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After a decade of silence, Beat Circus is back to being weird

Beat Circus celebrates the release of “These Wicked Things” with a tour that arrives in Somerville Saturday.Liz Linder

An artists’ collective is usually quite a hodgepodge. Furniture scavenged from sidewalks on trash day, random relics — birdcages, manual typewriters — that double as art installations, and enough extension cords to build a rope bridge to the nearest Salvation Army store.

Beat Circus was one of the bands that often played the old Pan 9 performance space in Allston before that unsanctioned loft building was gutted by an electrical fire in 2006. “There was a whole scene of bands — Count Zero, Dresden Dolls, Jaggery — with a theatrical bent,” recalls Brian Carpenter, the ringleader who gave his first band his initials.


With a sound scavenged from a virtual musical bazaar — from noir jazz and dark cowboy soundtracks to steampunk chamber music and gringo mariachi — Beat Circus emerged from those ashes to inaugurate what Carpenter promised would be a “weird American gothic” trilogy of concept albums. That series began with the 2008 release of the band’s second album, “Dreamland,” the story of which was inspired by a Coney Island theme park that burned to the ground more than a century ago.

The next album in the band’s trilogy, “Boy from Black Mountain,” came out in 2009. And then . . . nothing. Carpenter, who lives with his wife and son in Arlington, organized a new group, Ghost Train Orchestra, which revived the old-time swing jazz of the 1920s and ’30s. He formed another new band, Brian Carpenter and the Confessions, to make a more songwriter-ly record. Meanwhile, the Beat Circus trilogy remained unfinished.

“It just happens that way,” says Carpenter, sitting in a Central Square coffee shop on a recent weeknight. “You learn so much from one project that can feed another.”

In 2014, Carpenter unexpectedly heard from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, which has helped launch Manhattan-bound rock musicals including “Passing Strange” and “American Idiot.” The dramaturg, Madeleine Oldham, was looking for a composer who could score a stage adaptation of Herbert Asbury’s “The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld.”


“My eyes lit up,” says Carpenter, who is wearing a black denim jacket and a black, unmarked baseball cap. Asbury, of course, was the author who also wrote “The Gangs of New York.”

“ ‘Barbary Coast,’” Carpenter says, “is technically a true-crime book, but it’s so depraved and grisly, it almost reads like a Hubert Selby novel. There was this fact-fiction thing that I like.”

Carpenter reconvened the members of Beat Circus, and they spent a week as artists in residence in Berkeley. Ultimately, the play wasn’t produced. (“Too complex,” Carpenter explains.) But the work did spur him to move ahead with the long-awaited third installment of the Beat Circus trilogy.

Nearly a decade after their last album, Beat Circus will celebrate the release of “These Wicked Things” with a tour that kicks off Friday in Portland, Maine, and Saturday at Once Ballroom in Somerville. The Saturday bill, featuring Count Zero and Jaggery, will be a reunion of sorts for the Pan 9 crowd.

“The atmosphere at the moment is all excitement and fun,” says Paul Dilley, who has played upright bass in Beat Circus since 2006. “We love this music.”

Dilley, who was performing with Reverend Glasseye when he first met Carpenter, “gravitated to him because his music is very ambitious.” It’s also highly collaborative, he says, with Carpenter presenting his colleagues with written scores, but then asking for their input as they workshop each composition.


“He’s not totalitarian in any way,” says Dilley. The current live band also features guitarist Andrew Stern, drummer Gavin McCarthy, reed player Ryan Fessinger, violinist Abigale Reisman, and viola player Emily Bookwalter. Special guests on the album include Calexico’s Jacob Valenzuela and Morphine’s Dana Colley.

Carpenter was raised in the small surf city of Satellite Beach, Fla. “I grew up singing in church,” he says, “but I was really embarrassed about it.” He took up trumpet, and didn’t really commit to singing with Beat Circus until “Boy from Black Mountain,” which was inspired in part by an autism diagnosis for his son, Alex.

“Honestly, I regret not starting sooner,” he says about singing. The songs on “These Wicked Things” were recorded at Q Division in Somerville and mixed in Tucson, Ariz. Accompanied by Carpenter’s maudlin, just-the-facts voice and the stark, black-and-white illustrations of the graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj, they invoke a series of existential crime mysteries, with titles such as “Bad Motel” and “The Last Man (Is Anybody Out There?).”

Carpenter’s upbringing in the Baptist church instilled in him a perverse fascination with the darker side of human life, he says: “In religion, there’s so much mythology. That drew me to American folklore.” The classic “Anthology of American Folk Music,” compiled by the late eccentric Harry Smith from strange and obscure 78 rpm records, has been “a huge influence,” Carpenter says.


For fans, the Beat Circus reunion may seem long overdue. But Carpenter is already thinking about his next project — a collaboration between Ghost Train Orchestra and the Kronos Quartet, reimagining the music of the late, avant-garde composer Louis Hardin, better known as Moondog.

Carpenter says he’s pleased to finally complete the trilogy. Not so much for the accomplishment, but for what comes next.

“Now I can take the band in a whole different direction,” he says.

Beat Circus

With Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, Count Zero, Jaggery, and Kee Avil. At Once Ballroom, 156 Highland Ave., Somerville, March 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets $10-$12, www.oncesomerville.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.