Circus of Books, the band, not the strange market/video/bookstore on Silverlake (R.I.P.), is a collection of riff raff musicians performing songs, reminiscent of 90’s alternative (think The Breeders, Weezer, and Beck), covering the subjects of misfit love, self deprecation, a mountain created by a man named Leonard, and often overlooked things like a diplomatic boner; zombies; a sympathetic ballad to an elevator… If you go googling for any of these songs, you’re going to find links to books about circuses, bookstores, and a fellow by the name of Mateo Katsu.
This is the entrance of the Circus of Books rabbit hole since Circus of Books exists only in live performances and the music is written by Mateo Katsu, the songs are subject to extremely different performances.
If you’ve only seen Mateo play with Circus of Books, you’re probably not familiar with many of the songs on MKID, which is unfortunate and you should right this a.s.a.p. Aside from the music, what makes this album so cool is the CD sleeve has little blurbs about each song instead of handing over a sheet of lyrics or a bare inside. Some songs give a short history of how it was recorded or whom it’s about, like “Long Tall Sally” is about Mateo’s infatuation for the astronaut, Sally Ride. “Long Tall Sally” was recently added to their set with a lead guitar riff that Gibbons slays like it’s Johnny B. Goode. Among the songs you may have never heard, but really should is “Index Finger Rite” (Mateo, if you’re reading this, if you guys start playing this, I might stop yelling for “Ears”). It’s a quirky number about loving a person enough to let them know when your mind is gone so they can leave you in a home where you’ll spend the rest of your days playing bingo and going to the wheelchair disco. Nine tracks in is one of the best never performed songs, “Nag Hammadi 1276”. A fun, dance-y song with lyrics providing story images that would go perfect with a crayon drawn cartoon, according the liner notes, is about the oldest city in Egypt – Nag Hammadi.
Those of you who have seen Circus of Books a gazillion times, you probably have most of their songs stuck in your heart and would love to listen to them again. If this is the case, then you’re looking for Fourteen Weeks. Most of this album covers Circus of Books sets, with hits like “Diplomatic Boner” and, a personal favorite, “One Day I’ll be Your Ears”, but probably the most relatable among Circus of Books fans is “The Glow”. It’s a special song, currently making the rounds on blogs, because it’s about a home full of people, not necessarily artists, who don’t live like conventional society says they should. This goes well with another favorite off this album, “Security”. An artist’s anthem – “I may not know where to go and it might be scary to me, let me be free, I don’t want your security”. The best thing about this song is you can get a different version everytime Mateo dons his acoustic guitar plastered in stickers. Solo, he’ll slow it down with a long pause for “security… fuck it”, but with Circus of Books, the boys harness the frustration of every artist and weirdo who’s been told their entire lives to settle down to a secure lifestyle and deliver the message “security, fuck it!”.
The album with, probably, the oldest songs, White Men Don’t Name Their Babies Jesus, also has the fewest songs played by Circus of Books, with the title track being the most popular (but who doesn’t love dancing to the “da da da la da da” part?). Recently, the boys have been playing “A Special Plan” in their sets, though. It’s a good song, almost contradictory to “Security” as Mateo sings about having future plans so he buys himself a good shirt and shines his shoes. He never tells us the plans, only graces with a rock ballad dedicated to an unappreciated elevator (pst… Mateo, you should squeeze this in a set, too). The song most different from the songs of Mateo Katsu and Circus of Books is “Forty Hours”. Raw in feel with a bit of feedback and throat clearing, this song is played like a low-brow, dark art piece with a guitar leading the way through drum smashes and bits of a self deprecating lyrics beside the chorus, “we’re living in dangerous times”.
Summing up what makes Circus of Books special isn’t just the talent involved, the great audience that gathers, or the free CDs Mateo will push on you. They’re special because they’re human; they’re as accessible as the music they play. Self hatred, broken hearts, quirky superheroes, and misunderstandings are common thoughts no one wants to say out loud in conversation, but when you sing along to Circus of Books, it’s okay.
As a dedicated fan of Circus of Books, I’ve seen them in locations ranging from bars to a warehouse in Skid Row to the desert. I’ve danced with friends as we knock into each other during “Salvation Mountain” and run in a counter-clockwise circle with my arms slung over friends during “Security” while Robert Quijano shared a microphone with my cardboard cut out and Donnie Pepper laughed endlessly at the lot of us as we fell like dominoes; I’ve also sat alone in a dark bar while the boys played the hits, feeling the sounds and words and deciphering my thoughts.
Now, nearly a year after driving out to the desert to be dragged in the dirt and covered in Karo Syrup, I’m honored to present the music video for “Forty Hours”.