April 8 [16:00 EST] -- In a musical climate where futuristic techno beats are said to be replacing angst-ridden guitar riffs as the Next Big Thing, the bouncing calypso beat of the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Hell" is an unlikely radio hit.
But on the strength of spookily infectious percussion and horn sections, the song is finding a home on commercial alternative radio, and the North Carolina band is finding a new audience for its early 20th century-style jazz. While the newfound exposure has many trying to find the right term for the band's music, the group is cautious around such labels like "lounge," and settles on the admittedly nondescript "Zippers music" when describing its sound.
"We were really reticent to describe or include ourselves in any sort of scene," Zippers guitarist/saxophonist/vocalist Tom Maxwell told MTV News. "Because once something is pigeon-holed like that, it can be subverted or co-opted, and we have no desire to have that happen with ourselves, or
anything else, I mean.""Like alternative music," drummer Chris Phillips added.
"Damn right!" Maxwell said. "And a lot of stuff that's happening now, there's a lot of bands playing interesting things, and people try their damnedest to lump us all together into the category, but what I'm seeing is a lot of variety, and I think that's the strength of what's going on now. That seems to be pretty antithetical to calling it lounge or swing, and we just never thought that lounge thing fit us. We were going for the throat every time (QuickTime, 1.5 MB)."
They may have hit the jugular with "Hell," a rollicking tune about the perils of the afterlife that spawned an equally engaging video. In the clip, the band belts out the ditty awash in soap bubbles on a variety show stage, all while Maxwell slowly transforms into Satan himself. "There used to be traveling morality plays where they would to go to each town and set up, and they would
do things from 'The Bible,' and after a while they just stopped even doing heaven. Hell got more and more elaborate, and they had all these costumes, smoke bombs going off," Maxwell explained. "Finally, the church just made them stop because it was just all hell, and the devils were farting and cracking jokes, and the whole thing was just complete burlesque after a while. People just ate it up."
"Sounds like one of our shows! (QuickTime, 864 K)" saxophonist Ken Mosher added.
While the band admits to doing its fair share of research on the topic of eternal damnation, Maxwell noted that the clip's playfully sinister tone was inspired by a more worldly force. "PBS has been running old Lawrence Welk shows, and they're terrific," Maxwell said of the video's inspiration. "I mean that's real entertainment right there. It'll scare
the pants off of you sometimes, and I don't really know why, that's the thing. Why is it so terrifying? I don't know why, the colors and the clothes and the people's attitudes, and what they're wearing. There's something really chilling about it (QuickTime, 1.4 MB)."
The band freely admits that its two main goals are to make people dance, and to spook them out a bit. The Squirrel Nut Zippers gracefully met these objectives Monday night at New York City's Irving Plaza, where a sea of fresh-faced jitterbug-ers occupied the spot on the floor usually reserved for mosh pits."I think we're blessed with our crowds, you know," Maxwell said. "They are incredible, and we take a lot of energy from them. There's a great exchange that goes on between ourselves and the crowd, and that I really value and appreciate."
To see what all the hubbub is about, check out the band at the following venues:
- 4/10 - Toronto, ONT @ Lee's Palace
- 4/11 - Detroit, MI @
- 4/14 - Chicago, IL @ Park West
- 4/15 - Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue