The YYSCENE reaches Rennie and Brett Sparks at their Albuquerque N.M. home. The Handsome Family residence also serves as a recording studio where the critically acclaimed husband and wife duo create the surreal like alternative country music they have become famous for. They could be the house band that lives, composes and performs 24/7 inside the subconscious of David Lynch’s mind, although Uncut Magazine succinctly described their appeal as being “as funny as fuck, as sweet as love and as serious as death.”
“Travelling is hard. Where are those transporters they promised us on Star Trek all those years ago? It would be nice to just play the shows and not have to travel to get to the next show,” says Rennie.
“We’ve been on the road a lot in the past year, we’ve done four- or five-month long tours,” adds Brett the groups multi instrumentalist, singer and primary writer.
Nevertheless The Handsome Family are beaming up to Calgary to play the Fiasco Gelato Stage at Studio Bell on Saturday, Feb. 23 as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s fourth annual Block Heater event. This is a one-off performance, a short respite while working on the followup to their last record, 2016’s Unseen. “People think that when you have time off all you do is sit around and smoke dope but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Brett. “We use that time to write and record songs.”
The group’s audience exploded immeasurably in 2014 when HBO’s True Detective used Far From Any Road as its theme. Brett is all but certain that series star Mathew McConaughey was behind that decision.
Speaking to the overnight worldwide attention it brought he says: “I was just thinking about that just yesterday while sitting in my chair smoking my pipe, before it all happened I thought, ‘OK I’ve got 10 records under my belt, I’ve worked hard, I’ve written some good songs we’ve made some good records. I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done as a musician.’ I was satisfied. We had an audience but it was small and for me it was kind of enough.
“(Afterwards) It all became so big and it got so easy to tour. I wanted more of this (fame) and thought, ‘Now we have to do PR and make videos and all that bullshit.’ It had this ultimately dissatisfying end result for me.
“The chances of all that (success) happening again are astronomical It’s funny the way these things work when you’ve got people from Sri Lanka writing you, and you know fame wasn’t the end goal.”
Lyrically, The Handsome Family are known for their sublime blend of horror, hilarity and humanity, which bring to mind Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits; unsurprisingly both are touchstones for Brett and Rennie. When pressed on further inspiration, Rennie pauses.
“Where do the lyrics come from? … I don’t know how I could possibly answer that,” she says.
“They come from a part of my brain that I have no access to, the other Rennie, the more interesting one, she knows all the song lyrics. She’s throwing them out to me one by one, little by little. Maybe they’re from a deeper place, a collective unconscious place dreaming the dreams of all humans. The things that we’ve always been dreaming. We’re never done dreaming them. It’s all pretty mysterious but I think if everything in the world made sense it would be pretty horrifying”
The lyrics are often humorous, says Brett, which is something that many people miss. “Like Leonard Cohen you’re trying to point out something like the essential absurd nature of life and it can be incredibly tragic but it’s hilarious at the same time. We always get that description of Gothic Americana and we have to respond with: ‘You’re missing the humour.’
“Sure there are a couple of murders in a couple of songs, but shit you’re missing all the jokes.”
That said, when it comes to the making of the Handsome Family records it’s very serious business for the duo.
“I’m definitely a music geek,” Brett admits. “I like to read books on recording techniques and stuff, the technical aspects and charts for microphones. It’s what I do, it’s tinkering. Some people play video games, I make records.”
The recording and artistic process is completely self contained and could be described as cottage industry as opposed to entertainment industrial complex. As Brett explains, “Part of it is being a control freak and just not being able to play well with others. I don’t want anybody to touch that, it’s the way I want it. If I want to do a piece of chamber music it might take me months to do that in the studio. It takes months to do at home too but that’s the way I want it that’s the way I heard it in my head and now I can listen to it with my ears.”
“I’ve had about as much of it as I could get a bellyful of,” responds Brett when questioned regarding musical training. “I started playing piano when I was a kid, I’ve got a master’s in music, and I’m overeducated, blah, blah, blah. I practice every day.
“When I first met Rennie she was a writer she wasn’t a musician. She played instruments when she was young (bass, banjo, autoharp), but she was more an artist and writer. She’s become a very successful painter by some series of consequences and now it’s such an essential part of what she does, she’s a true artist.”
“I do a lot of pet portraits,” she says. “I get a lot of pleasure hearing stories about people’s relationships with their pets. I try to paint what each pet’s heaven would look like because every heaven is different. I’ll admit that a lot of dog heavens have tennis balls in them, but other than that they do vary quite a bit.”
When asked what the audience can expect from their set on Feb. 23, she responds: “Well, there will be a lot of explosions and fire and not everybody’s going to make it. There’s going to be a lot of power — join us.”
(Illustration courtesy Tom Bagley.)
Block Heater runs Thursday, Feb. 21 to 23 at various venues. Tickets and festival passes are available from https://www.calgaryfolkfest.com/blockheater/tickets/.
Mike Bezzeg is a music fun. You can find out more about him here.