To be totally honest, I knew nothing about today’s artist, Ukulele Russ, except his name, that I got from the folks at Johnson Hall (where he will perform. on Oct. 18) and it was that moniker and the fact that he was coming to Maine that made me very curious about the person it labeled. Fast forward through a hectic session of Facebook’s Messenger and a hastily arranged phone interview was scheduled with the performer when he was parked in “the dead center of Pennsylvania on I-80 at a rest area.” Now you will learn all about him as I did on Sept. 24.

 

Q:  Now, you are Ukulele Russ, right?

Copelin: Yeah, that’s my stage name.

 

Q: How long have you been this stage persona?

Copelin: I’ve been a full-time entertainer since 2005 but I started operating under this name in 2009.

 

Q: When we were communicating through Messenger, when you were in Seattle, were you on tour then?

Copelin: Well, yeah, I had just started a tour, now I’m on the road until Thanksgiving.

 

Q: So this is the tour that’ll be bringing you to Gardiner.  Do you have a Maine connection?

Copelin: I’m originally from Benton, that’s next to Fairfield.

 

Q: Yup, I’m familiar with that town and I taught art in Pittsfield for 26 years.

Copelin: Wait a minute, at MCI?!

 

Q: No, at Warsaw Middle School, why?

Copelin: I went to MCI.  I graduated in 2001, I was moved to Pittsfield and lived in the dorms.  Oh, and I got my degree in history from UMaine Farmington.

 

Q: Do you still live in Maine?

Copelin: Nope, I moved to Alaska so I’m on the edge, man.

 

Q: Wait a minute, you’re moving to Alaska?  

Copelin: I live in Alaska, that’s where I’m based out of, I’ve been there 10 years. I’m from central Maine, but I haven’t lived in Maine since 2009. No, I live out there in Alaska, I have 12 acres, almost 13, I built my house out there. I live on a kind of subdivision that’s way out of town, like 40 minutes out of Fairbanks. I’m the last one on the grid. We’re, my wife and I, are in the middle of nowhere.

 

Q: Why Alaska?

Copelin: Well, in Maine it was really hard to make a living and then there’s that thing about the frontier. Alaska is one of those places where if you go once you either love it or hate it.

 

Q: By the sound of it, you’re in the former category. Do you get back to Maine to perform often?

Copelin: I do it once a year, that keeps it fresh for everybody and then I have a bunch of other venues that I hit up. I’m starting this tour in Ohio, I flew into Boston because I can’t do the one-way car rental, it’s so expensive (chuckle). So I’m better off flying into Boston, renting a car and driving to Ohio and then working my way back East and then ending in Boston again.

 

Q: So somewhere in there is when you’ll hit Gardiner, are you doing any other gigs in the state around that time when you’re at Johnson Hall?

Copelin: I’m doing a couple but I’d rather keep the advertising for them, you know what I’m saying? You can say I’m playing other shows but just don’t mention them, okay?

 

Q: You got it. Now, I assume—and we all know what happens when you do that, that you have played at Johnson Hall before?

Copelin: This will be my third time there.

 

Q: How do you find the audiences for what you do?

Copelin: Well, it’s always different because you get different people in different places. There are different senses of humor in different parts of the country or planet, you know that kind of thing. For example, jokes that I would use in Australia and New Zealand I wouldn’t use here.

 

Q: Do you have recordings out?

Copelin: Yeah, I have a couple of albums out. I’m working on releasing my new one, I just keep putting it off because I’ve just been too busy, it’s called “Through The Tissue” and the title song is about two-ply toilet paper. Actually, it’s about the world-wide elimination of single-ply; it’s the one thing that everybody can get behind. Yeah, try the veal, I’m here all week!

 

Q: Okay?

Copelin: I’m a humorist, I do a lot of satire and social commentary, and I’m a one-man band.

 

Q: Okay, how so?

Copelin: I play 14 or 15 different instruments, when I do my show I set up my one-man band and I play keys and synthesizer and I have a beat-box mic, harmonica, kazoos, ukulele, bass — sometimes I have a guitar on the side. I create the band in front of you, I have the ability to do six different loops independently with my machines, so that’s why I record myself right on the spot live, you watch me do it. I don’t have anything prerecorded so you watch me actually build the song.

 

Q: That’s so cool.

Copelin: Yeah, so that allows me to like create drums and rhythm in the background and I can independently turn them on and off from the floor. I’ve got like a starship around me when I play because I’ve got almost 30 buttons on the floor that I have to deal with. You see, I’m not only playing instruments and singing, my two feet are working a bunch of other instruments at the same time — and I’m keeping track of everything. I run a lot of vocal effects for some of those songs so I can have back-up singers (chuckle). And it’s fun because it’s just one guy.

 

Q: What can folks expect from your upcoming Johnson Hall performance?

Copelin: They can expect a little bit of everything as far as music, some improvisation, comical stories, and witty outlooks on the current state of the planet.

 

Q:  Is there anything you’d like to pass on to the readers of this article?

Copelin: What do I want to have passed on? A feeling of maybe they want to come to the show and see what other strange things I’m going to say?

 

Lucky Clark has spent 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it.  He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

 


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