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The Handsome Family
by Stav Sherez / pictures by Maike Zimmermann
It's cold, a chill wind scrapes the dust off the desert floor and twists it into demonic shapes that flutter and flap in the wind like dwarf devils. I'm walking up the long hill, to the house on the mesa, the one that looks like the Psycho mansion, silhouetted against a purpling sky and bleeding New Mexico sun. The air is dry and cracks with the chittering of cicadas. I am here to interview The Handsome Family in their new lodgings but at this point it doesn't look like I'm going to make it. Wild dogs snap and yowl in the distance, the land is rutted, scarred, broken like skin and there's a strange, coppery smell in the air. Bones crack and crumble under my feet. It's that kind of night. In the distance, shadowy buttes punctuate the flat earth like ghostly battlements in a Bruegel painting. Each step seems to get harder. There's screaming in the distance and the looming black horror of Shiprock somewhere on the Western horizon. Finally I see them standing there, dressed in black, undertakers of dreams, a frenzied wolfdog circling their feet, keeping guard. They're holding pitchforks and pliers and they're smiling.
But really, that's not it at all. That's just what the accumulating mass of press articles and reviews devoted to the band would have you think. We are, in fact, sitting in the new homogenised lobby of the Hammersmith Holiday Inn. Outside, the sun is heaving all its heat down onto the streets, it's over 30 degrees out there and it's only April. Between two well-received and triumphant concerts at the Lyric theatre (where I once sat through an eight hour performance of Goethe's 'Faust', but that's another story) I managed to talk to Brett and Rennie about their new album and their move out into the musical wilds of New Mexico. And no, they're not Satanic child perverters, dour Goths, Animists, UFO worshippers, the Addams Family or a whole host of other cliches dredged up by every lazy journalist who's ever crossed their path. They are, in fact, two highly articulate, pretty damn normal musicians who're just a bit tired from last night's sell-out performance. Sure, with Brett's wild beard and Rennie's compelling eyes no one will mistake them for the latest chartbound wonders but to categorise them in the doom and dank of cliché is to miss an important facet of their work, simplifying what cannot be reduced, eschewing the complexity that lies at the heart of their music, the dialectic of light and dark, humour and pain. The New Radicals' big hit is playing loudly over the house speaker, we're the only people in the lounge. “Let's see if I can get this shit turned down,” says Brett and goes off to hassle the management as I begin my questioning.Your latest album 'Twilight' seemed to focus on the tension between ideas of town and country and you yourselves have just moved from Chicago to Albuquerque. Was this move something you've been longing for?
Rennie: We didn't even have the luxury to think about it for a long time because we had jobs there [Chicago] but just the last few years we've been and gone a lot, we haven't needed to work when we got home so we were suddenly in a very lucky position being able to live somewhere else if we wanted to. When I was younger I really felt like there was some kind of thrilling life to be had in a big city and I felt stimulated by it and inspired by it and so it was nice to live there for a while and it did inspire us but, I think, after a while, I did hunger to be somewhere where you could see things that weren't man-made.How long had you lived there?
R: Twelve years. It was longer than we ever thought we'd stay but a lot of nice things happened to us there, we met a lot of great people who helped us and inspired us - it was a really good place. When we moved there we had no plans to form a band, we were just going to get some jobs, it was cheap to live there, we thought let's just stay here for a year and see what happens. 12 years later we were still there.
Brett: Yeah, you get stuck, that's for sure.As writers, did you find living in Chicago inspiring?
R: Well, for a while it was. When I was a kid and lived out in the woods, lived in really isolated places, I was really terrified of being out in the country and it was so quiet and all the sounds of insects and birds. I couldn't wait to live somewhere really crowded with people, all these buildings and things where it could be like an environment and when I was there for a few years I found myself wanting to be out in the woods again. It probably says something about me, wherever I am, I want to be somewhere else. But, I think, in Chicago I started building this imaginary forest in my head and it was very helpful to me personally, it got me through some bad times and I think that's what started me writing those kind of folk songs about the forest and about, you know, man versus nature.Nature in all its complexities reappears as one of your main tropes. This Pastoral bent is something not often seen in popular music, more associated with Romantic poetry. How has living in New Mexico affected your relation to it and to your writing?
R: We still live in a town but we can get out into the middle of the desert and you can always see the mountains and the volcanoes and you can see for miles in every direction. You're always aware of the natural world and you never get lost in that man-made jungle.
B: There's an end of town.
R: Which is really nice - it's very rare in America. The town ends and then there's nothing for miles. We have a house and a yard and we have insects and birds - it's a different world. We went through a lot in Chicago because we lived in this loft, it was hard for him to record because I'd be in the house and it was also hard for each of us to write because you need that privacy - he'd go into the bathroom to record demos - now we have private rooms to work in, which is nice.The American Southwest has such a fecund mythos, did this attract you and how do you think it'll affect your future writing?
R: What I really like is that there's a good sense of history because people there are still saying stuff like 'I'm related to the conquistadors who came up the Rio Grande with Coronado' and there's still the Navajos and Apaches who were part of all that warfare and also the settlers that came out there on the Santa Fe trail. All of it is still really fresh and you can trace all the roots back which is really unusual for America where everything is wiped clean.
B: [interjecting] What has this got to do with our future plans?
R: I'm getting to that, jackass.
B: Man, you can talk a blue streak [laughs].
R: Would you like to talk instead of me?
B: [resigned] No, go ahead, go ahead.
B: I was just trying to figure out how to relate it to the question.
R: Do you want to find out?
B: Go ahead, sure.
R: I've been trying to write a lot of songs about historical things but it's really cheesy to write like [sings] “I'm an ol' cowpoke goin' down the trail” - I don't want to write from a coal-miner's point of view or even an Indian brave, “I'm an Indian brave, I'm gonna fight the Spanish.” You know, you can't do that very well and really get across what you're trying to get across, so I feel I need to write about it from my point of view and yet incorporate why all these bits of American history still seem to be such important pressure points and such things that define us. I really think that the massacre of Indians is still something that's in the air even though there aren't Native Americans in most cities. I just feel like there's blood on the ground everywhere and I want to write about that. That's what I'm trying to get at, that there's so much violence now and it's a history of violence and it's very easy to see it in front of you in Albuquerque because all that stuff is right there. It's really inspiring to be there.‘Twilight’, in its themes anyway, really reminded me of Robbie Robertson's writing on The Band's 'Cahoots' album, this notion of a vanishing America, the shoulder rub of past and present. Are you familiar at all with that album?
B: Never heard it.
R: We're derivative again, damn!
B: Even if we haven't heard it.
R: Frankly, I'm surprised that every American doesn't write songs about that because it just seems to me such a pressing issue. American life is changing so quickly right now.
B: Americans are writing songs about themselves.Which is only slightly better than here in England where we write songs about nothing.
R: People are so obsessed with the “my girlfriend left me” kind of song. We're sitting here talking about this sunny day but there's been some major climactic changes; changes that should take 1000 years have happened in the last few years and we're just “la di da.” This is a very strange time to be alive. There is a real tendency towards complete denial of the situation and all my friends who have children too - if you have children you should at least be thinking about what their lives are going to be like in thirty years but no, they're just like… I'm surprised other people aren't up all night terrified of this stuff the way I am, but maybe it's better they're not. I find these concerns to be constant no matter where I go. It's frightening times but, at the same time, I think there are people who're like minded. We try to pretend that we're not part of the natural world and we've been pretty successful at it for a long time but eventually we're gonna have to come to grips with the fact that we're animals and we need certain things or we can't survive.Each of your albums has a more or less sustained theme running through it. Do you find yourself doing a lot of editing to get that kind of continuity?
R: Yeah, we do a lot of revising. Most of the time I end up cutting out half the lyrics I write because there's usually just too much. We don't have these spontaneous outbursts of songs where we get really drunk and jam.You're still playing live as a two piece (occasionally augmented by Brett's brother, Darrell on percussion.) Would you like to play with a bigger band? Is it a financial decision rather than a creative one?
R: Yes, there's lots of sounds we hear that we'd love to have represented live.
B: I would love to have four people, a live percussionist, a live bass player and for Rennie to be able to play whatever kooky, junkshop instrument she wants.
R: I was so insulted - there was some review that said I was playing a ten dollar keyboard - I paid five for that keyboard, what do you think I am?
B: We are doing things live more with a little keyboard but it is little, a Casio keyboard. It can be played but it's not very easy, the keys are very small and after a few pints my fingers seem to get biggerWell the answer seems obvious if you don't mind me saying so, you need to hire a dwarf to do it.
B: A sober dwarf.
R: Raccoons can do it. They can pry open garbage lids so easily they should be able to do other things.There're no Rennie lead vocals on this or, indeed, the previous album. Do you yearn to sing these songs?
R: I think most of the lyrics I write I envision him singing and I don't really want to sing them, they're written for his voice. I don't really, you know, [adopts frustrated voice] “I want to sing that.”So, no solo album in the near future, then?
B: You should do a solo album, that'd be cool.
R: 'Kittens And More Kittens.'
B: Maybe just 'Kittens', exclamation mark.
R: The songs to me are not about personalities, they're entities onto themselves and I feel like we're just instruments laying around the house too. Whatever the song needs is what it gets.
B: People do chastise me, 'oh, you don't let Rennie sing enough anymore'.
R: You're singing all my words, I mean, my god, how much more voice do I need?
B: There's not any kind of conspiracy going on there.
R: He's got a better voice than I have. My voice, at best, is a little airy, not really appropriate for the lead vocals on most songs. These records, we don’t approach them as mediums to sell our personalities.
B: The next record will be a two record set, one will be all you and the other all me.
R: I want these songs to be sung so anybody could sing them, just to be songs and not so much about us.Rennie, do you ever find yourself talking to your husband through your lyrics?
R: [shakes her head] I wouldn't use the lyrics to tell him something. I mean occasionally we use things from our lives.
B: We'd have a horrible marriage if that was true.
R: I don't think we'd last very long if I was using the lyrics somehow to get at him for something.
B: It is kind of funny if the lyric is based on something I've done or about my experiences in a mental hospital or something. It's weird singing those lyrics every night about yourself when you didn't write the lyrics but it's fine.
R: They're not really true though because they're not from your point of view.
B: It's all kind of an illusion.
R: I think, like any writer, I use things from life to begin talking about something I really want to talk about and they're not ever really diary entries. Usually the things that people assume are the most autobiographical are the most fictional. But nobody wants to hear that, they're always disappointed. People ask me all the time about that song So Long, 'did you really hit a bird with a rock?' - it's like what do you want me to say, yes, I killed twenty birds in researching that song. There is a thing in rock music where the singer is the song and people have forgotten how to approach songs in other ways.Like people thinking that Randy Newman is a horrible racist or hates short people because the personal pronoun in his songs refers to a character rather than to Randy Newman. It's like people asking Shakespeare if he'd really killed his father or the King of Scotland.
R: Yes, that's why so many musicians are so screwed up, because they feel they need to live their songs before they can write them. I think if I had to be the one singing all the songs there would be a lot of stories I wouldn't be able to pull off as a woman. There's certain things that just sound ridiculous coming out of a woman's voice that sound believable when a man sings it. Like Arlene where the character kidnaps this woman and drags her into the woods, a girl kidnapping somebody is like “jeez must be a big girl - how d'you do that?” but there's no question when it’s a man. And, I guess, the more you write narrative songs the more misunderstanding there is.
R: Well, for a long time, before people heard Harry Smith's Anthology, I was well, will you listen to folk music? there's a whole history of murder ballads and now…Now it's a coffee-table box, everyone's got it oh so prominently displayed.
R: Right. Now everybody knows murder ballads but for a while we had to explain why anybody would want to sing a song about murdering somebody, you know, no we don't want to kill anybody. I think the way I think about it and try to explain it to people is using your own dreams to understand that. I think everyone's had a dream where they've killed someone or been chased by someone with a knife and again it's not because that day someone chased you down the street with a knife, it's because your brain uses these metaphors to talk about fear and vulnerability and it seems obvious to me but…These days people only look at the surface of things, their glimmer, the figural has fallen by the wayside.
R: Yeah, which is such a shame because so much of the joy of art is the way it lets your brain start to paint pictures. I think about this a lot because, to me, I think that the reason why modern life can seem so empty and without magic to it is because we've gone into this direction of everything has to be explained, rationalised, the scientific approach to things, cause and effect, which leads to a life with no hidden secrets to it. Everything is what it seems. But it really isn't. It's just that we've decided to think about it this way. Because, if you read scientific journals, there's always some new physicist coming out with a new paper which explains how even stranger the actual make-up of reality is but we just ignore it. I remember reading about how they've proven there's so much more anti-matter in the world than matter, it's almost like matter is a side product, so we're basically unaware of what 80/90 percent of reality is made up of and right there, that's your proof that things are much stranger than they seem. What I try to do in the songs is maybe suggest to people that life is much more mysterious than you might have been led to believe and it's not a scary thing, I think it’s a comforting thing.I think it's far scarier the other way round.
R: Right. If this is all there is, that's terrifying, then I'd say, “kill yourself, go ahead and jump off the bridge.” That's what gives me hope, that there is something to all this and I think usually when you have a sense of that is when something really beautiful happens or when something really terrible, when you have this feeling that’s beyond your normal everyday feeling. So, I think writing songs that have these really charged moments are ways of maybe triggering that kind of thinking or thought processes in people and in myself too. I'm just trying to remind myself that there is something going on in the world. So, no, I don't write murder ballads because I want to kill someone or have killed someone.Your lyrics are far more 'literary' than most everyone around in that you use metaphor, metonymy, all these figural tropes. Tell me a bit about your favourite writers.
R: I stopped reading a lot of modern fiction, like again I don't buy a lot of CDs either because I get so depressed when I buy something and hate it, I find it really draining, it makes me depressed but yeah, I like a lot of those Raymond Carver stories and Thom Jones stories
B: Richard Ford and Denis Johnson
R: I really like Virginia Woolf. I find so few people that have even read her - most people imagine this dry feminist treatise but it's not like that at all. I ally myself a lot with her because her stories are about how beautiful life is and why it's worth living even though she's suicidely depressed and it’s a great triumph for someone that depressed to actually keep thinking of reasons to live for as long as she did. I like her sentences too. I like Faulkner as well. I don't really like Flannery O'Connor that much, everybody's always (adopts squeaky voice) 'you write just like Flannery O'Connor.' I used to like her a lot but, when I re-read her a few years ago, I saw she's so cruel and she's so without compassion for people. She was a real strict Catholic and I think she really felt there is Right and Wrong and most people she found lacking, it's such a cruel God she believed in.That's why Faulkner's so great because he won't fall into that trap.
R: Yeah. He accepts that everyone's fucked up. I really look for people who have compassion for the darkness and ugliness of humanity because we're all flawed.Do you see yourself doing this in twenty years time?
B: No, not really. I'd like to do something else. I'd like to record records, I'd like to do soundtrack music. There's a lot of things I'd rather do than tour. I mean, it's wonderful to have a great show but it's a grind, travel is a grind, it'll kill you. You have no time, you don't sightsee. You know what I've seen? I've seen this street. I walked to the corner. I went into Boots, I got some medicine and I walked back. That's what I've seen. In Paris, I drove past Notre Dame, great! So I've seen Paris, wonderful. But obviously, until I'm dead, I'll be doing some sort of music because that's all I've ever done.
R: Well, after the icecaps melt I don't know if there'll be any music left.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002