Bryan Elliott, whistle and uilleann pipes player for the Kissers, grew up in West Allis, Wisconsin. He can recall the day in sixth grade when he tried to assemble his first alto saxophone, a rental acquired for playing in the school band. Bryan described his practice regimen as “a little maniacal, right from the start.” For three years, he didn’t miss a day. That dedication and willingness to dive right in also served Bryan well years later, when he picked up whistle, and more recently, when he added to his arsenal the uilleann pipes, the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland.
By high school, Bryan was sitting first chair in the band and delving into the jazz records in his father’s collection. He recalls Herbie Hancock’s landmark 1973 Headhunters LP as particularly influential on his playing. Bernie Maupin plays woodwinds on that record, which was probably not what most of the other kids were into at that point.
On his third day at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Bryan picked up a flyer posted by a band looking for a sax player. A day or two later they were recording with Mike Zirkel, who would go on to serve as manager at legendary Smart Studios in Madison. That band was called Happenstance, and the set list included Grateful Dead, Traffic and The Ides of March. They gigged at clubs in Milwaukee. Bryan recalls the experience as similar to “going from zero to 60.”
Later on, the Happenstance connection led to Little Blue Crunchy Things, the funky rock band in which Bryan would play for five or six years, and where he would meet Ken Fitzsimmons. The Crunchy Things were enjoying some regional success when Ken asked Bryan if he’d like to play tin whistle on the side project he was starting with Kevin Youngs -- a Pogues cover band. Bryan’s response: “What’s a tin whistle?”
“I just was not into Irish music at all,” Bryan recalls. “But I could never say no to people asking me to join a band. At one point, I was in five or six at once. And if Ken was in it, that was good enough for me. If you’re available, I’m available, because we were both in the Crunchies. I found that the music connected with my inner Scotsman. I didn’t take it too seriously – and it was a lot of fun.”
When The Crunchies began to disintegrate, Ken and Bryan both devoted their efforts to The Kissers. When the tour idea was raised, Bryan had to bow out. By this time he was nurturing a career in real estate, and he was still burnt out on touring from the regional travel he had done with the Crunchies.
Several years later, with The Kissers in semi-retirement and Ken out of grad school, the occasional reunion gig started to become more than occasional. Bryan calls it “a soft re-entry. But I was totally on board for the new iteration of the band.”
In tune with the “backwards” way that The Kissers have come to a more traditional Irish sound, Bryan mastered the saxophone long before he attempted the whistle.
“It’s a very primitive instrument,” he says. “But as I played it more and listened to more music, I found that it takes a great deal of finesse. With a sax, the key is open or closed. In a way, that’s easier. With the whistle, a note can be half open, or flicked in a certain way to become more expressive.”
Like the sax, the uilleann pipes are a reed instrument. “I’ve never been so excited about the potential of an instrument,” says Bryan. “And I’ve been practicing that thing. Every night.”