Nature Calls

The Handsome Family explain the dark yet lovely tenor of their work

It's difficult to explain why the music of the Handsome Family is beautiful. Sure, it sounds beautiful, but it's a strange and spare sort of beautiful -- singer Brett Sparks' grave and stately voice makes lovely sense of Rennie Sparks' haunted, sometimes grisly lyrics. The guitars ring like bells; the vocal harmonies cut to the heart's quick. Sad freaks and drunks, tubercular Indians, murdered brides and lovestruck killers populate their songs. A girl is carried off by crows, kissed by a gravedigger's son. Crowds throw bricks and bottles at a milkman in love with the moon. Brother kills brother, and the dead roll their bones in the grass. In the Air (Carrot Top) is the fourth full-length from Mr. and Mrs. Sparks, the only members of this Chicago-based band. Aside from a few guest musicians (including violin genius Andrew Bird), they play all other instruments: "guitars, garbage can, autoharp, accordion, melodica, mandolin and whatever else was laying around," according to the liner notes. The Sparkses recorded everything themselves in their living room (on a Macintosh G3) and designed their own CD booklet. Before they embarked on a tour of the United States and Europe, they kindly agreed to a conversation with the RFT.

RFT: It's an interesting continuum -- you write the songs together, and then you record them together and pretty much self-produce.

Rennie Sparks: We're going to build a bio-sphere and live in it!

The Handsome Family: "Thinking about death makes life richer."
The Handsome Family: "Thinking about death makes life richer."

Brett Sparks: We do all the art for the CDs; we put up our own Web site. I think it's better to do it yourself. If you let someone else do it, they're going to fuck you. They'll take 80 percent of your money.

It seems like you guys have a pretty big fanbase in Europe. Do you think your European audience is different from your American one?

Brett: I think people just have a different cultural sensibility. We always get this stuff over here, "Oh, you're so morbid, you're so dark!" In England they just think it's dark humor, whatever. In Ireland, they just think it's about everyday life. It's just like folk tales or something. In Ireland, we'll play a show, and people will come up to the stage and start quoting you alternate versions of "The House Carpenter" and quoting poetry and stuff. These are guys who just look like normal Joes, you know? It's amazing, the cultural literacy that they have.

Do you think non-English-speaking audiences have a different relationship with your music?

Rennie: We get people from Holland writing these essays on our lyrics. I mean, if you're going to go to the effort of reading lyrics in another language, you get pretty intense about it, whereas Americans can hear them or not hear them while they're doing their dishes or something. I think maybe it's that some cultures are more into deep thinking than others.

Brett: The Germans especially. They'll come up to you after a show and say (adopts gruff Schwarzenegger accent): "I want to discuss this lyric with you!" They'll argue with you about anything -- things like "I do not like your new record! Your last record was much better. Go back in that direction."

All the articles about you start out by mentioning that you're a husband-and-wife band. Do you think it's relevant at all to your music?

Rennie: I think it makes it easier for us to work together. We can argue about songwriting, but it doesn't get really hurtful. We can take a break and be friends again. You can't walk out without a lot of packing and lawyers.

Brett: Yeah, there's at least one adversarial relationship going on in the average four-piece combo: the principal songwriter and somebody who's trying to become the principal songwriter.

How do you work as a songwriting team?

Rennie: I work on the lyrics first, and after they're done I give them to him, and I tell him how they should go musically, and he ignores me.

Brett: Pretty much. If I left it up to her, they'd all sound like "The Night Before Christmas." She was going through this period where everything had that 6/8 cadence.

Why is death such a persistent theme?

Rennie: Goddamn it, I don't know! It's not my fault; it's everywhere. It makes sense to me that if you're going to write about life, it's going to have death in it. To me, thinking about death makes life richer. I don't think it's a destructive thing, necessarily. I do think that's why some people are leery of us. They say, "Oh, your songs are so depressing! I'm afraid!" -- like they're afraid they're going to get stuck in a bad mood if they listen to them!

Brett (Mock terror): "I'm not going there! Give me the Lenny Kravitz album!"

Rennie: I guess I'm just kind of obsessed with opposites in a way -- little cuddly animals and big ferocious animals. Snow is beautiful and white and clean, but it's freezing, and it's horrible to be in. Everything is one thing and another thing. And the next thing you know, you're sitting on the couch with a pen, going "I want to write something!"

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