If Tom Maxwell has any qualms about leaving the well-oiled Squirrel Nut Zippers machine last year, he’s sure not showing it.
In fact, he says he’s the luckiest man in the world to be on his own.
“I’m saying thank you God for my perfect life,” he said recently. “I had to get to the point where I was willing to accept the responsibility, not only for a whole album’s worth of material or for being executive producer on the project and being a band leader, I had to go, ‘Well, look, I can’t sit around and complain and then not do this yourself.’ Once I started that, it wasn’t really that hard.”
He’s rightfully confident after releasing his debut album, “Samsara,” on May 16 on his own Samsara label (distributed by Red Eye). Albums don’t get more eclectic than this one: One minute, he’s in a hot-jazz mode (“The Uptown Stomp”), the next he has some country twang in his soul (“Flame in My Heart”).
Even a few Zippers help out. Multi-instrumenalist Ken Mosher, drummer Chris Phillips and bassist Stu Cole contribute, and Zippers alum Mike Napolitano produced the album.
“I have enough good sense to surround myself with very talented people, on both sides of the stage,” Maxwell said. “I made sure I was the weakest musical link on the record, and because I’m not on a label, I’m not suffering under a share-cropping label contract. I’ve got my own 40 acres and a mule and I’m happily plowing my own soil. Everybody who’s working for me, like Ken (Weinstein), my publicist, he took on the project because he wanted to and he truly believed in it, not because it was stuffed on his plate. That’s a huge, huge difference.”
If anything, Maxwell sounds relieved to be free from the specter of the Zippers’ little big-band sound.
He laments that the Zippers were cast as the torchbearers of the now-dead-and-gone swing movement. The Zippers, he says, were so much more than swing.
“That swing thing was a horrible, horrible ball and chain, a hideous weight placed around our necks,” he said of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based group. “I have to say, without naming names, the vast majority of music that was held up as being representative of swing music was stupid, artistically bankrupt and one-dimensional.
“I don’t want to bitch about fellow musicians, personally, because let’s face it, I have more in common with them than anybody else in the business. Music is music, and I don’t begrudge anybody for making music. But I have to say I don’t believe that it ever came anywhere near living up to the potential that it had. On the surface, you had this shitty, idiotic, one-dimensional facade completely tied into associated iconography. It had nothing to do with the music; it’s all like, ‘Do you wear a zoot suit? Do you smoke cigars? Do you drink martinis?’ I’m like, ‘You fuckers, you’re killing me.’
“I didn’t think leaving the Zippers would get me out from under that rock. Time just had to pass. But if you scratch the surface and get below it, you find out that rock ‘n’ roll is toothless and completely co-opted by the machine. And even though there is great rock ‘n’ roll made, it’s totally sold out to the man and is used to push product.
“It’s incredibly subversive to make this kind of music. It also completely flies in the face of the illusion of progress, because you’re going back to old styles which are considered archaic or obsolete. Naturally, they’re not. Jazz ignored it and put it down, and rock ‘n’ roll never picked it up. The stuff is amazing. It’s a totally and uttering American expression. It does not know race; it does not know class. It’s our greatest contribution to 20th century art. It’s the strongest foundation on which to build your aesthetic house. It’s virtually unlimited in terms of diversity of expression and putting your own individual stamp on it. It’s hog heaven.”
Touring with his band The Minor Drag is hog heaven, too, Maxwell says.
“It’s the best band I’ve ever been in,” he said. “People are naturally going to sniff when they hear that, like ‘of course, it is, you’re trying to sell your record, son.’ But if they come out and see us, they’ll know it’s a phenomenally talented unit. I’ve been waiting a year and a half to be doing this, and I’m loving every minute of it.
“Stations that play the new album play the hell out of it. People that bother reviewing it give it glowing reviews. Then the rest of the people are like, ‘You’re still here? One-hit wonder, hello, 1997. The swing thing, it’s over, son.’ I’m sorry, y’all, I ain’t going away.”
On “Samsara,” Maxwell dabbles in blues and gospel (“Can’t Sleep” and “Roll Them Bones”) and psychedelia (“Caveat Emptor”) and tips his hat to the past with covers of Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche” and T-Bone Walker’s “Don’t Give Me the Runaround.”
He says he came by his appreciation for all styles honestly. “My older brother would come home with Beatles records and the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin,” he said. “If you listen to Led Zeppelin, you have to listen to the Yardbirds. Who did they worship? They worshipped Howlin’ Wolf. Where did Wolf come from? He came from Clarksdale (Miss.) and he knew Robert Johnson. So, bang-bang, you’re back to 1938.
“In the late ’80s, I was a rock ‘n’ roll drummer and I came home from a gig and I turned on the TV and they were showing a film clip of Cab Calloway singing ‘Minnie the Moocher’ in 1932. I was always knew the song, but it had been candied up and rendered sort of nonthreatening. When you saw him do it, it was terrifying. You realize the song’s about heroin addiction. It’s very grim, and he’s an unearthly figure. I’m like, ‘Hold the phone, this is amazing. This is like rock ‘n’ roll.’ Then I fell for early Duke Ellington. A friend of mine had a collection of Duke records, and I heard ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Loo,’ I was like, ‘Holy shit, what have I missed?’ Now I love it all.”
Maxwell may forever be known as the one who wrote the calypso-tinged “Hell,” the Zippers’ signature hit, but he thinks fans coming out to see him on his current U.S. tour genuinely care about the music he’s playing.
“I think they’re clued to who I am; certainly I’m getting people waiting for me to do ‘Hell,’ ” he said. “In fact, I get it out of the way, I make it the first song of the set. Then I do my thing.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: ” ‘Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl’ when I was 12 years old in 1977. I got some allowance money and went out and bought it. It basically sounded like Beatles records with a jet taking off constantly. In the liner notes, George Martin said, ‘My daughter asked me if the Beatles were as good as the Bee Gees; I just pat her on the head and tell her, ‘Yes, they were.’ I can’t say it’s a great record; it’s basically unlistenable, but what a great band and they changed my life. There you have it, at least my first one wasn’t ‘Disco Duck.’ ”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “That’s murky. It was in college, believe it or not. I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina and there really wasn’t a lot of stuff going on. It was either Clapton or Elton John, and I don’t really remember. It was probably in Raleigh or Chapel Hill. I missed all the cool stuff; I missed the Talking Heads coming through on the ‘Stop Talking Sense’ tour; I missed R.E.M. coming through on the ‘Reckoning’ tour. All this killer stuff that I wasn’t quite clued into yet. It diminishes my cool factor, but what can you do?”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “I got a bunch at the same time. It was a couple of Coleman Hawkins CDs, something he was doing in the late ’20s or early ’30s. I also got a Ben Webster. I decided I needed to sit at the feet of the tenor flutist and try to understand the tenor a little bit better. Those guys are like the well spring.”
BWF (before we forget): Catch Tom Maxwell on the Web @ www.tommaxwell.com.