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 Yodeler...it doesn't get much better
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 best...at 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
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.
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 touching...it 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
We recorded the CD in two days at a little studio in downtown Manhattan
How did you assemble the full band and how long
did it take? How
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
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
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
What made you decide to start playing gigs in
the UK and how did the
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
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
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
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" (http://www.vietnamsongbook.org). 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
Two of Us?
When I lived in North Carolina, I wrote the songs for a musical puppet
There was a big blizzard in New York in 1996 and I my wife was stuck
Last Flight of the Pigeon Club?
There's an old pigeon racing club in Hoboken, New Jersey. The guys
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
Are you a keen gymnast, fitness man due to your
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
Since a lot of your material is very late nineteenth
and early 20th
Although I use a lot of imagery from the past, most of my songs are
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
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
Who did the covers for 'The Serpents ...' album
and the 'Banjo' EP?
My wife Jamie B. Wolcott (http://www.jamiebwolcott.com) 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
I'm always working on new tunes. I've got a lot of tunes up on blocks in the back yard...so 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
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
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
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
Thanks for buying the record....drop
me a line if you have any questions or concerns. I hope to see you at