The band was founded by Jim "Jimbo" Mathus, formerly of Metalflake Mother and Johnny Vomit & The Dry Heaves, and his wife Katharine Whalen in Chapel Hill, North Carolina along with Ken Mosher, Don Raleigh and Chris Phillips. The group made its live debut in Chapel Hill a few months later. Tom Maxwell joined in January, 1994, bringing in Stacy Guess. The band was initially lumped into the "lounge" movement, along with Combustible Edisons, then later credited with starting the swing music revival of the 1990s. Unlike such bands as Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, who mostly synthesized jump blues and a Gene Krupa backbeat, the Zippers defied description, incorporating everything from Harlem Hot Music, Cab Calloway, Johnny Ace, Delta Blues, Raymond Scott, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, Tom Waits, and klezmer. Maxwell's "Hell," their biggest single, peaking at number 13, was calypso music in the tradition of 1930s artists such as Lord Executor and The Growler. The band's lyrics sometimes referenced Faulkner or quoted 2,000 year old Chinese poetry.
While the band's first album, The Inevitable (1995), passed by relatively unnoticed, the band became quite well-known in the South through their continuous touring. Their second album, Hot (1996), caught the attention of the modern music scene, however, mainly on the weight of the album's best-known song, "Hell." After becoming a staple on such influential radio stations as Los Angeles's KROQ (after initially being played as a joke), the album quickly went gold (500,000 units shipped). It was certified platinum (1,000,000 unit shipped) in the Fall of 1997. The "Hot" album was one of the first ECDs - an "enhanced" audio CD containing an interactive presentation created by filmmaker Clay Walker. Perennial Favorites (1998) shipped gold, but its touring cycle was cut short while the band went on a hiatus from which they never really recovered. "Perennial Favorites" was also an ECD containing what is considered to be one of the most elaborate interactive presentations on a audio CD, also created by filmmaker Clay Walker. Their swan song, Bedlam Ballroom, (2000) recorded without Maxwell or Mosher, sold fewer than 70,000 copies.
Stacy Guess was forced out two weeks prior to the recording of Hot, in September 1995. He died of a heroin overdose in March 1998.
Don Raleigh departed in the middle of the "Perennial Favorites" sessions in November 1996.
In July 1999, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Tom Maxwell left the band.
In October 1999, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ken Mosher also quit.
With the band's success came mixed reviews. The more pernicious culture mavens agreed that the band were interlopers. Jazz critics, who had long ago confused exclusivity with authenticity, were aghast that earlier, popular forms of the music were being resurrected and labelled the band "sloppy" and "amateurish." Some rock critics, unable to comprehend such a left-field act and incapable of discussing Fats Waller or Louis Armstrong, dismissed them. The fans, amazed at hearing such music from corporatized rock radio and thrilling to the band's live performances, bought the records in droves. To date, the Zippers catalog has sold in excess of two and a half million units.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers spent the summer of 1997 outselling the likes of U2 and Aerosmith and touring with Neil Young. They performed at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, President Clinton's second inaugural ball, and major television shows: The Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and Conan O'Brian.
The band has performed in a segment on Sesame Street, where they are playing in a lounge while teasing Fat Blue.
Maxwell's song "Put A Lid On It" was in a 1999 Intel Superbowl commercial and features prominently in Contact (musical). Although many criticized the show for its lack of original music, it was also widely acclaimed and won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical.
The song "Hell" is central to the pilot episode of the Showtime series Dead Like Me, and was the main title of the late, lamented A&E series Family Plots.
Movies have licensed the Zipper's catalog extensively, including Flirting with Disaster, Blast from the Past and dozens of others.
While the band never officially annonced a breakup, they have neither recorded nor toured since 2000. The departure of Maxwell and Mosher mortally wounded the band; the coup de grace was the expiration date of the swing movement. Most members have continued their musical careers separately. Tom Maxwell released Samsara in early 2000, and briefly toured with his band The Minor Drag (including Robert Sledge on bass), resulting in a live album.  Ken Mosher distinguished himself as a bass player in the b-sides and as a producer. Katharine Whalen has released two solo albums. Jim Mathus toured with Buddy Guy before re-forming his old band Knockdown South. Maxwell & Mosher released a rock record called Brother Seeker and occasionally tour as Maxwell Mosher Band, performing the songs they wrote in the Zippers. Their eponymous record is a continuation of the Zippers' musical direction; their version of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" will appear as a main title in an upcoming episode of Weeds on HBO. "Hell" is the main title for the upcoming Lifetime series "Lovespring, International." Don Raleigh has played with several bands, including The Rock Mechanics, The Loose Lunatics, and Jackie O. Pillbox. Je Widenhouse and Reese Gray are recording and touring with The Firecracker Jazz Band.
The Zippers survived the swing movement after all, as interest in their music has never really waned. Although dismissed as kitsch and a one-hit-wonder by those who never wished their success had happened, their ultimate effect on music has yet to be calculated.
* Jim (Jimbo) Mathus (vocals, guitar, trombone)
* Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo)
* Ken Mosher (guitar, saxophone, vocals)
* Tom Maxwell (vocals, guitar, baritone saxophone, clarinet)
* Don Raleigh (bass)
* Chris Phillips (percussion)
* Je Windenhouse (trumpet)
* Reese Gray (piano)
* (Honorary Member) Andrew Bird (violin)