“I am who I am”: the erstwhile Squirrel Nut Zippers members talks about his return to songwriting and his dip into the world of rock band memoirs.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Both Tom Maxwell’s new album and his new book feature the same image on their covers. The picture — adapted from an old tour poster produced for his old band the Squirrel Nut Zippers — depicts a humanoid squirrel lighting a fuse on a walnut explosive. The color palate is altered slightly on each, but the artwork is otherwise identical. Strangely, despite the projects’ contrasting intentions, the cover works for both the book, Hell: My Life in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the album, Tom Maxwell and the Minor Drag. For the singer, the synergy was obvious.
“I always just loved this image,” Maxwell says. “I was like, ‘Wait, that’s me!’ It’s obviously a costume. He’s got little dress shoes on. And then he’s doing something that is incendiary. And as much as people want the swing revival to have been toothless, and I think in many ways it was, we were a terrible threat to the jazz community and all kinds of different stuff. We came in and sort of upset everyone and made them spill the milk in their cereal for a minute. And I liked that.”
Whisked along to chart-rattling heights by the unlikely successes of bands like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and The Brian Setzer Orchestra, whose sounds provided bright and brassy refuge following the morose aggression of grunge, the Zippers were always an odd fit for the reactionary movement. Formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, they stepped into their jazzy style after time spent in the city’s bustling indie rock scene. Their songs had an edge that many of their mainstream peers lacked.
Take “Hell,” the Maxwell-led hit that grabbed the Zippers the bulk of their popularity. Its bustling Calypso arrangement is also profoundly dark; the drums clatter meanly, and the gang vocals play more as accusation than celebration. As horns squeal out like a Creole funeral parade, Maxwell works himself into a ranting fit: “This is a place where eternally/ Fire is applied to the body,” he wails, barely sticking to the beat. “Teeth are extruded and bones are ground/ Then baked into cakes which are passed around.” This ain’t no “Jump Jive An’ Wail.”
Proving — for any remaining doubters — that he and the Squirrels’ approach was vital beyond any fad, Maxwell’s new album leans on similar juxtapositions of sound and lyrical mood, reaping dividends that build convincingly on past successes. It’s his second release following more than a decade of studio silence, a period of personal turmoil that irrevocably shifted Maxwell’s perspective.
“I had to get back to the idea that this is who I am and this is what I do because life can be discursive,” the singer explains. In 2006, at the age of three, his son, Esten, was diagnosed with leukemia. The news came mere days after his now-ex wife moved out of their house. Maxwell was shell-shocked.
“There was no room, I’m sorry to say, for magic or art,” he says. “Everything was like, ‘What are his white blood cell counts? What is his temperature? Does this mean he has to be hospitalized?’ Everything was numbers.”
His son pulled through, and Maxwell willed himself back onto the stage and into the studio. And while 2011’s Kingdom Come was the first step, many of those songs had been written years earlier, and newer ones — the haunting and intimate “Tenderness,” for instance — dealt directly with the singer’s wounded feelings and trying experiences. When he ventured to New Orleans to demo songs for what would become Minor Drag, Maxwell had to fully rekindle his creative spark.
“I go to the coffee shop to write lyrics,” he recalls. “I sit down and write a verse, and I could just feel this huge, huge, huge pushback emotionally, that I was doing something wrong, that I was doing something I should not be doing. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? I’m a grown man, and people can do whatever it is they want to do.”
That song he struggled with ended up as the new album’s opener and lead single. “Roll With It,” a jittery ragtime-inspired number featuring jubilant backing vocals from Ani DiFranco, is emblematic of Maxwell’s new outlook. As banjo and acoustic guitar stutter ecstatically, Maxwell confronts his obstacles: “When the blues comes around and tries to take my hand,” he intones, “I roll with it.” In the breaks, trumpets and pianos solo playfully. After everything he’s been through, Maxwell is acutely aware of the ominous challenges that lie ever in wait, but he’s also more sensitive to life’s happy moments, the times that validate all the toil and strife.
“What it’s done most of all, not only for music but for everything in my life, is make it more precious to me,” Maxwell says of his trying time. “It certainly was a great way of putting other things in perspective, like my experience in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, which at the time felt monolithic. Now, I only see it only for what it was, which was momentous.”
It’s this perspective that allowed him to write candidly about his brush with fame. [Ed. note: go HERE to read our review of the book.] It also allowed him to pull out old tricks, reinvigorating them with a time-strengthened touch for arrangement and a broader emotional palette. Consider “The Skeleton Dance,” which seems almost a sequel to the Zipper’s most famous single. Pianos and xylophone’s clink and clang as Maxwell croons through foggy fuzz. “Just slip out of your birthday suit,” he cajoles, his cheery delivery belying the grim imagery, “wade in and dance with your lawyer.” During the bridge, bongos, keys and all manner of instruments mimic the sound of rattling bones.
More than simply juxtaposing upbeat sounds with macabre signifiers, songs like “The Skeleton Dance” blend these contrasting elements with dark comic abandon. This squirrel has once more discharged his walnut bomb, blowing up his back catalog and assembling the rubble into his freshest work since the Zippers went away.
“At some point you’re like, ‘Man, I am who I am. And this is what I do.’” Maxwell concludes. “That’s about it.”