Squirrel Nut Zippers and Swing's Precursors


"The Squirrel Nut Zippers are a living musical seance. They don't honor the dead, or parade themselves in trappings of nostalgia or homage. They dwell in the nether world of Hot Music, and invite the ghosts to bewitch us, here and now." ---Mammoth Records Site


The Squirrel Nut Zippers, retro band of the '90s.
Of all the bands on the current Retro Swing scene, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are by far the most successful and prominent; after extensive MTV exposure, their sophomore album, "Hot", went gold (having sold five hundred thousand copies or more) and is presently zoning in on the Platinum million mark. Entertaining live shows, intriguing personalities, and a fresh yet ancient sound has made the Zippers popular among both alternateen youth and, to a lesser extent, their more Swing-savvy grandparents.

"Swing" is the most convenient label of classification for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, even though the band members themselves are careful to refer to their music as "from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s", and prefer to consider themselves a "Hot" band, thereby attaching themselves to an era pre-dating Swing. "Why hot jazz?" asks Zipper Tom Maxwell in an interview with The Onion. " 'Cause it's hot. It's great. America's greatest contribution to 20th century music, and a fertile ground to plow." As the Zippers become more prolific and gain an even larger fan base, however, more and more of today's music-listening public mistakenly comes to think of the Zippers rather broad musical quilt as an accurate definition of Swing.

Though the Zippers play music imitating pre-Swing jazz, they share several characteristics of the modern Swing movement, in that their songs are often hard-hitting, aggressive, and furiously fast. "Hell", the single from Hot that captivated MTV audiences and propelled the Zippers to national prominence, contains both a driving Calypso drumbeat and ominous lyrics. As trumpet and saxophone screech, singer Tom Maxwell warns of the horrors of the afterlife: "This is a place where eternally/ Fire is applied to the body/ Teeth are extruded and bones are ground/ And baked into cakes which are passed around." A young audience's slam-dancing and mosh pit antics easily double as the tormented writhing of the sinful as Maxwell spells out "D-A-M-N-A-T-I-O-N" and polishes of the song with some soulful screaming.


Guitar figures prominently in Zippers songs, a
distinctive modern touch.
Rough and loud lyrics play an important role in the updated Zipper version of the classic "I've Found a New Baby" as well, featuring Maxwell and blaring solos. Zippers tunes also contain heavy guitar work and extensive drum breaks, both musical features more popular in modern music than in less raucous early Jazz. The improbably-named "Lugubrious Whing-Whang" has a classic sounding chord pattern and tune, but the heavy emphasis on stringed instruments suggests influence this half of the twentieth century.

Squirrel Nut Zippers as a Swing Band

It would be incorrect to say that Squirrel Nut Zippers are not influenced at all by classic Swing; the band borrows much of its romantic sound from the sentimental Swing era bands led by musicians such as Harry James and Jimmy Dorsey. As stated in the introduction, audiences of the Swing era generally preferred "Sweet" slow tunes for cheek-to-cheek dancing, and the Zippers albums contain several songs with Sweet rhythm and style. The common characteristic is not a simple issue of sharing, however: Swing sentimentality is made fun of rather mercilessly in the retro movement, or at the very least not treated reverently.

Harry James, once the lead trumpet of Benny Goodman's band, led his own orchestra in the early '40s and recorded volumes love songs that, by today's standards, sound over-exaggerated and sappy. Solo work was one of the most important means of conveying the proper mood: James' vibrato-filled trumpet introduction to "You Made Me Love You" is at the forefront of the song, establishing the atmosphere of love to follow.

The bandleader "schmaltz" solo was extensive in the romantic music of James and the Dorsey Brothers, and the Zippers take a number of potshots at the sentimental celebrity musicians with some parodies that drip with ironic passion. Take, for example, Ken Mosher's work on "Twilight": the notes and rhythm are fairly normal by Swing standards, but the fact that the instrument of expression is a honking and ungraceful baritone sax makes a mockery of the romantic flavor.

Most of the Sweet tunes of the Swing era had a singer, or, in the event of a singer's absence, an arrangement of the lyrics among horn voices. Singing styles in the Swing era were worlds different from what they are now; even Frank Sinatra, a new singer-hero among today's young listening public for his bold and manly style, crooned lightly and breathily when singing with the Tommy Dorsey band on songs such as "Polka Dots and Moonbeams". The delicate male singing style wasn't just a vestige of the white commercial bands, either. Though Duke Ellington is rarely considered one of the "cheezy" Swing artists, singers such as Herb Jeffries on the popular "Flamingo" make their verses sound like long, heartfelt sighs. Squirrel Nut Zipper Tom Maxwell paints the sentimental old singers in the same ironic light that soloists receive: his vocal swoops and note bending on "Twilight" couldn't be less serious.


Tom Maxwell and Jim Mathus croon.
A final and extremely popular vestige of Swing sentimentality was the back-up chorus. While a soloist took center stage, a group of three or four singers would harmonize along, sometimes simultaneously, and sometimes "answering" with different lyrics or simple hums. Groups similar to the Swing era Pied Pipers and Modernaires are still popular today: a capella singing is a rage on college campuses, and the harmonizing singers of Manhattan Transfer enjoy commercial success.

A song like Tommy Dorsey's version of "Stardust" features the backup chorus in all its sentimental glory, but such sentiment certainly isn't safe from the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The Zipper backup chorus sounds like a raucous mob, adding a gleeful dissonance to the semi-romantic lyrics of "Plenty More".

If anything, the similarities between Squirrel Nut Zippers and Swing music only serve to distance one from the other. Actual Swing conventions are employed and warped to indulge the band sense of humor; the more important emphasis of the Zippers is their "Hot" sound. To seriously understand the distinctive band sound, we must examine the music which preceded 1935 and the Swing era.

Squirrel Nut Zippers as a Hot Band


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, one of the earliest Hot ensembles.
Under a subheading titled Music, Hot as Sin!, Len Lyons describes New Orleans, the birthplace of Hot Jazz, as "opulent, erotic, bawdy, and daring in spirit. Jazz was its music." Photographs of Hot bands feature musicians clowning around, unlike the dignified Swing bands years later; improvisation was born in this period by musicians "having fun" with their musical lines over set chords. Hot bands were smaller and less organized than Swing bands, emphasizing individual expression over a group sound.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers, on the surface, simply look like a Hot band. The standard Hot setup included a drum kit, banjo, piano, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and either a string bass or a tuba. The Zippers are more string-heavy, including bass, banjo and one or two guitars along with drums, trumpet and saxophone. The saxophone and guitars are instruments of importance in later eras, but the Zippers make up for modern touches by occasionally including the missing clarinet and trombone, and even throwing in a violin off and on.

The most distinctive characteristic of the Hot sound is counterpoint: trumpet, clarinet, and trombone simultaneously improvise, creating complementary musical phrases. The Red Onion Jazz Babies' 1924 recording "Cake Walking Babies from Home", features the three instruments weaving together, not creating an actual melody, but rather an intricate embellishment of the underlying chord structure.

Squirrel Nut Zippers employ the same technique; the opening of "St. Louis Cemetery Blues" includes violin, guitar, and bass clarinet creating an interlocking musical structure. Though the violin is dominant through some of the introduction, a listener gets a sense of multiple musical ideas instead of a single one.

In many Hot band recordings, the trumpet takes a dominant role in the counterpoint. Two reasons exist for the trumpet's featured position in Hot bands: the trumpet has the most piercing tone of the trio, and is hence more audible, and the dynamic playing of Louis Armstrong pushed the trumpet to the forefront of jazz during Hot music's reign. Note how the trombone and clarinet are relegated to background harmony as Armstrong's solo takes center stage on his 1927 recording "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" with his "Hot Five". "Prince Nez" by the Zippers works the same way, as Je WindenHouse's solo is supported by showy violin work and a simple "oom-pah" beat in the baritone saxophone.

Drumming is difficult, often impossible, to hear in recordings of Hot bands because, in the 1920's, even minimal use of low bass drums or tom-toms jarred the extremely sensitive recording equipment. In order to avoid creating undesired vibrations, Hot drummers alternated between cymbals, woodblocks, and cowbells for higher-pitched variety. Zippers drummer Chris Phillips' ear has picked up this subtle old-time technique: "Bedlam Ballroom" contains the same percussive setup.

More than just the sounds create the Zippers' old-time mood: lyrics, song titles, and styles all indicate an era older than Swing's reign from 1935-1945. "Wash Jones" is a clear reference to William Faulkner's white-trash squatter in Absalom, Absalom!, set near the turn of the century. "The Interlocutor", both because of its title and banjo-ukelele sound, suggests an archaic minstrel show. "Blue Angel" is both a Zippers tune and the title of a 1930 film about a seductive singer in a seedy 20's nightclub, "Bad Businessman" describes a travelling huckster who seems the definition of a post-Civil War Carpetbagger, and "Memphis Exorcism" transports the listener to a dubious Southern Gothic hell-fire revival.

While Squirrel Nut Zippers are clearly a retro movement band, simply hearkening back to an early form of jazz does not mean that they should be hastily proclaimed Swing. What makes the Zipper's classification unusual is that they don't even claim to be such a band: from their album's title to the plantation-owner style hat James Mathus wears at concerts, everything but a few sentimental songs indicates influence from an earlier era of Jazz. '90s culture has written a new definition of Swing that not only changes the sound of the music, but alters its historical life as well.