The 1990s saw a brief resurgence in the popularity of the big band style of music. For the first time since the 1930s, people throughout the land were swing dancing en masse to music by bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Brian Seltzer Orchestra and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Most groups eventually moved on, with the members of the Zippers going their seperate ways in 2001.
The Zippers reunited in late 2006 and began touring again this year. In town for the Folk Music Festival, band members Katharine Whalen and Chris Phillips reminisced about their 15-year musical stretch together. Whalen recounts that her relationship with Zippers frontman Jimbo Mathus led to the group's formation.
"For one thing, he wanted me to be a musician," says Whalen. "Which I wasn't when we got together. So he kind of said, 'How will I get a project that you'll like?' So we kind of did it for that, and he also had some songs that he couldn't play with his rock band--[that] didn't fit in--so he wanted an outlet for those."
"I worked in the same restaurant as Jimbo," adds Phillips. "He was the bread baker and I was the dessert maker. We just happened to be into the same stuff at the same time."
Phillips notes that Whalen's inexperience led to performance anxiety. Thus, the other members of the band had to continually figure out ways to get her to perform.
"Katharine didn't really want to play live at all," recalls Phillips. "So we had to trick [her] into playing that first gig at Henry's, and we've been continuing to trick [her] for like 12 or however many years."
Like many other groups, the Zippers got caught up in the resurgence of swing music. They enjoyed the experience, and feel they brought something different to the table than other groups.
"It was a good feeling," says Whalen. "Right place, right time. We felt really lucky. I also thought we were representing more of an east coast sound. I think the west coast, they'd been swinging for a long time. We were sort of bringing this other sound and so we were sort of proud about it. With our punk rock drummer..."
"And our klezmer, we're all mixing it up, too," adds Phillips.
Due to legal and managerial issues, the band members began taking on their own projects in 2001. What resulted was a five-year hiatus for the group. In late 2006 the old friends reunited to give the group and their fans another chance.
"[The reunion] was surprisingly painless," says Phillips. "In fact, it was pretty exciting. I remember our first rehearsal we did, it felt just like the old days."
"It felt like a tribe or something," adds Whalen. "'My people!' I'm glad we came together again."
"I wasn't sure if we'd do anything again," admits Phillips. "I'm so happy everyone said 'Yeah, okay, we'll do it.' I don't think before we practiced we knew what it was going to be like. As soon I saw Jimbo grinnin' with that gold tooth, I knew it was gonna be fine."
The reunion led to the band's first tour as a group in six years, traveling to venues throughout the United States and Canada. The Zippers are glad to get another chance to be together, as well as to play before such appreciative crowds.
"The audiences have been so sweet," says Phillips. "The people who're there really want to be there. They're not swept up in a big hype machine or anything. Everywhere we've went there's people going 'Ah, I've been waiting ten years for this!' It's funny to hear that number now, the last time I was in the band, we weren't even a ten-year-old band. Ten years? What? Plus five years off..."
Blessed with a new beginning, the Squirrel Nut Zippers now look to build upon their past successes. The group continues to tour through the summer, and plans then to head into the studio to record a new album, slated for release next year.