Squirrel Nut Zippers guitarist and vocalist Jimbo Mathus talked with the RN&R about the band’s new album, Beasts of Burgundy, from his home in Taylor, Mississippi, population around 400, 90 miles from Memphis and a half day’s drive from New Orleans. Squirrel Nut Zippers play the Miner’s Foundry in Nevada City on March 7 and the Saint in Reno on March 8. The album comes out March 23, and the single “Karnival Joe (From Kokomo)” has been released on Soundcloud.
This is your first album in 18 years, so the story behind it must be a long one—but tell me the short version.
The last one was 18 years ago, so the short story is pretty simple. Some old business acquaintances and bandmates approached me about reviving the band for the 20th anniversary of the Hot album. They asked me if I’d want to do a reunion tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary. I started thinking, “It’s going to be a lot of work to get the band together.” I thought, “Why don’t we revive the band, to start a new chapter?” Over the last year, I just got in the mindset of writing for the Zippers. I’ve been writing a lot of blues, country, gospel, other stuff. Once I got back with the band, it became apparent there was a lot more left to do. There’s an incredibly talented bunch of people.
Where did you recruit the new musicians from?
Mostly New Orleans, but I’ve been very active in the music scene. I’ve got a great reputation. People trusted me to embark on this with me. It could have gone good or bad. It went great.
Who’s Karnival Joe? Is he a real person?
It’s my fascination with history. Karnival Joe is just someone I made up. Kokomo is just such a funny sounding word. I did a lot of research on Cayetano’s Circus. It was in New Orleans. It was a long-running circus there, and quite wild. A lot of the record is New Orleans-centric, as far as the stories I’m telling. [The track] “Beasts of Burgundy” came out Tuesday. Burgundy is a street in New Orleans.
Are there any New Orleans stories that you allude to on the record that Western audiences might not recognize? What should we listen for?
The entire record is based on that. There’s a song called “Axeman Jazz.” Axeman was a serial murderer. He was around during the time jazz was being invented in New Orleans. He would write letters to the Times-Picayune newspaper and announce his crimes. He wrote and said any houses where there was jazz music would be spared. If there were any type of a cabaret or hall or brothel or business, they had a jazz band that night—to keep the axeman away. He mostly appears in there, as sort of a spirit guide. He’s there throughout. The album is dedicated to a poet named Ron Cuccia. He’s in his 70s now. He grew up in old New Orleans. He’s been a poet his whole life. I’ve finally been able to track him down and meet him. The whole record is dedicated to him.
You’re playing in Reno March 8, and the album release date is March 23. Will you have copies with you on the tour?
Two things going on. You can pre-order the album now on the pledgemusic link on Facebook and Instagram. By that time, we’ll have physical copies. The LPs look gorgeous.