Squirrel Nut Zippers, taking a break

from recording Hot in New Orleans

ODDBALLS SQUIRREL rel Nut Zippers, who cloaked raucous
rock in fast-and-loose hot jazz arrange-
ber and beginning of November 1995,
Squirrel Nut Zippers posted up at Dan-
Jimbo Mathus and Katharine Wha-
len, all of which caused Squirrel Nut
NUT ZIPPERS SPARKED ments. Its ebullient songs were as iel Lanois’s Kingsway Studios in New Zippers to fall apart a few years after
Hot, still hangs over the band. Only two
inspired by the Pixies as they were by Orleans to record its second album,
Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. Hot, which would propel the band to its members of the original lineup are on

Pop history has pegged Squirrel Nut strange national stardom. The Zippers board for this year’s twentieth anni-
Zippers as instigators of the swing never planned on hitting the big time, versary tour for Hot: front man Jimbo

WANTED NO PART OF: revival, but the band predated the fad,
growing from the same fertile indie
but an ambitious label rep and fortuitous
timing helped the single “Hell” explode
Mathus and drummer Chris Phillips.
Relationships remain strained enough

AN ORAL HISTORY scene that nurtured the likes of Super-
chunk and Archers of Loaf. The band’s
first LP, The Inevitable, was released on
on mainstream radio, several months
after the release of Hot in June 1996.
The movement that helped the band
that Katharine Whalen, whose voice
lent the band so much of its signature
sound, declined multiple requests for
BY ALLISON HUSSEY Mammoth Records in March 1995, well sell more than a million records was a an interview.
Twenty years later, the swing music before the swing trend hit a fever pitch. boon and a curse. Locked into a trend But this isn’t the story of how it all fell
revival of the late nineties remains a And the Zippers’ East Coast home kept they wanted no part of, most of the band apart. Rather, it’s a trip through the dizzy
perplexing hallmark of the decade. For them isolated from the West Coast members felt like their project suddenly carnival ride that flung a handful of
a few years, bands that swung made a “cocktail scene" that morphed into the had a very short shelf life. small-town oddballs, who had convened
forceful showing on mainstream radio. new swing movement. The shadow of litigation, acrimoni- as a casual, one-off art project, into the
Leading the pack was Carrboro’s Squir- For a week spanning the end of Octo- ous departures, and the divorce of center of a storm they never expected.

10 | 8.17.16 | INDYweek.com
“WE WERE A GOOD Tom Maxwell: Something tectonic was the French Quarter, on the corner of Char- Ken Mosher (Saxophone, guitar, songwrit-

happening, but we just were making money. tres and Esplanade. Dan Lanois had bought ing, Squirrel Nut Zippers): Even going to
We were getting a lot of wedding gigs. We it after he made all that money producing Kingsway visiting, that would be like going
could anchor little tours on it, and we played U2. He made no attempt to turn it into a stu- to Buckingham Palace and going, “OK, we’re
Lane Wurster (Art director, Mammoth a lot. We got better, and we wrote new mate- dio; he just moved a bunch of gear into it. going to be living here soon.”
Records): The very first thing they did was rial. By the time we went to New Orleans, we
that single Merge put out [1994's Roasted had been touring the songs for Hot for like Jimbo Mathus: It was ideal. There’s no dis-
Right]. six months. We were a good little band, and
definitely could put it across.
traction. You’re in an incredible space. You
know it’s got haints all in it. Hell yeah. NITTY GRITTY
Mac McCaughan (Cofounder, Merge
Tom Maxwell: I called Steve Balcom from
Records): For Merge, it wasn’t that weird,
because it wasn’t terribly far from, say, an early the label and said, basically, “Look, we’re
Tom Maxwell: We play the Black Mountain
Lambchop record. Katharine’s voice really set
it apart, because she sounds so amazing. II. HAVE IT KINGSWAY going to do our next record here.”

Steve Balcom (Label manager, Mammoth
Music Festival. We meet this young, hand-
some violinist, who’s playing Irish music,
Tom Maxwell: Jim Mathus came to me named Andrew Bird. He comes up to us later
Tom Maxwell (Vocals, guitar, baritone sax, Records): We loved that studio. It was an
and Ken and said that he was going to New and says that he’s had a dream—he was play-
songwriting, Squirrel Nut Zippers): The imperfect recording environment, but it was
Orleans, and did we want to come along? It ing music with us, and that’s what needed to
discussion was, who do we sign with? Merge the perfect recording environment for that
sounded innocuous, but actually it felt very happen. We were like, “That’s great, sure!”
offered fifty-fifty deals, which was compel- band.
momentous to me. I didn’t really understand Stacy [Guess, the band’s longtime trum-
ling, but Mammoth had a distribution deal why. And so we drove down in somebody’s pet player] didn’t even come to the show,
with Atlantic. Chris Phillips (Percussion, Squirrel Nut
shitty car and stayed with Jimbo’s high because he was scoring. That was two weeks
Zippers): It was a magical place. The way it
school friend. before we went down to record. Stacy had
Lane Wurster: With The Inevitable, we gave smelled, the way it felt when you walked in the
been our trumpet player for a year and a half.
that record away. That was the way we pro- kitchen door. It was all vibe. I certainly think
Jimbo Mathus: A man by the name of Glenn It felt kind of like an amputation.
moted it—send it around to people that we that it created a creative space that encour-
Graham was in one of my first psychedelic
thought would like it instead of doing big ad aged everyone to enter their own fantasy
rock combos. He went on to be in Blind Melon, Jimbo Mathus: He was a heroin junkie who
buys or other promotional stuff. world and be all that they could be as an artist.
and he’s the drummer. We kept in touch. had retired for about nine years. But he got
it back on and we fired him. There was no
Jimbo Mathus (Vocals, guitar, banjo, song- Mike Napolitano (Engineering and mixing):
Tom Maxwell: [Blind Melon] had recorded room for that kind of behavior. It was one
writing, Squirrel Nut Zippers): We really Kingsway kept you. It was impossible to do the
at Kingsway Studios, and he brought his of the most heartbreaking things I ever had
did a lot of heavy lifting with The Inevitable thing that is the entrenched way of making
friend Mike Napolitano, who just seemed to do. I’m the one that fucking fired him. He
to get a sound that was cohesive, what we records: control, control, control. Kingsway
to get it. And then Glenn says, “Yeah, you was an honorable man. He just couldn’t live
felt would really resonate. By the time Hot was not built for that.
should go to Kingsway, where we made this in this world, apparently.
rolled around, the expectations were high. record.” We go to this fucking mansion in

Sax appeal: Ken Mosher practices at Kingsway Tom Maxwell cuts loose in the Lawrence Welk Show-inspired video for "Hell," which was Katharine Whalen and Jimbo Mathus at Kingsway

INDYweek.com | 8.17.16 | 11
Sparks fly from Ken Mosher's sax
at the video shoot for "Hell."

Tom Maxwell: The idea was, “We’re not Ken Mosher: We voted four to two to con-
kicking you out, but this is incompatible, so tinue the tour, to go to Chicago instead of
you need to get your shit together.” In my just going back to Chapel Hill. I really was
mind, it was like, “Hey, this is such a good not sure that we were going to have a band if
thing, that he’ll choose this over that.” That’s we didn’t continue on that tour. All of a sud-
because I wasn’t hooked on heroin, and it den, it got real hard. It became work. I’m glad
hadn’t rewired my brain. that we did what we did. But that was prob-
ably one of the last group decisions that we
made that was a good one.

Shortly before the release of Hot, the Squir-
rel Nut Zippers got a big media boost that
helped the record get off to a good start
when it hit shelves in June. A Mammoth
Records intern got the band connected with Bob Edwards, the host for NPR’s national Morn-
ing Edition program. Edwards liked the band and had them on the show, where they came
off well and grabbed the attention of thousands of new ears.
But while the Zippers did well on college and public radio formats, nobody from the band
or Mammoth ever expected it to find mainstream success. The idea was that the Zippers
could have a steady, mid-level career. However, a change in the national media landscape
provided the band with its biggest break. Four months before the Zippers released Hot, Pres-
ident Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. Part of the new leg-
islation allowed for media companies like Clear Channel to buy up radio stations and other
outlets. Clear Channel began dictating playlists to its stations, homogenizing Top 40 radio
across the country.
Many program directors, figuring they’d shortly be out of a job, began taking more risks
with their music selections, coinciding with the rapid ascent of “Hell.” Back in the Triangle,
Mammoth and the Zippers developed a good relationship with G105, making a splash with
a morning rush-hour performance on The Showgram with Bob and Madison. The station’s
program director, Kip Heinzmann, worked the band into the station’s rotation, which trans-
lated to regular plays and in turn boosted the band even more in its home state. The warm
local reception spread throughout the Southeast, and the Zippers kept climbing.
12 | 8.17.16 | INDYweek.com
Dramatis Personae
Jimbo Mathus: Songwriting, vocals, guitar, tenor banjo, piano
Tom Maxwell: Songwriting, vocals, guitar, baritone saxophone,
clarinet, resonator
Ken Mosher: Songwriting, guitar, alto and baritone saxophone,
baritone ukulele
Chris Phillips: Percussion
Don Raleigh: Bass
Katharine Whalen: Vocals, banjo, baritone ukulele

Steve Balcom: Label manager
Tom Osborn: West Coast representative
Lane Wurster: Art director

Andrew Bird: Violin
Duke Heitger: Trumpet
Mac McCaughan: Cofounder, Merge Records
Mike Napolitano: Engineering and mixing
From left to right: Tom Maxwell, Ken Mosher, Stacy Guess, Jimbo Mathus, Katharine Whalen, Harry Wayne Casey of KC and the
Sunshine Band, Chris Phillips, Lane Wurster, and Don Raleigh, at Duke Gardens for the Zippers' first official photo shoot
Duke Heitger
Chris Phillips: To me, it was much more
Tom Maxwell: We had just played with Bird about the tone than about creating any one
in Chicago, literally the week before, and specific type of music. I don’t think any of
asked him to come down [to play violin on us thought about [that]. We were just pull-
Hot]. He was never a member of the band. ing on our inspirations and doing with them
He was around when we made records, what we could.
because it was always a good idea to have
Andrew Bird on your record. He was an idio- Ken Mosher: A day and a half into that
syncratic guy among a bunch of idiosyncrat- project, we had recorded “Put a Lid on It,”
ic people. really as a demo, and sort of abandoned
that. We hadn’t recorded anything else, and
Jimbo Mathus: We were writing at alarm- it was like, “Jesus Christ, we have five days
ing rates. We were on a real creative high to record this record,” and we hadn’t even
wave. We were challenging one another. met Duke [Heitger, a New Orleans trumpet
Most of those songs were brand new songs player hired to fill in for Stacy Guess]. Then,
written within the year or so before the for the next three days, it was absolutely
record was cut. focused.

Ken Mosher: There were a lot of slow songs, Jimbo Mathus: We probably did four a day.
and I remember thinking, “We need to write We’d gear up, just like we do now. Saddle
two or three more fast ones before we get up, see what key it’s in, make sure every-
in there, upbeat ones.” I worked with Jimbo thing’s straight, work on the arrangement
and Tom equally at that time. Probably more real quick, do head arrangements. That’s it.
with Jimbo, even. Knock it down.

Tom Maxwell: We never told each other Ken Mosher: When we weren’t particu- Tom Maxwell: One challenge was, who the if this guy’s really good, then we’ll probably
what to play unless it was a very specific larly good at playing, we tried to be clever as fuck is going to play trumpet on this record? want to have a drink. Either way, we win.”
line. You always just put it into the Zippers a band about creating scenes behind solos. We had the name of a guy that we were told We were walking back to Kingsway with a
box and shook it up, and then something Maybe the tempo wouldn’t change, but the was the guy. We’d never met him or heard bottle of Maker’s Mark, and Duke Heitger’s
came out the other side that was way more percussion instrumentation would, and the him play. The morning he showed up, I was like, “Hey, are you guys in the Squirrel Nut
sparkly than what you thought it was. whole tone of the players in supporting roles like, “Look, Ken, we need to go ahead and Zippers?”
would change. We were just trying to be buy a bottle of bourbon, because if this guy
more clever in a studio way. sucks, we’re gonna want to get drunk. And
INDYweek.com | 8.17.16 | 13
Devil's in the details:
Jimbo Mathus shows off
a beast he built.

Duke Heitger (Trumpet): I subtleties. There are moments
arrived at the studio and every- that are really beautiful on Hot.
one was kind of lounging around
because they’d already laid a lot Tom Maxwell: It was sounding
of their tracks down. We had more like a Wilco record than
our introductions, and then we the Squirrel Nut Zippers. All of
got to work pretty quickly. They the liveliness was being sort of
didn’t have charts or anything, so pushed out of it with compres-
they would sing what they had in sion and post-micing. It just
mind. Otherwise, it was left to me wasn’t good, so we had to go back
to come up with what I was going to the label and say, “We have to
to play. remix this.”

Tom Maxwell: Any time you Ken Mosher: Then we’re like,
hear any other musician play “OK, we’ll all go to the record
something that appears to be company,” and they’re like, “You
an answer to one of those trum- go.” I go to Steve Balcom’s office,
pet lines, it prefigures the actual knowing that we’ve already spent
trumpet line. all our budget. I remember say-
ing something like, “Look, if you
Ken Mosher: We thought we look at Raleigh-Durham, and
were going to be painstakingly there’s maybe a million and a half
trying to tell him what to do, or people around here, we’ve sold
helping him write parts. He’s like, twenty-five thousand records. If
“Oh, I just play how I feel. Oh, I you extrapolate that nation-wide,
like the way this feels,” and just we’re at a million records.” We
goes crazy. both laughed, but he agreed to
shell the money out to go remix
Duke Heitger: The music that it. Thank God!
the band played was a little dif-
ferent than my comfort zone. It Mike Napolitano: That’s when
called for a little reckless aban- they called me and asked if I
don on occasions, where maybe I or drink alcohol in the studio setting was Tom Maxwell: We were still cutting stuff thought there was any way I
would have been a little more reserved in a utterly beyond him. We were punk-asses live, but there were tons of mics that we put could mix it. Brian had developed methods
different setting. It’s a rock band. They were driving around in a van. Why would he join up that we ended up not using. We ended that he wanted to employ, whereas I didn’t
certainly a new look at melodies and chang- the band? up using the more remote, kind of ambient have any experience to know, “Don’t do that.”
es for me. It was fun to tackle that. microphones. They were describing what they wanted,
and I didn’t have any preconceived notions
Chris Phillips: He was like a Howitzer gun
going off. He was so fucking talented. I think BACK TO THE Chris Phillips: We were a handful to deal
with, and I think we had a lot of cooks in the
that it shouldn’t be done.

he opened a lot of our minds to how learning
your craft can really assist you in fulfilling
IV. MIXING BOARD kitchen sending [Paulson] in circles. I think
that was tough for him, and it was hard for
Steve Balcom: I probably was worried that
things wouldn’t get done, but they did get
your artistic vision. Mike Napolitano: [Producer] Brian Paulson him to get a focus on the clear line through done. And that’s the thing about that band—
seemed to have something in mind already the mix. We weren’t totally satisfied with it. they would push it to the edge, and then they
Duke Heitger: The Squirrel Nut Zippers about how the record should be recorded would always pretty much come through.
were telling me, as we were having drinks and produced, and it was at odds with what Ken Mosher: We needed compression and
after the recording session, “Oh, come on, they were feeling. He continued to put up oomph to make Hot sound like a modern Tom Maxwell: We take it to the label, and
join the band, we’re going places!” And as microphones that I think nobody wanted record disguised with old instruments. I they’re very happy with it, and we’re very
a professional musician, I’m thinking, “Ah, but him. think we had sort of grasped some of the happy with it. We’re down in New Orleans,
yeah, right, everyone says that.” and I’m standing in the driveway
with Ken and Chris P., and I’m
Tom Maxwell: He comes from a “Hillary and Bill came walking down the line. LL Cool J was standing right beside me. like, “Guys, this is a really good
world where he plays on steam- record. It’s going to sell seventy
boats and wears black pants and
a white shirt. The idea that you
Hillary said, “Hello, James.” She knew his real name was James. thousand copies,” which is three
or four times what we had sold
would sit around and smoke pot I thought that was pretty good.” with the first one, a number I
14 | 8.17.16 | INDYweek.com
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INDYweek.com | 8.17.16 | 15
It takes two: Jimbo Mathus and
Tom Maxwell cut vocals. PHOTO BY ROGER MANLEY

pulled completely out of my ass. Katharine Tom Maxwell: Steve Balcom was there, and
always named the records, so I think she was he was like, “You have a hit song.” And I was

just like, “Call it Hot!” That worked for us. like, “Whose song is it?” Because that meant
a lot, whose song it was. He was like, “It’s
your song. It’s ‘Hell.’”

“HELL” BREAKS Steve Balcom: “Put a Lid on It” was the song
V. LOOSE that we really thought was going to be the
Tom Maxwell: In the fall [of 1996], I find a
house in Pittsboro that is being rented for Tom Osborn (West Coast rep, Mammoth
two hundred fifty bucks a month. I convince Records): We were working “Put a Lid on
Ken that he needs to move from Saxapa- It” because Katharine’s got such a remark-
haw to live in this house, and we can make a able voice, and it really was a beautiful track.

RESERVE record there. But I was so focused on working the modern
formats, and not the non-com formats, that

NOW! Ken Mosher: After the great success of me
talking the record label into remixing, we
it didn’t fit into any of the conversations I
was having. Unbeknownst to my bosses, and
Publication date: also talked the record label into just giving
us the money to record, and then letting us
probably to their chagrin, I started working
“Hell.” It was a day and an age where, if you
October 12 set up our own recording studio in my house
in Pittsboro.
got that KROQ add, the dominos would sud-
denly fall into place, which is exactly what
Deadline: Tom Maxwell: We’re in there recording

August 31 Perennial Favorites when the label says, “We
need to have a meeting right now. It can’t
Tom Maxwell: [Osborn] goes to them like,
“You’ve got to play this song, this song is a
wait.” And we were like, “What could this be?” single, this song is a hit, play this fucking
song, please play this song.” He just bugs
THE INDY’S GUIDE TO ALL THINGS TRIANGLE Ken Mosher: Oh, Jesus Christ, we’re going them. No one told him to do it. He just knew
to get dropped, and we have all this shit in
Contact your INDY ad rep or
that’s what needed to happen.
our house. It’s gonna suck.

advertising@indyweek.com for more info
16 | 8.17.16 | INDYweek.com
To advertise or feature a pet
for adoption, please contact
Katharine Whalen and Tom Maxwell,
outdoors at Kingsway PHOTO BY ROGER MANLEY

Steve Balcom: As a label, it wasn’t obvious Mike Napolitano: I was in Seattle, and Chris
to us that this was something that was going Phillips called me to tell me, “It’s going to
to work on a modern rock radio station, be gold.” I thought it was a joke. “What do
much less on a Top 40 station. you mean it’s going to be? How do you know
that?” It just seemed implausible to me, both
Tom Osborn: [Being at a small label] afforded that it would happen and that you could pre-
me this luxury of going, “Well, I just think that dict that it was going to happen.
‘Hell’ is a better song for radio. I’m going to go
with that.” I wasn’t doing it with a flippant, Jimbo Mathus: I was the bandleader. I have
fuck-you attitude. I had stations that were like, to kind of shrug it off. It has to be like water
“Now look, I don’t want to play this song, but I off a duck’s back. People had different reac-
have to play this song. If you call me again, I’m tions. I was just like, “Thank you, Jesus.” I
going to drop the song, but I’ll give it a test.” think we deserve it, I think we stand out, I
think the song’s great. Let’s go. We’ve got
Tom Maxwell: [KROQ] played it during the great songs here; let’s just keep our nose to
lunch drive time as a joke—this is the story, the grindstone and work.
anyway—and the phones never stopped
lighting up. They did market research on it, Ken Mosher: We come [to Mammoth] and
the stuff they call “saturation research”— they’re like, “The record sold thirty thou-
“How many times can we play this song sand last week in L.A.” Their idea is to stop
until people call and scream at us to stop?” recording and go there immediately. And
They couldn’t find the end point. what, just go play at the airport?

Lane Wurster: We’d get the new Soundscan Tom Maxwell: But we have to go play Clin-
reports that would come out on Tuesdays. ton’s inaugural ball. There’s this idea that we
We’d be like, “Holy shit, this thing is really were a Cinderella thing when “Hell” hit, and
blowing up.” we were somehow lifted from obscurity. But
we had a nationwide touring base and were
Tom Osborn: People gave it a shot, and it selling good records. The Clinton people had
really did take off, because nothing sounded already asked us to do the thing before “Hell”
like that on the radio. It sounded so remark- became a hit, and we had already played the
ably fresh at a time where music had really summer Olympics in Atlanta. We were get-
been incredibly stagnant.

INDYweek.com | 8.17.16 | 17
Green Burial:
a natural option
“I’ve described it as redneck Camelot, and it kind of was.”
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then we come back and do the “Hell” video. IN THE SWING
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Jimbo Mathus: When we did the inaugu-
ral ball, they came around and saw all the AND OUT AGAIN
Queer ISSue bands. Hillary and Bill came walking down Tom Maxwell: We had weird and interest-

the line. LL Cool J was standing right beside ing crowds. It was a tremendous mix of ages.
me. When Hillary came by, she said, “Hello,
to James.” She shook his hand. She knew his
Older people, middle-age people, kids. Punk
people, oddball weird people. I described it
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real name was James. I thought that was
pretty good.
once as like the Peanuts Christmas dance.
Then, when “Hell” hit, the swing kids started
of Pride events and more! showing up. I like it when people dance, but
Ken Mosher: The likelihood of us having we saw people getting pushed out of the way,
ISSUE DATE: one hit was so unlikely. We didn’t even make
SEPTEMBER 21 and it was kind of a drag.
Reserve by Sept. 16 the one-hit wonder shows, because it was so
unlikely. Steve Balcom: When we broke with “Hell,”
we were the first one with a song as weird
Queer ISSue
and different as this. And then, in our wake,
here comes Brian Setzer in a Gap ad, and
Guide to
nC Pride

Queer ISSue + Guide to nC Pride

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18 | 8.17.16 | INDYweek.com
Tom Maxwell and Jimbo Mathus take advantage
of Kingsway's unorthodox recording environment.

here comes Swingers and Big Bad Voodoo Tom Maxwell: We had a sell-by date The band wasn’t making that much money. Chris Phillips: I’ve described it as redneck
Daddy, all of a sudden. There was a lot of stamped on us, and that really, really Once we went platinum, we renegotiated Camelot, and it kind of was. That band was
pressure on us to kind of be a swing band, do bummed me out. our contract to make a dollar and a quarter born under a good sign. From the very begin-
swing tours. per CD sold, when the CDs were being sold ning, the band was so fortunate.
Jimbo Mathus: I didn’t really have that for fifteen bucks.
Chris Phillips: We were making constant, much thought about it. It seemed like apples Tom Maxwell: You do the thing that you
conscious decisions to avoid being attached and oranges to me. I’ve never been con- Ken Mosher: It was constant touring, and hear in your head. Nobody’s going to do it for
to that movement. We felt like it was a fad. cerned with popular trends. getting home and feeling like you just got you. Do it yourself. Look the way you want.
off of a lunar mission. It was disorienting. I Play the way you want. And then see how it
Ken Mosher: I remember having talks with Steve Balcom: As it continued to develop remember getting home from tours and not works for you. It worked great for Archers of
Tom like, “Now we’re part of a trend, our and we got into the next record, it started to being able to speak to my wife for, like, a day. Loaf, and it worked great for Squirrel
careers are over.” And really, they were. But fracture and disintegrate. When we started, it really was just to put on Nut Zippers, and it worked great for Ben
we didn’t need to obsess that hard about it. one show [at Henry’s Bistro] because Cat’s Folds Five. And that’s the Chapel Hill thing:
Really, our careers were over when we had a Tom Maxwell: We finished Perennial in Cradle wasn’t open, and everyone’s band “Do you want to hear this? You better do it
hit anyhow. January of ’97, and they didn’t release it until either broke up or was taking a hiatus. Only yourself.” l
August of ’98. So Hot was eight months old in Chapel Hill would that have been as suc- ahussey@indyweek.com
when the single broke, and then we toured it cessful and launch a career.
for another year and a half. It was horrible.
INDYweek.com | 8.17.16 | 19