The Glorious Noise Interview with the Handsome Family
I recently had the opportunity to interview Rennie Sparks, the lyricist/autoharpist half of the Handsome Family. Check it out!
The Handsome Family are a husband-and-wife duo who have made some of the most haunting songs released since Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. But even though they play the autoharp and sing songs about having to kill the one you love, they don’t sound anything like the Carter Family. They sound entirely contemporary, and entirely creepy. And beautiful.
Another cool thing about the Handsome Family is that they maintain their own website. “That’s why it looks kind of crappy,” they say. This D/I/Y aesthetic carries over into their recordings as well, most of which were recorded in their living room with the help of drum machines and a Mac. Plus, they offer a bunch of mp3s of their stuff via Epitonic and a couple of new ones via Carrot Top.
They’ve got a new album out called Twilight, which has been praised by notables such as Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. And Rennie Sparks was kind enough to answer a few of my questions in back in October.
Jake: According to your Web site, the success of your third album, Through The Trees has allowed you and Brett to quit your day jobs. What’s a typical day like around the Handsome house?
Rennie: We haven’t been home much the last few months. Mostly our day starts with some anonymous woman screaming “Housekeeping!” and banging on our motel room door. Then there’s a lot of driving and bickering and map tearing and then we arrive at a dark, dank bar and start unloading the equipment, usually discovering we’ve left something expensive and essential back at the last bar 300 miles away.
Jake: Any major labels courting you due to the attention you got in 2000?
Rennie: No, not likely. Not something we really care that much about anyway.
Jake: How have your audiences changed over the last five or so years?
Rennie: People have become very quiet at our shows. They listen to the words. It’s really nice. Back in the day we were mostly just ignored. Or heckled or pitied.
Jake: You’ve recorded onto computers and play live with taped backup recordings. What kind of reaction do you get for that? Do the folkie “purists” freak out? Why not just find a drummer?
Rennie: The folkie “purists” freak out about much of what we do. Oh well. The bottom line is money: We can’t afford a studio and we can’t afford a drummer.
Jake: I heard that you wrote fiction before you joined Brett as the lyricist and autoharpist for the Handsome Family. Do you still write prose?
Rennie: I have a book of short stories done (available at handsomefamily.com) and I’m working on a novel now. It’s about a haunted forest that surrounds a Wal-Mart superstore.
Jake: I’m a huge fan of songs about killing the one you love, from the Harry Smith collection through the Louvin Brothers up to the Handsome Family. Why is this subject so appealing? And should my wife be worried about it?
Rennie: Death in art is not the same as death in life. Symbolic death is about liberation and change and the seductive force of the dark unknown. Has nothing to do with actual bloodshed.
Jake: I’ve read things about your punk rock roots. What music helped you deal with your feelings at that time? How has punk rock influenced the music you’re making now?
Rennie: Mostly I used to like really noisy, aggressive music—anything from The Stooges to The Revolting Cocks. But, after awhile I didn’t feel so angry all the time and I wanted music that expressed a few other emotions. I really don’t know how listening to punk rock influenced my songwriting abilities. That would be for other people to decide.
Jake: How would you describe your new album, Twilight, to a Handsome Family fan? How would you describe it to your taxi driver?
Rennie: Fan: It’s a creepy and beautiful parking lot full of birds. Taxi driver: Same as above.
Jake: I recently moved to Chicago. What are your favorite places for shows? Restaurants?
Rennie: The Hideout is really the best little club in Chicago. Also nice (but expensive) is Schuba’s and there’s also the Abbey Pub. My favorite restaurant in Chicago is The Oasis, which is a Middle Eastern restaurant in back of the Wabash jeweler’s mart downtown.
What do you think of this interview? Do you dig the Handsome Family? Discuss!