June 1999
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The Longest Interview with A Squirrel Nut Zipper There Ever Was

by Jessica Brandt

Ken Mosher is a Squirrel Nut Zipper. Much like all the other famous people (person) I know, he lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and is in a band. His band is currently being sued by the people who own the rights to the name "Squirrel Nut Zipper" or so they claim. So, his band is not right now.

This is why he had a chance to talk to me. Even though he is being sued, I figured he still has more money than I (jobless), so he was nice enough to call me and chat for about an hour and a half. This is what happens when you put two insomniac music lovers on the phone together at 2 a.m. This is why this interview is the longest interview with a Squirrel Nut Zipper there ever was.

I always say "Catch a rock star on his way down. He'll have more time for you then." And he might try to sell you a gold record...

The Shrubbery: I really want to thank you for doing this. Everyone is like 'woohoo! Big rock star!'

Ken Mosher: I really feel that way right about now.

TS: Sure, you've got a big rock-star lawsuit on your hands!

KM: Yeah someone was telling me Royal Crown Revue was getting sued too, for their name.

TS: I wrote my obligatory letter to Southern Style Nuts today, telling them to stop suing you. I looked in their catalog, and they don't even sell Squirrel Brand nuts.

Ken Mosher, biting the nuts that feed him KM: I know! Have you ever had their nuts?

TS: No.

KM: Seriously, if you really like peanuts, they blow the hell out of Planters.

*At this point, Ken went off the record talking about the lawsuit with the nut company. There are a lot of things he can't really say, which is too bad because fans want to know. If you want more information, please go to The Official SNZ website*

TS: What kind of music are you into?

KM: I like two-guitar bands like Radiohead. We met them at some radio show. I really wanted to go just…fawn all over them. They look so wacky. Like a bunch of dock thugs or something. They were having such horrible technical problems and they looked so mad that Tom [Maxwell] and I couldn't even go talk to them.

TS: Who else do you like that's around these days?

KM: Well, I like Built to Spill, and Wilco. I liked [the Wilco album] Being There. I love the Jayhawks. I love their new album [ The Sound of Lies]. It's probably my favorite album of the year I think. What am I saying? It probably came out last year. I probably sound like an idiot. Laughs

And you know, Ben Folds. I remember the first time I saw Ben Folds. I just couldn't believe it. I mean, I really couldn't believe it.

TS: When was the first time you saw them play?

KM: I saw them open for Southern Culture on the Skids before they had a record contract. I almost peed in my pants. I'm not kiddin' ya, I was so excited. This was the greatest band I'd ever seen.

He [Ben] used to be in a band called Majosha, and I recognized his voice although it took me half the concert to figure it out. Their song 'Video' is from Majosha, and when they played that song, I realized who it was. It was definitely an 80's-sounding band.

TS: Ben was on VH1's Before They Were Rock Stars and they showed Majosha playing at a Duke 'Battle of the Bands.' It was hilarious.

KM: Oh they must have blown everybody away!

TS: Yeah, they won.

KM: I mean, I love Southern Culture on the skids, but Ben Folds Five blows them away. Truly, they're amazing. Of course, my conclusion was that they would break up before they ever got an album out. There are so many great Chapel Hill bands that never see the light of day.

TS: So do you like any bands that aren't 'southern' bands?

KM: Wow, I didn't even think about that. Well, the Jayhawks are from Minneapolis…

Well Radiohead…

I listen to a lot of old music. I love James Brown, Ray Charles, Django Reinhardt. I was just listening to Les Paul today. Do you have any of that music?

TS: Django. I love Django.

KM: Well uhm…Les Paul is like space-age music, it's really crazy. He's an amazing person. He invented the four-track recorder like twenty years before they made them. He walked into Capitol Records when they just had a sign outside saying there was a record label there, and he had fifty songs recorded already. He just put it on the label and people were like 'What the hell is this music?' It really is space-age. You'd be surprised. It has more in common, when it came out, with Devo than Django Reinhardt. It's really whacked-out.

TS: That was what, the 30's or 40's?

KM: It was 1948 when he did that.

TS: So is he a big influence on you?

KM: I'd say The Beatles were more of an influence on me than anything. The thing that I like about The Beatles - and the Zippers - the thing that makes both of them good (and I'm not trying to say we're like The Beatles) is the mismatch of musical styles. It doesn't necessarily make sense together, but when you listen to it all, the songs actually clarify each other as the components of an album. It's where you're producing albums rather than singles.

I also really liked XTC as a band at one time…at different times…

TS: Did you get their new album?

KM: Apple Venus. I didn't like that much, because I liked the 'rocked-out' stuff more. But they have a second volume of Apple Venus that is supposed to be more of the 'rocked-out' stuff.

I mean…The Beatles probably affected me more than anyone when I was a little kid. But I was 14 in 1979 when The Clash first hit my head. And that completely changed my life.

That was my musical experience when I was growing up in St. Louis, before I decided I wasn't going to be a musician. When punk rock and new wave pop were happening.

Ken and Jim playing that 'old' music TS: So when did you start getting into this 'old' music?

KM: When the band started! I had never heard any of it before that. I was sort of like the weird person in the band… I didn't even appreciate… I mean…. I have no musical history! I'm from St. Louis. The radio there is definitely heavy, heavy rock. You know, album rock. Not really any old stuff.

TS: You're from the same general area as Miles Davis, and you're not even hip to that?

KM: No! No, because St. Louis has no musical history! At one time it had a jazz and blues heritage that rivaled New Orleans and Chicago, but I guess when WWII hit, it really changed. It became a really white-bred place. A lot of what had been great was gone.

But growin' up there, because my parents weren't really big music-listeners, I wasn't really exposed to it. It was just what I exposed myself to, or my sister. You know, she'd bring home Uriah Heep and Nectar. Crazy shit. Out of all that, I was like 'The Beatles are the best of these bands' and I knew that when I was five. The 'White Album' was the album I grew up on. When I was little I would put on the side that had all the animal songs, like 'Piggies' and 'Blackbird' and think that this is the greatest band ever.

TS: When I was growing up, Sgt. Pepper was my favorite album. When I was in third grade.

KM: How could you not like that when you're a little kid? That's such energy and life. It's brilliant. It's what you're looking at in books, it's so happy.

TS: So how did you end up getting into this style, then?

KM: Honest to God, when we started writing music…you've heard 'Fell to Pieces' [on the EP Sold Out]…if I played a tape of stuff from that era, it would freak you out. Little songs, in ¾, more sing-along and stuff. I couldn't play the drums worth shit. Even though the instrumentation may not have been professional, the song writing was there. And the musicianship was there; I just couldn't play drums.

TS: Why didn't Tom play drums?

KM: Because he wasn't in the band when it started. He came about six months later.

TS: So who were the first people in the band?

KM: They way it started was that Jimbo [Mathus] and I were trying to get a contract for Metal Flake Mother and I was sort of occasionally playing drums. We actually played a music festival in New York in 1993, so that was the spring before the band had really started. So that band was breaking up and I had been working with Jim to record some other music. He played drums for that band [Metal Flake Mother] so being a frontman playing guitar in a band was new to him.

We started having cookouts- Jim, Katherine [Whalen], me - and I brought Chris [Philips] because I worked with him at a restaurant, he was in the kitchen. He was a punk rock drummer, a crazy drinkin' fool. I figured he'd bring beer.

And then Don [Raleigh] was in the band that opened for Metal Flake Mother the last show they ever played, so we invited him too.

Before horns ever entered the picture, before The Inevitable era, we had about 30 songs written that we were playing, only a few got on to The Inevitable. By the time Hot came around, they were all new songs.

TS: Did you ever play out with that original band, before the albums?

KM: We played out the first time in August of '93 at a place called Henry's Bistro. It was just a lot of friends. It went over really well. Until Ben Folds, actually, it was a lot more fury than I had seen in Chapel Hill. It sort of freaked me out It didn't seem like what we had been doing was that… revolutionary? laughs I mean, it was nice…

TS: Was it novelty for them, or was it just a new kind of pop music?

KM: No, I would say…I think there's a really knowledgeable music community in Chapel Hill, and like I said we were mixing up ¾ and 4/4 times and country and carnival music. In a southern way, I guess it hit home with people. I guess around here it hit.

By the time we started touring, I had changed to guitar and then saxophone. We had decided on Stacy [Guess] as our trumpet player. When we had to start using amplifiers it was definitely more of a rock-n-roll feel. There's definitely more of a homespun feel to the older stuff. There was more of a Knockdown Society [Mathus' delta-blues band] feel to the early Zippers, but not as bluesy.

TS: Did you guys record any of that stuff?

KM: Well I have recordings…

TS: When are you going to release it?

KM: Some stuff gets released every once in a while. There's a new one now, actually. There's a compilation that Ben's on…it's called Songs for Summer

TS: I've never heard of that.

KM: I'll put a link to it on the site as soon as I get one. There's a song on there called 'All Along the Frying Pan' which we did at the Cat's Cradle, probably February of '94. Tom's playing drums, it's the first show with him playing drums.

It's a good song. It's pretty wacky. It has more in common with… well, maybe it's an early version of 'Stephen Foster.' But not really. It's more Middle-Eastern than klezmer I guess. It has that Arabian feel…

TS: Getting back to the topic of Stacy Guess… how long was he in the band?

KM: For about a year and a half.

TS: Was it a mutual decision for him to leave the band? Did you guys ask him to leave or did he leave himself?

KM: We begged for him to get into treatment. He said he was going to handle it, and several months down the road he ended up missing a performance, which had never happened before. We fired him.

Ken plays guitar, too! But at that time, it was an intervention among everyone- his parents, his girlfriend. It was horrible, absolutely horrible. And at that time we were actually scheduled to go to the Midwest for the first time.

The reason that I play saxophone, is I guess… that.

My father had passed away three months before and I had gone back to St. Louis for the funeral. I had played saxophone literally from fifth to eighth grade. I got my saxophone out because I didn't have anything to do at home. I wanted anything to get me out of that situation. It was horrible. So I learned all of our songs on saxophone. It surprised me.

TS: Alto or tenor?

KM: Alto saxophone. So at that point [when Guess was fired] I had just been playing saxophone for a little while but I was playing well enough that we decided I was a better saxophone player than what I had been doing before. The saxophone player we had had to go. He played all the time, God help him.

TS: Who was that?

KM: Who? I shouldn't say… laughs

TS: Why not?

KM: Because it didn't work. Laughs His name was Spencer…I hate to say it, but I can't remember his last name! Spencer…Adams!

TS: Is he still in other bands down there?

KM: Not that I know of. John Kempannin also played fiddle for us. And he played a little bit with some country bands. But he was a good fiddle player. He wanted to write songs that were different than what we were doing. That was a mutual thing that he left. But he's on that Roasted Right single.

TS: What about [former bass player] Don Raleigh?

KM: Don, I miss. Not that I don't like Stu [Cole, current bass player]. But Don was definitely a personality.

When we were recording Perennial Favorites, Don came to us one day…

We had been recording in the studio I had set up in my house. This was my grand idea. My foolish idea. And I didn't have time to even present any of my songs for that album. So that tells you where I was. I was being housekeeper and everything else. My head was so far away…I wasn't even cognizant of what was going on at the time. But Don got mad at Jimbo one day and said he had wanted two songs on this album. Tom and I had worked out a whole part of- basically helped him finish- another song that was going to go on the album. But we didn't have any recording days left. We were done recording the album. And he's there telling us that there was more he wanted to do. He still had bass parts to do.

Anyhow, he got mad and he walked out. We tried to get a hold of him for two days. We had two days left to record before we had to go on tour, and we couldn't get a hold of him. So we had to hire another bass player. When he left, we just assumed he had quit.

TS: Did you hear from him after that?

KM: No. It's hard to explain what happened. It doesn't make any sense if you're not a musician chuckles because musicians are crazy.

At the time, I felt like he was letting us down. It was just a horrible situation.

Here's the greatest thing. We went on tour and when we got back to town I said 'I've got to talk to Don Raleigh.' I called his number and it was disconnected. I called his best friend and he tells me that Don doesn't want to talk to me. He'd left the country. He really did, but at the time his friend wouldn't tell me where he went.

Turns out he went to Costa Rica and met a wonderful woman and got married. He's now working on a new album out there.

TS: Was this when you got back from the Perrenial Favorites tour?

KM: No, we hadn't even released it yet. When we were recording Perrenial Favorites, 'Hell' had started getting airplay on the West Coast. Of course, we didn't know this. The record company called and they wanted to have a meeting. We thought they were going to pull the plug on the new album. They told us they wanted us to go on tour. We said 'What? We're recording an album.' They said it could wait. We actually said 'No, we're going to finish this.' But we went out and did, like, two promo shows.

By the time we got back, Don had left the country.

Perrenial had been recorded for a year and a half when it came out. Therefore, you have two major songwriters in the band [Mathus and Maxwell] that have enough backlog of material to do Zippers albums, solo albums and everything else.

The shame is that because of the record companies and the timing we have albums that are on discs that too often are not synchronized with where the band is.

If you have someone that is creating that prolifically, you need to encourage them to do that, not discourage them. Someday, it might dry up.

TS: Is that why everyone [Maxwell, Mathus and Whalen] decided to solo stuff right now?

KM: Well that and I think part of it is the lawsuit. People would rather do solo stuff that is not subject to a lawsuit. And the band is going to have wait until we get all this worked out.

TS: What are you doing during this hiatus?

KM: Well, I worked on Tom's album [release date, Aug. 17 1999, Mammoth records] and obviously Ben Folds Five. I'm doing a little freelance work. I just did some work with the Cigar Store Indians.

But mostly I'm renovating my house and trying to figure out if I want to open a real studio here. It's so consuming. You think having a restaurant is consuming… this is like having a restaurant that no one comes to half the time. It's really pathetic, or it can be when you're not busy. Of course, I get the luxury of working with really talented and creative people. That's a plus.

TS: Do you ever think of starting your own label?

KM: Pauses Well, if we had to do it all over again, we would've. I mean, there's no doubt. I think a lot of record company stuff…you start a band and you just don't know how to book shows. Anyone can tell you that they can help you, and you're like 'Okay, how?' I need help. What it boils down to is that it really doesn't take that much. I mean, you find this out after you've signed away your creative lives. There are still independent distributors, like ADA who will distribute albums for bands, even without record contracts. They won't rip you off. Those are some of the nicest middlemen that you find in music. Whereas you have a record company that's unstable…

TS: The more I learn about the music industry, the more I'm glad I'm not a part of it.

KM: Well go work for Ani DeFranco, someone that has their shit together; someone that has taken the exclusivity of record labels and turned it around and made something out of nothing. She's someone that has a really keen business sense and pride in herself. She can do things that people will tell you you can never do.

If we sold our own albums, we'd make $6 and album. If you had to sell one sixth or less of an album as you do with a record company alone…We could have been a local act and just sold our albums around here, and probably made as much money as we did nationally through Mammoth. Well, not quite. I'm not saying Mammoth has done a shitty job with everything they've done. We're in a shitty position. That's what I'm saying.

'Hell' was a complete mystery. They played it in L.A. supposedly as a joke. This is not a joke. Some DJs supposedly played it during their morning radio basically to goof off on us and they got a bunch of calls saying 'That is a really great song. Who plays that?' So they did an experiment literally trying to see how much they could saturate a market with a song before people reacted negatively. And they didn't! They played it up to 30 or 40 spins a week, and people were liking it!

That, to me… I don't know how you get that lucky. It's like with that Spanish guy…

TS: Ricky Martin?

KM: Yeah. Have you ever seen a publicity push like that? I mean, I'm serious…not since I don't know what have I seen a publicity push like that.

TS: Star Wars?

KM: Yeah, exactly. Have you seen that?

TS: I saw it twice.

KM: No, really? You're a freak!

TS: I saw it at 12:01 on Wednesday and I saw it again last night. It's because I have a brother, and I'm that age…

KM: Well shit, I'm that age! You know what? I didn't even see the first one until the third one came out. But I went to this weird movie theater in St. Louis where on the premier night of the third one they showed all three back-to-back. That was killer.

TS: Star Wars is a great movie. It's an American institution.

KM: Listen, I like Star Trek. I'm a Star Trek freak.

TS: Actually, this issue of The Shrubbery is supposedly our Star Wars issue. I'm supposed to ask you about that.

KM: Well I saw the trailer with the comic bunny character…

TS: Actually, I think he's some sort of amphibian with long ears.

KM: Whatever. That scared me. That was a bit too much like ET.

Okay, I haven't seen the movie.

TS: Well he's the stupidest part of the movie, I think.

KM: Right. Well there were no stupid parts in the first movie. There was nothing stupid about that. But I'm serious. The first Star Wars is one of the best films I've ever seen.

TS: Well it was so innovative…

KM: It wasn't just that, it was a great story too. There's something about that story that reminds me of something else. It reminds me of The Wizard of Oz. There's something about it that's real Wizard of Oz to me. It's just so removed from the world that it's a great movie experience. It'll take you for a ride.

Okay I'll shut up now.

TS: Let's get back on topic with your record label. How long is your contract with Mammoth?

KM: There's a five-record deal, with an extra option if they want it. But we've done three records.

TS: What about the Christmas one?

KM: The Christmas album was a different contract, and so was Sold Out. That one was my gift to everyone.

TS: I love that one!

KM: Isn't that funny? You know those [really cheesy] interviewers that are on there? I was driving across the country listening to AM radio, and they came on the dial. They're still on! This was like a month ago. imitating interviewers 'Wow, that's a good time!' laughs On the running board tape of that show, they say that, like, two thousand times. We could make a whole Beastie Boys song out of that…

Oh! Chris is working on a solo album!

TS: Of what? Drums? 'This is Chris in his basement playing his drums'?

KM: Well yeah…laughs He's working with a bunch of samplers. Robert Sledge [of Ben Folds Five] got him excited about synthesizers. He's got a couple of soundboards and he's got some old ProLogic keyboard.

TS: That's sort of crazy, like the weird stuff Tom did with his old band What Peggy Wants.

KM: You know, we worked out four new songs for What Peggy Wants. I would be playing the bass. We did this in the last six months. John Ensslin [WPW vocalist] is a good friend of ours. He is out of his mind. He may be, of the people that I've met in music except for Thom Yorke, the most natural frontman I've ever seen. He's fantastic. He used to dress as a priest. It's so great. He's got that terrifying either super sexuality that's non-gender based or that non-sexuality…it's really f*cked up. I think Thom Yorke sounds like John…

TS: What bands were you in before you were a Zipper?

KM: None! Well I mean I was in a band called Split Image in St. Louis, but we were a whacked out punk cover band. A typical St. Louis band that couldn't get work playing originals.

If I would have lived in Chapel Hill, I would have been a musician from the day I hit the street. But St. Louis was not the place to be a musician. You weren't getting positive feedback in any way.

TS: What made you decide to go down to Chapel Hill?

KM: I was dating a girl that was in grad school there. In '88 I was working for the Democratic Party, and that was the year that everyone in the party lost, so I didn't have a job. I was thinking about going back to school. I made a trip down here and saw a show at the old Cat's Cradle and I just couldn't believe the music I was hearing, and that there were people there to listen to it. So all of a sudden, the wheels start rolling in my head, thinking about all the different alternatives for moving here. I moved here, went to one semester of school at UNC-Greensboro, and that was it.

TS: Do you guys 'dress up' all the time?

KM: I have to put on a suit to play. But everyone else dresses like that all the time. Jimbo drives around in a straw hat and all that. Now he has a Mustang, but he used to drive a Nova.

I'll never forget one time that I was going to work, and I get behind this car that's going like, 40 in a 55. It's this old man in a hat with a woman in a dress. Of course, it turns out to be Jim and Katherine. I'm behind them and I'm trying not honk and trying to be cool, let people have a nice leisurely drive. I pass them and I'm thinking 'Oh my God, I'm friends with the oldest people in town.'

TS: How do you all get along, with having seven of you? Are there cliques?

KM: Of course there's going to be cliques, but it's always helped to have seven in a band rather than a three-man band. If you get in an argument with someone in a three-man band, you're the odd one out. With seven people, there's someone to go running to. It makes all the democratic votes more interesting.

TS: Speaking of democratic votes, what were you doing with the Democratic Party in 1988?

KM: At the time, it was either Reganomics or the Democratic Party. The Republicans wanted to take everyone off welfare, and off the streets. They didn't support any social programs at all. I was living in downtown St. Louis and there were all sorts of bad shit going on with money.

Welfare's not a perfect system, but when there's literally nothing to do, you've got to help people. So it was just a matter of seeing people around me being hurt, and the Democratic Party was the one that seemed to be more helpful in an urban situation.

I actually started working for the National Curbs, which is a watchdog committee for utility fraud. Every one in a while they win a case where they get billions of dollars returned to tax payers because they find out that utilities have been setting prices or something like that. When elections started getting closer and closer, it ended up that I worked for the Democratic Party. They wanted me to organize phone soliciting and volunteers, because I was good with people. I mean, I like working with people. And I care. It's not an act.

That's what disgruntled me from politics, and it's the same thing that bothers me with music. Too many people are in politics to become Bill Clinton, not to just help.

The sad thing in America today, to me- here's my soap box- no one is accountable and there's no 'communities' anymore. Everyone is migrant; no one cares about their neighbor. If people would give a shit, then we could try to work out local problems locally, and people would act better, people would be friendlier, and things would get done.

When you send your money all the way to Washington and you expect it to filter back…do you know how many hands that goes through? You could solve all the problems locally…I'm completely a Libertarian now. I want to help people.

TS: Do you think you help people through your music?

KM: I hope I do. I think people enjoy it. I enjoy it. I have to admit, OK Computer is so heavy and depressing that I have a hard time getting through it, even though I love them and I love it. It's hard to find music - like the Beatles- that you can listen to in the background and you enjoy it and it makes you happy. Or you can listen closely to it and things jump out at you. That's what I think our music is like.

You can listen to it at a party and people don't freak out, it doesn't sound loud. But then you can listen to it and get something out of it.

TS: What is Tom's new album like?

KM: It's really good. It's like a Zippers album on acid. I think you'll like it. It will not let you down.

I will tell you something funny…another 'secret.' This is funny. There is another band that you'll never hear. It's me, Chris, and Tom. We're called The Bottles. The story is that The Beatles were rip-offs and they found master tracks of this unsigned band that was just a bunch of horrible drunks. Their named are Al McHolic, Gin Lemon and the list goes on. So we have recorded songs. One of them is "I am the Drunkard" which is "I am the Walrus." "Sgt. Alcoholic's Hard-Luck Band" and "A Day at the Bar," "Gin Martini" and the like.

TS: So you're basically like The Ruttles, but drunks.

KM: Right.

TS: You guys should do something with that. Make a movie.

KM: I'm trying to get Tom to do it, but he thinks we'll get sued by The Beatles. I think that'd be fun to be sued by them. Actually, we'd get sued by Michael Jackson [who owns the rights to The Beatles catalogs]. That would be hilarious.

TS: So what are the bands' future plans?

KM: Future plans…I hope we will record another album as soon as the legal shit is over. I know we have new materials.

TS: Do you plan on recording and then touring, or finishing up those West Coast dates you were going to do?

KM: I don't know. The sad thing is that right now, our hands are tied. Until it's resolved, we can't really look forward. I would love to make those dates up if we found out. Another thing is that we have to book those dates way in advance, just to keep those dates open. I don't know if the timetable would be open for us to do that unless we got this legal stuff out of the way real soon. From what I'm hearing, that ain't happening.

- - + - -

Editor's Note: I would like to thank Ken and his beautiful wife Beth for being so patient and cool with me. Also, thanks to Clay Walker for the lovely picture of Ken eating the nuts that feed him.

Go to this month's contest page to win a special Squirrel Nut Zippers live CD!

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