James “Jimbo” Mathus, bandleader with Dixieland jazz revivalists Squirrel Nut Zippers, says stories of “weird old New Orleans” inspired Beasts of Burgundy, the band’s first new record in 18 years.
After hitting it big with the album Hot during the mid-1990s swing revival, the Zippers had been on hiatus before regrouping in 2016 for Hot’s 20th anniversary. “The songs just started coming back,” Mathus recalls, but he didn’t want to put out new material just for the sake of putting out new material.
“The writing came pretty easy,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it if it was going to be forced or phony. When we started we had a lot of raw energy, raw talent. Over the years I’ve been able to hone it.”
The result finds the Zippers just where they’ve always been: filtering Delta blues, gypsy jazz, calypso and swing through a modern mentality with plenty of dark humor and parody.
Mathus has loved older styles of music since he was a boy. “I was always interested in the roots of the music,” he says. “It’s American music. The bedrock of our culture: jazz, folk, country blues. That’s our heritage. I feel like as a musician it’s my job to understand it. It’s timeless because it’s great.”
Throughout Burgundy, the snares and cymbals may occasionally be hit with punk-rock ferocity, while tempos spiral to the brink of rock ’n’ roll abandon. But there’s also the old-school energy of a band playing music in a room without too many overdubs or studio chicanery.
“I like to catch that energy before musicians know the songs real well,” Mathus says, allowing for some human error and sense of danger in the music: the hot threads of good pop music from any era.
Mathus calls his bandmates “incredible musicians but great entertainers. It made me very proud and very humble to realize how much love there was.”
Squirrel Nut Zippers play 7:30 pm Saturday, March 10, at The Shedd; $19 to $39, all-ages.