By Brent Thompson
Jimbo Mathus’ musical existence is characterized by a revolving collection of people, instruments and genres. A solo artist that has been associated with several projects – most notably Squirrel Nut Zippers – Mathus is continually exploring new creative avenues. In April, Mathus released Incinerator [Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum Records], an 11-track collection that includes contributions from Lilly Hiatt and Andrew Bird. On Thursday, July 18, Mathus will perform at The Nick with Kate Taylor Hollingsworth opening the 10 p.m. show. Recently, Mathus spoke with us by phone from his Taylor, Miss. home.
Birmingham Stages: Jimbo, thanks for your time. How is your touring schedule these days?
Jimbo Mathus: It’s really mixed. With the Zippers, I go sometimes for two, three or four weeks. With Incinerator, I’m just starting with where people know who I am and might be interested in what I’m doing and I try to expand out from there. I’ve had a solo career since mid-’90s and it’s just one foot in front of the other. There’s no hard and fast rule.
Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the creation of the album.
Mathus: The producers were Matt Patton and Bronson Tew. Matt’s in Drive-By Truckers and The Dexateens and Bronson’s a great engineer and musician from Alabama. They just got me in there and we started New Year’s Day in 2018 and we really had no plan other than to get me in there and be real comfortable. Instead of tracking the songs on guitar, I tracked them on piano and we left a lot of space. We work pretty fast and we don’t over-work a record. We started this about a year ago and it’s already out and we’re touring behind it.
I like to make records that mean more and I should know what I’m doing after 40 years. I like to have a record with a purpose and a meaning, not just a collection of songs for the sake of a collection. I started seeing a concept take shape – the concept being, “Why is it that I do all these albums and why do I create all this music? Why has this been a lifelong passion and a calling?” I started realizing how much of what I do as a songwriter is capturing people and remembering people and how much people come and go in my life. There are a lot of songs dedicated to people that have been a huge influence on me that have passed away. There are a lot of songs on there about people in my life now that are inspiring and motivating to me. So, it took on this meditation on mortality and what’s the deeper meaning. At that point, I started looking back on songs in my history and one song is 30 years old. So I did go back and reimagine some things. Going back 30 years to a song, that’s a lot of recollection. I was pondering some things but didn’t have the bigger picture. After almost 300 songs and dozens of albums, there has to be a purpose – that’s what I’m searching for.
Birmingham Stages: I’m close to you in age and it can be hard to accept that we are to the point where losing family and friends becomes more and more common.
Mathus: We’re on the downside. A song like “Never Know Till It’s Gone” is a perfect example. You can ponder those things, but as a writer and musician people ask me to come perform music at funerals. To be a part of that part of life – it’s a real honor and a real privilege.
Birmingham Stages: How do you view the current musical climate? Some artists applaud the accessibility to listeners via iTunes, Youtube, Spotify and satellite radio. Other artists say it’s a challenging time to be found among the crowd.
Mathus: I think there are two parts to that. Yes, someone in Siberia can download my album and find me. When I came along, you had to physically go places and be very active. Now, you can easily do it and I like that a lot. There’s a lot more noise out there. How do you get through? Well, I’ve been a journeyman musician for all these years. I’ve had major highs – I’ve sold millions of records and I have Grammys and all that, but over the long term it’s about staying focused. Hopefully, a record like Incinerator comes out and can cut through the noise a little bit. There are people who want some bark and experience in their music and I can offer that through my songs and youthful zeal I present onstage and in the studio.
Birmingham Stages: With the large catalog of music you’ve created, how do you construct your set lists these days?
Mathus: The studio band is basically my backing band, so we’re basically presenting the Incinerator album in its entirety with all the harmonies. So, it’s more of a meditative show. Otherwise, it’s whatever I feel like doing [laughs].
Birmingham Stages: Keeping on the topic of your catalog, how do older songs stay fresh to you after you performed them hundreds of times?
Mathus: I can go back to that initial moment when the song came to me. Songs are like tombstones to me – you can go back and revisit them and the memories flood back. It’s like re-creating a moment and a memory.
Jimbo Mathus will perform at The Nick on Thursday, July 18. Kate Taylor Hollingsworth will open the 10 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 21+ show are $8 and can be purchased at www.thenickrocks.com.