Q&A With The Handsome Family

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Over the course of 16 years and nine albums, the weird, wonderful world of the Handsome Family has been populated by tales of ghosts, murders, bottomless holes and the mysterious deaths of Nikola Tesla and Amelia Earhart. For the Albuquerque, N.M., husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks, an album of love songs is a startling left turn. The upcoming Honey Moon (due April 14 on Carrot Top) doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the band’s previous output—mainly a studious, modern-studio take on country, bluegrass and Appalachian folk sung in Brett’s deep Texas drawl—but it dials down the gothic-fiction storytelling in favor of a focused collection of material that happens to arrive in the same year the Sparks celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Still, this is the Handsome Family; don’t expect flowers or chocolates. On Honey Moon, love is a female insect devouring her mate (“Darling, My Darling”), a diamond ring is shattered glass on the asphalt (“A Thousand Diamond Rings”), and happiness is living in a swamp with your significant other, dressed in pelts and howling like dogs (“Wild Wood”).

MAGNET phoned Brett and Rennie Sparks at home, intending to discuss love songs; we were soon engaged on the topics of hillbillies, moths, swamps and toilets. Needless to say, we’re psyched the Handsome Family will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week.

“Darling, My Darling” from Honey Moon (download here):

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MAGNET: Lyrically, a collection of love songs seems straight-ahead for you guys. There aren’t as many ghosts and haunted lakes here as on your past albums.
Brett: There’s not a body count, per se. It’s not a collection of murder ballads. It’s still kind of spectral and haunted.
Rennie: I think love is another way of approaching mystery. For me, it wasn’t insanely different to write about love. I’m still thinking about luminous things. Maybe my medication is working a bit better, so it’s less haunted.
Brett: It seemed like a good time to do something different. You know, sometimes you watch artists and they get inspired to do things and they actually follow through and do them. I’m not one of those kinds of artists. I usually get ideas like, “I should do a rock opera!” And then 15 minutes later I’m like, “Should I get onion rings or french fries?” My follow-through is not that great. We really started listening to a lot of the Inkspots and the Platters and what you would call standards, like Gershwin. Really beautiful songs that are transcendent. To try to make a collection of love songs that aren’t incredibly trite is difficult.
Rennie: Triteness is really a problem.

Did you feel like you were starting to get marginalized or thought of as that kooky band that writes about murder and missing airplanes?
Brett: I’m sure there was a subconscious reaction.
Rennie: But you don’t write a record just to say, “I’ll show them!”
Brett: When you’ve been called “the Gomez and Morticia Adams of country music” enough times, you will fucking take off your little gothic cowboy hat.
Rennie: You have a gothic cowboy hat? Is it made of cobwebs and lizard skin?
Brett: I got a cobrasnake for a necktie.
Rennie: Honestly, though, when you try to write songs you don’t think about what other people will think about it.
Brett: I kind of do. I want to write things that will satisfy my … spectral need. [Laughs] I want to make my stuff so that it works for people. I don’t have exclusionary intentions. I’ve been through all this shit; I wrote abstract, atonal music, I worked in prepared piano music, I went to school and studied bullshit harmony and counterpoint for no reason, but I try to take that stuff and roll it up into a little ball that people can play with.

I’m always impressed at the way you two work, with Rennie writing the lyrics and Brett putting them to music. One line that struck me was “Love is like a white moth sipping tears from sleeping birds.”
Rennie: Someone sent me an article on that—there really is a moth that survives on the tears of birds.

You just blew my mind. I didn’t even know birds had tears.
Brett: That is a mind-blower, isn’t it? It’s really a trip.
Rennie: I’m still reeling from it. I felt the world needed to know about this.
Brett: Some of the things in Rennie’s lyrics are, “Wow, where the hell did that come from?” A lot of the times it is pure fabrication, but sometimes it’s just that she reads a lot of books.

But also, the way that line is written, as a sentence, is not easy to turn into a song lyric.
Rennie: Yeah, that was a tough one for [Brett].
Brett: The thing is, when you read the lyrics and you try to impose the rhythm of speech onto the music instead of the other way around—which is the modern paradigm—it opens up a whole world. The lyrics can almost write the song. They used to call it word painting, musica reservata. Literally painting the words with music.

Whereas most people start with a melody and sing nonsense until words form.
Brett: I know Jeff starts with a riff and then puts the words over it. I think Andrew might do both at once.
Rennie: Jeff Tweedy and Andrew Bird. We’re not inside your head, Brett.

The weird thing is that I knew who you were talking about.
Brett: Who else would I be talking about?
Rennie: These are the only people we’ve watched write songs.

Clichéd question, but since the record is called Honey Moon: Where did you two honeymoon?
Rennie: Niagara Falls!
Brett: The ultimate cliché.
Rennie: We bought a golden bust of Elvis at a gift shop there.
Brett: It fell off the table and broke in the middle of the night.

Maybe it wasn’t made of real gold.
Brett: I hope not. Or did we break it with a hammer?
Rennie: I don’t know. Those were foggy days. We had a lovely time in Niagara Falls.
Brett: We had buffalo wings.
Rennie: For the first time. I thought it was some very exotic food.

Well, 20 years ago, buffalo wings weren’t a widespread menu item, were they?
Rennie: We heard rumors about them, but …
Brett: It wasn’t like we had to whisper a password at the back door to get them or anything. I would say they were prevalent.

Changing subjects: Brett, you’re a fan of country music’s brother duos, and I know your brother Darrell plays with the Handsome Family a lot. Did you sing with your brother growing up?
Brett: We were in bands when we were 15 or 16. We won the Los Alamos battle of the bands in 1982.

OK, what was the band name?
Brett: We were called the Gargantuans. Hopefully there is no record of that anywhere. I kind of learned how to play guitar from my brother. We did harmonies together. But [our singing together] really started when we began listening to the stuff: the Louvin Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, Bill Monroe, things from the Anthology. That was a big deal because it taught us how to harmonize in a new way.

Did your early bands play rock?
Brett: Yeah. The Gargantuans started as a really noisy band. I was really into John Cage, and we used to smoke cigarettes and practice in the music room at UNM. In the dark. We were real cool kids. We’d just bang on pianos.
Rennie: There’s a lot of black-and-white photos from that period.
Brett: We never had any success at all, I think we had three gigs. Then it turned into a more melodic band. Sleep was my band after that. I was a real new-wave geek. This band sounded like the Jam, Echo & The Bunnymen, lighter Clash … Clash lite. You know what I mean. Shitty Clash. I was always into the Velvet Underground, but it never sounded like that. It sounded like Joy Division trying to play the Teardrop Explodes.
Rennie: You’re old.
Brett: New wave has kind of become maligned, but I think it was a really creative period of music.

Brett, I know that some of your guest-editor picks for the coming week are Scottish folk artists. Have you spent a lot of time over in the U.K.?
Brett: I sort of fell into a theme. I didn’t want to pick Jimi Hendrix. Axis: Bold As Love, dude! If you have a chance to talk, you might as well turn people on to stuff they otherwise wouldn’t find. But we obviously are into that kind of music and we’ve gone to England and Ireland at least two dozen times.

Well, the Handsome Family gets a lot of good press over there.
Rennie: Yeah, they’ve been pretty nice to us in the U.K.
Brett: That’s all gonna change, damnit! [Laughs] They like the thing. They like to have their culture regurgitated back at them or something.
Rennie: In the U.K. they tend to see us as quintessentially American, whereas in America, everyone just says we’re weird.
Brett: It’s weird to me that we’ll do these old [English folk] songs and they inform a large part of our music. Yet we’ll go over there and people will say it’s cowboy (music) or American gothic or whatever. It’s fascinating, the circle. This is music that came over with the Scotch Irish, and it was in Appalachia, then old hipsters like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez discovered it in the ’60s, and assholes like us found it later. But it sounds new to (English audiences). In Ireland they catch it a little bit more. There’s more of an Irish folk tradition.
Rennie: There’s a bit of a folk revival going on in England now, too.
Brett: English folk tradition is weird. You got Pentangle and Martin Carthy and that kind of stuff. They made a real departure from what the Irish would call “trad.”
Rennie: Irish and English folk are completely different. If we compare the two, we’re going to get some hate mail.

It will all show up in the comments section on the site.
Brett: It’s funny that these hillbilly songs are, at their base, courtly love songs. They’re very sophisticated, like little Elizabethan dramas. But they’ve become associated with this gap-toothed, Uncle Dave Macon, fiddle-juggling bullshit.
Rennie: In places where people are poor, things don’t change much. Those songs get stored there. But those songs don’t come out of shacks; they come out of castles.
Brett: That was all marketing in the ’20s. Race records and hillbilly records: two great strains of American music.
Rennie: Those aren’t field recordings; with a lot of old hillbilly records, those people came to recording studios and wanted to be famous. They weren’t sitting down in a field, singing. I think we’re digressing.

Yes. Back to your record: My favorite song here is “Wild Wood,” which is both an excellent example of you two singing together, and it’s also a funny image of people regressing into the wild to express their love.
Brett: It’s stretching the boundaries of a love song. It’s a pretty apocalyptic vision. See, there’s still songs on the record for hootenanny fans. They’re peppered in there. It’s like swamp rock or something.

What’s the difference between a swamp and a bog?
Brett: Isn’t bog an Irish term? Like a peat bog?
Rennie: I think a bog doesn’t have to have vegetation, whereas a swamp implies vegetation.
Brett: They found these bogmen preserved in bogs over in Ireland. So if someone calls you a bogman over there, they’re calling you a caveman.
Rennie: They also call a toilet a bog.
Brett: “Behind the bog there is a scraper if you find there is no paper.”

Was that written on a bathroom wall in Ireland somewhere?
Brett: Yeah, somewhere we played.

I think we’ve reached the end now.
Brett: Pretty much. On that note …

—Matthew Fritch

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One Comment

  1. Steve Hancock
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    I love the Handsomes. I learn something new with every interview. Bird tears? Oh, and Brett, my Dad says he backed up Robert Oppenheimer when he won the Los Alamos Battle of the Bands in 1946. I’m sure the Gargantuans sounded better though. Oppie kept blowing his amp up.

One Trackback

  • By Magnet: The Handsome Family on June 10, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    [...] Over the course of 16 years and nine albums, the weird, wonderful world of the Handsome Family has been populated by tales of ghosts, murders, bottomless holes and the mysterious deaths of Nikola Tesla and Amelia Earhart. For the Albuquerque, N.M., husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks, an album of love songs is a startling left turn… [read on] [...]