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The Handsome Family
by Martin Williams / pictures by Maike Zimmermann
I just want to say that I've got 12 hot cross buns between my legs.
That was Rennie Sparks, one half of Chicago's Handsome Family, speaking as she climbed on stage at the 12-Bar Club recently. Quite what she meant with this fruity declaration is anybody's guess. But then straightforwardness isn't really the Handsome Family's stock-in-trade. Through The Trees is their third album of twisted Americana, a knock on from their more raucous earlier sound and - in losing their drummer somewhere along the way - nearer to a tight, minimal version, where dated folk melodies are exhumed, only to be pasted onto a surreal backing of ticking programmed rhythms and. well, croaking frogs. Like the snapshots of Brett and Rennie stiffly holding their banjo and autoharp in some echo of the Carter Family meets the Munsters, The Handsome Family take what is traditional or archaic and update it with a twist of sinister comedy. A throw-back to what Greil Marcus once called, "the old, weird America."
You're on your way back from a few dates in Europe. How do you go down outside the States? Is there a fear that people just won't get it?
Rennie: It's funny, we played in Germany about two years ago and I was worried they wouldn't get any of the jokes, so we wrote all these jokes in German for between the songs and I was saying them in this terrible German, like, 'my-wooden-leg-is-filled-with-goldfish.' Took me an hour to get every sentence out. But they really got all the songs; it's amazing. People speak English everywhere; it's crazy. You almost wish they wouldn't. I think in a way people in Europe and in England seem to get our jokes better than Americans, because Americans are always like, 'ooh, that's weird.' Americans are so wholesome.
Brett: People who don't have a hard time with black humour really like us, but in the US there are a lot of people who just want this happy, sappy shit. When a song is kind of melancholy then it's just like, 'oh, you're so depressed.'
Rennie: I always feel like people in the US get just sort of half of us. Either they think we're really dark or they think we're really goofy, like Ween or something. They don't see the whole; they can't really put it together. Either you're funny or you're sad.
Brett: The thing is, the songs we're writing are basically informed by, like, traditional folk music, not really country music. I mean country music is pretty bleak for the most part but folk music is even more intense. It deals with the weighty issues of life. All these old folk songs, they're full of all these stories of people killing each other.
Rennie: That's what we listen to mostly, so I'm sure it shows up.
What do you listen to?
Rennie: A lot of these old recordings. But I guess we listen to new music too.
Brett: I have this CD player that takes 110 CDs.
Rennie: It's actually the most exciting thing in the world. You never have to pick anything.
Brett: You put 110 CDs in there and press random. It'll be like Barry White, Radiohead, Doc Watson, Led Zeppelin, John Coltrane. We listen to the gamut, y'know.
Rennie: It's great, it's good for your head.
Brett: And I love sound-effects records. Y'know, doors opening, keys in locks, stuff like that.
Rennie: Chipmunks chewing nuts, that's my favourite. When I'm really feeling blue that's what always cheers me up the sound of a chipmunk chewing a nut. It works.
You've said that you couldn't really play when you started out.
Rennie: I think most people start out that way, they just don't want to admit it.
Brett: I was writing songs and just doing solo stuff on four track, sending it to record companies, that's a waste of time. I was sick of it, so I taught Rennie how to play bass. I switched to guitar.
Rennie: I had the rhythm of an electrical storm. I remember at our first practice that was your comment.
Brett: Oh, so bad.
Rennie: The wounds are still healing.
Brett: And my best drinking buddy, I bought him a drum kit from Sears for $80. We were in the laundry one day and I was like, "can you do this?" [pounds the table] And he did it so I was like, "okay, you're the drummer." We rehearsed a little bit until we could get through about six or seven songs and we just basically made a lot of noise.
Rennie: We would say, "yeah, we're just a noisy band." But underneath the noise really we were a Country band.
Brett: Even though it was so bad, it was this fantastic mess. And it was hilarious too; just watching these three idiots on stage make fools of themselves and play these Country songs real noisy. I wish we still sounded like that.
Rennie: It seemed like at the time there were so many bands that were so earnest, so serious. And maybe there is a place for that but I just felt there's got to be some other way to approach this and I think we eventually got to this place where now we can be serious because we're not being serious about ourselves, we're being serious about the songs. We don't take ourselves seriously but we take the songs seriously.
Something definitely clicked into place when I saw you play live. Do you feel misunderstood?
Rennie: Yeah, but I think it's okay. The recordings are one thing and the live shows another. I think it is ridiculous to stand on a stage and have people look at you, so there's something inherently comical in the whole thing.
Brett: We make fun of the whole situation, it's a farce.
Rennie: And I don't want people to be worshipping us or something, the point is the songs and we're just like buffoons who happen to be playing the songs.
Brett: That's why I love using the stupid machine too, like these sequencers, it totally deflates the whole rock thing, and it really deflates the Country thing. We really pissed a lot of people off when we started using the drum machine.
Rennie: It forces you to focus on the lyrics and the melody. There is something about this recorded background that works for us because it is so stark and unemotional. When we had a live drummer it was really easy to just hide behind the drums and if you had a song that wasn't so good you could just rock it out and it would be fine. But this way if a song doesn't work it's clear and you really have to re-write your songs and hone them down.
You never wanted to go back to a traditional band set-up, with another drummer for example?
Rennie: I always wanted a drum machine. I always hated playing with a live drummer because it was just so rock and such a cliché. The rolls into the chorus and the crescendos and then the build up...no matter how crazy your song is, it always becomes something that you've heard before, it creates this structure for songs that doesn't leave any mystery.
Brett: When the drummer quit we had three shows that I really wanted to do, so we were like, 'oh, we'll just do it as a duo without the drummer.' And then we practised and it just wasn't coming together. So I got a little Casio keyboard and plugged it into the PA and we played along with it and we're like, 'wow, that's kinda cool.'
Rennie: And just because it's not supposed to be that way, because Country music has no business having this sequenced stuff behind it, that's a good enough reason to do it.
Your lyrics remind me of Flannery O'Conner's stories. Do you tap into any lyrical tradition as well as a musical one?
Rennie: I've read too many books.
Brett: Rennie has a Masters in Creative Writing. She's a journalist and short story writer. She won't toot her own horn, so I have to toot it for her.
Rennie: I think my stories are much more personal and I don't like them as much because they're too much like, 'me, me, me.' When I write songs it's much better, it's much more like somebody else.
Brett: I used to write all the lyrics, like the first record is almost all my lyrics, but I just kind of dried up and got sick of writing lyrics. And especially this record the lyrics are great, because Rennie's a writer. Most people who write lyrics, most people who are in rock bands; they're not people who really have a way with words.
Rennie: But I think there's some damn good lyrics in the body of music. Even a song like Amazing Grace - and I think about that song all the time - those lyrics are so simple but they're so timeless and so transcendent. There's a very basic primordial thrill to it.
Brett: In Ancient Greece words and music were inseparable, Greek poetry was incorporated with music. There was something else that didn't have words but they didn't really qualify it as art.
Rennie: The Greeks knew their shit. And the Greeks also knew that every good tragedy needed some comical turns to it and every good comedy needed a tragic twist to it. These are age-old truths that we're trying to tap into.
As sinister as a lot of the traditional folk is - like murder ballads - there's a sense of black comedy to them as well.
Rennie: It's a weird comedy though, because we do the same thing. There's that Carter Family song about Freida Bolt, a story of a girl who was taken up into the woods, and then her boyfriend shoves her in a hole and covers it with rocks and leaves her there and she's just, like, screaming in the woods and nobody hears her screams and then she dies. And it's horrible. But it's so surreal that you have to laugh, and then you feel terrible laughing. It's about sex and about just what it feels like to have sexual desire for people. I mean, it's funny when you desire somebody, it's ridiculous to, like, want to have sex with somebody but it's this crazy thing that just overpowers you [laughs]. You do feel like throwing somebody in the river when you want to fuck them.
CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue