Boston musician Brian Carpenter completes Weird American Gothic trilogy with ‘These Wicked Things’
Several years ago, Beat Circus frontman Brian Carpenter received a call out of the blue from California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which was working on a play based on the book The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury, author of Gangs of New York. Berkeley wanted Carpenter to write a score for the production.
At that time, Beat Circus was on hiatus while Carpenter pursued other projects (jazz outfit Ghost Train Orchestra, singer-songwriter outlet Brian Carpenter & the Confessions), but he was intrigued, particularly because Beat Circus had some unfinished business.
In 2006, about five years after Carpenter left Gainesville, Florida, for Boston, the singer and multi-instrumentalist took inspiration from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and came up with an idea for a “Weird American Gothic” trilogy. In 2008, Beat Circus debuted the first installment — Dreamland, a concept record about Coney Island at the turn of the 20th century. Part Two arrived the following year: Boy from Black Mountain, a record inspired by Carpenter's roots in Birmingham, Alabama.
Carpenter envisioned the third album as a Western noir set piece, with echoes of Cormac McCarthy novels and Bruno Nicolai and Ennio Morricone soundtracks. But the final act in the trilogy had proved elusive, partly because Carpenter had begun to tire of the theatricality inherent in Beat Circus.
“Fifteen years ago there was a real interesting scene happening in Boston. It was centered around this band the Dresden Dolls, which is a very theatrical band. … Beat Circus came out of that,” Carpenter said recently by phone. “But theatrics were really turning me off at a certain point. I just wanted to write good songs, and I thought that was just getting in the way.”
Carpenter pivoted to the Confessions as a way to go in the opposite creative direction. “It's just raw — really dry, deadpan vocals; very stripped-down arrangements; no instrumentals, or very few; and more imagery and abstract lyrics, whereas Beat Circus was all story driven,” he said.
But in Barbary Coast, which presents the violent history of Gold Rush-era San Francisco in a series of vignettes, Carpenter seized the chance to complete the Beat Circus trilogy with a noir Western that told the legend of Mexican folk hero Joaquin Murrieta, aka the Robin Hood of El Dorado, an outlaw miner hell-bent on revenge (Murrieta supposedly inspired the character of Zorro). Though the play was never fully staged, Carpenter used the opportunity to fuse the story of Murrieta with some of his own Southwest experiences on newly released album These Wicked Things, which completes the Weird American Gothic trilogy.
Ever since he began working with engineer Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Neko Case) about a decade ago in Tucson, Arizona, Carpenter has escaped to the Southwest for part of the winter. During one trip, when Carpenter was staying in a motel in the Mojave Desert, someone was murdered in the room next door. “There were all kinds of strange things happening. Ladies were hallucinating. I think there was a meth dealer around,” Carpenter said.
On another visit, Carpenter ran out of gas in his rental car on the way to Saguaro National Park. To make things worse, his phone battery was dead. “I'm just on this road, a very flat highway, and there's nobody there. So I'm just waiting, and I'm afraid. In Tucson, if you run out of water, you're in really big trouble because you can dehydrate,” he said. “You look left and right, and you can't see anybody. It's just all desert plains on either side. So once every 30 minutes somebody would pass by.”
Eventually Carpenter hitchhiked a ride with a tourist, and the experience inspired These Wicked Things track “Gone, Gone, Gone,” in which Carpenter's dry baritone tells of a man trudging along a hot highway, searching for signs of life. There's a menacing, hallucinatory undertone to the song and the entire album, enhanced by a booklet of black-and-white illustrations by Croatian artist Danijel Zezelj.
But there's a beauty to the music that's reflective of Carpenter's time out West. Even when he was stranded on a desert highway, Carpenter couldn't help but notice his serene surroundings. “At a certain point, maybe about an hour in, I just started to make peace with it, like, ‘Wow, this is really nice out here,'” he said. “It's a whole other world down there. I love it.”