Katharine Whalen probably won’t play any songs by her old band, Squirrel Nut Zippers, at her show at Curiosity Coffee Bar on Friday night. Or she might.
“I’d have to be the guitar player,” she says, “and I don’t really have any of that material worked up. I don’t believe we’ll get into any of that stuff, but I don’t know, maybe we will. It doesn’t really occur to me to put the Zippers stuff in, though it wouldn’t be the worst. Do you think we should?”
It’s an interesting perspective on the music that is, at least commercially speaking, the most successful of Whalen’s career. She was a founding member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, singing smoky, Billie Holiday-style vocals, playing banjo and ukulele and helping to mold the band’s retro-gypsy-jazz style. They scored a platinum record in 1996 during the height of the swing band revival thanks to their single “Hell,” with its insistent hook, “In the afterlife / You could be headed for the serious strife.”
Whalen participated in a brief late-2000s Zippers reunion, but she’s largely avoided performing their material until last year, playing a set of Zippers songs at Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina with banjo player Ellis Dyson and trombone player Danny Grewen. Whalen played drums and sang, even taking on some songs for which she wasn’t the original lead vocalist.
“It didn’t occur to me to reconnect with the songs until last year,” Whalen offers, “when I knew I had a group I could do them with. I’d been wanting to fool around with my little stand-up drum set, and it was super fun. I don’t believe the modern Zippers do that old stuff, and it was just fun, kind of a lark.”
Unsurprisingly, Whalen doesn’t seem to be keeping track of what the reunited version of the band (led by Whalen’s ex-husband and co-founding singer/guitarist Jimbo Mathus), their current setlist or the years of lawsuits and recrimination between various Zippers members and ex-members.
Whalen seems to view her time with the Zippers as no more or less important than the rest of her busy life, both music-related and otherwise. Perhaps that’s because she hopped off the band’s constant-touring cycle when her daughter was born, and simply got on with her life.
“I still toured a bit after my daughter was born, but by the time she started walking I was ready to get off the road,” she recalls. “So I did, and I started raising her in my farm. I focused on millinery [hat-making], and I went to technical school and got a certificate to be a preschool teacher. It just made sense when I became a mom to keep the same hours as my daughter.”
Whalen never fully stepped away from making music, though.
“I had some projects that I would keep my toe in the water with,” she says, “I have an old barn house with writing stations all over the place. There’s always a ukulele lying around and there’s always a notebook lying around. And now my daughter plays ukulele and writes songs, and I teach music lessons, so it’s all going on all the time.”
Whalen has been doing more than dipping a toe in the water recently, though. She’s got two different bands going right now: a brassy jazz-pop duo with Danny Grewen called Swedish Wood Patrol and an Americana/folk project with singer-songwriter Austin Riopel called Certain Seas. Whalen will perform with both Riopel and Grewen this week in Columbia. Whalen says she’s excited about combining the music from both these projects, and about the possibility of doing a little more touring.
“We’ll be doing material from both projects as a trio,” she says. “We haven’t been travelling much yet, but I’m trying to head more in that direction.”
Interestingly enough, Whalen says that she actually doesn’t run into that many people who come to her shows expecting to hear Squirrel Nut Zippers songs.
“I think people know what they’re going to hear if they come to see me,” she reasons. “They’re going to hear whatever I’m doing at the moment, and if they don’t want to hear that, they don’t have to come. They could literally go and see the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who are still touring, and get their fix of that. This is my passion.”
What: Katharine Whalen
Where: Curiosity Coffee Bar, 2327 Main St.
When: Friday, October 25, 5 p.m.
Price: $12 ($10 advance)
Info: 803-357-2889, curiositycoffeebar.com