Tom Maxwell is best known for his work with the band Squirrel Nut Zippers; he wrote the group's biggest hit, the 1996 song "Hell." Now fifteen years after he departed, he's looking back on that period with a new memoir entitled (no surprise here) Hell: My Life in the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The book drops simultaneously with his latest record, Tom Maxwell & The Minor Drag. We connected with Tom last week to discuss writing, music, and doing both at the same time.
Why decide to write a book? "Now I wish I knew," he laughed. "At the time I was like, I need to write stuff down. Because I realized that I was starting to forget some stuff, and I think I was also at the point emotionally where I'm like I can sit down and tell this side of the story. When we were famous, there was a lot of press and a lot of interviews...And I wanted to go, here's when we were also whackos from Chapel Hill."
"I want [readers] to feel like they know us a little bit," Tom continued. "And that they have a sense of who these people were and are. That's not easy to do. I hope that I've just done a good job doing that."
If nothing else, putting his experiences down on paper has opened another door for him: professional writer. "I write a lot," he said. "I've gotten into it, because I got into the hang of writing when I was doing this book. But now I'm a contributor to Al Jazeera and write for them all the time." His work has also appeared in places like The Oxford American and Southern Cultures.
But first and foremost, Tom remains a musician. Speaking of the decision to record another album, he said, "I don't know there was anything that happened that was like 'Now I can do this again.' I realized that this is who I am and I needed to get back to this."
His new record, Tom Maxwell & The Minor Drag, is something he's proud of for many reasons - from the collaborators he worked with, to the fact that it was cut live, to its recording in New Orleans. There's no shortage of things to love about the album. "I did two songs, both writing and performing, with Ani DiFranco, which were highlights for me," he explained. "It's produced by [DiFranco's husband] Mike Napolitano, so that was incredible.
"I'm super happy with it. Even if they're slow songs, every song on the record is kind of a booty shaker. You can dance to every song on the record. And that's a big deal."
As for releasing both the new music and the new book on the same day, "That was the whole idea," Tom told us. "Because it was like we're going to do a record and we're going to do a book, and I had talks with my manager, and we said of course we'd want to release them at the same time. What do you do when you release a record or release a book? You go out and support it. And we thought we could combine that. So from a publicity standpoint it really makes a lot of sense.
"And it kind of works too because, there's some stuff on there that's definitely reminiscent," he added, "and the book sort of gets me up to that point."
"There's different methods to success," Tom reflected when asked what would make this comeback worthwhile. "One of the first things I learned when I was honestly successful, when it was happening, I was like that's not actual success. Success is being good at what you do. It's improving your craft and getting better.
"The bottom line is will there be sufficient interest in this for me to go out and play shows in different markets. And if that's the case, I'll keep doing it. I think I have a different ambition, and I think it's one that's more sort of adaptive."