It’s a typical night at Manhattan alt-rock club Irving Plaza. A packed room anxiously awaits the latest MTV Buzz Bin sensations, whose current single and album have been climbing the charts. Finally they emerge, pick up their instruments, and launch into…a shuffling trad jazz number straight out of a 1920s ballroom, complete with banjo, violin, and an assortment of horns. The crowd erupts at the song’s first line: ”If it’s good enough for Granddad, it’s good enough for me.”
It’s good enough for North Carolina septet Squirrel Nut Zippers’ rapidly expanding audience, too. A convincing tribute to prerock sounds like swing and Dixieland jazz, the group’s latest album, Hot, is warming up America’s alt-rock airwaves. Though they’re no match for the virtuosity of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven or Cab Calloway’s orchestra (who is?), the Zippers — who write most of their own material — manage to capture the mood perfectly.
Even so, rock radio seems an unlikely home for music that sounds so, well, old. ”It was about time that alternative radio started playing alternative music,” says guitarist-singer-songwriter Tom Maxwell. ”The most delicious irony is that us playing this stuff based on America’s greatest contribution to 20th-century art is the alternative. That’s truly a topsy-turvy sorta situation.”
And it is a bit jarring to hear their old-fashioned hit ”Hell” next to Bush or Stone Temple Pilots. ”It’s weird,” says the Zippers’ other guitarist-singer-songwriter, Jim Mathus. ”When our song comes on it sounds so different and so out-of-date. Maybe that’s why people like it.”