"It too will be overtaken by the selling of soap": An Interview With ex-Squirrel Nut Zipper Tom Maxwell
if you draw a bow draw the strongest/
So goes the logic of Tom Maxwell's prescient tune off of the Squirrel Nut Zippers finest disc, Perennial Favorites, and it is one that can get a bit creepy if you listen to it while watching CNN with the sound off. "Soon" -- which is currently featured on Morphizm Radio -- features the dread and absurdity inherent in the potential fragmentation of everything from spiritual and financial integrity to the Zippers themselves -- plus, it was a Cab Calloway homage that featured some of the best screaming since the Pixies' Surfer Rosa.
Indeed, something did happen soon to Tom Maxwell and the Zippers, and it wasn't all good. But it did lead to Tom's rumination on the world of passion and materiality in his aptly-titled, self-released effort, Samsara, a heady mix of forms and substance that weighed in too heavily on a post-Swing public heading straight for boy bands and breast-implant-happy songstresses. True to the Buddhist considerations of the disc's title, the world of illusion -- ours -- couldn't grasp a talented excursion into the complexities of the sounds and styles found on Samsara.
But Maxwell did it his way, literally -- he composed, released, and promoted the thing himself, using his Web site and a tour with his next band, Minor Drag, as town criers. I caught up with Tom originally through his site, where he agreed to provide Morphizm with his lengthy treatise on the genius of Uberman, William Shatner. Then he agreed to the interview.
Thill: Is something going to happen soon?
What're you up to these holidays? Working on a new album?
Is there a better Xmas song than your "My Evergreen" from the Squirrel
Nut Zippers Christmas Caravan? You don't have to answer that.
Does listening to the Zips Xmas album feel strange to you at all?
Allow me to illustrate. The day after Disney bought Mammoth, the Squirrel Brand Company came down with an agreement they wanted us to sign. They were asking for a percentage of gross receipts and de facto creative control of the band by having the right of first refusal on all music and art (for potentially negative or pornographic content). We thought they were on crack, since we had such a lovely arrangement with them up until that time -- visiting the factory in Cambridge, having the mayor come out and announce that it's Squirrel Nut Zipper day, etc. We wanted to give them something, but since we were at loggerheads, they sued. After several months with no headway -- but a fortune in lawyer's fees -- we decided to change the name of the band.
"Squirrel NOT Zippers" was considered.
The label went apeshit, and offered us a deal -- they would go ahead and give the green light for the video of "Ghost of Stephen Foster" -- which had mysteriously been shut down after our refusal to return to Europe for the summer festival circuit -- and indemnify us in the Squirrel Brand suit in return for a Christmas CD comprised of covers of standards. We said OK, but since the release of Perennial Favorites had been held up a year and a half, Jimbo and I (without discussing it) each went home and wrote a bunch of songs in two weeks. Most of my songs were about leaving the band and the disappointment of fame. "A Johnny Ace Christmas" was written to be interpreted as a lover leaving, but anybody who knows about Johnny Ace understands that he committed suicide backstage Christmas Eve! "The anticipation's better/than the real thing anyhow" pretty much summed up my feelings about making the "big time."
"My Evergreen" is about how lucky I was to have somebody who loved me and would stick it out (namely, my wife), instead of the creeping feeling that most of your compadres could sell you out in a New York minute. Days later, we were in the studio, having almost no reheasal, and we phoned that bastard in. Almost nobody was talking to each other, we only had a couple weeks to record the thing, and Perennial Favorites was to be released (with the attendant country-wide touring) in a month or two. Little groups of a few people did most of the songs; all that playing in one room shit was pretty much out the window. There's one guitar solo Jimbo did that we pieced together because he didn't seem to be too into playing a solid take.
The record's a rush job, which is a shame, because there's some super stuff on it. I thought Jimbo did a particularly good job arranging that song by Chris Phillip's grandad, and the original recording at the end of our version always brought tears to my eyes. When we went out to tour the record, not one of the songs I wrote made it on the set list. There's also some good, old-fashioned filler. It's funny that Ken Mosher and I joked constantly in the studio that this was the last Zippers record. It turned out to be correct -- for us!
I wrote the liner notes during a two week bout of insomnia: "Can't Sleep" on Samsara is about that, brought on by knowing the band -- for me, at least -- was rapidly coming to an end. A year later, after I quit, I found out that a month after our delivering the masters Mammoth wrote our manager committing to only a few grand of indemnification. The Zips signed a licensing deal with Southern Style Nuts (who had bought Squirrel Brand) after I bailed. "The Ghost of Stephen Foster" video was indeed completed -- and it kicks ass -- but was never worked as a single.
So, no. I don't play the record.
On "Samsara" (the song), you and Holly (Baddour, the singer)
thank the world for "everything beautiful." Would you like to add anything
to that list?
By striking out on your own, you've taken control of your career. How
does the move sit with you and how can artists in search of control
of their own live a life free of nightmares, if at all? Can the recording
industry foster creativity at this rate or is it due for a shutdown?
Artists can't avoid nightmares because no one can. They can only be true to themselves, not sell each other out, and have a good lawyer. The industry wants only to foster creativity that will sell big and can be easily replaced. I mean, it's creative to have cool dance moves or write or record songs. That doesn't mean most stuff coming out isn't artistically bankrupt. They won't, however, shut down. Not when a handful of corporations own most radio, record and promotion companies, and performance sheds. The fix is in. The most we can hope for (and expect) is a shake-up, at least artistically. There's always one around the corner.
Believe it or not, I do feel that artists should take control. Most won't, because they don't have the resources to force their product down people's throats. But it's easier and easier to make great sounding records on the cheap, and get them heard for free. My buddy Tim just did it with Stars of Stage and Screen. Go to MP3 and check 'em out -- they're fucking amazing! He recorded that stuff in his bedroom. If you want a smash hit, however, forget it. Lightening does strike, as I can personally attest, but you're a fool if you count on that.
Has the recording industry alienated its older consumers with this endless
stream of bubblegum acts like N'SYNC, etc.? Is there a backlash on the
way, or do you think people just love being distracted, not engaged,
by their music?
Congrats on being a new father -- how has it changed your perspective
on what you do? As a slinger of F bombs, do you have to check yourself?
Do you have to dip into the energy stores now before you go into the
Evelyn is amazing. She's smart and loving, without a trace of meanness or irony. You immediately drop your defenses around her, because they're no longer needed. She has such profound purity and takes such delight in the world. That has allowed me to see things in a similar light, which is to say the least, liberating.
And yeah, I cuss like a sailor, and better shitcan that stuff in a hurry. Oops, I did it again!
I'm still as manic as ever in the studio; maybe more so, 'cause it's more precious to me. I've done very little recording, however, apart from a couple unfinished tracks with Ken and some fabulous demos with Darren Jesse.
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