How Squirrel Nut Zippers wrote a Christmas album

By Mark Brodie
Published: Friday, December 22, 2023 - 12:04pm

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Band on stage
Squirrel Nut Zippers
Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Lots of musicians have put out Christmas albums, and there are entire radio stations dedicated to just playing holiday music this time of year.

But this bandleader wanted to take a slightly different approach on his band’s Christmas record.

Jimbo Mathis is the founder of Squirrel Nut Zippers; the band will be performing Friday, Dec. 22, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Mathis spoke with The Show about how their Christmas album came to be.

Full interview

JIMBO MATHIS: Well, actually, we were, we were sort of compelled to do it at the time. So this is going back to 1998, and this is when the band was just really exploding blowing up, you know, quite unexpectedly. It wasn't anything that was really on our radar to, but as soon as it kind of became apparent that we needed to do it for various reasons that I will not bore your listeners with.

We composed all the music. So actually, when we go out and do these shows, we're, we're playing our own songs that we, that we wrote for the project. So it makes it a lot more interesting.

Yeah. I was gonna ask you if it was important to you, not just to play the songs that everybody's heard, you know, a bazillion times before, but, but have your own, sort of your own creativity at work here.

MATHIS: That was key to the deal. And so, I mean, I think we, we wrote all the material and just in a matter of a few months, because it was kind of one of those rush job deals.

So, rather than just crank out a bunch of rehashed material, we just set ourselves to the task of writing the material. And it ended up being, you know, one of my favorite projects, and it's something that this is just a real perennial treat now to be able to go and do that.

Really. Is that how you thought it would be when you first did it? Like, did you think that you would all these years later still really enjoy performing and hearing these songs?

MATHIS: I had no idea. And it actually, this is only the fourth year we've ever done it. So, four years ago, you know, we cooked up the idea to, you know, to do a concert tour based around the material. And so we went and learned it all. It had never been performed live. You know, it was only on the record, but the record had been gaining in popularity over the years.

So, you know, it just worked out really well.

Yeah. Do you have a favorite song on the album? I know it's like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. But do, do you have a favorite song?

MATHIS: You know, to me, I really like "The Gift of the Magi," you know, the, the short story title that I converted into a folk ballad.

"My heart is sad

My soul is weary

Though Christmas Day is fast appearing

I have no silver

I have no gold

to buy my wife a gift"

It was just something that I stumbled upon. I said, I can't believe that no one's ever written a song from this, concept of the, the selfless giving. You know, the husband that, that sells his only earthly treasure to buy something for his wife, combs for her hair, you know. And then she sells her hair to buy a chain for his watch, and they present each other with the gifts for things they don't have anymore. It's, you know, it's just a, it's just a great concept. And to turn it on, on, on that album, too, I was able to do some things away from the kind of vaudeville, New Orleans jazz, feel since it was more of a concept breaker, I was able to do some folk music, some hillbilly-type Appalachian stuff on there.

It worked out really well and, and that's one of them that seems to be one of the, the favorites when we perform it.

So you mentioned that you, you know, you wanted to try to stay away from, you know, stuff that's been done before. But you also did include a version of "Sleigh Ride," which I have to say coming from you guys was really fun.

MATHIS: Yeah, we did it like a street band, New Orleans parade band.

Well, you know, we needed about four more minutes on the album since only had a couple of months to write it and that,

That fit the time, huh?

MATHIS: Someone suggested we should do sleigh ride as as a street, street beat. And actually, that's the one song we don't perform.

Oh, really? Why not?

MATHIS: Not by, not by design. I'm not sure, I'm not sure. I guess I'd forgotten about it.

Well, maybe, maybe when you're, maybe when you're in the Valley, you can, you can take that one out.

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