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Tom Maxwell discusses...


...and other disappointing facts of life.

by Jessica Brandt

Tom Maxwell is stuck in the circle of life. We're not talking sappy Lion King, Elton John circles, but the Buddhist idea that life is an endless circle of births and deaths, desires and dissatisfactions- Samsara. Not only is that the name of his new solo album, but it sort of describes his place in life right now.

Maxwell recently quit the Squirrel Nut Zippers to venture out and do his own thing. He's starting from the bottom of the music industry food chain and, hopefully, making his way back to the top. Circles- get it?

Samsara won't be officially released until next Spring, but Maxwell couldn't wait until then to get it out to the folks. Starting now, he will have 1000 copies availible on his website,

The album is an eclectic mix of songs he's written in honor of some of his favorite musical styles. From New Orleans stomp to Chinese opera , gospel to creepy pipe organs, and straight-up country. This disc has it all going on. In Buddhist terms, "samsara" is the opposite of "nirvana..."

I'd say!

JB: First off, I got a copy of your new album and I just want to commend you on your great work. I really like it.

TM: Thanks. It's great to hear some outside feedback, because I've been more or less sittin' on it for six months.

JB: Yeah, how long has it been done?

TM: It was mastered in May.

JB: And it's not coming out until next May, right?

TM: Hey man, this is not unusual. I mean, there was a year and a half between Hot and Perennial Favorites. It's just that once I was released from the "Mammoth Machine," I had to put my own machine together.

JB: All in all, that was a good deal for you.

TM: Absolutely!

JB: They just don't seem to be a favorable company anymore.

TM: Things changed…when the Mouse got involved [Disney bought Mammoth Records]. I think they wanted to get to a new level or something. All the shit that was good and organic in the way that the band was worked and they way we worked ourselves kind of went out the window and I never really figured out why.

JB: So you think it had something to do with the label for sure?

TM: Oh yeah. We're the same pigeons we always were. But I'm not going to badmouth them; they do what they think is right or best. And they gotta make money, that's what they do.

JB: So, what direction were you going with this album? It seems like you decided "This is all the kind of music I'm interested in and that's what I'm going to put on the album."

TM: What direction was I not going in? Laughs Well, I'll tell ya. When I first talked to the vice president of the label about it I said "Look, I want to do this record and it's all going to be thematically linked. But because it's going to be thematically linked I'm going to be exploring a lot of different styles," because songs would come to me and I would think "Yeah, I want that to be a pipe organ" or a vocal quartet. But they all are an aspect of this overarching condition, which is "samsara."

And he was like "Oh that's cool" but of course when he got the mixes he said "Too many styles." But that's what I was going for the whole time. Diversity is strength.

JB: Well it's evident on the album that that's what you're trying to do.

TM: Fuck yeah! Thank you. I think one should be criticized on not what you should do but on how well you've done what you've done.

JB: If you had subtly or accidentally had all those different styles in there it might be weird, but...

TM: Well it's all musical types or gestures that I really love. And there's a hundred more that I didn't put on there.

JB: I noticed a lack of calypso this time.

TM: Yeah well I still love it a lot. I just didn't happen to write a calypso, which is odd because calypsos are usually a complaint and I had enough to bitch about on that record.

JB: Is that what your song "Nobody Likes you" comes from?

TM: No, but that's a funny story. That's from when we played at this college in Maine. There are all these kids there and there's this one red-faced drunk girl right up front. I mean, stinkin' drunk. And she's screamin' at me and Jim "Hey hey hey!!" and she's scribbling notes and trying to give them to us, and we're in the middle of a set! She finally goes "Play 'Grandad'" or something we hadn't worked on in two or three years- it's not on the setlist, you know. Then she kind of gets really angry and there's sort of an exchange… she won't go away and she won't shut up. It's kind of disconcerting to have someone screaming at you while you're trying to do your thing. We go into another song, and Jimbo looks down at her and she mouths the words "nobody likes you." He told me that and I thought it was amazing, you know, really funny, and I said "that's a song." By the end of the night I had the melody line for that song.

I know people are going to think that I'm trying to get my digs in, but that's really what that song's about.

JB: That's what I thought it was, like a Lennon/McCartney thing where they went off to do their own stuff and got their digs in…

TM: Naw, I ain't got time for that. Even if I do, even if it's on the record, it's much more subtle. Laughs And like any other song, you can think of it as the persona in the song talking to someone else or that person talking to themselves.

JB: You can also say that the album was made before "the split" so you can say that everything was amicable while you were writing this stuff.

TM: Sure, why not.

JB: Can we talk about the "split"?

CHAT with tom maxwell, WIN samsara TM: Sure, but I'll be vague. What do you want to know?

JB: Well you were vague before, when it happened. Was it just that you wanted to go in you own direction and didn't have time to be a part of another group?

TM: Well it's not that I didn't have the time…Well, I definitely wanted to go in my own direction. Definitely there were songs I was writing that ended up on this album that were not "Zippers," like, songs that featured a gospel quartet or a pipe organ were a little bit beyond the scope of the band at the time.

But also I guess…the reasons I left the band are the same reasons I left high school. It was time to do it, and I had gotten as much out of it as I was gonna get and I was on, am on to something I think is better even though there's the same terror putting that thing down as there was for leaving high school. I wasn't really convinced there was life after high school.

JB: Did it work out well for you?

TM: Yeah, great!

The worst thing about life is being afraid. You just have to shitcan that and step out into the void. Everything winds up okay. I think.

But there wasn't any big blowout fight or anything like that. I didn't say anything that I'm going to regret. That's the kind of stuff that I really hate. And I think I'm old enough now to successfully navigate around those kind of mines.

JB: How did you find this other group of musicians you're working with? You've got some really talented people there.

TM: Well Duke [Heitger] was of course on the Hot record. He was pretty much my first choice for trumpet because, you know, he's a genius! I mean, fucking amazing. You should hear the twenty takes that weren't issued.

The guy that actually told us about Duke in the first place was the trombone player Mark Mullins who plays in Harry Connick's band. Everybody told me that he was a hot shit horn player and sure he is.

But Duke, he's a monster. Good gracious. I did everything I could to make sure I was the musical weak link on the album. That was the best thing I coulda done.

Sousaphone is Julius McKee from the Dirty Dozen. We toured with them a lot so I'm sorta pals with him. The piano player is someone Mike Napolitano hooked me up with. He produced this guy's band and his name is Tom Loncaric, and he goes "The band's okay, but the piano player is really hot shit."

JB: What band is he from?

TM: Beats me! Some swing band out of Detroit (The Imperial Swing Orchestra -ed.). I was like "Okay." I never heard the guy play; I just took Nappy's word for it. So I called him up and he tried to play the piano for me over the phone and I said "Listen you'll be great, let's just do it." And he was. He was phenomenal!

The one George Jones song, the duet [ "Flame in my Heart"] is my wife, Mel. She played me that song when we came back from tour one time. The rest of the female vocals are my friend Holly [Harding Baddour] who's in a band with Mel and who used to date Stacy Guess, our former trumpet player.

Kenny [Mosher] is on it, Chris P[hillips] is on it, Stu [Cole] plays string bass. The quartet I put together because I met an old friend of mine who used to be a police officer when I was a bar tender and when I did the money drop he would always escort me. When I saw him in the grocery store I asked him what he was doing and he said "Singing" so I said "Good, put a quartet together." I never heard them sing either until we got together to rehearse, and they're great. The harpist, Emily Laurance who played on "The Kraken" [from Perennial Favorites] and I love her, she's awesome.

That's it, I think. Everything else I did.

JB: Steve Watson?

TM: Steve Watson on steel pedal guitar! He did that song for a hundred bucks and some sake.


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