Hell Is Hot: How Squirrel Nut Zippers Accidentally Sold a Million Records | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Hell Is Hot: How Squirrel Nut Zippers Accidentally Sold a Million Records

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NITTY GRITTY HOT BAND

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 dream—he 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.

Katharine Whalen and Jimbo Mathus at Kingsway - PHOTO BY ROGER MANLEY
  • Photo by Roger Manley
  • Katharine Whalen and Jimbo Mathus at Kingsway

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.

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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.

Sparks fly from Ken Mosher's sax at the video shoot for "Hell." - COURTESY OF LANE WURSTER
  • Courtesy of Lane Wurster
  • Sparks fly from Ken Mosher's sax at the video shoot for "Hell."

Devil's in the details: Jimbo Mathus shows off a beast he built. - PHOTO BY ROGER MANLEY
  • Photo by Roger Manley
  • Devil's in the details: Jimbo Mathus shows off a beast he built.

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?

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