The lead Zipper heads into the abyss with a song in his heart
Jimbo Mathus is best known for his work with the swing revival super group, The Squirrel Nut Zippers. Since their formation in 1993, the band has gone on to platinum success, driven by continuous touring and Mathus’ songwriting prowess.
Mathus has also maintained a prolific solo career, with 14 albums to his name, starting with 1997’s Play Songs for Rosetta. His latest, Incinerator, may be the best album he’s ever done, a quiet examination of life’s twists and turns. It’s marked by minimal lyrics and simple arrangements that delve deep into the roots of Southern American music – blues, folk, country, gospel – with just a trace of rock. It opens with “You Are Like a Song,” a melancholy waltz, celebrating the bittersweet memories of romance, and then moves on to swamp rock (“Alligator Fish”), talking blues (“Jack Told the Devil”) and R&B (“Been Unraveling”). The songs have a timeless quality, emphasized by Mathus’ restrained vocals and subtle production, featuring acoustic piano, pedal steel, electric sitar and the sympathetic rhythms of the producers – drummer Bronson Tew and Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton.
Mathus spoke about Incinerator from a hotel room in Pennsylvania, on tour with a reformed edition of The Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Why did you choose “Incinerator” as the title track?
It’s an eye catching, alarming word. I hadn’t seen it used as an album title before. It kinda summed up the underling story of the record, the incinerator being life itself. Like Hank Williams sang, “I’ll never get out of this world alive.” [Laughter.] I’m over 50 now and I’ve been in the business for more than 30 years. Sometimes, it makes one ponder. This record is about coming to terms with everything and not forgetting any of it. I wanted to immortalize certain moments of my life and certain people. It took a long time to make. One song on it was written 30 years ago. I figure you won’t get a better record out of me for another 20 years. That’s all I got right now.
How does this project differ from your previous solo efforts?
It had a lot more forethought going into it. I planned to record on piano, instead of my normal guitar. I write a lot on piano, then switch it over to the guitar. This time, I stuck with the piano parts and let the producers – Bronson Tew (drummer in my band) and Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton – figure out the rest. That made the recording a calmer, more meditative experience for me. It doesn’t grab you by the lapels and shake you. It has a dream-like quality to it. A lot of my songwriting comes from dreams and this record sounds like what I hear when I’m asleep. That ended up being the point of the record – to access to the subconscious and unconscious, both.
There was a totally calm vibe in the studio, having bass, drums and piano playing live. I could get inside myself and not have to feel like I had to be extroverted when I was singing. I could let the space between the words take over and imagine what could come later in the production. A calm risk-taking, if you will. It was cut in two four or five hour days, not much time at all. I would come in leisurely in the morning, sit down at the piano, and work out the songs. (Matt and Bronson) would lurk around, listening, and by the time I was finished, they were ready to roll. We did two takes at the most. Most of the songs are first takes. Then I was on to figuring out the next song. I’d tidy up the lyrics a bit. I had too many words for what I wanted to do, so I kept them simple and mantra-like, an incantation rather than an elaborate tale of some kind. I wanted to maintain that dreamy open endedness. It was a great, comfortable way to work.
There is a lot of loss and death in the lyrics.
But it’s not morbid. It’s probably the least morbid record ever made about death and loss. It’s almost kinda happy. The key to it is the first track – “You Are Like a Song.” Even if someone’s gone, they can still live on, if you write a song about them and record it and sing it and share it with other people. It’s like making tombstones. You can always go and visit.
I closed with a Carter Family song [“Give Me the Roses”] that just popped into my consciousness. I wasn’t familiar with it. It was the last idea I had. I heard it somewhere, in a movie maybe, being conveyed in a dark, almost heavy metal way. I found the song with (the Carters) singing it and it was flawless, maybe one of the most powerful things they ever did. It summed up the whole record perfectly.
What’s the live show going to be like? Will it differ from the recording?
I’ll start touring the album after I finish with the Zippers. I’ll have Bronson and Matt and a couple of wingmen along. I’m going to do a lot of piano playing and just a little guitar. I’m just gonna do the record as best as I can. We may expand on it a bit, but basically, just run it down. For the encore, we’ll do “Sweet Home Alabama” [Laughter].