Interview: Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers on Beasts of Burgundy, Creepy Weird New Orleans, and the Lost Art of Entertainment

Interviews

When Jimbo Mathus answered his cellphone, he said he and the rest of the Squirrel Nut Zippers had driven into Nevada City overnight from California; it’s their first time there. After decades of touring and traveling, Mathus’ enthusiastic spirit remains unshaken as remarks casually: “Another new adventure awaits.”

Speaking of new adventures, Beasts of Burgundy (pronounced bur-GUN-dy after the street in New Orleans) is the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ new release, twenty years after their platinum hit album Hot (Mammoth), with its megahit song “Hell” (“in the afterlife, you could be headed for the serious strife”), was all the rage. The new album is available for pre-order today, and directly tomorrow, right here.

The theme of Beasts of Burgundy centers squarely in New Orleans. Mathus says: “The entire album is about the creepy, weird old New Orleans, in the days of the early shapings; it’s about the passions, the entertainment, the stories of its past. It’s really fun, we cover all the basics in there; there are stories woven all throughout the record.”

“New Orleans is one of the greatest cities on the planet for music.   But without the culture the music wouldn’t exist, so it all ties in together. It’s a perfect storm of weird, old, America. I wanted to capture that in the songs in a subtle way.”

The Squirrel Nut Zippers are noted for their shows of wild exuberance. About that, Mathus points out: “A big part of Americana music has lost is its entertainment function. Even Woodie Guthrie, you know, was a showman. (laughs) Let’s be real! We really embrace that whole entertainment portion of our job. Even though there’s seriousness in the lyrics, the Zippers have always embodied dark humor, subterfuge, and songs that really have some weird stuff going on in them. That’s entertainment!”

People are too serious nowadays, as Mathus is well aware. “Think about it. America has lost its weird element. Carnivals are all out of business now; Ringling Brothers closed down.” There’s a song on the new album “Karnival Joe (From Kokomo)” with a separate introduction: “Conglomeration of Curios,” a spectacle of hypnotic, uncanny snake charmer rhythms.   “Those old “Karnival Joe” things that were so wild and crazy — there’d be side shows where you could see ‘nekid ladies’, and a homunculus in a jar — all the things we talk about in that song have all gone away.”

“The closest thing you’re gonna see now is a Squirrel Nut Zippers concert,” he says, and that’s simply a fact, we’d say.

Within the celebration, there’s some deep dark seriousness too. “The song from the new album “Hey Shango” is about a slave rebellion, something I came across in the Ned Sublette book: The World That Made New Orleans,” Mathus recounts. “For background: the fundamental reason music was able to flourish in New Orleans was the Congo Square phenomenon. It’s where the city let slaves gather and play music, which was mostly drums. Otherwise slaves drumming and making music was illegal. Congo Square was one of the major influences of New Orleans, period.

“But then there’s the story about a man named Sambo Bambara who was a slave in Natchez. He was charged with inciting a slave rebellion, the thing white people were most terrified of. He was caught and sentenced to execution.”

“And at the same time, there was an executioner in New Orleans, a black man named Louie Congo. He was envied and feared because he was the executioner, and yet he inspired awe because of his better standard of living, even as a macabre figure.   He didn’t actually execute Sambo Bambara but I juxtaposed that for the song, and his name: Congo.“

The term Congo carries multiple layers of meaning, both in Crescent City and in the song. “Many African Americans were surnamed “Congo” after the area they came from. That’s a fact about the dark side of history, and then this shadowy figure –the executioner– was named Congo, but also all the rhythm in that song is there to evoke the ones that established Congo Square. I always wished I could have been there to have heard what those African rhythms sounded like. There are some accounts of white people who went to Congo Square at the time and tried to write about it, but it was just way over their heads. It makes me wish I could have been there.”

“That song is my trying to portray all that history and also emulate a Congo Square gone wrong, the white people’s worst fear. That fear still exists. It’s the same thing now. So that’s another layer the song is trying to expose.”

“Also, Shango is an African god, the characters in the song are calling to him. Storywise, that song is the most in-depth part of the album.”

There are also elements of vaudeville and burlesque on the album.  “”Use What Mama Gave You” is one that Cella Blue sings. She’s in the White Ghost Shivers and has been doing vaudeville for decades. They are out of Austin, they’ve won the Austin Music Award repeatedly for the category “Best None of the Above.” Our fiddle player and co-producer Dr. Sick is a burlesque dancer and burlesque emcee. (laughs) We’ve got a lot of heavy hitters in there for the burlesque.”

On his career spanning more than a couple decades, Mathus says: “This project is a more mature version of the wild creativity and raw energy and talent we had back 20 years ago. But now we can combine all the skills we’ve learned. I have two more decades of new experiences now—I’ve seen and learned so much about producing, arranging, writing, and performing – there’s a whole other skillset at play in the record. I’m very proud of this album, it’s the best thing the Zippers have ever done and it will stand up over time. It’s gonna give the old fans some new stuff to chew on.”

Which other artists inspire you? “A couple books I’ve read and a couple people I’ve met have given me incredible inspiration and background. Ned Sublette’s book was a really amazing one. Also I met a poet down in New Orleans recently that I’d been trying to track down for, oh, 30 years! I finally found him: Ron Cuccia. The record is dedicated to him. I got to meet him as the band was getting back together, we were rehearsing on Burgundy Street and just meeting all the new cast to see who was going to fit into the band — there are a lot to choose from in New Orleans — putting together a dream band. The band gave us the power to make it greater than anything we’ve done before in terms of how creative we could get and meeting Cuccia just sealed the deal.“

Noting that Jimbo Mathus produced J.D. Wilkes’ recent release, Fire Dream, Mathus had this to say. “I produced his album and did the drums, and then Wilkes did the album cover art for the new Zippers album. He and I are definitely kindred spirits. If we got together I think it could be a lot of trouble. (laughs) I am mighty proud of that album, it’s got fellow Zipper, Dr. Sick, on it too. I brought him up to the studio, so we really were able to help J.D. get the sound he wanted, there are sounds in there like a casket creaking open, and other creepy side effect sounds that Dr. Sick is great at.”

Beasts of Burgundy has similar sounds, especially in “Something Wicked” parts 1 and 2. Dr. Sick is co-producer on Beasts of Burgundy. He and I thought it’d be interesting to have snippets of that song, so we split it into 2 parts, and we found new ways of arranging and concocting harmonies on the parts. He is quite the instrumentalist – guitarist, fiddle player, drummer, piano player, he has all sorts of Foley tricks up his sleeve with sound effects.   He’s an amazing dancer and emcee, he’s really quite a cat.” One listen to this song and you’ll agree.

What else are you involved in? “Other projects include the Solo Sounds record label, with Eric Ambel, that stuff is in a way the opposite, but is also very similar to the Zippers album. [For more about that project, read about Mathus’ cover of Lucinda Williams by clicking one of these bolded words here.]    Solo Sounds albums are very challenging because they are all instrumental – the whole albums are solo instrumentals– and you have to be very careful and precise. But if you think about it, it’s the same with the Zippers’ 9-piece orchestra, if you have one note out of place it’s not cool and affects all the other parts.”

Are your solo projects significantly different from this Zippers album? “I have made fifteen records in the past fifteen years, I had a second career in the blues playing with Buddy Guy for 5 years, we won a Grammy for the Blues Singer record I did with him.”

“Then five years ago I got hooked up with Fat Possum Records, that’s how I got to produce the past five years worth of music. In my average of 250 dates playing live a year — driving around in my van, selling stuff out of the back of my van – I have explored the deep south roots rhythm boogie gospel blues music of all kinds, and string band music of all kinds. I’ve been in the deep south idiom.   Compared to that, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are a much more cosmopolitan, bigger picture, cultural entity, we incorporate international music.”

What’s coming up for Jimbo Mathus and the Squirrel Nut Zippers this spring and summer? “This is such a strong band, this is the proverbial once-in-a-lifetime chance again. They say lightning can’t strike in the same place twice, well I think it has here. So we are touring like mad. It’s a big responsibility, we’ve got to get out there and take the show to the people who want to see it. We’re doing this for the fans. That means we gotta go get in front of them. We’re on the road and we’re gonna be on the road.”

Get your tickets and the new album today, Beasts of Burgundy (Southern Broadcasting, mixed by Eric Ambel), right here.

 

Beasts
Beasts of Burgundy by the Squirrel Nut Zippers; album art by J.D. Wilkes

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