. He was quite old then. He grew up in the twenties, thirties, and saw and was enthused by the music, so he preserved this in this record. Very obscure.” From this starting point, Mathus says the concept for the next Zippers album started coming together.
Mathus learned how to play some of the songs on that Souchon record, such as “Cookie” (by New Orleans Willie Jackson) and “Animule Ball” (of unknown origination). Both of those tracks appear on Lost Songs of Doc Souchon, as well as several other early songs. Mathus kept that material in mind, “sort of template songs,” as he wrote three original tracks for the album.
Some of the material came from much earlier seeds of ideas, though. Mathus, who was raised in Mississippi, founded Squirrel Nut Zippers after moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1993. Around that time, he says, he recalls picking up religious tracts when he’d go to the laundromat. “They’re little pamphlets that Christian groups put out about the horrors of alcohol or the impending everlasting punishment of hell. They have little graphics on them, too, that can be quite surreal. One of the tracts stuck with me all these years: ‘Time’s passing like a train on fire, so you’d better get your house in order.’” From that, Mathus was able to write the song “Train on Fire.”
Mathus doesn’t mind taking this long to complete a song. “I’m very patient with my songs,” he says. “If I have a great idea and don’t have a great song, I’ll wait until it hits me. If it’s not coming naturally, I just leave it alone.”
Mathus admits that it wasn’t initially evident that he’d ever become a songwriter at all, though. He started out in a band that only played alternative music cover songs. When someone suggested he write his own material instead, “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how you get songs – you write them!’” But, not knowing how to proceed, he didn’t immediately act on this advice.
Finally, “One day, this song just overtook my imagination,” Mathus says. “I was driving out in the country and I didn’t know what was happening. I genuinely thought that maybe I was going insane. These thoughts were permeating my mind and these words were coming out. Very odd.” Mathus pulled into a gas station and borrowed a pen and some paper so he could scribble down what he was hearing in his head. “At that point, I knew, ‘That’s what writing a song is!’”
Mathus can’t remember much about that particular song now (“It’s not anything I ever recorded – it was so early on in the process”), but it was the catalyst he needed to start learning how to become a songwriter. As he worked, he realized that rock music was not what he actually wanted to do at all – he was far more interested in what had come before that.
“I started really understanding that everything comes from somewhere,” Mathus says. “Like, you can listen to something like the Rolling Stones – where did that come from? Well, that came from Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Okay, where did that come from? So I started following the trail backwards, to understand what it was that songs were doing and where they came from.”
In the 1990s, at the peak of the grunge era, this was certainly an unusual approach to songwriting. Mathus formed Squirrel Nut Zippers to help him realize this unique vision, and they released their debut album, The Inevitable, in 1995, but it didn’t initially get much attention. By the time they released their second album, Hot, in 1996, the world was ready for their retro swing sound, and the album achieved platinum status. By 2000, they had put out three more releases, with three million album sales.
After their 2000 album, Bedlam Ballroom, the Zippers went on hiatus, and Mathus moved back to Mississippi and began a solo career, releasing numerous albums (available at his Bandcamp page: https://jimbomathus.bandcamp.com/). He also toured and recorded with Buddy Guy. He opened his own studio, where the likes of Elvis Costello recorded. But in 2013, realizing that interest in the Squirrel Nut Zippers was renewed because of the twentieth anniversary of their Hot album, he reformed the band and resumed playing shows. In 2018, they released the well-received album Beasts of Burgundy.
Mathus believes that the Squirrel Nut Zippers continue to interest people because “it’s just so unique, it’s so fun. To me, an entertainer needs to be exuberant. He needs to be outgoing. He needs to be fun. You can sit there and strum your song. That’s fine; people do that. But I wanted more of a spectacle. We’re not here to satisfy or gratify ourselves. We get gratified when we see the faces light up, when we see the joy, the manic dancing and frenzied conga lines. That makes me know, okay, I’m doing my job.”
And it’s a job that Mathus plans to do for the rest of his days. “It’s my life’s work: I’m a journeyman musician,” he says. “I’m not a flash-in-the-pan dude. I’m here for the long haul. I get a lot of inspiration for that from the jazz cats and blues guys that started early and performed their entire life – there’s no shelf life on that. That’s the cat I wanted to be. And that’s the cat I’ve turned into.”