FROM THE HEART “You write the best songs when you’re in the most pain,” says Sickert. “Most of us came into this band broken.”
When Walter Sickert and his Army of Broken Toys played an official First Night show at the Hynes Auditorium on New Year's Eve, they ran overtime and the soundman pulled the plug — which isn't quite the smartest way of shutting down an acoustic band. Especially one with two dozen singers, dancers, burlesque queens, and Lord knows what else in the line-up. And especially a band who're dead set on getting through the killer cover of "Ghostbusters" that they learned for the occasion.
"We were already two songs behind timewise when we went into our tasteful rendition of 'Ghostbusters,' which we went back to the 1880s to write," recalls Jojo Lazar, the group's uke player and resident poetess. "So we jumped into the crowd and finished it with their help, and from that point, there were no lines between us and them. That's the goal in our eyes, to make the audience part of the band. It was our shining Sex Pistols moment."
The Army of Toys didn't get run out of town the way the Pistols did — they've already been invited back for next year, their third First Night in a row. Still, this wasn't your usual family entertainment, given the motley crew on stage. Ringleaders Sickert and co-singer/accordionist Edrie come across like a pirate and an exotic marionette, respectively, and the music, hinged to Sickert's remarkably grizzled voice, draws from the bloodthirsty side of folk and cabaret.
At their Somerville headquarters last week, Sickert and crew were busy laying out plans for next Thursday's show at T.T. the Bear's. This typically involves a few levels of prep. Stage director Helena Prezio has already scoped out the place for ideas, and she's about to call in the "bunnies" — the 20-odd performers who augment the group on stage; they'll be instructed to listen to the set list and come up with something visually fitting. Guitarist Meff, who writes plays in her non-rock life, contributes conceptual bits. And Sickert is always ready with songs that have characters and storylines. "I think we present a healthy dose of everyone celebrating everyone, so nobody gets creeped out," says Lazar. "It's perversion with a smile."
It's been just two years since the group came together under sad but fitting circumstances: Sickert and Edrie were casual friends (she'd produced shows by his previous band) who got the news that their spouses had skipped town with each other. It was the perfect excuse to work as a duo and write self-pitying acoustic songs — which for a short time they did. (Hence the "broken toys" concept, which alludes both to their romantic hurt and to the misfit-toys sequence in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.) "You write the best songs when you're in the most pain, and it worked for me," says Sickert. "Most of us came into this band broken." Adds Edrie: "And that unpredictable serendipitous event wound up bringing us together."