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On tour with the world’s only punk banjo star

Why alt-Americana strikes a chord with Europeans

By Glenn McDonald

Curtis Eller’s primary instrument is the banjo, but you’ve never heard a banjo make sounds like his.

Within his highly ballistic brand of folk rock, Eller’s instrument has the menace and edge of an antique straight razor. His songs somehow manage to be both mournful and anarchic, evoking a sepia-toned, blood-specked Americana, with titles like “1890,” “Wirewalkers & Assassins,” and “Hartford Circus Fire.” His records sound like ghost transmissions from a radio station that never was.

And at club gigs, he usually ends up atop the tables, high-kicking the light fixtures.

So far as anyone has been able to tell, Eller, 48, is the world’s first and only alt-history punk banjo star. Eller’s music isn’t punk rock in the genre taxonomy sense, but rather in its DIY spirit and emphasis on live performance; on transmitting voltage directly to the audience. His backing band, the American Circus, is an informal collective that includes musicians from both sides of the Atlantic. That’s because Eller tours in Europe at least once a year — as he has since 2003, when he hopped a flight to England, with his banjo as carry-on luggage, and discovered that Europeans are keen on an American fringe-folk sound.

Back then, Eller was barely scraping by in New York City and playing occasional regional DIY mini-tours around the East Coast and Midwest.

“I would go from town to town with no place to stay, no plans other than the next gig,” he says. “I kept a little note in my wallet that said, ‘No one lets the banjo player sleep outside…’ and I’d hand that around. I would think, ‘Well, I better do a good show so someone takes me home.’”

Eller usually found a willing host by the end of the night — usually, but not always. He slept on a lot of couches, and in the occasional doorway. Touring the eastern half of the continent was fun, even if it wasn’t quite leading anywhere.

“The thing that kept happening was people would say, ‘Man, they would love you in England!’”

They’re a little more open to the strange — to different things and people passing through. The Brits love an eccentric.”

Eller says he must have heard this a dozen times before he paid attention. Clearly, a consensus was forming among alt-folk veterans and European expats in the States: Eller’s unusual take on Yank history would have a ready audience across the pond, where more adventurous listeners often embrace artists at the fringes of Americana.

“From the earliest days of jazz and blues on down, there’s a tradition of certain American artists working in folk idioms who find a bigger audience for their music overseas,” says music writer Mark Richardson, former editor of the online magazine Pitchfork. “A sound or style that might be too traditional or familiar in the U.S. might be seen as authentic or even exotic to a U.K. or European audience.”

Eller decided to test his fans’ advice and bought a $250 plane ticket to London. (He flew standby.) Making connections through friends of friends of friends, he managed to secure two gigs before he arrived. Once there, he booked four more, while relying once again on improvisational couch surfing and kind strangers.

“The audiences were immediately responsive and engaged in a way that I hadn’t seen since my punk rock days in the 1980s,” he says. (In high school and just after, Eller fronted several oddball bands, including one with the immortal name Either Way Patsy Dies.)

Eller’s $250 gamble had paid off. Word of mouth traveled faster than he could, and by the end of that first trip, he had thousands of new fans, hundreds of new friends, and enough accumulated goodwill to return to for another mini-tour a few months later.

Europe’s geography suited Eller’s style of extemporaneous touring. Instead of driving hundreds of miles between gigs, as in the U.S., he could catch an overnight train to the next city — which solved the sleeping issue nicely, too.

Onstage, he continued to win fans with his genuinely weird lyrical obsessions (Buster Keaton, battlefield amputations, speaking in tongues) and his gymnastic approach to folk-rock showmanship. On a good night — and they’re all good nights — Eller moves with the grace of a ballroom dancer, interrupted at regular intervals by the violence of a hardcore mosher. He’s also a world-class yodeler. Europeans dig it. “They’re a little more open to the strange — to different things and people passing through,” Eller says. “The Brits love an eccentric, that’s for sure.”

Critics have been enthusiastic, too. On his first few passes through the U.K., Eller regularly earned rave reviews in local and regional music publications. He still does.

In a recent review of Eller’s latest record, How to Make It in Hollywood, Paul Woodgate of Radio U.K. wrote: “What you have here is quality artistry with loose-limbed, plug-in-and-play theatrical improvisation that name checks a Sgt. Pepper’s menagerie of 19th and 20th century American celebrities and politicians on its way to completely bowling you over.”

Over the last few years, Eller has grown his fan base in the U.K. and Europe, breaking into new territories while returning to the spots where he’s most popular. On his last U.K. tour, he barreled through 16 dates in traditional tour stops through Devon, Sheffield, York, and Leeds. Working without a manager or a traditional record label, Eller has released four independent albums, along with several singles and EPs.

He now makes at least one trip across the Atlantic each year, sometimes two. His mini-tours have been successful enough that he can afford to bring musicians from his stateside band along. He plans to return to England again in June, and maybe make a side jaunt.

His tour, like most of his British trips, will include a gig in Kingston upon Hull in northeast England — “this rusted-out old fishing town,” Eller calls it. “That’s where they love me more than any other place in the world.”

The last time Eller played Hull, he shared the bill with several Dutch bands. A popular ferry service runs between Hull and Rotterdam.

“So I was playing with these Dutch bands and they go, ‘Well, the next time you come over you must play Holland…’”

Curtis Eller’s American Circus will release a new studio album, A Poison Melody, in June.   

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

 

Illustration by Francesco Ciccolella

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