Twenty years later, the swing music revival of the late nineties remains a perplexing hallmark of the decade. For a few years, bands that swung made a forceful showing on mainstream radio. Leading the pack was Carrboro’s Squirrel Nut Zippers, who cloaked raucous rock in fast-and-loose hot jazz arrangements. Its ebullient songs were as inspired by the Pixies as they were by Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.

Pop history has pegged Squirrel Nut Zippers as instigators of the swing revival, but the band predated the fad, growing from the same fertile indie scene that nurtured the likes of Superchunk and Archers of Loaf. The band’s first LP, The Inevitable, was released on Mammoth Records in March 1995, well before the swing trend hit a fever pitch. And the Zippers’ East Coast home kept them isolated from the West Coast “cocktail scene” that morphed into the new swing movement.

For a week spanning the end of October and beginning of November 1995, Squirrel Nut Zippers posted up at Daniel Lanois’s Kingsway Studios in New Orleans to record its second album, Hot, which would propel the band to its strange national stardom. The Zippers never planned on hitting the big time, but an ambitious label rep and fortuitous timing helped the single “Hell” explode on mainstream radio, several months after the release of Hot in June 1996.

The movement that helped the band sell more than a million records was a boon and a curse. Locked into a trend they wanted no part of, most of the band members felt like their project suddenly had a very short shelf life.

The shadow of litigation, acrimoni-ous departures, and the divorce of Jimbo Mathus and Katharine Whalen, all of which caused Squirrel Nut Zippers to fall apart a few years after Hot, still hangs over the band. Only two members of the original lineup are on board for this year’s twentieth anniversary tour for Hot: front man Jimbo Mathus and drummer Chris Phillips. Relationships remain strained enough that Katharine Whalen, whose voice lent the band so much of its signature sound, declined multiple requests for an interview.

But this isn’t the story of how it all fell apart. Rather, it’s a trip through the dizzy carnival ride that flung a handful of small-town oddballs, who had convened as a casual, one-off art project, into the center of a storm they never expected.


Jimbo Mathus: Songwriting, vocals, guitar, tenor banjo, piano
Tom Maxwell: Songwriting, vocals, guitar, baritone saxophone, clarinet, resonator
Ken Mosher: Songwriting, guitar, alto and baritone saxophone, baritone ukulele
Chris Phillips: Percussion
Don Raleigh: Bass
Katharine Whalen: Vocals, banjo, baritone ukulele


Steve Balcom: Label manager
Tom Osborn: West Coast representative
Lane Wurster: Art director


Andrew Bird: Violin
Duke Heitger: Trumpet
Mac McCaughan: Cofounder, Merge Records
Mike Napolitano: Engineering and mixing


Lane Wurster (Art director, Mammoth Records): The very first thing they did was that single Merge put out [1994’s Roasted Right].

Mac McCaughan (Cofounder, Merge Records): For Merge, it wasn’t that weird, because it wasn’t terribly far from, say, an early Lambchop record. Katharine’s voice really set it apart, because she sounds so amazing.

Tom Maxwell (Vocals, guitar, baritone sax, songwriting, Squirrel Nut Zippers): The discussion was, who do we sign with? Merge offered fifty-fifty deals, which was compelling, but Mammoth had a distribution deal with Atlantic.

Lane Wurster: With The Inevitable, we gave that record away. That was the way we promoted itsend it around to people that we thought would like it instead of doing big ad buys or other promotional stuff.

Jimbo Mathus (Vocals, guitar, banjo, songwriting, Squirrel Nut Zippers): We really did a lot of heavy lifting with The Inevitable to get a sound that was cohesive, what we felt would really resonate. By the time Hot rolled around, the expectations were high.

Tom Maxwell: Something tectonic was happening, but we just were making money. We were getting a lot of wedding gigs. We could anchor little tours on it, and we played a lot. We got better, and we wrote new material. By the time we went to New Orleans, we had been touring the songs for Hot for like six months. We were a good little band, and definitely could put it across.


Tom Maxwell: Jim Mathus came to me and Ken and said that he was going to New Orleans, and did we want to come along? It sounded innocuous, but actually it felt very momentous to me. I didn’t really understand why. And so we drove down in somebody’s shitty car and stayed with Jimbo’s high school friend.

Jimbo Mathus: A man by the name of Glenn Graham was in one of my first psychedelic rock combos. He went on to be in Blind Melon, and he’s the drummer. We kept in touch.

Tom Maxwell: [Blind Melon] had recorded at Kingsway Studios, and he brought his friend Mike Napolitano, who just seemed to get it. And then Glenn says, “Yeah, you should go to Kingsway, where we made this record.” We go to this fucking mansion in the French Quarter, on the corner of Chartres and Esplanade. Dan Lanois had bought it after he made all that money producing U2. He made no attempt to turn it into a studio; he just moved a bunch of gear into it.

Jimbo Mathus: It was ideal. There’s no distraction. You’re in an incredible space. You know it’s got haints all in it. Hell yeah.

Tom Maxwell: I called Steve Balcom from the label and said, basically, “Look, we’re going to do our next record here.”

Steve Balcom (Label manager, Mammoth Records): We loved that studio. It was an imperfect recording environment, but it was the perfect recording environment for that band.

Chris Phillips (Percussion, Squirrel Nut Zippers): It was a magical place. The way it smelled, the way it felt when you walked in the kitchen door. It was all vibe. I certainly think that it created a creative space that encouraged everyone to enter their own fantasy world and be all that they could be as an artist.

Mike Napolitano (Engineering and mixing): Kingsway kept you. It was impossible to do the thing that is the entrenched way of making records: control, control, control. Kingsway was not built for that.

Ken Mosher (Saxophone, guitar, songwriting, Squirrel Nut Zippers): Even going to Kingsway visiting, that would be like going to Buckingham Palace and going, “OK, we’re going to be living here soon.”



Tom Maxwell: We play the Black Mountain Music Festival. We meet this young, handsome violinist, who’s playing Irish music, named Andrew Bird. He comes up to us later and says that he’s had a dreamhe was playing music with us, and that’s what needed to happen. We were like, “That’s great, sure!” Stacy [Guess, the band’s longtime trumpet player] didn’t even come to the show, because he was scoring. That was two weeks before we went down to record. Stacy had been our trumpet player for a year and a half. It felt kind of like an amputation.

Jimbo Mathus: He was a heroin junkie who had retired for about nine years. But he got it back on and we fired him. There was no room for that kind of behavior. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I ever had to do. I’m the one that fucking fired him. He was an honorable man. He just couldn’t live in this world, apparently.

Tom Maxwell: The idea was, “We’re not kicking you out, but this is incompatible, so you need to get your shit together.” In my mind, it was like, “Hey, this is such a good thing, that he’ll choose this over that.” That’s because I wasn’t hooked on heroin, and it hadn’t rewired my brain.

Ken Mosher: We voted four to two to continue the tour, to go to Chicago instead of just going back to Chapel Hill. I really was not sure that we were going to have a band if we didn’t continue on that tour. All of a sudden, it got real hard. It became work. I’m glad that we did what we did. But that was probably one of the last group decisions that we made that was a good one.

Shortly before the release of Hot, the Squirrel Nut Zippers got a big media boost that helped the record get off to a good start when it hit shelves in June. A Mammoth Records intern got the band connected with Bob Edwards, the host for NPR’s national Morning Edition program. Edwards liked the band and had them on the show, where they came off well and grabbed the attention of thousands of new ears.

But while the Zippers did well on college and public radio formats, nobody from the band or Mammoth ever expected it to find mainstream success. The idea was that the Zippers could have a steady, mid-level career. However, a change in the national media landscape provided the band with its biggest break. Four months before the Zippers released Hot, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. Part of the new legislation allowed for media companies like Clear Channel to buy up radio stations and other outlets. Clear Channel began dictating playlists to its stations, homogenizing Top 40 radio across the country.

Many program directors, figuring they’d shortly be out of a job, began taking more risks with their music selections, coinciding with the rapid ascent of “Hell.” Back in the Triangle, Mammoth and the Zippers developed a good relationship with G105, making a splash with a morning rush-hour performance on The Showgram with Bob and Madison. The station’s program director, Kip Heinzmann, worked the band into the station’s rotation, which translated to regular plays and in turn boosted the band even more in its home state. The warm local reception spread throughout the Southeast, and the Zippers kept climbing.

Tom Maxwell: We had just played with Bird in Chicago, literally the week before, and asked him to come down [to play violin on Hot]. He was never a member of the band. He was around when we made records, because it was always a good idea to have Andrew Bird on your record. He was an idiosyncratic guy among a bunch of idiosyncratic people.

Jimbo Mathus: We were writing at alarming rates. We were on a real creative high wave. We were challenging one another. Most of those songs were brand new songs written within the year or so before the record was cut.

Ken Mosher: There were a lot of slow songs, and I remember thinking, “We need to write two or three more fast ones before we get in there, upbeat ones.” I worked with Jimbo and Tom equally at that time. Probably more with Jimbo, even.

Tom Maxwell: We never told each other what to play unless it was a very specific line. You always just put it into the Zippers box and shook it up, and then something came out the other side that was way more sparkly than what you thought it was.

Chris Phillips: To me, it was much more about the tone than about creating any one specific type of music. I don’t think any of us thought about [that]. We were just pulling on our inspirations and doing with them what we could.

Ken Mosher: A day and a half into that project, we had recorded “Put a Lid on It,” really as a demo, and sort of abandoned that. We hadn’t recorded anything else, and it was like, “Jesus Christ, we have five days to record this record,” and we hadn’t even met Duke [Heitger, a New Orleans trumpet player hired to fill in for Stacy Guess]. Then, for the next three days, it was absolutely focused.

Jimbo Mathus: We probably did four a day. We’d gear up, just like we do now. Saddle up, see what key it’s in, make sure everything’s straight, work on the arrangement real quick, do head arrangements. That’s it. Knock it down.

Ken Mosher: When we weren’t particularly good at playing, we tried to be clever as a band about creating scenes behind solos. Maybe the tempo wouldn’t change, but the percussion instrumentation would, and the whole tone of the players in supporting roles would change. We were just trying to be more clever in a studio way.

Tom Maxwell: One challenge was, who the fuck is going to play trumpet on this record? We had the name of a guy that we were told was the guy. We’d never met him or heard him play. The morning he showed up, I was like, “Look, Ken, we need to go ahead and buy a bottle of bourbon, because if this guy sucks, we’re gonna want to get drunk. And if this guy’s really good, then we’ll probably want to have a drink. Either way, we win.” We were walking back to Kingsway with a bottle of Maker’s Mark, and Duke Heitger’s like, “Hey, are you guys in the Squirrel Nut Zippers?”

Duke Heitger (Trumpet): I arrived at the studio and everyone was kind of lounging around because they’d already laid a lot of their tracks down. We had our introductions, and then we got to work pretty quickly. They didn’t have charts or anything, so they would sing what they had in mind. Otherwise, it was left to me to come up with what I was going to play.

Tom Maxwell: Any time you hear any other musician play something that appears to be an answer to one of those trumpet lines, it prefigures the actual trumpet line.

Ken Mosher: We thought we were going to be painstakingly trying to tell him what to do, or helping him write parts. He’s like, “Oh, I just play how I feel. Oh, I like the way this feels,” and just goes crazy.

Duke Heitger: The music that the band played was a little different than my comfort zone. It called for a little reckless abandon on occasions, where maybe I would have been a little more reserved in a different setting. It’s a rock band. They were certainly a new look at melodies and changes for me. It was fun to tackle that.

Chris Phillips: He was like a Howitzer gun going off. He was so fucking talented. I think he opened a lot of our minds to how learning your craft can really assist you in fulfilling your artistic vision.

Duke Heitger: The Squirrel Nut Zippers were telling me, as we were having drinks after the recording session, “Oh, come on, join the band, we’re going places!” And as a professional musician, I’m thinking, “Ah, yeah, right, everyone says that.”

Tom Maxwell: He comes from a world where he plays on steamboats and wears black pants and a white shirt. The idea that you would sit around and smoke pot or drink alcohol in the studio setting was utterly beyond him. We were punk-asses driving around in a van. Why would he join the band?



Mike Napolitano: [Producer] Brian Paulson seemed to have something in mind already about how the record should be recorded and produced, and it was at odds with what they were feeling. He continued to put up microphones that I think nobody wanted but him.

Tom Maxwell: We were still cutting stuff live, but there were tons of mics that we put up that we ended up not using. We ended up using the more remote, kind of ambient microphones.

Chris Phillips: We were a handful to deal with, and I think we had a lot of cooks in the kitchen sending [Paulson] in circles. I think that was tough for him, and it was hard for him to get a focus on the clear line through the mix. We weren’t totally satisfied with it.

Ken Mosher: We needed compression and oomph to make Hot sound like a modern record disguised with old instruments. I think we had sort of grasped some of the subtleties. There are moments that are really beautiful on Hot.

Tom Maxwell: It was sounding more like a Wilco record than the Squirrel Nut Zippers. All of the liveliness was being sort of pushed out of it with compression and post-micing. It just wasn’t good, so we had to go back to the label and say, “We have to remix this.”

Ken Mosher: Then we’re like, “OK, we’ll all go to the record company,” and they’re like, “You go.” I go to Steve Balcom’s office, knowing that we’ve already spent all our budget. I remember saying something like, “Look, if you look at Raleigh-Durham, and there’s maybe a million and a half people around here, we’ve sold twenty-five thousand records. If you extrapolate that nation-wide, we’re at a million records.” We both laughed, but he agreed to shell the money out to go remix it. Thank God!

Mike Napolitano: That’s when they called me and asked if I thought there was any way I could mix it. Brian had developed methods that he wanted to employ, whereas I didn’t have any experience to know, “Don’t do that.” They were describing what they wanted, and I didn’t have any preconceived notions that it shouldn’t be done.

Steve Balcom: I probably was worried that things wouldn’t get done, but they did get done. And that’s the thing about that bandthey would push it to the edge, and then they would always pretty much come through.

Tom Maxwell: We take it to the label, and they’re very happy with it, and we’re very happy with it. We’re down in New Orleans, and I’m standing in the driveway with Ken and Chris P., and I’m like, “Guys, this is a really good record. It’s going to sell seventy thousand copies,” which is three or four times what we had sold with the first one, a number I pulled completely out of my ass. Katharine always named the records, so I think she was just like, “Call it Hot!” That worked for us.


Tom Maxwell: In the fall [of 1996], I find a house in Pittsboro that is being rented for two hundred fifty bucks a month. I convince Ken that he needs to move from Saxapahaw to live in this house, and we can make a record there.

Ken Mosher: After the great success of me talking the record label into remixing, we also talked the record label into just giving us the money to record, and then letting us set up our own recording studio in my house in Pittsboro.

Tom Maxwell: We’re in there recording Perennial Favorites when the label says, “We need to have a meeting right now. It can’t wait.” And we were like, “What could this be?”

Ken Mosher: Oh, Jesus Christ, we’re going to get dropped, and we have all this shit in our house. It’s gonna suck.

Tom Maxwell: Steve Balcom was there, and he was like, “You have a hit song.” And I was like, “Whose song is it?” Because that meant a lot, whose song it was. He was like, “It’s your song. It’s ‘Hell.’”

Steve Balcom: “Put a Lid on It” was the song that we really thought was going to be the one.

Tom Osborn (West Coast rep, Mammoth Records): We were working “Put a Lid on It” because Katharine’s got such a remarkable voice, and it really was a beautiful track. But I was so focused on working the modern formats, and not the non-com formats, that it didn’t fit into any of the conversations I was having. Unbeknownst to my bosses, and probably to their chagrin, I started working “Hell.” It was a day and an age where, if you got that KROQ add, the dominos would suddenly fall into place, which is exactly what happened.

Tom Maxwell: [Osborn] goes to them like, “You’ve got to play this song, this song is a single, this song is a hit, play this fucking song, please play this song.” He just bugs them. No one told him to do it. He just knew that’s what needed to happen.

Steve Balcom: As a label, it wasn’t obvious to us that this was something that was going to work on a modern rock radio station, much less on a Top 40 station.

Tom Osborn: [Being at a small label] afforded me this luxury of going, “Well, I just think that ‘Hell’ is a better song for radio. I’m going to go with that.” I wasn’t doing it with a flippant, fuck-you attitude. I had stations that were like, “Now look, I don’t want to play this song, but I have to play this song. If you call me again, I’m going to drop the song, but I’ll give it a test.”

Tom Maxwell: [KROQ] played it during the lunch drive time as a jokethis is the story, anywayand the phones never stopped lighting up. They did market research on it, the stuff they call “saturation research””How many times can we play this song until people call and scream at us to stop?” They couldn’t find the end point.

Lane Wurster: We’d get the new Soundscan reports that would come out on Tuesdays. We’d be like, “Holy shit, this thing is really blowing up.”

Tom Osborn: People gave it a shot, and it really did take off, because nothing sounded like that on the radio. It sounded so remarkably fresh at a time where music had really been incredibly stagnant.

Mike Napolitano: I was in Seattle, and Chris Phillips called me to tell me, “It’s going to be gold.” I thought it was a joke. “What do you mean it’s going to be? How do you know that?” It just seemed implausible to me, both that it would happen and that you could predict that it was going to happen.

Jimbo Mathus: I was the bandleader. I have to kind of shrug it off. It has to be like water off a duck’s back. People had different reactions. I was just like, “Thank you, Jesus.” I think we deserve it, I think we stand out, I think the song’s great. Let’s go. We’ve got great songs here; let’s just keep our nose to the grindstone and work.

Ken Mosher: We come [to Mammoth] and they’re like, “The record sold thirty thousand last week in L.A.” Their idea is to stop recording and go there immediately. And what, just go play at the airport?

Tom Maxwell: But we have to go play Clinton’s inaugural ball. There’s this idea that we were a Cinderella thing when “Hell” hit, and we were somehow lifted from obscurity. But we had a nationwide touring base and were selling good records. The Clinton people had already asked us to do the thing before “Hell” became a hit, and we had already played the summer Olympics in Atlanta. We were getting prestige gigs. So we go up to D.C., and then we come back and do the “Hell” video. It was really breakneck.

Jimbo Mathus: When we did the inaugural ball, they came around and saw all the bands. Hillary and Bill came walking down the line. LL Cool J was standing right beside me. When Hillary came by, she said, “Hello, James.” She shook his hand. She knew his real name was James. I thought that was pretty good.

Ken Mosher: The likelihood of us having one hit was so unlikely. We didn’t even make the one-hit wonder shows, because it was so unlikely.



Tom Maxwell: We had weird and interesting crowds. It was a tremendous mix of ages. Older people, middle-age people, kids. Punk people, oddball weird people. I described it once as like the Peanuts Christmas dance. Then, when “Hell” hit, the swing kids started showing up. I like it when people dance, but we saw people getting pushed out of the way, and it was kind of a drag.

Steve Balcom: When we broke with “Hell,” we were the first one with a song as weird and different as this. And then, in our wake, here comes Brian Setzer in a Gap ad, and here comes Swingers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, all of a sudden. There was a lot of pressure on us to kind of be a swing band, do swing tours.

Chris Phillips: We were making constant, conscious decisions to avoid being attached to that movement. We felt like it was a fad.

Ken Mosher: I remember having talks with Tom like, “Now we’re part of a trend, our careers are over.” And really, they were. But we didn’t need to obsess that hard about it. Really, our careers were over when we had a hit anyhow.

Tom Maxwell: We had a sell-by date stamped on us, and that really, really bummed me out.

Jimbo Mathus: I didn’t really have that much thought about it. It seemed like apples and oranges to me. I’ve never been concerned with popular trends.

Steve Balcom: As it continued to develop and we got into the next record, it started to fracture and disintegrate.

Tom Maxwell: We finished Perennial in January of ’97, and they didn’t release it until August of ’98. So Hot was eight months old when the single broke, and then we toured it for another year and a half. It was horrible. The band wasn’t making that much money. Once we went platinum, we renegotiated our contract to make a dollar and a quarter per CD sold, when the CDs were being sold for fifteen bucks.

Ken Mosher: It was constant touring, and getting home and feeling like you just got off of a lunar mission. It was disorienting. I remember getting home from tours and not being able to speak to my wife for, like, a day. When we started, it really was just to put on one show [at Henry’s Bistro] because Cat’s Cradle wasn’t open, and everyone’s band either broke up or was taking a hiatus. Only in Chapel Hill would that have been as successful and launch a career.

Chris Phillips: I’ve described it as redneck Camelot, and it kind of was. That band was born under a good sign. From the very beginning, the band was so fortunate.

Tom Maxwell: You do the thing that you hear in your head. Nobody’s going to do it for you. Do it yourself. Look the way you want. Play the way you want. And then see how it works for you. It worked great for Archers of Loaf, and it worked great for Squirrel Nut Zippers, and it worked great for Ben Folds Five. And that’s the Chapel Hill thing: “Do you want to hear this? You better do it yourself.”