Interview: The Handsome Family
It’s no surprise that Rennie Sparks, lyricist and Banjo player of the Handsome Family, tells us that he like stories.
One of the most interesting aspects to The Handsome Family is the storytelling nature of their lyrics, which often consist of Tales of Love, God and Murder set amongst the backwoods and bayou’s of America.
Much like the strong Americana influence on the band “nothing about it is conscious”.
They don’t deliberately set out to tell stories, but rather they set out to capture the essence, the mood, the atmosphere and the history of a place through song.
Rennie describes songs as being merely being a “conscious effort to unconscious things to peak through”.
Few bands embody the madness, the atmosphere and the utter darkness of the Southern United States like the Handsome Family.
Consisting of a husband and wife Duo, Rennie and Brett Sparks, the group has released 12 albums deeply rooted in American folklore.
Their sound is a mixture of Appalachian blues, Mariachi folk music and darkly psychedelic country has been lauded by the likes of Christy Moore and Jeff Tweedy.
It has led to collaborations with a number of artists including Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave.
When T-Bone Burnett, the Oscar and Grammy winning producer, was asked by HBO to select a theme song for their award winning Southern Gothic drama True Detective, he selected the Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road”.
Its use in the show has seen a resurgence of popularity in the band (they play Whelans this Thursday (26th of March).
For a group that is so steeped in Americana and Southern folklore, popularity has always seemed a little bit strange.
“We are always surprised,” Rennie says of the band’s popularity
“Still no songwriter can ever predict with any surety what others will hear in the music”.
He insists that their grass-roots American sound has always been natural and has never been something contrived
“We are Americans, so it doesn’t surprise me that we sound it”.
Still storytelling is universal, and indeed many of the themes and images that appear in the band’s music allow them to connect to an audience that goes far beyond their home country.
On the band’s Facebook page they list as an influence, alongside “strangers at crossroads” and “hissing cats”, something that is sadly familiar to a vast amount of people: Lithium Carbonate (specifically 900 daily milligrams), a drug used to treat bipolar disorder.
Whereas a lot of musicians extol the cathartic nature of songwriting within itself, The Handsome Family are quite open about their struggles. “The very fact that we can devote our time to making art is given to us by the psychiatric drugs we’re both on” says Rennie “neither one of us got much done when we were “crazy”.
Indeed, while exploring the dark side of the mind might seem inherent to their sound, the Handsome Family have no desire to experience it directly, at least not anymore.
After all, “being crazy takes up too much time”.
A husband and wife duo, The Handsome Family are quite guarded about their writing process. Songwriting is a delicate art that “never works the way you’d expect or the way you’d desire it to work” and the group works hard to keep that aspect of mystery present in the band.
When asked if the restraint of only having one other person to write with acted as an influence Rennie said that he “doesn’t know”. It’s all he’s ever known, and it’s all he’s ever felt the need to work with.
They only write under one golden rule at the moment.
“There’s a strict division of labour” within the Handsome Family, a division that sees Brett write the music and Rennie tackle the lyrics.
We were informed that this is the beginning and the end of rules when it comes to song-writing for the Handsome Family.
In an age of dwindling sales, an endorsement from HBO was a welcome boost for the band.
The Handsome Family have largely relied on the support of their loyal fans to be able to continue a career in music.
They’ve always been an independent act.
This has allowed them to maintain a sense of control over their career.
“No corporate monster has ever shown the least interest in gobbling us up,” Rennie tells us.
Since the inception of their career, they’ve been signed to Loose Music, a small British label.
While this does force the band to spend a lot of time on the road, it gives them an opportunity to strengthen their material, and moreover, spend their lives doing what they love.
They have no interest in changing to appeal to a bigger record label, and indeed doing such a thing would be impossible.
“We are what we are” concludes Rennie “and we’re very fortunate to continue”.