ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Curtis Eller
On his third full-length release, Wirewalkers and Assassins, New York-based folk singer Curtis Eller finds the middle ground between silent film The General and a banjo-packin’ Jello Biafra. In person, Eller is a gawky 37-year-old man with a bushy moustache and spit-polished loafers. Eller’s songs are an American History 101 course in waking life. He melds well-crafted uptempo barn stompers such as lead single, “John Wilkes Booth,” which boasts sharpnel-pointed undertone jabs at Dubya. Currently on tour in Europe, Eller sat down for a chat with American Songwriter:
You’ve gotten a lot of attention for your bluntly political lyrics in “John Wilkes Booth.” How much of your work is about shocking people and being a performance artist?
I do sometimes get pegged as a political songwriter, but I normally restrict my lyrics to politicians like Abraham Lincoln and Boss Tweed (although Richard Nixon makes a cameo on my new record, and that’s quite up to the minute by my standards). I have more references to Elvis Presley than any other political figure. My live performances pretty much boil down to a song and dance routine…like Al Jolson, but with more cursing. Anybody who’s shocked by my act must be at 130 years old or is living a very sheltered life.
Where does your interest in U.S. historical figures come from? How do you feel it relates to modern politics?
I like to think of U.S. history as one long and very weird story. I just flip open to a random page and sing about the character that seems most lonesome or pissed off. It’s just dumb luck if it relates to current events. I guess American politics hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years. I’m working on a new song called “I dreamed I was visited by the ghost of Ronald Reagan” but I can’t seem to come up with a catchy chorus.
One of your influences Buster Keaton said, “Tragedy is a close-up, comedy, a long shot.” But your music weaves the tragic, comedic and tragicomic pretty well. How do you find that balance?
I don’t know that quote, but it’s spot on! Leave it to a silent comedian to articulate things so succinctly. When I write and record a tune, I approach it like movie-making. That’s when I get to pay special attention to camera placement and costume design sonically speaking. That’s when the characters get their close-ups. It’s intended to make an impact on one listener at a time perhaps while they’re driving. When I perform live, I think of it more like theatre. It’s a broader kind of performance that’s intended to reach a whole room full of people at the same time. I sweat a lot more live than I do in the studio. I wish it was the other way around. In both instances I try to find the funniest way to deliver tragic material.
I’m looking for ways to get people laughing at elephant executions and industrial fires which really aren’t very funny things when you get down to it.
Where do you suppose the intersection between your music and rock n’ roll lies?
I consider myself primarily a rock and roll singer. I just happen to play
the five-string banjo. Structurally, my tunes aren’t really old-timey at all. There’s a lot of old dead people lurking in the lyrics so people think it’s more traditional than it really is.
Do you feel at this point that you’ve made enough headway where you can exist totally independent of the music establishment?
The music establishment seems to have found a way to get along pretty well without me. I don’t mind too much; it’s their loss. I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to pay my rent with the banjo for about a decade. When times get tight there always seems to be a funeral or burlesque show that pays really well.
The New York Times recently reported on the explosion of roots music in Brooklyn, NY. What do you think is behind this sudden interest in old-timey music?
I’m not really surprised by this particular explosion. I think the punk rockers just got their hands on some old Uncle Dave Macon records. The resulting explosion was inevitable.
You’ve had a lot of interesting shows in New York City. In your mind, what is the quintessential New York gig?
It’s getting harder and harder to find people in New York City who like to sing along, but there’s always something weird waiting around the next corner. Funerals, art classes and vaudeville revues-things of that nature. I’ve played a number of cocktail parties at Cha Cha’s House of Ill Repute, which is a hatmaker’s shop in Dumbo. It’s always a thrill to sing to a room of drunk people who are trying on hats. In many ways, that’s my target audience. I tour so much and play so many punk rock dives and folk clubs that I’m always on the lookout for something less obvious.