The Handsome Family
Interview by Alexander Laurence
Husband and wife duo the Handsome Family has been making music for almost a decade that is somewhere between alt-country and traditionalist music. Brett Sparks is from Texas where he studied music. He moved to Chicago with his wife Rennie Sparks, a fiction writer originally from Long Island. Their music deals with dark themes and dark humor.
The Handsome Family's debut album, Odessa, was released in January 1995. This folk record was a home recording with a punk influence. Their second record, Milk and Scissors (1996), led to tours with Wilco, and more shows in Europe. Years later Brett was hospitalized with depression. Through the Trees (1998), The Handsome Family's third album was written and recorded in the aftermath of his depression. It was their most successful record to date.
Soon after Through the Trees, they quit their day jobs and worked on their music full time. The result was In the Air (2000), which was another great record. In the last part of this past year they released Singing Bones (2003). This record returned to early sounds and expanded their audience. It was voted as one of the best records of 2003 by Free Williamsburg. I got to talk to them right before a long American tour in January 2004. As you can tell from this interview, they were funny, contrary, and engaging.
AL: When did you record Singing Bones?
Brett: Before it came out. I am not sure.
AL: How long did it take you to do it?
Brett: I spend a lot more time on records than most people do because I record at home. I am retarded and slow. It was four months. I mixed it myself so that takes longer. It is time consuming.
AL: Do you have to have time off from tours so you can think about writing new material?
Brett: Yeah. We don't really write on the road. It's hard to do. We divide everything up into the school year and summer.
AL: You had a bunch of other people play on this record. How does that work out?
Brett: That stretches out the time too. We have to accommodate their schedules. There are a lot of Albuquerque people on the record. I have a lot of friends who are musicians. I wanted to have a bunch of different people doing different things so it just didn't sound like Rennie and me. I thought that certain songs would sound good with a pedal steel or mandolin. Most of these people play specific instruments. The person dictated what they would do. Rather that thinking that this song needs a good kick ass Van Halen style guitar solo. I could go down to the local metal music store and find someone who could do that. What the hell am I talking about?
AL: When you bring other people in you will have already recorded most of the song?
Brett: Yeah. Things will be close to being finished. It's not mixed. I have people come in and do overdubs.
AL: How do the songs get written?
Brett: It's almost always lyrics first and then music. Rennie will give me the lyrics and then I will read them.
AL: The song "If The World Should End In Fire" should like you used a choir in a bigger studio.
Brett: That was one of the easier ones because it was a simple vocal multi-track. Getting a good snare sound was more difficult than doing that song was. If you record your voice six or seven times and put a lot of reverb on it, it will sound like that.
AL: It sounds like thirty people.
Rennie: It's only one person.
Brett: It's nine distinct parts. Three basses, three melodies, and three tenors. That's it.
AL: It reminds me of that Langley School record.
Rennie: We don't know any kids. Or people who would leave their kids with us.
AL: Are you going to have some kids on the next record?
Rennie: Only if we find them on the doorstep. We have some traps laid.
Brett: We have this ice cream van.
AL: No children then.
Rennie: Only old people like us. Maybe a chorus of old ladies. I like the way Chet Baker used to sound after he got his face beat in.
Brett: Who whistle through their teeth. That is a good sound.
AL: Are there any records that you liked recently?
Brett: I like Alistair Roberts. It's really good. He's on Drag City. It's like Scottish folk music. It's just a guy and a guitar. It's really stripped down. It's very archaic sounding. The old talk. The old language.
Rennie: I listen to a lot of talk radio.
AL: That's good.
Brett: Rennie is not interested in music all that much. It just seems to get in the way.
AL: You tour with a lot of bands. You like any of those?
Rennie: Sure. We like lots of bands. I am not sure if they inspire me. I mostly inspired by books and talk radio. I like to eavesdrop on people in the aisle at Walgreen's. I met this blind girl in the parking lot of Walgreen's. That was pretty much the inspiration for the whole record. We helped this lost dog in the parking lot. We talked about dogs and beauty.
AL: How are you getting ready for this tour?
Rennie: I am doing calisthenics. I am bending spoons with my mind. That helps me focus. I smash light bulbs with the power of my thought rays.
Brett: I drink a lot of beer so I can get myself up to speed.
AL: How many shows?
Rennie: I hate to count. It goes on most of my fingers and then starts over again. I start counting with a foot. I try to count visually like a crow. They can look at seven objects without having words.
Brett: It's like looking at a pair of dice. You don't have to count.
AL: Crows? I thought you said Eskimos.
Rennie: There is a tribe in the rain forest that counts up to five. After that they go to "many." (There is a big noise) Hey! Get out of there! Motherfucker! Out!
Brett: All hell has broken loose here.
AL: What is going on?
Brett: It's the cat. He pushed an iron from a really high shelf last night. It was a huge bang and shattering glass. We go in the bathroom and it's all destroyed. The cat seemed proud of what he did.
AL: Are there only two of you who live there?
Brett: We try to throw our voices.
Rennie: I spent a whole summer trying to throw my voice and I got nowhere.
AL: Do either of you come from a musical family?
Brett: Neither one of us do. My family is mostly horse thieves.
Rennie: I come from a thousand years of tailors and accountants.
AL: No one in your family played an instrument?
Brett: My mother played piano. She was a schoolteacher all her life.
AL: How did you get involved in American roots music and Americana?
Brett: It was an accident really. After the indie rock explosion everything started to suck. It got boring. Punk rock got watered down and old. When I heard Hank Williams and Bob Dylan and a lot of early folk music it freaked me out how good it was. It was better than the garbage that I was listening to. As a songwriter it was good to model yourself on those old folk songs. It's not autobiographical and confessional. It doesn't have this "look at me" quality that most pop music has. It's beautiful. It's heavy stuff. It's not about some twenty year old complaining about unrequited love.
AL: It is more about storytelling.
Rennie: There were songs about ancient ritual murders of babies in the Middle East. People were throwing their babies into the fire and worshipping their god. There are also songs that we sing to children that are gruesome. Putting a baby in a tree and seeing if it will fall. "Ring Around The Rosy" is about the plague.
AL: What do you think about when Bob Dylan went electric?
Rennie: Many Americans don't like change. It's hard to shock people now like that, by picking up an electric guitar.
Brett: He got bored. Dylan has always been a contrarian. He pissed off a lot of people.
AL: Are these people conformists?
Brett: We met a lot of these purists. These people think that if you bring a harmonica onstage that it is not purist. When I brought an electric guitar onstage at the Harry Smith tribute at the Getty Center there were audible gasps. People freaked out.
AL: What about when you bring computers and drum machines onstage?
Brett: That scares me actually.
Rennie: The abomination. For a lot of our songs there was never a real drummer. It wasn't as if we left the drummer at home. Sometimes we bring a drummer with us on tour.
AL: Many people think that you killed the drummer.
Brett: Yeah, we ate him.
Rennie: But we didn't kill him.
AL: Are there any good books that you read recently that you care to mention?
Brett: I don't read. Rennie does. I don't read and Rennie doesn't listen to music.
Rennie: I like to read Barry Lopez. I was reading this book about a serial killer. It's about Herman Mudget. He was in Chicago during the World's Fair. All these people were going to the World's Fair and disappearing. This guy was luring young girls to his nearby hideout. It had trap doors. He had a crematorium in his basement. He had a good plan.
AL: Have you seen any movies?
Brett: We watched The Pianist last night. I thought it was really funny.
Rennie: I thought the movie implied that since he was an artist it was good he survived. Shouldn't the lives of bricklayers be just as important? Just because you are an artist it doesn't mean you are better than other people. I like the old version of Solaris. I like Touched By An Angel.
AL: That is still on TV?
Brett: I don't like other worldly shit.
Rennie: I like that the guy who plays Death is named Die. That fascinates me.
AL: Do you believe in higher intelligence?
Both: I hope so.
AL: Why is that?
Rennie: I know for a fact that two-thirds of the universe is made up of dark energy and dark matter. We can't perceive it at all. We only perceive one-third of reality. There is a lot more out there.
AL: Is there an afterlife or we do not just perceive everything?
Rennie: I don't know. I can only speak of the part that I perceive and so far it's pretty creepy. I am hoping the other two-thirds will make sense of everything. It's interesting that I don't understand everything about the universe.
Brett: It's safe to say that we don't have traditional Christian beliefs.
AL: Do you have any political leanings or personal philosophy?
Rennie: Kill Bush! Destroy him!
Brett: Don't say that.
AL: That was a joke.
Brett: We are very anti-war and anti-Bush. We feel that we were cheated out of the last election.
Rennie: I want my country back.
AL: You have to tour in Europe and people probably give you a hard time because you are American?
Brett: We travel around the world and play music for people. It's a real pain in the ass to explain yourself and your foreign policy to people every night. It sucks that you have to be embarrassed about your leaders and about what you are doing in the world.
Rennie: It would suck worse living in Iraq.