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Nuts in a Zipper 

Squirrels put dizzying days to rest

From improbable success to incredible demise, Squirrel Nut Zippers must have stolen more than a few clichés from VH1's Behind the Music playbook. Overdose, litigation, a broken marriage -- it all added up to an ugly descent. But now, several years clear of the wreckage (with legal settlements still outstanding), it's time for members of Squirrel Nut Zippers to put a fresh spin on their legacy.

"It all ended badly and that was kind of sad," says banjoist/singer Katharine Whalen, as she looks forward to touring with members of the group again. "This feels like a chance to redeem some of that."

Taking their name from a caramel nut candy around since the '20s, Squirrel Nut Zippers were renowned for its lighthearted energy. While often lumped in with Cherry Poppin' Daddies and other swing revival acts of the mid-'90s, the Zippers was more eclectic and less accomplished musically. But while the playing might've been "a complete clambake," as ex-member Tom Maxwell once described it, there's no mistaking the unabashed joy with which it was delivered.

"Nobody had really brought it across like we were doing. We had a little punk in there, a little redneck sound. And it was maybe not as intimidating as some of the cats on the West Coast who could play really well," Whalen says, referring to comparable groups. "People were like, 'Oh God, they play so well, and I don't know how to do the dance.' But anybody could dance to us. They were like, 'I'm a weirdo. Finally, a weirdo band I can wear my weird outfit to.'"

Unfortunately, when money becomes involved, things get complicated.

Prior to the release of its second album, Hot, the band decided to pool profits, not just from album royalties, but songwriter publishing as well. While in the studio beginning work on its third album, almost inexplicably, the Maxwell-penned, calypso-tinged single, "Hell," blew up like the devil had made it his personal mission. Propelled by Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM (which initially played the track as a joke), the song jumped into the Top 20 more than a year after its release. It was then -- as the album went platinum and cash started rolling in -- that things began, inevitably, to go wrong.

First, Disney bought the group's label, Mammoth Records, and put pressure on the band to produce another hit. Former trumpet player Stacy Guess overdosed after her heroin addiction got her kicked out of the band, prior to recording Hot. The candy company owner -- with whom the band has a handshake agreement to use the Squirrel Nut Zippers name -- died. A different candy company bought it up and sued the band. A former manager, Mike Renault, also sued. (Both suits were settled out of court.) Then, a year later in 1999, multi-instrumentalists/songwriters Maxwell and Ken Mosher left the band, saying (surprise) it'd stopped being fun.

The Zippers forged on, releasing a final album, Bedlam Ballroom, in 2000, and playing its final show. It was never billed as such, because no one knew. Zippers co-founder Jimbo Mathus took off on tour with his side project, Knockdown South, and never returned to the Zippers, his wife Whalen or their newborn baby. They officially divorced a few years later. By then, Maxwell and Mosher had already sued the remaining members of the band for back royalties and won a six-figure settlement -- which proceeds from this tour will help defray.

"When there's money out there, somebody's going to get it ... but frequently these things end badly."

For Whalen, it's about more than the money; it's about reconnecting with music that many people love, and remembering that instead of the bittersweet aftermath. Touring behind her solo album, Dirty Little Secret, last year, Whalen appreciated the audience's response to the Zippers songs she slipped into the set.

"They get this really sweet, dreamy look on their face," Whalen says. "I'm excited to get out there and enjoy that, because previously, it was such a wild ride that I almost couldn't catch up with what was going on. I couldn't process fast enough."

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