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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Interview: Brett and Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family

Few alt-country bands have the haunted gravitas of The Handsome Family. On albums like Singing Bones, Through The Trees, In The Air, and Twilight, the Albuquerque-based husband-and-wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks creates dark-humored songs that seem to conjure up the ghosts of old American folk music, with Brett's deep baritone a perfect match for Rennie's sardonic lyrics, which recall stories by Flannery O'Connor or Joyce Carol Oates. The duo is currently on tour with eccentric Southern writer and musician Jim White, who appears with them in the recent documentary Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus. The A.V. Club caught up with the Sparks recently by phone; a shorter version of this interview was originally published in The A.V. Club's Twin Cities print edition.

Illustration for article titled Interview: Brett and Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family

The A.V. Club: You've been working on a new album, but there aren't a lot of details about it so far—what can you say about it?

Brett Sparks: We're a little confused about it ourselves.

Rennie Sparks: We're going to finish it this month. It'll probably come out in June.

BS: Probably we're going to finish it in a week. Hopefully. If it's going to get mastered, it better get finished in a week or so. … I think it's a really strange record, actually. But I guess I think that about every record.

AVC: How so?

RS: I'd like to think all these songs are love songs. I tried to make it about little miracles here and there in your everyday life. I think it was based on that damn dog Ladyfingers I keep trying to write a song about but I never can.

BS: Oh, here we go with Ladyfingers.

RS: There was this dog that we named Ladyfingers because she was so beautiful. She just lived in this yard behind Walgreen's and every time we walked to Walgreen's we'd see this dog. She'd come running across the yard and she'd have the happiest face and she'd just jump up. There'd be a line of like 20 people just waiting to pet the dog because it was the sweetest dog in the freaking world. One time I gave her my glove just because I loved her so much, and she took it and buried it in the yard. I felt like that was the least I could do. It's the little moments like that where you're walking down the street and there's this dog that's just so happy to be petted and you can't believe that the world is like that. Those are the kind of things I tried to write about. Of course there's no dog being petted on the damn record but it's in there, kind of hidden.

BS: Dogs being petted?

RS: Those happy little moments in the middle of an otherwise-boring day.

BS: It's different. But everybody will listen to it and say [mocking voice] "Yeah, it's the same old shit. The gloom-and-doom bullshit!"

RS: No, it's not.

BS: "Alternative country!"

RS: They're all love songs in their own ways. There's a song about [physicist Nikola] Tesla. It's a love song between Tesla and the pigeons that he befriended at the end of his life. Tesla hated everybody, but he loved pigeons.

BS: He was kind of this weird germophobe.

RS: Some of your best people are germophobes!

BS: Didn't he have some weird personal tragedy like his brother died and he kind of lost his mind?

RS: [You can't] blame it on the dead brother. Lots of people lose their brothers and don't become like Tesla. He's special.

BS: Yeah, that's true.

RS: They're all happy songs, but they're happy in my own little way. I can't be happy unless I acknowledge the fact that we're all going to die somewhere in the song. Any other way just feels like blind happiness, which I'm not interested in.

AVC: Do you feel like people have a misperception that your songs are always dark?

RS: Yeah, that's the knee-jerk reaction.

BS: I think that people have a misperception that it's all dark.

RS: I just think you have to acknowledge dark to see light, that's all.

BS: I think it's the kind of misperception that makes people think that all of Leonard Cohen's stuff is really depressing and gloom-and-doom. And it does have that element, of course—

RS: It's all really romantic.

BS: —but it's not just about that. If it was, Leonard Cohen wouldn't be the songwriter that he was. And he wouldn't be respected to the extent that he is.

RS: He probably would have hung himself too.

BS: Yeah, he would have killed himself a long time ago. Same kind of thing: Joy Division. That was a great band; they were a rock 'n' roll band essentially. Led Zeppelin is darker, I think, than any of those bands.

AVC: I've heard Leonard Cohen playing a live version of "You Are My Sunshine." And he didn't do it in the "Leonard Cohen" way at all; it was very sprightly and upbeat.

RS: It's a lovely song. I like that song a lot. It's kind of a desperate song when you think about it. [Laughs]

BS: The lyrics aren't all sunshine and moonbeams, yeah. It's basically the same theme as "Run For Your Life," by John Lennon. No, it is!

RS: There's a dark side to it. There's a sort of suicide thread in there.

BS: It's like, "If you leave me I'll be destroyed and come and find you, poison you." The way that Rennie did Ladyfingers! [Laughs]

RS: I loved Ladyfingers!

BS: It's the same theme as "Delia," basically.

AVC: You recorded your previous records in your living room rather than a studio. Do you still have the same kind of setup?

BS: When we bought a house in Albuquerque, we looked around for a place that would be amenable for what we do. And we've got a place that had a converted garage that had been turned into a student apartment, so that's been turned into a studio. It's great to have a separate place to work. It's hard working in your living room, just because there's televisions and blenders nearby and things that make noise, telephones that ring. It's cool to have your own space, you get a lot more done. Unfortunately, you do a lot more too, so it gets more complicated. But you can control the sound a lot better.

RS: You don't have any of that great noise of the street that we used to have in Chicago, though.

BS: I have the sound of a helicopter on one song, though. So when you get the record you'll have to listen to it with headphones and figure out which song. Here's a hint: It's on the backing vocal of a song about a beautiful boy named William. [Laughs]

RS: That's a nice song.

BS: But it's weird—I left it on there. I was going to [take] it out, but it sounds exactly like the sound of a helicopter going over, because it's recorded on a really sensitive high condenser mic. So when I heard it at first I thought it was a helicopter going over, then I realized taking the headphones off, it was on the track. I was like, that's kind of cool—some guys will be listening to this on headphones after smoking a couple of bowls, and they'll be like, "Whoa, they're coming to get me dude!" [Laughs.] People do actually write us and say "Man, I smoked a bowl and I was listening to your song on the headphones, and it's freaking me out, man!" [Laughs.]

AVC: You also produce your own songs, rather than working with outside producers, right?

RS: No, we don't play well with others.

BS: We've been encouraged to do so. [Laughs] Our record label sent some demos to Brian Eno.

AVC: That would be cool.

BS: We actually got a positive response from his office.

RS: Oh, they probably send that to everybody.

BS: No, they asked for more stuff, and they were very methodical and specific about what they wanted, so obviously somebody—probably not Eno, but someone was doing some kind of screening, and we made it through the first hurdle. I don't think we'd ever make it past that. But what would you do if Brian Eno said, "yeah, I'll make your a record?"

RS: You'd say "yeah!"

BS: I'd shoot myself in the head right there. [Laughs]

RS: Yeah, I'm sure they'd really appreciate that.

BS: [Getting Eno] would be really weird, but I don't know, I like doing my own thing. … [Other times,] I got a little too emotionally attached to the material and decided I couldn't relinquish control over it. And when you work with a producer there's even a deeper level of, what's the word, intrusion going on there into the stuff that you've been raising from a seedling for six months or so. [Laughs.] I feel like if you have the wherewithal, time, and basic intelligence to do it yourself that you should probably do it yourself.

AVC: Do you road-test material by playing it in concert before you commit it to an album?

BS: We hardly ever do that.

RS: It takes us so long to figure out how to play anything. [Laughs].

BS: For better or worse, we don't really work like a band. We kind of treat—or I do, anyway—I think we treat the records and the songs as these abstract constructs that only exist on paper or inside the computer or in our brains. And they get fleshed out and revised and fussed over. Then after they're finished, we make some vain attempt to try to replicate that [live]—or not, or we'll just take that song and do something different with it live. So these are more like little objects like Faberge eggs or something than rock songs.

RS: The way our records are recorded and the songs are written, they really aren't things that are for two people to play. If we could afford to hire a band to go out on tour with us, we might do it.

BS: Yeah, that would be cool.

RS: We're more about staying home and writing songs—and the performance, we have to do that too. And there is a pleasure in it.

BS: No, I like to perform. I don't like traveling.

RS: It's a different thing, though, it's not connected to songwriting. It's not that immediate. …

BS: But Albuquerque's kind of limited in its ability to support local music.

RS: Eventually we have to leave town if we want to pay our bills. It's lovely to play a show, and everyone claps and is happy. That's a great thing. But that's more about your ego, your self-confidence. That's not really the thing that motivates you to write songs. It's more personal, in a way. Songwriting isn't really personal, it's these weird found objects.

BS: Yeah. I'm getting really sick of that confessional school of songwriting. I guess we were never into that in the first place. There's a lot of people out there that write about themselves. That the only subject they know anything about.

RS: I write songs to stop thinking about myself. You know, it's a relief to try to think about something bigger than my puny little ego.

BS: For songwriters like Irving Berlin, there wasn't even really any kind of end result that was that important—does that make sense? A lot of times those songs were just written for Broadway musicals, and Berlin and Gershwin wouldn't have any real idea about the context for it. I think that the songs were more important to them than performing them. I think we live in a time when people's personalities are really enormous, and when we grew up in school, we were taught that we should be individuals and be unique. And that's bullshit. [Laughs.] That's simple nonsense. What is the self? I mean, what the fuck are you? What am I? When you sit down and work on an artistic project, I think you should approach it with yourself as absent as possible.

AVC: The Handsome Family began in Chicago, but fairly recently you moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Brett, that's your hometown, right?

BS: Yeah, I'm from here.

RS: I'm from New York, but I feel very much at home here.

BS: My brother Darryl lives here; he never left. We grew up in Albuquerque.

AVC: What made you decide to move back?

BS: A few things. It was the cold. And it started getting expensive in Chicago.

RS: The lack of light. I couldn't take another gray day. Even in the summer when it was 100 degrees out, it was still gray. And when I was really, really depressed when I first moved to Chicago, it made sense, but as I started feeling a little bit better I wanted to see some sunlight. And New Mexico is full of this beautiful golden light every day. It's amazing. Like today, I walked to the bank and it was just so beautiful. My hands looked like they had little golden droplets on them. It's a strange light here. Georgia O'Keeffe knew something about this.

BS: I just got an e-mail from a guy who said "I just moved to Albuquerque and the music scene sucks! I can't take it!"

RS: There's a lot of musicians here, but it's not really a "music scene" per se.

BS: I was going to write him back and say, actually if you take the time and get into it, there's a lot of music going on here that he's probably interested in—bluegrass, alternative country or whatever you want to call it. But a lot of people just don't play in the bars because it kind of sucks. But you just have to figure it out gradually.

RS: More special because it's kind of hidden.

BS: In a way. It's like a secret garden. [Laughs.]

AVC: You're on tour now with Jim White, and you also appeared with him in Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which he narrates. What's he like in person?

BS: Jim's very talented and has a real problem with Jesus. [Laughs.] He's obsessed with Jesus, whether he likes it or not.

RS: He gave us this great present once when we were on tour down South. He stopped on some highway, and he pulled this gigantic sign off of a telephone pole that says "POWER IN THE BLOOD."

BS: I'm looking at it right now. "THERE IS POWER IN THE BLOOD." It's about six feet wide and about a foot tall. Written on really cheap lumber, with a barn-red background and white lettering in almost a childlike scrawl.

RS: It's a pretty nice gift.

Illustration for article titled Interview: Brett and Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family

BS: The word "BLOOD" is smaller than the others because the writer ran out of room. It's really cool. So when we first met Jim, he was like [Affects Southern drawl.] "I got a present fer you!" Because we have a song with a line that's a reworking of an old Baptist song I used to sing when I was a boy.

AVC: What was it like filming your segment in the movie, in which you perform on a houseboat on a river?

RS: The houseboat was pretty beautiful, but my feet were wet and I thought I was going to get electrocuted.

BS: We were surrounded by electric cables.

RS: But those things are pretty neat. The houseboat, it's a little house and it's floating—

BS: It's exactly what it sounds like!

RS: —and it has a hole in the middle where you can fish in a sheltered little room. Like fishing in your living room. And it had a little front porch, where we were standing.

AVC: Where did you film that?

RS: Ferriday, Louisiana, where Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis were from, so I think for the BBC people who made the movie, it was ground zero.

BS: It's a real hellhole.

AVC: Swaggart and Lewis are cousins, aren't they?

RS: Yeah. There was some liquor store that had some co-ownership involved, I think. It's a pretty sad little town.

BS: Yeah, it's not very romantic at all. I mean it's very strange.

RS: It just looks like the whole town has Type 2 diabetes. Everyone's got the limp and the huge obesity.

BS: And the food almost killed us! Fried things, a lot of fried things.

AVC: It's interesting that you're in a movie that's about exploring the nature of Southern Gothic identity, and you're not actually from the South.

RS: No, I told them that several times.

BS: We took umbrage with their whole premise from the get-go.

RS: When you're from England and you look at the map, maybe it seemed like the right thing to do.

BS: No, it's just the music, it's the ideals you're espousing.

RS: I think you can find that kind of Gothic American sense represented more clearly in some of those dark, depressing Southern towns.

BS: Well, that Southern ideal probably only exists in other third-party artifacts like music.

RS: I was listening to an interview with Lars Von Trier, the movie director. He's never been to America, and he keeps placing all his movies in America. But he said the America that inspires him is the America of movies, like film noir and musicals and things like that. And that America you can't actually visit, you can only see it.

BS: Not if you're a commie like Von Trier! [Laughs.] What kind of name is Von Trier?

RS: I think it's there, but where do you point the camera when you actually want to film it?

AVC: You know, it's not actually his real name—his real name is just Lars Trier. He added the Von to sound more impressive.

RS: Well I was impressed. [Laughs.] He seems like a total nut, but good for him. I like his movies.

AVC: Geography aside, it doesn't feel artificial that you're in the movie, which probably has a lot to do with some of your sources of inspiration, like Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music.

RS: I think that's what I'm trying to say. You could actually possibly find someone singing those songs off the folk anthology in a town like Ferriday.

BS: You could find someone singing those songs in Scotland.

RS: But we're talking about America. You wouldn't find the exact same words in Scotland, there's an American version of that song.

BS: What I'm saying is that that music is kind of timeless and placeless.

RS: Right. There was a time when you could find those songs everywhere. Harry Smith used to go to parties in Greenwich Village and go up to people and ask them to sing "Barbara Allen." Everyone knew "Barbara Allen" at that time, but everyone had a slightly different version, and whatever version you sang, he could figure out where you were from based on that. Now that kind of direct link is broken up quite a bit. So I think [Ferriday] was a good spot to try to film that kind of America. It's still there. It does linger in poor backwater places, because those places are less changed. It's not because they want to stay the same, I think, it's just because everybody's poor.

BS: I don't know if I agree with that. I think that stuff lingers more in the pretense of overeducated white kids like us than it does in those little towns. They don't give a shit about that stuff. They don't sit around and try to parse out different versions of "Old Joe Clark." [Laughs.]

RS: No, but I'm saying they still know [old folk] songs. They still sing songs in a place like that.

BS: I don't know. I don't know if they do. I guess in the movie that is addressed…

RS: Oh come on! When we drive through the South when we're on tour and you listen to AM radio—

BS: Yeah, but it's a bunch of evangelical Christians.

RS: They're great! The cadence of their voice, and the hymns they sing—

BS: It's great if you didn't grow up in Texas, baby. [Laughs]

RS: —it could be the 19th century the way they talk and the way they sing.

BS: Yeah, that's true.

RS: And I think that's something people cling to. That feels like home to them in a way, not like their physical house, which is usually a shithole, but the songs and the way of talking and those kinds of things, the stories.

BS: Sure. [Sardonically.] Agreed. [Laughs.]

RS: Don't make me come down there.

BS: You wouldn't dare! [Laughs.]

AVC: Let's talk about the songwriting process that you two have. As I understand it, except for some early songs like "Moving Furniture Around," Brett writes the music and Rennie writes the lyrics.

RS: I write the lyrics first. We started out, when Brett was writing lyrics, we started out just playing this game where I would listen to the lyrics that he had, and I'd write them down wrong on purpose. And he liked the way I was writing them wrong. And he actually gave me permission to work on some of those lyrics.

BS: I was never attached to my own lyrics, obviously. I never really put much stock in them.

RS: So I write lyrics and then I tell him what I want him to do with it, and he usually ignores me, but it seems to work best for us that way. Because if I waited around for you to write music we would probably never write anything.

BS: That's probably true.

AVC: When you finish a lyric and give it to Brett, how much alteration is done while you're figuring out the song?

RS: There is some editing, usually based on the fact that my when I sing a song in my head, the way I speak is different from the way he speaks, because he's a slow-ass Texan. So a lot of times I have to take syllables out just because he can't speak it as quickly as I can.

BS: Well, it's harder to sing. That's a lot of syllables.

RS: Things like that. Syllable counts, rhythms.

BS: We go back and forth about the mechanical things like that, but there's not a great deal of change.

RS: Sometimes when I hear him sing a lyric, it just sounds so bad that I have to rewrite it. [Laughs.]

BS: Things sound a lot different when they're sung.

RS: When things sound better when he's singing it, I know we're onto something. When a song gets to a point where it sounds like it's your song, Brett, and not mine anymore, I know we've gotten somewhere.

BS: Yeah! My song, I'm going to go work on my song! Then it's probably pretty good. [Laughs.] We're on the right track.

RS: The magic is happening then. I certainly don't want to be writing diary entries.

AVC: It's interesting that you say that, considering what Brett was saying earlier about wanting to keep control of the music in the editing process.

RS: Yeah, I know. I'm not sure who we're giving control to—some unnamed third person that lives between the two of us. [Laughs.]

BS: Well, after I've worked on the music for a long time, I don't want to… I'm just afraid of other people futzing around with it.

AVC: You have a new song on the recent Bloodshot Records compilation, For A Decade Of Sin.

RS: It's pretty dark. We didn't write it. It's a song we heard on this Doc Watson Family record. It's something they play in church.

BS: It's weird. It's called "The Lost Soul." It's a real fire-and-brimstone song.

RS: The melody is really medieval.

BS: [Sings] "What an awful day, when the judgment comes." It's one of those really, really intense songs. It's really good. Nice harmony, I like the shape of the harmony.

AVC: Do you think that might show up on the new album?

RS: No.

BS: No way in hell. [Laughs.]

RS: That was just for Bloodshot. We don't have any new covers on the new one.

AVC: Besides writing the Handsome Family's lyrics, Rennie, you've got other creative projects, including short stories [some of which are collected in Evil, her 2002 book] and paintings.

RS: I'm not really working on short stories anymore. I'm really just working on a novel. But I am painting a lot too. I think my paintings have taken the place of short stories, because the novel is taking me so long to write that it's nice to have these little projects to finish. The weird thing about painting, I'm finding, is that I'm able to paint really happy pictures, almost so happy that I can't believe it. And no one else looks at them and thinks they're dark. Everyone looks at them and thinks they're happy. I think it's some kind of totally different area of my brain that's working on those paintings. The part of me that's not tinged with morbid obsessions. All I paint is animals, and I think probably it's some kind of weird fantasy I have a world without human beings. We live in a world right now where it's possible to spend most of your time in a man-made environment where you don't see anything but human beings and the things they do and make. It's nice to look at a painting that takes you outside of all that. And then we're back to Ladyfingers again, that damn dog. That dog, I don't know, she was magic, she made everyone in town happy. She was like a little saint! You'd touch her and you'd feel good.

BS: Then one day she wasn't there anymore.

RS: Yeah, she moved away. I don't know where she went, she probably goes from town to town trying to cheer people up and then her work is done.

AVC: Did she belong to anyone in the house?

RS: She did. I don't think they knew what was going on, because they left this dog in the yard all day when they went to work, and they didn't see this line of people that were waiting to pet this dog. By the time they came home from work is was all over for the day.

AVC: What is your novel about?

RS: It's kind of a mix of the Salem Witch Trials and the Roanoke Colony, that time period in the late 17th century. Puritans coming over to America, all that sort of historical stuff. But it's kind of surreal too, in the sense that all that stuff that the Puritans were frightened ofdevils, witches, demons, and things—are real in the book.

BS: Is it going to be a bodice ripper?

RS: There's some bodice rippin'! [Laughs.]

BS: Any old-fashioned underpants in it?

RS: [Laughs.] But there's also people bursting into flames and people being dragged off by sea monsters and things. And a lot of poltergeist activity.

AVC: Would you characterize it as a fantasy story?

RS: I don't know what the word for it is. The only thing I can think of is, I really like Joyce Carol Oates, her historical novels—I'm not so crazy about the modern ones, but she's written a few books that seem like they could be bodice rippers or historical novels but as you read them they get crazier and crazier. I was reading some review of one of those books, and they called it "hysterical." And I think that's kind of what I'm doing—it's hysterical fiction, because it has this madness brimming under the surface of things, even though it seems historical on the surface. If you read Cotton Mather's book Wonders Of The Invisible World—I've been reading a lot of this Puritan literature and they have this madness brimming under the surface of things.

BS: Why didn't we use that title? Wonders Of The Invisible World!

RS: Because it's his!

BS: Forget it! He's dead, it's public domain! [Laughs.]

AVC: What is the title of the new album, by the way?

BS: It's close to that.

RS: It's called Last Days Of Wonder. It's a reference to Cotton Mather.

BS: [Chuckles] "Cotton."

RS: He's one of my heroes a little bit, because I think he was deluded in a way that I think I'm deluded: so desperate to believe in invisible things that you're willing to see demons everywhere just to prove there might be angels. I think that's a sad problem that we get caught in, with the European mindset of good and evil. If you want to have good you have to have evil. There can't be gray. Everything has to have some moral weight to it. Which is such a drag, but it's hard to get rid of. … I think that's sort of the way I've been writing lately. These things that seem very realistic on one level, but then little things start poking through in the corners of it. Which is really the way life feels most days. When I'm walking to the bank and the sunlight shines in my hands and they look golden, you get strange thoughts popping up in your head.