1/7/09 UPDATE: Check out the comments for some additional notes and corrections from Will Dawson and Darrell, both part of SNZ. Thanks y'all!
7/23/08 UPDATE: Thanks to some corrections and details from the good folks over at HUMANWINE, I have made a few changes in the sections that talked about them.
First off: this is going to be a long post with lots of pictures, animated gifs, and video. So be forewarned!
Last week, on Friday, one of my favorite bands ever, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, played at the Paradise in Boston. Now... I don't want to give away too much about my secure undisclosed location, but Boston is close enough that I decided to make the rare trip out in the sun (and disgusting, filthy germ-filled air) to check out the show:
Now since I've done a tutorial on one of their songs (Plenty More) and since I am a fan of their stuff in general, I got in touch with the band a few days before the show to see if they'd be interested in talking a little bit about their music, their band, and --since they do use the ukulele sometimes-- about ukuleles. They graciously agreed to chat for a bit and maybe pose for some photos after their soundcheck.
Now I am by no means a professional interviewer, but I knew I wanted three things:
1: An answer to the question "How does the ukulele fit into the big picture of your music?" and
2: A photo of someone in the band playing the Ukulala ukulele, and
3: To make out with Katharine Whalen.
With those goals in mind (and my lucky make-out socks on), I met up with my friend and photographer Aaron at the front door and started taking some occasional notes. Over the next hour or so, I met Chris Phillips (the drummer), Drew (the stage manager), Jimbo Mathus (lead vocalist and writer), Katharine Whalen (female vocalist and four-string virtuoso), and several people part of or helping out HUMANWINE, the opening act.
The following snippets about each are based loosely off my notes and my rapidly-faltering booze-scarred memory:
This is the first person I talked to, the drummer for SNZ. He approached me when he saw the ukulele case and introduced himself. I had him to thank for inviting us to stop by, and he brought us back to the stage to introduce us to the crew and band.
My memory of what we talked about is a bit fuzzy, but I think he has a couple kids, and he said they were growing up into music and would probably be learning on the uke at least while they're young and it fits them. He messes around a bit on it too. The gateway instrument....
I think he kind of expected that I was waiting to interview the lead singers or the ukulele player. Makes sense, but he seemed like a humble, down-to earth guy and I wish I had talked to him a bit longer and gotten more photos.
Here he is at the end, with Katharine:
Katharine Whalen and Chris Phillips cradle her ukulele like a baby.
At the end of the interview/chat, when he came out to talk to Katharine, he stepped in and asked if we had tickets to the show. I told I had mine already, but the show was sold out and Aaron didn't have a ticket. Chris said it was no problem if he wanted to go, and he got Aaron's full name and added it to the guest list.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers' stage manager's name is Drew (and Andy), and he's a hard-working, genial motherfucker with a keen sense of humor. The show went off without a hitch. Also--if your band is doing a sound check and you need to find a wireless mic guard and half of some jerk's broken glass pipe, he's the only dude you can trust to get it done.
SNZ Stage Manager Drew tunes the bejeezus out of Katharine's custom-made gift, a tenor guitar.
He helped us coordinate with the band so they could get their soundcheck in, have time to do a "limousine interview" (Katharine later said someone brought her around in a limousine with champagne and a photographer for an interview right before mine. Oh man, I can't compete with that), and still meet with us for a bit.
The mustachioed glue that keeps SNZ together and functioning behind the scenes.
He's the front-man for the Zippers now, and he looks it. The man has style, even when, or maybe especially when, he's going straight-up casual:
I wasn't sure whether to call him Jim or Jimbo, but I don't think it really mattered. I still don't know which to go with, 'cause I forgot to ask, but Aaron thinks Jimbo is best. We talked outside while he had a cigarette, and I just basically let him know who I was and asked him a few questions about how the band writes their songs and chooses their instruments.
While we were talking, a few members of the band HUMANWINE were walking by to set up their stuff, and he introduced himself and me. One girl, whose name I unfortunately did NOT write down but HUMANWINE tells me was Kaethe Hostetter, stayed to hang out. She plays the viola/violin.
It sounded like she was on the road pretty often and had a lot in common with Jim, so they swapped a few travel stories. She picked up the Ukulala ukulele, and--without being a regular ukulele player--played something cute and catchy. Then she played something a bit harder while Jimbo eyeball-danced:
Jimbo Mathus of SNZ and Kaethe Hostetter violin player for HUMANWINE rock out on the Ukulala ukulele.
Then I witnessed something fantastic. Jim was chatting with Kaethe about New Orleans when someone mentioned something about collaborations. The conversation went something like this (and I am viciously paraphrasing, but what they actually said was probably even shorter):
Jimbo: so, you guys want to collaborate at the end?
Kaethe: Yeah, sure, that sounds cool. How should it go?
Jimbo: We'll play C and G at the end of the encore, you guys can just jump in and play along.
Kaethe: Yeah, just C and G?
Jimbo: C for 2, G for 2, maybe a little bit of mixing it up, it'll be easy.
...and that was it.
Just like that, they were ready to play on a stage together. Man, to be a real musician............ I don't think they even know how much like a magic trick their conversation sounded. It was like... a recursive function: so reduced it couldn't be right. Anyone who knows what that means is a nerd and I will come to their house and beat them up.
At the climax of the show, both bands rocked out together on stage and then marched through a (thunderous) crowd in a congo drum line, so I guess the collaboration was approved at the higher levels.
Jimbo in action, from Aaron's Photo-Go-Round post:
The female vocalist and four-stringed virtuoso of the band also had a flare for putting together her thoughts into perfect groups of words. We chatted for a little while, and I decided to ask her, being the ukulele player in the band, my main question: "How does the ukulele fit into the big picture of your music?"
Well, without even pausing to do some internal editing she said --and this is the ONE quote I wrote down in full, because it was so good and I asked her to repeat it-- she said:
"The ukulele is sparkly, like bubbles in a glass of champagne."
Katharine Whalen, Squirrel Nut Zippers
Now it may have just been because she had champagne on the mind after that "Limousine Interview" (as mentioned above in the Drew section) she finished just before she talked to me, but that quote is a gorgeous piece of imagery. It is the perfect way to describe the light, exciting, energetic spark of this instrument on a track.
We went back and forth for a while, with me just trying to get an idea of how these people put together their music, and what their influences were. In no particular order, I think I learned:
- Katharine learned first on the banjo (Jimbo mentioned it may have been from teaching herself out of a Mel Bay book, but I didn't confirm that), then was introduced to the ukulele and encouraged to sing by her husband at the time.
- Her husband at the time was (!?!? why didn't I know this?!) Jim Mathus (see above). They divorced several years ago but are now touring together. That revelation, of course, led to several other questions--none of which I asked.
- Wash Jones is her favorite song to perform, as seen on this video from 2007.
- Eddie Condon, legendary jazz musician and bandleader, was her biggest influence in terms of the style she plays. He played a rhythmic style on the ukulele, the four-string (tenor) guitar, and the banjo.
- Her favorite instrument right now was a gift-- a custom tenor guitar.
- She might start up a four-string band--banjo, tenor guitar, ukulele, bass--the sky's the limit! (Hi Katharine, looking for a third-rate ukulele player?!!? wink wink)
- The song "Hell", off their biggest album (and my personal favorite of theirs!) was actually recorded with her baritone ukulele....
Paz plays the Marathon baritone ukulele used for the original recording of the SNZ song Hell.
It was tuned in "open G" I think she said, which is the same as a banjo. Makes it easier for her to switch between the instruments, but I had no idea where most of the chords were. Nonetheless, she had the Ukulala ukulele and I had her Marathon, so we had a quick little jam session where I definitely didn't keep interrupting her:
Katharine Whalen from SNZ enjoys a totally relaxed jam session with Paz from Ukulala.
By the way, I'm still looking for a link to the Limousine interview. I'm curious to see how it went and what she talked about with them just minutes before I spoke with her.
And because she volunteered that I should include pictures of myself, here's the first picture of me ever on this ukulele blog, with Katharine:
Paz poses with Katharine, who holds the Ukulala ukulele.
I debated this in my head for a while, because I do like a certain degree of anonymity. But, what the heck, if we've got one picture of me we may as well include the one of me with Jimbo:
Jim Mathus and Paz both enjoy a good chill outside the Paradise in Boston.
Oh, and later that night, Katharine with a decidedly less casual outfit on:
They are a Boston-based band with a cool setup, and they opened for SNZ. Yes, HUMANWINE capitalizes their whole name (I'm not just yelling, it was part of their "ALLCAPSNOGAPS Policy of 2000 Group"). They drive around in a big school bus painted matte black, because NH law says to register a ex-school bus it must be painted any other color than "school bus yellow," and they chose black. The front window had a big sign that read "FREEDUMB". I don't know what it means, but I think it costs $19.95:
The HUMANWINE bus shares a parking spot.
And they are in the process of converting it to be an entirely environmentally-friendly vehicle that runs on Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO), so they can tour the country without the brutal carbon footprint and high fuel costs you usually get from a big-ass bus. Their plan sounds fucking awesome.
Apparently Waste Vegetable Oil is trash that the restaurants actually have to pay to dispose of, so of course they're more than happy to have it hauled away for free. I even heard rumor (verified fact) that HUMANWINE's Ma and lead singer herself, Holly Brewer, carried some 19 gallons of unfiltered WVO herself on the first "Official WVO Run" from a restaurant in JP.
As HUMANWINE tells it, "We ask. They open their door for us."
True for so many things.
So that was Ukulala meeting the Squirrel Nut Zippers (and running into HUMANWINE). I also recorded a video of SNZ playing the song Hell at the show that night, which is definitely worth a watch to get an idea of the energy at their shows:
And here's one more shot of a few of the other guys in the band, who I didn't meet before the show but held it down live:
Gabrieli Pelli and Will Dawson sax up the audience a bit.
I hope this blog entry got across how relaxed, friendly, eclectic, fun, and interesting group they seemed to be. It's funny when a group's music matches their persona. I had a great time and I hope they did too, and if you read this whole thing then I have one more thing to tell you: I only accomplished 2 of my 3 goals.