Jimbo Mathus — wild-eyed Mississippi mystic, founder of swing revivalist outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers, creative cohort to Little Rock pianist/producer Jim Dickinson — played a show at the White Water Tavern last December, a few days before Christmas. That morning, the venue posted a quote from Mathus on its Facebook page: “On all of my solo work,” Mathus said, “you’ll hear that same combo of honky tonk, blues and gospel. It’s sort of like ancestor worship on my part.” Those who know that catalog well won’t be shocked to know that Mathus’ latest, “Incinerator,” dabbles in that same blues/gospel/honky tonk triumvirate. They might be surprised, though, about some of those ancestors, and about just how far back in the family tree they go.
The title track, inspired by Mathus’ time working on petroleum barges in Louisiana in the 1980s, traces the fire curling from an industrial incinerator to its logical, chemical and cosmological conclusion. “The bright flames from the flare stacks of the refineries and chemical plants we’d pass made me think about the spirits of the dead,” he said in a press release accompanying the album. “I thought: After we die, our energy is released like that burn-off, and then, where does it go?”
Mathus talked with us from New Orleans, where he was posted up ahead of a solo tour, about incineration — and about the record’s sharp departure toward a piano-centric sound. He’ll perform the new record in its entirety Friday, May 31 at the White Water Tavern.
You are so prolific, and you’ve got so many musical projects going simultaneously. How do you keep track of your ideas?
It’s kinda my No. 1 job, ya know? Truth be told. And I’ve been doing it so long it’s kind of routine for me to juggle all those ideas and be able to access ’em when I need ’em for particular jobs. So it’s kinda what I do. Other than the entertaining thing, which is kinda what everybody knows me for, the writing thing is first and foremost, and the idea thing is at the top of the list. And the ideas for the songs mutate. I’m patient with my songs. I’m not ever in a big hurry to record ’em or do anything with ’em. Once they come to me, they just kinda hang out until they’re needed. … And I think on “Incinerator,” I was just looking to see, like, who’s with me? Who’s really with me? I’m gonna let y’all into a thought process here, and be very exposed.
It is very exposed. And while there’s almost always an element of mysticism on your records, I’m not sure I knew how dark things might get. There’s this lyric on the title track, “Acadian rhythms, refuse and wellheads,” which just reads to me like this really spooky collage. I understand this song comes from a time when you worked on petroleum barges, and that looking at that smoke and fire sort of made you think about, well, the idea that we’re all headed to the same place.
Yeah. Well, it’s a song, really, about the human spirit, and how it relates to [the] petroleum industry in the swamps. (Laughs.) It’s quite odd. The human spirit has — imagine how much energy it possesses. Like, who could measure it? In the petroleum plants, in the storehouses, in the wellheads, there’s an incredible pressure. It’s a whole system, an infrastructure. It’s like the respiratory system or the blood system in humans. It has a power. It supplies power. It burns off and goes away into other things. The atoms that burn off in those pipes — you see the flames shooting up. That’s the burn-off of what they’re distilling there. And I started to see this parallel in this funny way — way back then, in the ’80s, when I was doing this — to the human spirit, and the way it supplies energy and then burns and burns and dissipates. So it’s something I remembered that I’d thought of, 30 some odd years ago. It began to intrigue me and fit into the concept of the album, you know. The human spirit, and how it can become song.
What’s your relationship with spirituality, or your sense of other worlds, or an afterworld?
Well, I have a sense of it, but I’m not prepared to speak on it yet. Like I say, I’m a firm believer in the human spirit, and the enduring quality of it. And when I thought of all this, during “Incinerator,” I just imagined, “Well, what if the human spirit goes off and gravity pulls it into the sun?” And you’re just sittin’ there cookin,’ waitin’ on another life, you know?
This album was cut in two days, yes?
That’s basically it. Two sessions. The boys had never rehearsed, had never heard the songs. I had never heard them. Most of ’em I learned on the piano that day, and they just sat around and listened, and by the time they got the bass and drums [set], we cut ’em. Most of ’em in one take, two takes. It just speaks to the producers, Bronson Tew and Matt Patton, and how much we got a good thing goin’ on.
So Lilly Hiatt’s vocals, Andrew Bird’s violin — all of that was recorded after the songs had this shape?
It was already blocked out, mmhmm. And then we added a few special guests. But we felt they were important. There was a reason to have ’em there, not just, “Oh, let’s get this special guest.”
Anyone who thinks you had guests on the record for the sake of having them on didn’t hear “Really Hurt Someone.” Bird’s violin just reinvents this blues riff.
(Laughs.) It’s a blues tune, yeah.
Someone wanted me to ask: Got any plans to collaborate with [Arkansas actress/writer] Jennifer Pierce? You’re still married, yes?
Oh, yeah! This is our ninth year wedding anniversary. Yeah, she’s from down there in Jonesboro. She spent a lot of time in Red Octopus [Theater]. So she stayed in Little Rock quite a bit.
And we collaborate every day, man. This life is a collaboration.
Jimbo Mathus celebrates the release of his new album “Incinerator” at 9 p.m. May 31 at White Water Tavern.