Interview: The Handsome Family


14 May, people, 14 May. You don’t have long to wait to get your ears around the new album from Albuquerque, New Mexico’s The Handsome Family. But in the meantime, you can console yourselves with these words direct from the Family themselves, Rennie and Brett Sparks.  If you care to whet your appetites some more, you can read our review of “Wilderness” here.

Backseat Mafia: First, thanks very much for agreeing to talk to us and giving up your time. Do you interview often ? Is it something that you enjoy at all ?

Rennie Sparks: Yes, I suppose it’s part of the job. I guess I’d hope that all the answers are there in the songs, but no one ever seems to agree with me.

BM: How has publicising your records changed over the years ? Is it something that you particularly worry about or look to Carrot Top Records to support ?

R: The entire music business has gone over the falls in a barrel. It’s a very difficult time to make a living as an artist or as a record label. That being said, yes, we are lucky to work with Carrot Top Records (and Loose Music in the UK) . They share expenses with us and share profits (hopefully!). It’s not something I particularly worry about though, no. Something I particularly worry about is the fact that my beehive is on a slant out in the yard. I need to fix that!


BM: I first heard you in September 1998 when an Uncut magazine sampler cd (“Sounds of the New West”) included “Weightless Again”. How do you feel when you look at that period of music-making ?

R: Oh, we are so thankful for Uncut and for that edition of it in particular. It changed our lives forever. I can travel to far northern Norway or Perth, Australia and people will also say they heard us first on that Uncut sampler!

milk and scissors

BM: How do those earlier records make you feel ?

R: That I am glad to be heavily medicated on mood stabilizers and anti-depressants and the occasional tranquilizer. All good Americans are these days! Seriously, “Through the Trees” was more like a suicide note than a record for me. I’m glad to have survived it.

through the trees

BM: There is certainly a longstanding love of the Americana genre in UK music magazines – how important has that support been to you ?

R: Vitally important. I doubt we’d still be making music without the support of UK magazines. People in the UK seem to actually read all the articles in their magazines! Sometimes in the US, we’ll get a four star review in the local paper and still no one comes to see us.

BM: What was it like recording when you started out ?

R: Those wax cylinders were sure hard to sell! Seriously, we did our first two records on analog tape in a studio. It was a bitch!

inthe air

BM: Has the process changed much to now – either in the way you like to do it or the way other people would like you to do it ?

R: It’s totally different now. Instead of five days of twelve hours in a studio trying to lay down tracks we can now work at our leisure and do take literally years to finish a record. I wouldn’t work another way.

BM: Do you have to work as well as make music ? I know that you paint regularly, Rennie, but do you have to do anything else to make ends meet ?

R: It’s the tee shirt sales that really pay the bills. We sell books, cds, posters, postcards, paintings, LPs, shirts, whatever we can think of and hope that it adds up to enough each year.


BM: Has it got any harder in recent years as the global financial crisis has taken hold ?

R: Of course! Last time we were in Ireland I felt like crying to see all the empty skyscrapers and housing developments. We are fortunate to muddle on. I suppose keeping our overhead low does help. We don’t have a manager, a driver, a merch salesperson, a minder or a children’s choir.

BM: What has it been like living in New Mexico ? In what ways have your lives changed since moving there ?

R: Every night there’s a beautiful sunset. That always helps. It’s cheap and sunny here and there are ancient songs still being sung.

BM: Has Albuquerque given you new inspiration for music ?

R: Always. The parking lots here are revelatory.

singing bonesBM: Are there any particular places that you go to for inspiration ?

R: Books, books and more books. When I can’t write I read.

BM: How do you go about deciding which musicians will support you when you work – and is there a difference between those you use live and in the studio ?

R: Live are the ones who can travel. In the studio are ones that live close. Both we are fortunate to have access to. Few people have the ability and availability to travel on tour with us. Few people design their life that way. We are very lucky that Jason Toth, our drummer, is one of the few. We are like polar explorers, a rare and risk-taking breed.

BM: Is it difficult for you working with other people – as such a close partnership ?

R: Of course. Travelling in close quarters on tour is always hard. Still it’s great to be working hard at something we believe in working hard on.

BM: You’re back in the UK shortly – what are your experiences of touring the UK like ?

R: Love those M & S groceries in Motorway services! Sometimes in the US we never find a salad to eat for weeks. Your sandwiches are way beyond what we are envisioning between bread over here. And, somehow, who knows why, the tea does taste better in the UK.

last days of wonder

BM: Where is your favourite place to tour ?

R: Anywhere there are people happy to see us.

BM: You appear in the 2003 documentary “Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus”. How did that come about ?

R: They asked us to be in it and the BBC funded it. Thank you again UK!

BM: For me that year felt like the end of a period when a lot of American music with firm roots in country had broken new ground in the UK – but I’m not sure that progress has continued. Did that feel like a particularly strong time for The Handsome Family ?

R: Well, it was a helpful time for our careers, but ultimately we’re not a genre-driven band. We just do what we do and in various times people are going to group it into various groups. It’s never easy to be in a band and keep it going. Most bands don’t last more than five years. We are very fortunate to be going for twenty years.


BM: That film, at least in part, looks at the relationship between Christianity and music, and between the sinfulness and faith of people in America. Where do you fit in to that picture ?

R: A New York jew and a backsliding baptist from Texas.

BM: Earlier albums tended to feature the presence of the supernatural or spiritual in domestic, humanised settings. This album also features terrifying and overwhelming spirits and powers – but the action seems to be taking place on nature’s turf – Mankind has entered into someone else’s kingdom and isn’t generally having an easy time of things. Is that a fair assessment ? Was that a conscious choice ?

R: It’s not a question of entering or exiting. We are part of nature and of this earth. It’s strange to me that people can even draw such borders. We are living creatures born of this planet. Guess I’m just trying to remind us of what we often forget. We are alive!

BM: Do you have any regrets about your careers in music ? Opportunities that you wish you had taken ?

R: Of course. Wish I hadn’t spent four years playing bassoon as a kid. Nowadays I don’t wish for opportunities I try and make what I want happen.

BM: What next for the Handsome Family ?

R: More of the same we hope and will be thankful for.

We also had a few questions for Brett Sparks. Some about music but also one, much more importantly, about personal style…

BM: As a fellow beard wearer I want to congratulate you on the model you are sporting in the photo that accompanies “Wilderness”. Are you going to continue experimenting with facial hair or do you feel like you’ve settled on your definitive style ?

Brett Sparks: I must say you’re a gentleman for noticing. I can safely say that my face will probably never be hairless. I have a weak chin and a lantern jaw I am seeking to conceal. My current beard, however, has exceeded the mass that I had originally hoped for. Now I am at a crossroads: revert to the old goatee (probably not), trim (professionally?), or just carry on.


BM: How do you go about combining your musical contribution with Rennie’s lyrics ? Do both tracks develop together or does one precede the other ?

B: I read the lyric over and over. I wed my brain to them. I carry with them with me everywhere I go. When I’m watching TV, they are sitting on the arm of my armchair. There’s a copy in the loo. One next to the bed. Everywhere. I become obsessed with them. I let them burrow into my brain. At some point of becoming permeated with them, some little tiny bell will ring. A tiny seed will germinate. That will grow into a song. It may take 5 minutes, it may take a month.

BM: Do you make any contribution to the lyrics – editing or adding ?

B: I don’t fuck with her bits and she don’t fuck with mine. I know she has a vision. I may not see it, but it’s always there. After 20-odd years, I’ve come to realize that I am not going to improve Rennie’s lyrics – that’s her gift. And aside from very minor revisions, she has the same respect for what I do.

BM: Are you ever startled by the images and characters that Rennie brings out ? Scared even ?

B: No…Usually I’m startled by how good they are. Honestly. Sometimes I am underwhelmed by them – I was with “Weightless Again.” But usually that’s because I’m just not tuned into them yet. Sometimes the lyrics seem mundane but that’s the trick – they get inside your brain like a Trojan Horse.












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