An Interview via e-mail with the incredible solo banjo accompanied frontman, Curtis Eller from New York, USA - May 2006

What initially turned you onto playing the banjo and into the Vaudevillian style that you incorporate?

I started playing the banjo when I was just a kid because my dad played. He was a bluegrasser, so naturally that's the way I started playing at first. The banjo I play now originally belonged to my dad.

Who are your favaourite singers and musicians and how have they influenced you?

My favorite banjo player is Dock Boggs (also a great singer). Jimmie Rodgers was called America's Blue doesn't get much better
an avid fan of Bob Dylan. And you can always count on Bo Diddley. If could manage to find a balance of those four influences then I'd be real happy. If I could be one tenth as good as any of them....

Does your family have a musical background and in what way?

As I was saying earlier, my dad was a bluegrass banjo player and a bit of a rockabilly guitarist as well. I've always loved rock & roll records from 1955-1965...that's when records sounded least to me. All those great chess records and stuff like that. I'm sure my dad's influence turned me onto both early rock & roll and bluegrass.

What did you do before being a Professional entertainer?

I did a lot of work with theatre troupes when I was younger. Writing
soundtracks and plays and stuff. But eventually theatre people just got too annoying to hang around with so I moved to New York City to concentrate on beiing a banjoist. I never had any kind of interesting
day job. Just random shit jobs...shoveling snow, working in bookstores, pouring coffee, whatever. I once working at a guitar store called Elderly Instruments (, where I learned a lot about banjos and guitar amplifiers.

Who do you model your image on particularly, is it a number of silent movie stars?

I guess it's pretty obvious that Buster Keaton is a huge influence. I
steal a lot from him. I also love Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle...a surprisingly agile physical comedian and incredibly charming guy. And most of my stage clothes belonged to my wife's grandfather, Huey Mullett. He was exactly my height, but about 50 pounds heavier.

What are your favourite silent movies and why?

My favorites change all the time, but I tend to return again and again to "Steamboat Bill Jr." by Keaton. It's pretty flawless. I also really like Eric Von Stroheime's "Greed"...if you ever want to sit through a 4 hour, silent, cautionary tale about the dangers of materialism, then this is your go-to flick.

What made you decide to cover 'Red Red Robin' ?

When my wife and I first moved to New York City and were feeling a little lonesome, we used to frequent a little Irish pub in out neighborhood called "Cronin & Phelan". They had Al Jolson on the jukebox, and when "Red Red Robin' came around, everybody would raise their glasses and sing along. And there was this elderly couple who would get up and do a little drunken ballroom dancing. It was real made us feel like we were home. It's been "our song" ever since.

How long did it take you to record the 'Taking Up Serpents Again' and
what were your favourite aspects of the album, with regard to recording it?

We recorded the CD in two days at a little studio in downtown Manhattan
called Monkeyboy ( We mostly did it all
live...vocals and all. Nobody wore headphones or played in a seperate
room. We just stood in a circle with a bunch of antique microphones and bottle of bourbon. We had a great time.

How did you assemble the full band and how long did it take? How
did you meet them all originally?

All the musicians on the disc are friends of mine. I chose people who I thought would hit it off personally. I know lot of technically proficient instrumentalists, but these are the folks I wanted to spend my time with.

All of them lead their own bands here in New York so they know how to put together a tune. We practiced about 5 or 6 times and then went straight into the studio.

When you are doing gigs in the USA, do you use the full band?

Sadly, I can rarely get the whole band together these days....too much
traveling. I try to have some of the folks sit in with me whenever I can.

Joe DeJarnette, the upright bass player, occasionally joins me and that's great. He's also a lunatic onstage...willing to do any fucked up thing that presents itself. I wanna do some more live work with a band after my next album.

Are there plans to bring the full outfit to the UK, if it becomes financially viable?

I'm thinking of putting together a UK version of the band to do some of
the bigger shows..."Curtis Eller's British Circus". I know a real cool
drummer named Ben Taylor in Manchester who I think I could wrangle. I
just need to find an upright bass player with a weird streak...anybody got any suggestions?

What made you decide to start playing gigs in the UK and how did the
early ones go?

I don't really remember why I started playing the UK. I was doing a lot of touring in the US, and I guess I just wanted to branch out a bit. They went great right from the start. The British audiences are a little looser...a little more interested in having fun. American audiences can be a little shy...I have to work on 'em a little harder.

When you play at The Washington, Sheffield you play to a packed audience, would you say this is the case elsewhere in the UK - what other gigs match that worth talking about?

The audiences are getting bigger all the time, and they're always great no matter how many folks show up. My last gig at Night & Day in Manchester was packed and rowdy just how I like it. And strangely, Coventry is one of my best towns....a fantastic little joint called The Tin Angel.

How do gigs in the UK, USA and Amsterdam/Holland and other parts of
Europe differ with regard to venues and audience?

Every audience is different. I think I have to work harder to win people over in the States, but it's never the same show twice. I love getting to know the audience. My recent trip to Holland was amazing. I can't wait to head back.

What are some of your best tour stories worth telling?

Weird things happen all the time when you’re travelling. It's hard to keep it all straight.

I once fell through a plate glass window onstage in a town called Kalamazoo. I figured I'd get the boot, but they thought it was some kind of punk rock moment. Now it's one of my favorite venues.

I once played a gig on a diving board at a birthday party on Long Island. Everybody just sat around the pool drinking beer and listened silently. It was pretty surreal.

Another strange gig was a funeral I played a few years ago. I led the
mourners in a few old folk tunes. It was a young guy who died in a mountain climbing accident, who was learning to play banjo. Weird, but very moving.

What would you say are some of your favourite songs that you have written and why - what influenced them?

I like "The Execution of Black Diamond", a song about the murder of a circus elephant in Texas in 1929. People seem to be interested in the story, and musically, the tune has proved to be pretty elastic. I seem to find a lot of new possibilities.

I also like the tune "1890", although I don't perform it much anymore.
It's partly a true story about about the derailment of a circus train back in 1889....and it's partly a fictional story about a tough year at the circus. I always like to play a waltz.

I change my mind a lot. When I get sick of some and change up my setlist.

You have got a really humourous interesting way of making really sad, macabre topics turn positive - how did your desire to write songs about Funerals and Dead people come to be?

I have no idea. I've always just been that way. I'm glad you think they turn positive...I'd hate to be drag. I try to make the show as funny as I can to offset the tragic nature of the tunes.

What influenced 'Sugar in My Coffin'?

Just before the start of this bullshit war in Iraq, I played a show called "the Vietnam Songbook" ( It was about the power of the protest song, and featured an amazing group of singers and musicians old and youngs singing protest songs from the vietnam era. I got to sing Pete Seeger's stunning "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy". Pete was there and I was deeply moved by his stage presence and honesty. So I tried to write my own protest song but it ended up being about Elvis Presley and Abraham Lincoln...that's "Sugar in My Coffin".

Coney Island Blue?

"Coney Island Blue" is about a bar on the boardwalk at Coney Island called "Ruby's". It's the kind of joint where you can get drunk at 11:00 in the morning and listen to "Old Devil Moon" on the jukebox with a retired mailman. They don't make 'em like the used to.

Hide That Scar?

This song is about trying to sneak your way into heaven...and the quality of the drugs available once inside. It's in the key of D if you feel like dancing.

Taking Up Serpents Again?

I don't really know what this song is about. It's got Lon Chaney, the
Presidant of the United States, a salt mine, and Christian snake handlers living the key of F#m.

Two of Us?

When I lived in North Carolina, I wrote the songs for a musical puppet
show about Job (from the bible). This tune is from that's old, but it seemed to stick around in my set-list for years so I finally decided to record it.


There was a big blizzard in New York in 1996 and I my wife was stuck in
Michgan while the airport was shut down. "Stagecoach" is just a song
about beiing lonesome...and cold.

Last Flight of the Pigeon Club?

There's an old pigeon racing club in Hoboken, New Jersey. The guys who
run the place can't afford to keep up the rent on the building, so they
rent out the back room for rock & roll bands to's called
"Pigeon Club Studios". I was hanging out in the front room with all these old guys drinking coffee, surrounded by portaits of famous birds and a big chalkboard that posted the record times. I felt like I'd stepped right into a sad old waltz...all I had to do is make it rhyme.

Dry Lightning?

This is another true story. My dad lives in the desert of New Mexico, and his neighbor's horse was bitten by a rattlesnake. This is pretty much that story...with yodeling.


"Alaska" is a coal mine song about West Virginia....pure fiction. It's in the key of Dm if you want to dance

Why do you wish you were Amelia Earhart?

She disappeared at a very romantic moment. She never had to grow old or live with a lifetime of bad decisions. We're left with a beautiful
memory...her with those cool aviators' goggles and that white scarf
flapping away...very romantic. But I don't really wish I was
just sounded nice.

Are you a keen gymnast, fitness man due to your incredible high-kicking
ability or have simply got very nimble limbs - what incouraged you to
incorporate it into your stage set?

I suppose I'm just nimble. My dad ran a little circus in Detroit when I was a kid, so I've always had an interest in that kind of physical
performance. I think I started doing high-kicks after seeing Iggy Pop in New York. Even though I play the banjo, I think of myself as a rock & roller. My favorite review of my show described it as "punk as
f*ck"....that makes me smile.

Since a lot of your material is very late nineteenth and early 20th
Century, do you wish you could have experience a lot of your topics 1st
hand when then took place?

Although I use a lot of imagery from the past, most of my songs are
actually about my life now. When I sing Buster Keaton, I'm not really
singing about him. I'm singing about the dreadful state of the majority of flicks being made today and wishing we had somebody like Buster around.

I like looking back on the people and events of the past from where I'm at.

If you could have been around at a certain point in time, when would this have been and why?

It's hard to say. I'd like to have seen MrGurk's Suicide Saloon in the
1800's, but I probably would've been scared to go in. I'd also like to
have been around to see General Lee surrender at the end of the American civil war...but then again it might've been kinda sad. There's all kinds of shit I wish I coulda seen.

Out of all your heros that are sadly long gone - which ones if you had the chance would you like to meet and why if you had the chance if you or they believe in the afterlife or if time travelling was possibility? What would you like to ask them and where would you like to go with them?

That's a pretty tough question to answer. I'd sure like to meet Jimmie
Rodgers...maybe take yodeling lessons. I think it'd be pleasant to visit Coney Island with Harold Lloyd and ride the Cyclone. And like everybody, I'd sure like to spend a little time with Abraham Lincoln...maybe we could have some whisky.

Who did the covers for 'The Serpents ...' album and the 'Banjo' EP?
and how did you meet the artist or did you do them personally? Do you
have an art background as well as music?

My wife Jamie B. Wolcott ( does all the artwork for my CD's, posters, t-shirts and website. I love her work and obviously it matches the music seemlessly. We're collaborating more and more all the time. I'm hoping she can do an illustration for each tune on my next record. We want the packaging to be something a little special so people feel like they're getting something they can't download.

What is next regarding new music? Do you have any new material you
are currently working on?

I'm always working on new tunes. I've got a lot of tunes up on blocks in the back to speak. I'm trying to finish up the best ones and hopefully I'll start on a new record this Summer. I'll definitely be doing a song about Karl Wallenda the famous tightrope walker, and probably one about the Coney Island fire of 1911. I've been trying to write a song about William Tecumsah Sherman, the civil war general who burned and salted the earth from Atlanta to Savannah. And of course the usual batch of songs about nothing. I'm sure there'll be plenty of funny stories about dead people.

What artists interest you from a listening point of view with regard to both uncommercial and commercially well-known artists and why?

Like everybody, I listen to all kinds of stuff...old and new. The last
two records I bought were "Ukulele Ike" and "Bobby Darin". My favorite bands at the moment are "The Band" and "The Kinks". But this changes all the time.

What do you enjoy most - performing live or studio work - or a mixture of both?

I like both a lot. I find them to be quite different. Like theatre vs. film. I guess I'm a little wilder live....but I sing better in the

What hobbies and interests do you have outside music?

I play solitaire obsessively, but that's not really a hobby.

I find it amazing that you are never featured on any TV or Radio Programmes in the UK - it's like you are being ignored by the media or something over here which I can't get my head around at all? Do you get much large media attention elsewhere?

I've been pretty much ignored or rejected by every media and industry
outlet everywhere. I don't know why...I guess they just don't have space in their hearts for a yodeling banjo player. They'll be sorry in the end.

Would you ever sign with a label - if so, who would you like to sign with and why? Or would you prefer to stop as un unsigned artist reasons why?

I don't really think much about record labels these days...I've been
turned down too often It takes up too much time. I'm doing pretty okay on my own thanks to the internet. If a record label wanted to lend a hand I'd be happy to hear 'em out. They'd have to prove that they could do it better than me. If you know anybody send 'em my way.

If you ever get the opportunity, who would you like to tour with and why?

I've never thought about this.

When will you be coming back to do gigs in the UK and where would you like to play that you haven't already played and why?

I'm planing to return in October, and I'm always looking for somewhere new to play. Specifically, I'd like to start hitting Scotland and Ireland in addition to England. They seem like countries that appreciate the banjo.

What would you like to say to fans in the UK who have read this and
bought the CD's etc?

Thanks for buying the record....drop me a line if you have any questions or concerns. I hope to see you at the show.