"It too will be overtaken by the selling of soap": An Interview With ex-Squirrel Nut Zipper Tom Maxwell

Scott Thill

And if you draw a bow draw the strongest/
And if you use an arrow use the longest
-- "Soon," Squirrel Nut Zippers

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.


Voices in his head. "I play like a twelve-year-old -- very excited, with a serious dearth of technical ability."

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.

Enjoy.

Scott Thill: Is something going to happen soon?
Tom Maxwell: Always! Whether or not it's something you want or have planned is quite another matter. There's no need to address the obvious -- and unpleasant -- connotations this question has these days

ST: What're you up to these holidays? Working on a new album?
TM: I'm almost totally being Mr Mom. Evelyn is 15 months old now. Pure joy to be around. I'd love to say I'm working on a new album, but I'm not. I am, however, working on a new batch of songs. My preparation for the holidays has so far consisted of telling assorted family members that we're staying home. That's gone over big.

ST: Is there a better Xmas song than your "My Evergreen" from the Squirrel Nut Zippers Christmas Caravan? You don't have to answer that.
TM: I think there are tons of better Xmas songs than "My Evergreen" -- since it has nothing to do with the holiday! But I also think it's the best song I ever wrote. There was a certain amount of shock from the brass at Mammoth upon hearing it; the assumption being that I was essentially throwing a great song away on a filler/quick buck project.

ST: Does listening to the Zips Xmas album feel strange to you at all?
TM: It would, if I ever listened to Zips records! I never do, since it's not too much fun cataloging your perceived mistakes and shortcomings. Christmas Caravan in particular is a tough one, because it's such a snapshot of a miserable situation.


Ho, ho, hold on a minute there, boy! "'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!"

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.


Scenes from a marriage. "It was almost like everything associated with that band had to be utterly annihilated after my departure."

ST: 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?
TM: I pretty much thank God everday for my health, my family, my friends, and my success. I've heard that "You're never given what you can't handle," and I obviously can't handle much 'cause I'm a lucky bastard! I really got dealt a great hand.

ST: 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?
TM: Go ask Ani DiFranco about that! At best, my self-releasing Samsara stalled my career, because it broke me. I was cocky and thought I could do it on my own, and stood to make $7 a unit -- instead of the $1.50 the Zips made -- so it looked good on paper. But everything came out of my pocket -- radio promotion, retail promotion, publicity ($2500/month), tour support, sidemen salary, etc. Then we went out and played for 30 people a night. Do the math -- tank city!
I have to pay the distributor for buying back all the units that didn't sell. That'll keep you up at night.

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.

ST: 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?
TM: Sure, people are alienated. But your average twelve-year-old has a hell of a lot more disposable income than older, working schleps. They also want the latest flavor, which a lot of people like me don't give a shit about. When they get too old (read: in their twenties), there's a long line of brand-new twelve-year-olds. Look, they're the American ideal -- hard-bodied, amnesiac, and oozing mad money. The backlash will happen when the disaffected get off their ass and find what they want to hear, and buy it. Napster only satisfied one of those requirements. If artists can make a living, they'll do their stuff.

ST: 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 studio?
TM: Becoming a parent is utterly transforming and a hell of a lot of fun. It's the Great Prioritizer (besides death). It engenders the greatest possible love: that of subsuming your self to another freely.

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.

NEXT PAGE -- "There was a lot of pressure on Perennial Favorites which, although it went Gold in a month, was considered something of a failure for not topping Hot."


 

 

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