Out on a Limb: The Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Where Tommy Dorsey meets Sid Vicious
By Greg Cahill
"I'M JUST WATCHING a bunch of directors' reels of music videos and I happen to come across the guy who did some of my all-time favorite videos, including 'Here Comes My Man' by the Pixies," says drummer Chris Phillips of the retro-hot jazz band Squirrel Nut Zippers, during a phone interview. "I think we're going to do a video for 'Put a Lid on It.' We actually did submit one last spring to MTV. They didn't want to air it because it had a reference to 'lighting a house on fire.'
"I guess the arson imagery scared them in this post-Beavis era we're in," Phillips adds in reference to the kid who torched his family's trailer a couple of years ago allegedly after viewing a pyromania moment on MTV's "Beavis & Butt-head."
"Well, at least someday people will marvel: 'Ah, yes, the band's musical creations in the post-Beavis era were most sensitive,'" Phillips quips in a mock snooty accent.
Clearly, this isn't your father's swing jazz band. Spawned in the fertile musical soil of Chapel Hill, N.C.--home to gonzo bluegrass brats the Bad Livers, psychobilly purveyors Southern Culture on the Skids, and alt-piano lounge act Ben Folds Five--this septet has settled into a comfortable niche to become the sweethearts of the underground swing-dance movement.
Their second CD, Hot (Mammoth) has just been certified gold, not bad for a band steeped in the tradition of Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Billie Holiday. That's largely owing to the commercial radio success of "Hell," a hit single that caught the band by surprise. "The success of the single shattered my image of the world," says Phillips. "We just felt there was no way that we'd ever get commercial radio play, but we knew that if we did, it would shake 'em down pretty big."
Yet, the quick fame is a bit of a mixed blessing. Instead of audiences coming out to preen in the dress-up-and-dance-right swing scene or to hear whatever musical surprises the band has to offer, some new fans are just standing around and waiting to hear the hit single.
"You gotta take the good with the bad," Phillips laments, "but we're just thrilled with what's going on."
What's going on is shuffling trad jazz numbers straight out of a 1920s ballroom, complete with banjo, violin, and assorted horns, and played with high energy by 20-somethings for 20-somethings searching for a danceable alternative to the irony-laden alternative rock that's dominated since the advent of grunge.
"We got together and started kicking the gong around," Phillips recalls of the band's formative months. "We drank as much as we could and ate lots of fried chicken and played until 4 in the morning and really found a way to love and enjoy this music. Our background ranges from punk to straight-up glam rock to bluegrass. So our influences are very diverse. We didn't set out to be a retrospective jazz band; we just got together for the hell of it.
"And look what went and happened--it took off!"
Indeed, it has. The Squirrel Nut Zippers--named after a chewy caramel candy--appeared this week on the Late Show with David Letterman, contributed a song to the new soundtrack of Flirting with Disaster, and may soon find themselves in front of the camera as well. Recently, 9 1/2 Weeks director Zalman King asked the band to appear in a biography of Bix Beiderbecke, starring as the jazz great's backup band.
But revivalism isn't the band's modus operandi; having fun is.
"We've never thought of ourselves as a band with very good chops," says Phillips. "We just thought that we're a band that works well together. I mean, we play with bands on a very regular basis that can just play circles around us. But we've got something that no one else has, which is this incredible relationship between the seven of us. It's the end equals more than the sum of the parts. And everyone in this band is willing to walk out on a limb, and sometimes we'll walk way out on a limb and the limb will break and we'll fail. But sometimes it really pays off.
"So, hey, we're rough around the edges," he adds with a laugh. "Sometimes I sound more like a set of drums falling down the stairs than someone playing. But there have been a lot of great bands that didn't really have their chops together.
"Look at the Rolling Stones, for Christ sakes."
The Squirrel Nut Zippers play the Luther Burbank Center on Thursday, June 12, at 8 p.m. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $17.50. 546-3600.
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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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