Curtis Eller, banjo-picker extraordinaire, presents listeners with a quintessentially American cause celeb. Few work harder to drum up and rally a crowd with their song-stories, and, though his father was a musician –- more on that later –- his is very much an up-by-your-bootstraps tale. In short, like buying a Kane paper, you feel good coughing over your hard-earned dough to buy into the spectacle.
But is he mad? Could be. He’s Stephen Foster at the intersection of Harry Houdini, with a little Al Jolson thrown in for show. And then there’s those Elvis and Abe Lincoln obsessions.
Eller, who migrated somewhat recently from the scraped skies of New York City to the more comforting environs of Durham, N.C., also happens to have released a new record with his group, the American Circus.
Popdose recently caught up with him between live sets to catalog the cut of his jib.
POPDOSE: So, let’s start with the matter at hand. You have a new record, How To Make It In Hollywood. Tell me a little about how this, your fourth, fits into the Curtis Eller catalog and how it came to be.
ELLER: The big change this time has been my ability to work with a regular backing band. Previously I’ve recruited the services of a number of New York comrades to sit in on recording sessions. Since moving South, I’ve had the luxury of working with an amazing group of musicians and singers for over a year before entering the studio. It made everything feel wilder and looser. I think they rock harder than any band I’ve recorded with.
POPDOSE: Speaking of rocking harder, “Battlefield Amputation” was quite the departure for you.
ELLER: I finally had the good sense to plug my banjo into a ratted-out tube amplifier! I grew up in Detroit and that’s how music sounds up there, but it seemed like guitar players were having all the fun.
POPDOSE: Sounds like you guys were the ones having fun on this one. It’s a cool tune.
ELLER: Thanks! We had a great time. I think it’s the closest I’ve come to capturing the feel of the live performances. I’ve also grown weary of being called old-timey and bluegrassy. I’ve always considered myself a rock & roll singer, and I wanted to set the record straight once and for all.
POPDOSE: I must admit I missed you last time you came to Pittsburgh. Tell me about your live shows, especially all of these stories I keep hearing about your kicks. Is the “right way” to hear the American Circus to see it perform live?
ELLER: The live shows are often pretty unhinged. It’s a very physical performance. One thing that’s changed recently is the presence of the band. Older bands I’ve performed with tended to provide solid, tasteful support while I went nuts. The current lineup has claimed their turf onstage. The past year has found the group growing wilder and more fearless. It’s been thrilling.
POPDOSE: You’re about to bring the group to England, no?
ELLER: Indeed. The UK has been a staple of my tour circuit for years, but I’ve toured solo or with various, local rhythm sections. This’ll be the first time my US bandmates have crossed the Atlantic with me. I’ll be combining my US and UK bands. We’re planning to record the shows for a possible live record.
POPDOSE: Very cool. Speaking of releasing records, what was it like working on the Kickstarter fundraising campaign for Hollywood? That’s a first for you, isn’t it?
ELLER: It was a lot of work, but in the end it proved to be a very validating experience. All my years of touring on both sides of the Atlantic really paid off. We far exceeded our target, which has allowed us to press the album on vinyl! I’ve always felt very strongly connected to my audience, but this was wonderful. Everybody got to be a producer!
POPDOSE: And critical response to the record is looking good.
ELLER: I’m thrilled with the response so far. It’s nice to find some sympathetic ears out there. I think this record is just more fun to listen to.
POPDOSE: Has the move to Durham made it harder to find sympathetic ears? I’d imagine, you having lived in New York City, there was easier access for you to people running rehearsal studios, clubs, record labels, radio stations and so on. Or am I just projecting imaginary ideas there?
ELLER: I lived in North Carolina briefly many years ago and have maintained strong ties to the area, so connections have been easy to pick up. I think things have actually been a little easier on that count. People here have more time and space to spare around here. I do miss the wild desperation of daily life in New York City. The stakes always felt so high. Even just getting a cup of coffee often felt like an unexpected victory.
POPDOSE: [Laughs] Fact or fiction? I heard you filled out that several native Samoans were living in your place in Astoria, Queens on the last census.
ELLER: That was actually one of the boxes that one could tick on the census form! I was sorely tempted, but in the end I think I played it safe. My memory of this is hazy!
POPDOSE: Sure, sure. So, if not New York City, you’re native to Detroit, is that right?
ELLER: My home town is Detroit, Mich.
POPDOSE: And, I apologize if this sounds ignorant, how did the banjo become your weapon of choice?
ELLER: My dad was a bluegrass banjo player and rockabilly guitarist.
POPDOSE: No kidding! Did he ever record or tour? Was it a profession or a pastime?
ELLER: No, he wasn’t professional. My dad only played music in church when I was a kid. He’d work up bluegrass and rockabilly renditions of hymns and spirituals and perform them for the congregation.
POPDOSE: Did you start in a similar environment?
ELLER: No, the only time I’ve ever performed in a church was for the funeral of mountain climber in New York City. I favor the profane.
POPDOSE: What does your father think of “Old Time Religion?” Has he heard it?
ELLER: He’s heard it but I don’t know what he thinks. I suspect it probably worries him.
POPDOSE: Onto a random topic — your “look.” Sweatshop worker T-shirt. Slacks. Suspenders. Converse high-tops. Hair that would make Kramer proud. And a rather bushy mustache. Elaborate.
ELLER: That’s just the way I look, I suppose. I don’t have stage clothes or anything like that. At some point years ago I started wearing the same thing everyday. I’ve tried combing my hair, but it is ineffective and painful. That’s not entirely true. I wear flowers on my suspenders when I’m onstage.
POPDOSE: If it works, why mess with it, right? Speaking of consistency, tell me about your working relationship with Joe “Joebass” DeJarnette. He’s played a role in each of your records. Well, wait, did he record Banjo Music For Funerals, too?
ELLER: “Joebass” has played bass on several of my previous records, but this is the first time he’s been in the producer’s chair and it was fantastic working with him! We’ve been friends and colleagues for many years and he understands exactly what I’m trying to do. We met in New York City, but he now lives in Floyd, Va., where he’s converted a gorgeous, 1920’s farmhouse into a recording studio. Every room has at least one Victrola or Gramophone! He’s an amazing man living in an amazing house.
POPDOSE: Elvis. Nixon. Joe Louis. Some people resonate louder or more frequently in your songs. Why? Do you cherry-pick historical figures for all of their context or are there personal links?
ELLER: Joe Louis has only appeared once, but the song has a lot of resonance for me. Perhaps it’s a Detroit thing. Elvis and Nixon are a different story. I’ve always thought that if you understood Elvis and Nixon, you’d know everything you need to know about America in the 20th century. I imagine them as the little angels and devils that ride around on our shoulders trying to tell us what to do.
POPDOSE: So, each person does come with a kind of message? When, as a music writer, you hear someone drop Sacco & Vanzetti or J. Edgar Hoover in a song, you kind of wonder at what they’re getting.
ELLER: I like Sacco & Vanzetti a lot. I once wrote the soundtrack to a musical comedy called “A Mouthful of Sacco & Vanzetti”. It was a Marx Brothers-style, slapstick telling of their story.
ELLER: I use these people and events like paint, really. I often get credit for being a much better storyteller than I really am. Most of my songs don’t tell any story at all…and none of the songs on the new record tell stories. If you mention the stories, people tell them to themselves, which saves me a lot of work.
POPDOSE: Fair enough. So, after the UK tour, will you have dates in the U.S.? Are you staying close to Durham?
ELLER: Now that the new record is out, I’ll be hitting the road pretty relentlessly. I need to start playing the rent again. I’m overdue for a return to the Midwest and the West Coast. There won’t be much rest in 2014 for me. – Popdose, April 3, 2014