Walter Sickert and … Edrie … live in a charmingly ramshackle house in Dorchester that looks as if it was decorated with acquisitions from Tim Burton’s garage sale. On a recent Thursday evening, Edrie puttered around the kitchen while Sickert fed the couple’s 18-month-old daughter, Wednesday. The dog was safely packed away upstairs and the house was quiet, as though mentally preparing for what would soon descend: a rehearsal with the pair’s sprawling horror-rock band Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys.
The group was only a few weeks out from its album release show at the Sinclair in Cambridge on Sept. 9 and the anticipation was starting to build. Not long ago Edrie had posted a heartfelt message on Facebook imploring people to buy tickets. “You are our art family and we need you!” she wrote, signing it, as she does all messages from the band, “Love & Tentacles” — a playful reference to the squid-like appearance of Sickert’s long mess of dreadlocks. Though the Toys have built a vibrant local reputation, they still operate independently of any label. “It’s very rare to get the opportunity to play at a corporate thing like the Sinclair on a Friday night as a local band with an all-local bill,” Edrie said.
For Edrie, Sickert and the rest of the band, making art is as much a community effort as a personal one. Edrie in particular lives much of her creative life on social media, talking about her work on the board of the Boston Arts Council and promoting the band’s various endeavors — albums and shows as well as ambitious theater projects like 2015’s collaboration with Company One Theatre on a production of the 1998 musical Shockheaded Peter — but also writing openly about the challenges of making a living as artists and parents. “Will we miss a career opportunity because we post too many baby pix,” she wondered on Facebook, adding, parenthetically, “I’ve already had a theater company mention that being a parent might be too hard for them to work around.”
The result is a band that, though it started years ago as a duo and would certainly be more affordable that way, has swelled to include eight regular members. The group’s new album, Come Black Magic, features contributions from musicians with Berklee degrees along with performers who have no formal training at all, friends who were pulled into the Toys’ madcap milieu by the friendly-yet-sinister tentacles of Sickert’s outsize charisma. (The current lineup consists of Sickert on lead vocals, guitar and piano, Edrie on accordion and toys, Rachel Jayson on viola, Matt Zappa on drums, Mike Leggio on bass, jojo Lazar on ukulele and flute, Mary Widow on mandolin and vocals and Brother Bones on guitar.) “We’re really a family more than a band at this point,” Sickert says.
Widow was drafted back in 2015 to replace Edrie in Shockheaded Peter after Edrie and Sickert found out that Wednesday — also known as the Squid Kid — was due on opening night. The baby arrived the day before tech rehearsal and quickly became a common sight at concerts around town, a tiny and surprisingly serene presence in giant noise-protective earmuffs.
If literally having a baby while working on a musical that you spent about as much time gestating as your own offspring sounds crazy, such seemingly impossible projects have become something of a trademark for Edrie, Sickert and their musical army. “We, about four times a year, make lists of cool things we want to do, and tack it up on a board,” Edrie says.
Every February since 2007, the band has participated in the RPM Podcast’s “RPM Challenge” — an open call for artists to write and record an entire album in one month. The band has made ten albums this way, in addition to four in the studio and three others at home. Currently, they are planning to film a series of music videos, one for each song on Come Black Magic, all linked by a single narrative. Edrie says the project is typical in its daunting complexity. “So sure, make a video for every song,” she says. “But don’t just make a video for every song, make a video that’s interconnected, that requires crazy camera work, that we are renting a drone for.”
The push toward ever-greater artistic feats stems from Sickert’s particular — and peculiar — vision. He makes part of his living as an illustrator (he has designed all of the Toys’ album artwork), and his style is as much visual as musical. The members of Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys are fond of wigs and corsets and the color black. Their music sounds like a goth descendant of Led Zeppelin — pummeling, blues-inflected and theatrical, enamored of minor keys and stories involving child murder.
“The thought and the painting in my mind of what I want, ultimately, the music to sound like, and the arrangements to sound like, doesn’t ever mold itself, maybe, to being practical,” Sickert says. “And I have to kind of chase that dragon as much as I can to match the sound or the vision that’s in my head.”
Edrie puts it another way. “Walter is Falkor,” she says, referring to the giant flying dog-monster from the 1984 film The NeverEnding Story. “And the rest of the band rides on him and tries to steer him. Like, ‘OK, Falkor, now this way’ — and sometimes we can get him to go that way and sometimes it’s like, ‘Whoa, impossible, everything’s too big.’ So if you think what is onstage or what is in the CD is big and crazy, it’s like a tiny, tiny, tiny little bit of what Walter’s huge vision is.”
In trying to locate the source of his aesthetic, Sickert points to horror movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, along with an especially formative period in his youth when, after his family’s houseboat burned down, he enrolled in Catholic school in Massachusetts. The experience — Sickert’s first brush with organized religion after being homeschooled on a modified tugboat for part of his childhood — intensified a nascent fascination with the macabre. “Going to Catholic school and being taught about Hell and all those things that are naughty and wrong — that kind of painted a picture of what I saw as what evil actually was,” Sickert says. “And all that was mixed up with these horror movies that I would stay up too late and watch as a kid.”
Sickert says that Come Black Magic is the closest the band has ever come to realizing the music that he hears in his head. This achievement is thanks in no small way to Edrie’s producer-like role. “We work really well together when we make art,” Sickert says. “I can be like, ‘Here’s this crazy jungle of ideas,’ and she’s like, ‘I like this, but let me show you how you can actually make this happen.’ And without that balance I would just be alone in a barn in the middle of the woods, just making music and art for myself that would never be seen by or heard by anybody else.”
Instead, the life that Sickert and Edrie have created is one in which the artistic and domestic spheres co-mingle. Sickert takes care of Wednesday, writes music, scores films and makes art from home while Edrie works a day job and handles publicity for the band. Friends babysit the Squid Kid when her parents are onstage. On Thursdays, Edrie and Sickert host band practice at their house, but not before feeding everyone dinner.
This particular Thursday is no different. Seven o’clock rolls around and the pasta water that Edrie put on earlier begins to boil. People start trickling in. Soon, the house will be filled with exuberantly menacing music — for little Wednesday, and everyone else in her extended art family, probably the most comforting sound in the world.