The Handsome Family: Interview
The Death Count Rises
The Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks talks about
recording the upcoming album, donating organs to Jeff Tweedy, and how thoughts
of death show life's value. (September 2003)
After making tons of phone calls and unconventional death threats (hey, you have
to be unique about killing methods when you're threatening these two), I finally
got Rennie Sparks, one half of the Handsome Family, to answer a few questions
for me. It's been two years since their last album, Twilight, was
released, so I couldn't be happier about Singing Bones, which is set for
release on October 7. Shout it from the mountains.
The Handsome Family is
currently one of the most unique American bands recording; their songs pair
beautiful, haunting melodies with sometimes scary, often misunderstood, but
always image-evoking lyrics. They've been around for about ten years now,
having six records under their belts, but unfortunately, they remain too much of
a well-kept secret.
Oh, I almost
forgot--approximately one-fifth of my first paragraph is a complete lie. Rennie
was quick to respond graciously to my request to pester her with questions and
completely willing to enlighten me on her philosophies, organ donor status, and
the new album.
Tiny Mix Tapes:
Several artists resent being labeled under a particular genre
of music, particularly some that are labeled “alt. country.” Being labeled as
such nearly always involves inevitable comparisons to bands like Uncle Tupelo
and Whiskeytown. You are obviously dissimilar to both bands, yet you are often
tagged with the label “alt. country.” How do you feel about wearing this label,
and does it make you feel like you are confined to a corner artistically?
Rennie: The labels that
people use to describe us when they write about us
don't effect us when we're writing songs at all. When we're writing songs we
both just strive to make a beautiful object appear in the ethers. I'm more
effected by the late night radio I listen to about Big Foot and
interdimensional flying rods. What people say about our music later is up to
them. I feel like the term 'americana' works fine for us because we are both
very influenced by our life as americans, but alt. country doesn't seem to
ring much with me. I don't feel like we're providing an alternative version
of country music. But, again, it doesn't always matter what we think.
"This newest record was made during probably the
happiest time in our lives."
Tiny Mix Tapes:
You mention on your website that your fifth album, Twilight,
has been your biggest release financially. Do you think its financial success
is reflective of your creative progression as artists, or do you personally
think that some of your other albums contain your best work?
Rennie: Sure we always feel
we're getting better and better with each
record, but I also withdrew all the money from my bank account during the
last computer virus scare. Anyway, there's always room for improvement when
you're a songwriter. This newest record was made during probably the
happiest time in our lives. We had just moved to New Mexico and finally had
the luxury to devote an entire room just to music. Nobody was going crazy or
recovering from going crazy. We watched sunsets and went to junk stores and
Tiny Mix Tapes:
Lately, many artists have included collaborations with other artists on their
records. You have done this in the past, most notably with Jeff Tweedy on
Through the Trees. Is Singing Bones going to feature any musical guests? If
so, who are they? Who, of the artists you have recorded/performed with did you
find the most enjoyable to work with?
Rennie: Moving to New Mexico
was very good for us musician-wise. Brett went
to college here so we have a lot of old friends who are musicians. Darrell
Sparks, Brett's brother, played drums on "The Forgotten Lake" and "Far From
Any Road." He also played banjo on "Dry Bones" and violin on "Whitehaven."
Dave Gutierrez played mandolin on "Far From Any Road" and pedal steel on "Sleepy." Greg Hansen played dobro on
"Dry Bones." David McChesney played
trumpet on "Far From Any Road." Jimmy Pontzer plays drums on "Gail with the
Golden Hair" and "Dry Bones." Tony Watkins plays bowed bass on "Whitehaven."
Also, Brett played musical saw on "24-Hour Store" so, all in all, a lot of
weird sounds on the new one. It was really nice to be able to show our
talented friends off a bit.
It was more than generous of
Jeff Tweedy to help us with Through the Trees.
He loaned us all the equipment to record on and was just so encouraging and
helpful that I'm not even sure that record would have gotten done without
him. He also took us on tour with him a few times. We were feeling very
fragile back then and very insecure about making music so we owe him big
time. I keep telling him he can have one of my kidneys, but so far he's not
Tiny Mix Tapes: You say
that Singing Bones is “designed to rip holes in the veil between this world and
the next.” Can we expect more haunting, ethereal songs that fans have begun to
associate with the Handsome Family, or are we in for something different?
Rennie: Well Singing
Bones was written up here in Albuquerque which is a
mile above the sea. The air is very thin so I think we're more prone to
hallucinate. Since there's no cloud cover it's much easier to spot UFOs and
ghosts. All of which is reflected on the record.
Tiny Mix Tapes:
On that same theme about unique lyrics and melodies, both seem
beyond comparison to other bands. From what I understand, Rennie is the
principal writer of lyrics and Brett writes the music. Who, if anyone, can each
of you claim as influences?
Rennie: Thank you! As a
lyricist I'm not too influenced by my
contemporaries, much more by older writers. Mostly Tin Pan Alley songs,
Stephen Foster's parlour songs, and the beautiful nature poetry of ancient
British Isles folk songs. Anything that mentions "lily-white" hands or
"ruby-red lips" usually makes my knees weak.
"Death is not the thing that ruins life;
it's the thing that gives life its preciousness."
Tiny Mix Tapes:
How true to your creative instincts are you allowed to be on
your records? We've heard horror stories about bands battling with their labels
for artistic freedom. Is this something that you don't run into with
independent labels, or does every recording artist have to deal with it to an
Rennie: We are on Carrot Top
because Patrick (who runs the label) is simply
a great guy to work with. He's never tried to do anything, but encourage us.
I wouldn't last a week on a major label. The way I see it, I spent a good
part of my youth grovelling in corporate america in a series of horrible
office jobs and I don't care to spend anymore time with a fake smile on my
face. Besides, taking away artistic freedom, a lot of majors take away all
your money. But, a lot of musicians are very naïve about this sort of thing.
They think they need a manager, a tour manager, a label rep. and assorted
other yes-men in order to "rock". We tour in a rented minivan and we drive
ourselves, sell our own CDs, take care of our own website, etc. In
other words: we're grown ups.
Tiny Mix Tapes:
Americans seem to consider the subject of death very
unpleasant, and something that should not be candidly discussed. Your songs
discuss—and quite freely so—the subjects of death and dying. Have you ever
sensed that people get uncomfortable about the dark subject matter of many of
your songs? How important do you think it is for people to try to see death
from a different perspective?
Rennie: I think that
America's insistence in avoiding discussion of death is
a very unhealthy thing. We seem to feel that if we just focus on happy
endings and youth and beauty then all the dark things in life will just go
away. But, people die so poorly here. Once upon a time, the whole family
would gather around grandmother's bed as she lay dying and it was a room
full of love. Now, grandmother is in ICU surrounded by a bunch of screaming
doctors, tubes and needles, electric shock pads. It's horrible. Nobody is
allowed to just relax and prepare for the inevitable. Death is not the thing
that ruins life, it's the thing that gives life its preciousness. It gives
meaning to beauty and to art and to love. I'm not sure why Americans have
retreated from reality. But, we even have started to look like big babies
with our chubby cheeks and sloppy clothes. In Europe we don't have any
problem. We don't ever have to explain why death is an important subject,
why it's not depressing to talk about. They are surrounded by ancient
history. They can not simply bulldoze it all away every ten years and build
another new strip mall.
"Eat the body or cover it in feathers and plaster and make
Tiny Mix Tapes: What bands are you listening to right
now, and why are they worth listening to?
Rennie: Stephen Foster. He
wrote "Beautiful Dreamer" which, in my opinion,
is the most beautiful song ever written by an American.
Tiny Mix Tapes:
Through your five previous albums, the Handsome Family's body
count has risen to approximately 17 human beings. For those of us who are
keeping count, how many bodies can we add to the number after we've heard
Rennie: Well let's see.
There's a horse that falls off a cliff, there are
ghosts flying around a Wal-Mart, there are visions of the entire world
ending in ice and/or fire, there's a forest fire...you do the math.
Tiny Mix Tapes: Let's say
that, hypothetically, I killed someone in a small town in central Alabama.
Hypothetically, what do you think would be the best way to dispose of the
hypothetically murdered body?
Rennie: Eat it. I'm a firm
believer in always eating what you kill. That's
nature's way. Well, I guess it's the serial killer's way too. Anyone who
lives out west has probably got a cannibal or two in their family history.
That was the only way to make it out there. The Donner party situation was
more common than we usually think. But, I digress. Eat the body or cover it
in feathers and plaster and make it dance.