“After the initial shock of the twin towers crumbling on 9-11 I thought, if I could die at work, it’s not gonna be while answering phones at an office in NYC. So I quit, and decided that making music would be my job.
When I was 13 my dad put a banjo in my hands and showed me how to play a couple of songs like the Beverly Hillbillies theme. I really wanted to play the electric guitar because I loved rock & roll. But I just never felt at home on it. I tried it for a couple of years, and I was like, I can do the same thing on the banjo. I’ve been a banjo player ever since.
So after quitting my job I said alright, for the foreseeable future I’m just gonna say yes to every opportunity to play banjo. Immediately, it was like the world reached out to me & said, we have opportunities for you.
The day before my birthday I got a call about playing at a funeral the next day for a 23 year old kid who had tragically fallen to his death in a mountain climbing accident. He was learning & loved the banjo so his family hired a ‘proper’ banjo player for the service. But that musician bailed on them for a better paying gig, which is insane, right? They asked, ‘do you want to do it?’’ I was like, play a funeral? On my birthday? Absolutely!
It turned out his family was very wealthy. The next day I found myself inside an enormous cathedral, in Manhattan, leading 500 people in a rendition of Keep on the Sunny Side. They didn’t care that I wasn’t some hot shit banjo player. His parents told me, ‘you have the same energy as our son, it’s like having him here in the room with us.’ On top of that, it turned out we shared the same birthday. It was all way too much for me to comprehend. I mean I just quit my job so I wouldn’t die in a miserable office. And here I am, playing banjo at a funeral for this banjo playing kid, who was exactly 10 years younger than me, who died at work. It was like the universe was giving me confirmation that I had made the right choice. It was one of the most moving moments in my life. Even as I’m talking about it now, it seems like a dream, like it couldn’t be real. I’ll always associate that song with that experience & the decision to make music my career.”
[Curtis Eller isn’t your average banjo player. His music is influenced by a variety of styles, & based more in rock n roll than anything else. It’s confirmation that the banjo isn’t just for country or bluegrass. “People see the banjo and say, oh, what do you play? bluegrass? Nobody sees a guitar and says, are you a flamenco player? There’s no assumption made about it. I want that freedom for the banjo and I like the challenge of altering people’s expectations.”
His live shows include a great deal of storytelling and are more engaging than most others I’ve seen. “I don’t think of performances as giving a speech so much as having a conversation. My shows exist for this kind of close and personal camaraderie with the audience, you know? Like, this will never happen again, this group of people will never be in this room again.”
To stay engaged with his audience he’s done more than 70 live streams in the last year while live music has been shut down due to COVID restrictions. “It was really nice to see people from all over the world, from Holland to Detroit on the live streams. People from California were chatting with my friends from Leads, England, making jokes about pigeon racing and stuff. It kind of felt like I was bringing this widely diffused community together a little bit.”
Eller’s songwriting often revolves around historic figures and stories. Many of his songs are based in verisimilitude but not necessarily reality. “What I read & see probably have more to do with how my songs turn out than the music I’m listening to at any time. I’ll see something, or hear a story, based in fact, that grabs my attention & just keep thinking about it. Like, did Abraham Lincoln really dig up his dead son? I write the song before I really know the facts to retain a sense of disorientation and distortion. Like that moment when you feel the drugs kicking in.
After several months of writer’s block during COVID isolation he found inspiration while working on a film for his modern dance theater company, The Bipeds. “We went to the thrift store and bought a whole bunch of antique photos for the film. I found a few of them so intriguing. Like this one little sepia tinted cameo of a woman that said ‘Martha Lyle Wills, for whom the church was named’. It was just so mysterious, so evocative. I had to write a song about it. I came up with this story about finding that photograph on a world war one battlefield & speculating about who it was and what it could’ve meant. The new songs are a lot more dreamy, lonely, and quieter in nature, which I guess is to be expected having been isolated for so long. But I think people will recognize them as my kind of songs, they just unfold in a different way.”]