Curtis Eller has been called a lot of things: Storyteller, singer-songwriter, acrobatic anti-folk outlaw and New York City’s angriest yodeling banjo player.
Since making the move from Gotham to Durham a few years back, he can be called a local now, too. Eller and his band, the American Circus, will play an album release show Friday at Motorco Music Hall in Durham, in support of their new record, “How To Make It in Hollywood.”
On record and on stage, Eller’s music swerves rather dizzyingly from rollicking, high-energy barn burners to haunting, off-kilter balladry. Eller plays banjo, but in his hands the instrument somehow doesn’t sound the way a banjo is supposed to. In service of the songwriter’s highly ballistic brand of folk rock, Eller’s banjo has the menace and edge of an antique straight razor.
Speaking of antique, there is the matter of Eller’s lyrical concerns, which tend to resonate on the long-lost frequencies of some turn-of-the-20th-century, alternate history America. A sampling of titles from Eller’s four-LP catalog: “1890,” “Amelia Earhart,” “Wirewalkers & Assassins,” “Hartford Circus Fire” and “Battlefield Amputation.”
“There’s a lot of turn-of-the-last-century action unfolding in a number of songs, but I’ve never been too faithful to any specific era,” Eller says, drinking coffee in the living room of his Durham home. Hanging on the walls are dozens of paintings by Eller’s wife and longtime collaborator, visual artist Jamie B. Wolcott, who provides all the artwork for Eller’s musical projects.
“For some reason, I frequently find myself working a stretch of highway between 1865 and 1968,” Eller says. “Lee Harvey Oswald, Harpo Marx and Ulysses S. Grant just seem to play well together.”
Before moving to Durham in 2011, Eller spent a full decade in New York City gigging regularly as both a solo artist and with the rotating cast of the American Circus. After a largely impulsive solo trip to London – “I just got on a plane” – Eller earned a loyal European audience as well. The U.K. crowds responded to his peculiar twist on alt-American cultural exportation – enough so that Eller still mounts modest tours on the other side of the Atlantic.
While based in New York, Eller operated mostly as a solo act, recruiting backup musicians as needed.
That’s all changed now that Eller has planted roots in Durham. “For my musical life, the biggest difference has been the ability to maintain a regular backing band,” Eller says. “Here, I’ve had the luxury of working with a splendid group of performers for an extended period of time. I think the difference in the sound is easy to detect on the recording. It’s a bit wilder and more confident.”
Eller says that the band’s current lineup – multi-instrumentalist Louis Landry and vocalists Shea D. Broussard and Dana Marks – has also juiced the live show.
“Dana’s an incredibly gripping performer – she’s got opera training and this gigantic range,” Eller says. “I always get credit for being acrobatic onstage, but Dana’s really into yoga. She can out-sing me, she can out-stretch me...”
Eller’s preoccupation with sepia-toned circus life comes naturally. While Eller was growing up, his father ran a small local show called the Hiller Olde Tyme Circus, which featured acrobatics, wirewalking and trapeze routines. “Our basement was overflowing with dusty old circus equipment, which was quite nostalgic and magical for a kid growing up in suburban Detroit in the 1970s,” Eller says.
For the Motorco show, the American Circus will be joined by Chapel Hill’s New Town Drunks and, fittingly, magician Michael Casey, who will serve as the evening’s ringmaster and emcee.
As for the new record’s theme, Eller says it’s best summed up in the new song, “If You’re Looking for a Loser.”
“I’ve always been drawn to that famous photo of Muhammad Ali standing righteously over the sprawling figure of heavyweight champion Sonny Liston,” Eller says. “A great fighter whose enduring legacy is an image of defeat. Whenever I tell a story I scan the room and try to focus my attention on the fallen champion, whoever he or she might be.”