The Handsome Family are not unlike the concept of American Gothic come to life. The band, made up of Brett and Rennie Sparks (who are joined in matrimony, along with being band mates) have been going for 24 years, after forming in Chicago.
If you think that you have not listened to the band, go and play the song ‘Far From Any Road’, which is guaranteed to be a familiar sound for anyone who has watched the HBO show True Detective – ‘Far From Any Road’ was chosen as the theme song. It’s a comfortable pairing, given that both artistic outputs centre on the concept of American surrealism.
Having released 10 albums with Carrot Top Records, the Sparks decided to strike out on their own, and record their eleventh album Unseen at their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The new release is nothing short of eerie, characterised by the ballads that have garnered a following for The Handsome Family.
Ahead of their performance in Dublin’s Vicar Street we talked to Rennie Sparks about the music industry, the death of the world as we know it, and how music genres only exist for journalists…
Your style is difficult to characterise, a quick glance at Wikipedia and Spotify biographies sees your sound described as gothic bluegrass and country murder ballads. Do you think that this blend of different musical elements is a result of different geographical elements – coming from two different parts of the US, settling in New Mexico, and drawing on tours of Europe?
We really don’t think ever about what we sound like. That’s for journalists to think about. We just like to write songs that make us feel good. People say we sound American. They’re probably right, but luckily you don’t have to know what you’re doing in order to do it when it comes to songwriting. We just write what ‘feels’ right.
It’s 23 years since Odessa was released, and quite a lot can happen in that time. Your albums characterise that, with In the Air being your first record where you were full-time musicians and Through the Trees coming out of extensive touring of Europe. Along with personal change and growth, how has the ever evolving nature of the music industry affected your artistic process?
The music industry hasn’t evolved. It is in a slow and painful death. We are lucky to be still breathing after this long. Most of our contemporaries have disappeared. We are thankful for what we have. Perhaps we get more and more grateful as the years go on and we see how lucky we are to be still standing and still singing.
Rennie, you’ve got a few side projects – portraiture, your Whispercast, and your writing career. How important is to you to have creative outlets outside of the band?
I love to make art and I am happiest when I am daydreaming so I do it in every way I can. When I can’t write I paint, when I can’t paint I write, when I can’t do either I start to whisper.
In terms of music as a career, you’ve hit quite a few stages. Music as a side-hustle alongside full-time jobs, touring as a career, and now recording and releasing Unseen on your own terms, so to speak. How have these different stages impacted your sound, and your relationship with the creative process?
It’s nice to not have to go to an office everyday. It was a good feeling when we got throw out all our office clothing. I now spend all my free time in pyjamas. It’s the good life.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention ‘Far From Any Road’ which exploded as the True Detective theme song. Did you envisage that response when the song was first picked, and how did you decide to capitalise on a new audience?
No, it was a wonderful surprise. We toured for almost two years straight afterwards. It was a very nice experience, but we did get tired of seeing people pull out their cell phones to video us during that song and then leave.
You’ve always prided yourself on singing about the obscure and the forgotten. What do you think will become forgotten over the next ten years, and how will you draw people’s attention back towards these hypothetical obscurities?
Hopefully not the entire American culture, but we are on the verge of the decline and fall of the american empire. One day we’ll tell the young kids about all the shopping we used to do and they’ll be amazed. We’ll tell them about all the things that once lived in the ocean and they won’t believe us. Hopefully there’ll still be some birds in the sky.
In 1999, you released *Down in the Valley *as an Ireland exclusive and on your 2015 tour of the UK and Ireland you announced you were working on a new album. What surprises can Irish audiences expect this time round?
This will be the first time we’ll have our fabulous pedal steel player with us. Also we plan to light ourselves on fire and die in a fiery explosion just after playing the first verse of ‘Far From Any Road’. Viva la revolution!
The Handsome Family play Dublin’s Vicar St, tonight – 27th April, and tomorrow – 28th April, at St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast.