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Music

Ex-Collaborators For Squirrel Nut Zippers Reunite For New Music

NOEL KING, HOST:

Jimbo Mathus grew up in a musical family in Oxford, Miss. - not much training, playing by ear. He's a founding member of the swing jazz revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS SONG, "GOT MY OWN THING NOW (REMASTERED 2016)")

KING: In the mid-'90s, the band was looking for a fiddler, and that's when Mathus met Andrew Bird, a just starting out, classically trained violinist from a very nice Chicago suburb.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "THE DOOR")

KING: So they had different musical backgrounds, but realized they had the same musical heroes. Bird recorded with the Zippers for a few years, and then he went on to his own solo success. Recently, these two old friends reunited for a new album called "These 13."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET OBLIVION")

JIMBO MATHUS AND ANDREW BIRD: (Singing) Forgot to get old, forgot to get old, forgot to get old, get in on time, forget to get old, get in on time, forgot to get old, tight rope walkin' to the other side.

KING: How did the two of you meet?

ANDREW BIRD: I was fresh out of music school working at a Renaissance fair in southern Wisconsin.

KING: Like, medieval music, right?

BIRD: Well, that...

KING: Renaissance fair - I'm just trying to (laughter)...

BIRD: The Renaissance fair has - is a different branch of the tree. Yeah.

BIRD: OK.

BIRD: I was a fiddling serf at the time. It was my first gig as a musician. And I went with the dulcimer player and the flute player down to Black Mountain, N.C., where Jimbo was playing with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, gave him a tape of me playing some gypsy jazz, and then he asked me to sit in with him a couple weeks later. Jimbo gave me my first leg up. There was a sense of me that wanted to return the favor in it. He kind of set me on a path that took me to where I am today, so...

JIMBO MATHUS: Very kind words, Andrew. Thank you.

KING: What did you see in him? What did you hear in him that got you interested in working with him?

MATHUS: Obvious talent. We were novices trying to learn. He actually knew how to do it.

KING: And what was the process of working together like? What's the draw for the two of you?

BIRD: I was coming out of music school and slightly more academic. I was on a track to becoming an orchestra musician and doing auditions and...

KING: Wow.

BIRD: And I meet Jimbo and the Zippers, and it was a total education.

MATHUS: Andrew would come and visit me at my farm. I would just show him the way I grew up, just with social music, my father, my uncles, cousins that just played in the yard. So that's the side of the table I was seated on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JACK O' DIAMONDS")

JIMBO MATHUS AND ANDREW BIRD: (Singing) Well, I rambled in England. I've gambled in Spain, come back to St. Louis to play my last game, jack o' diamonds, jack o' diamonds, I've known you a whole, you robbed my poor pockets of silver and gold.

MATHUS: It's like a pure expression of music that - when we get together. We just enjoy the music.

BIRD: Yeah. I like when I'm playing with Jimbo how simple it can be and still be interesting. You know, with the advent of the music industry and radio, things got normalized, more and more ironed out. Jimbo still has that un-ironed (ph) way of playing.

MATHUS: I'm definitely un-normalized (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

BIRD: I always had in the back of my mind to make this duo record with Jimbo with just fiddle and guitar. What surprised me was how much we collaborated on the lyrics.

KING: Talk to me about what it's like for you to write together, especially when you're not in the same place.

MATHUS: I like to use the cellphone, you know, just record little snippets of songs. And we just really did it all on text messages. I just showed up in LA and we co-wrote every song on the record.

BIRD: We both used to working alone on our songs, and it's kind of a revelation when you get outside yourself. There's a lot of clarity that's not there when you're working on your own songs over years and years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR LOST SOULS")

JIMBO MATHUS AND ANDREW BIRD: (Singing) In the city...

BIRD: When it's Jimbo sending me an idea, oftentimes I would write the next verse within a half an hour of getting it from him. You know, for the song "Poor Lost Souls," Jimbo had already written most of it. But there was that line - look down and see the stars, look up and see the gold - and I thought that is one of the best lines I've ever heard in a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR LOST SOULS")

JIMBO MATHUS AND ANDREW BIRD: (Singing) Look down and see the stars, look up and see the gold, look around and see these poor lost souls.

BIRD: Clearly, like, the observations of a guy from outside of LA saying, wow, I'm picturing Jimbo on Hollywood Boulevard on the Walk of Fame looking around and seeing the homelessness everywhere.

MATHUS: It was pretty shocking, actually, and so one would think, oh, Hollywood Boulevard, it sounds so nice but then to see the reality of just the utter desperation and - it's inhumane the things that go on down there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR LOST SOULS")

JIMBO MATHUS AND ANDREW BIRD: (Singing) Well, there's mercy in hand, they say, God bless you, sir and ma'am. And those who pay no mind, they go home and draw the blinds (ph).

BIRD: And then me living in LA driving my kid to school through exactly that same scene every day and trying to remain awake to it and keep your humanity not shut off to it, that was the verse that I brought to the song because that's my perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMBO MATHUS AND ANDREW BIRD SONG, "POOR LOST SOULS")

BIRD: That's the way these songs came together were those two sides of the coin.

MATHUS: And the ease in which we're able to just get together and make this happen is really astounding to me. It's just so comfortable and trusting and easy. So it made me realize what a true friend Andrew is, you know, a real soul brother.

BIRD: Yeah. We live in very different environments, yet we kind of complete each other in a way.

KING: I'm jealous of your relationship.

MATHUS: (Laughter).

KING: I mean, communicating mainly by text message, that's, like, marriage levels of trust right there, especially when you're making art and you got to like, think about, well, how's this going to be received and how are we going to - I am wildly impressed.

BIRD: Really the most fun I've had in making a record in a long time.

MATHUS: That's sort of why we work so well together because we have the same soul and the same heartbeat. Just he and I, just our instruments, just our voices, just my songs and just my friend - it's a blessing to me.

KING: Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird, their new album is called "These 13." Fellas, thank you so much for taking the time. We appreciate it.

BIRD: Thanks, Noel.

MATHUS: Thank you so much. Bye, Andrew.

BIRD: Bye, Jimbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE WHITE HORSES AND A GOLDEN CHAIN")

JIMBO MATHUS AND ANDREW BIRD: (Singing) Don't dismiss it like it's easy. Tell me what's so easy about coming to say goodbye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.