The Handsome Family
The Assembly (aka A great venue to worship Satan)
Sunday, 19 Feb 2017 at 7:30 PM
(support: William the Conqueror)
If Gomez had settled on one primary vocalist, cut some of the 90's indie distortion and went out as trio, I imagine they might have sounded a bit like tonight's support act, Newquay's William the Conqueror. Ruarri Joseph (Vocals, Guitars) proved himself a strong singer and more-than-able frontman. Their set was buoyed by the dead-on backing vocals and harmonies of Harry Harding (Drums) and Naomi Holmes (Bass). The young-uns got a good response from the seated Assembly crowd and were at their best with Joseph playing lead on his acoustic guitar (even joking that the goal was someday to be able to afford to hire a roadie to bring it to him "pre-tuned"). Stand-out track for this reviewer was "I Missed a Trick", but this was a solid, roots and rhythm (and, at times flirting with indie and anthemic) set, so keep an eye out for these guys on http://www.williamtheconqueror.net/
Now, everyone who made up the small but committed crowd at the Assembly knew why they were there ... and what they were waiting for ... and not just the Frogs and Moons! Personally, I have always aligned the Handsome Family (in my mind) as much with the likes of They Might be Giants and/or Mark Eitzel and The American Music Club as with any Americana or Alt-Country mavens. However, the four-piece band, fronted by Rennie Sparks (Bass Ukele, Harpsichord), led by Brett Sparks (Guitar, Lead Vocals) and featuring Jason Toth (drums, percussion and some keyboard parts) and the superb Alex McMahon (pedal steel, guitar, and keyboards) proved themselves one hell of a proper country band. Much has been said and written about their Gothic Americana style, indie cred and dark, quirky sensibility, but not nearly enough has been put to paper about their ability to truly kick some shit as a live proposition. Can I say that in a review? Well, I just did... Funny, at time fierce and fully loaded, The Handsome Family owned the room for word go.
Ostensibly sharing stage right with Bunny (her invisible friend) whilst battling a mid-Atlantic chest cough, Rennie's introductions and between-song commentary provided a wicked and witty counterpoint to the darkness of her lyrics. Dedicating the set to, among other-things, the memory of the great, late Robert Fisher (of Willard Grant Conspiracy) as well as there their adopted hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico (home of Clamato and world leader in Drinking Game-related deaths), Mrs. Sparks set to on the bass ukulele with a sound and tone like the Lord himself drumming his fingers whilst also laying down shining backing vocals throughout. The erstwhile Mr. Sparks, handling the majority of lead vocals, brought forth a voice even deeper and even twangier (is that even a word?) than most thought possible, and that voice really soared at times, especially against the pedal steel on "Back in My Day" (my personal favourite). The weilder of said pedal steel, Alex McMahon, also showcased the kind of lead playing on "The Loneliness of Magnets" that would stack up against any slinger in the business.
Other set highlights included the Zevonesque "The Bottomless Hole" and, of course, "Far From Any Road". Hearing it live makes you realise why this tune has become The Handsome Family's calling card and ticket (and not simply the True Detective theme). The harmonies, the soloing, the elegant construction ... it was the moment we were all waiting for and, despite severe Trumpitis, that song, this band and the night delivered us our redemption. Capping the night with an encore of the obligatory "Frogs", the band left their purple stage and left us (all too soon) to return to the chill of mid-February, Middle English night.
So, here's to frogs, and to bags ... and the octopus ... and here's to The Handsome Family!
Our very own larger-than-life character, Stein, volunteered to interview The Handsome Family. Here's his article...
The Handsome Family are a distinctly original and darkly American duo of Brett Sparks (lead vocals/guitar/keyboards) and wife Rennie (bass/banjo/vocals). Having met in Chicago (Brett by way of Texas, Rennie via New York), they are probably best known for their "cinematic murder ballad" Far From Any Road, the haunting, rootsy theme song for the acclaimed first season of HBO's True Detective. Now based out of New Mexico, Rennie (who writes their lyrics) and Brett (music) return to the UK on the strength of their latest release, Unseen. The couple bring their unique and luridly complex take on Country and Americana to Leamington's Assembly on 19th February and, during a break from preparations for their European tour, Rennie sat down to answer some of HotMusicLive's questions about the band, their sound, the new album and their defiantly indie career thus far.
HML: Having been described as everything from Alt-country to Neo-Americana to Gothic roots to Indie folk and all points in between, how would you describe your music, especially to those over here who might be new to the band's work?
I liked what one reviewer said which was, "Comparisons to any other band are futile." Maybe Science fiction country? That should scare everyone away. Lovecraftian Folk Rock? We really have no marketing plan. We just like to write songs.
HML: For these European/UK dates, what's the touring setup/lineup in terms of personnel and gear/instruments.
We're going to have a four-piece band. Jason Toth our percussionist also plays some keyboard parts. Alex McMahon will be playing pedal steel, guitar, and keyboards. I'll be playing bass and autoharp and singing. Brett plays electric guitar and sings the brunt of it.
HML: How has your writing process evolved as the band has progressed? How is that reflected in the songs on "Unseen"?
Brett no longer says, "I don't know what this song is about," he just works on it until he can sing my words. It's taken him 20 years to trust me a bit. I still don't trust him in the slightest, but I do like the music he writes.
HML: For each of you, what would you say is your favourite track on Unseen? And, in terms of the live shows, what are some of your favourite songs to play out?
We're both really fond of "Gold". and it is fun to play. "Tiny Tina" is also a favorite. I guess we like all the songs or we wouldn't have put them on the record. The hard one to play live is "Gentlemen". Brett wants a harpsichord for that.
HML: I was born and raised in Chicago, so I'm intrigued by your move from Chi to New Mexico. How was that transition? What do you see as the key differences? How has the move changed or influenced your music?
It was like moving from a black and white movie into technicolor. I love the sky and the light here. It is nourishing. Chicago is a great place to be a creative person because there are so many talented people all around to inspire. Albuquerque is more of a place to retreat to after a lot of travel and a place to be creative alone with little distraction.
Chicago is a great city to live in when you're a beginning artist. There are, as I've said, so many people to inspire you and so much going on. So much support for arts there and so much space where you can dabble in your work without huge worries about money. We got some huge help from other musicians while living there and huge encouragement. It really kept us going. I guess we moved to New Mexico when we kind of grew up as artists and felt like we could do it without helping hands.
HML: You continue to play a range of venues, both in terms of size and atmosphere. Is your Preference for more of a club or something more of a hall/theatre venue. ( FYI The Assembly is roughly 1,000 capacity venue, converted art deco space). How does your music and your set change based on venue?
Well, now you've got me worried. I always think it's a miracle when anyone shows up. I never take it for granted. We do play in various size places depending on where we are, but I think most bands are like that. Everyone has their places where they are unknown. Even Elvis might have had trouble in New Guinea. Who knows? It's great to play to a quiet crowd so we can get a bit nuanced with dynamics. When you play for a loud crowd it has to be very broad strokes you paint.
HML: As a former Bouncer in Chicago, one of my favourite venues has always been Schuba's, and I love the fact that ya'll did the live record there and, also, that the "between song banter"/conversations are listed as actual tracks in their own right. Has that always been a feature of your live performances or is it something that has evolved through the years?
We do like to annoy each other on stage and off. Stage banter is just a continuation of the argument we're having backstage usually. I guess we both want to just be ourselves and not adopt a persona when in front of an audience. I want our fans to feel that they can get to know us by coming to our shows.
HML: How would you say the response to the band differs in the UK as compared to Europe or different regions in the USA?
We play to lots of big crowds in the UK. We are thankful. Big cities in the USA are usually pretty good. We skip the small towns and the south for the most part. I guess we navigate away from the Trump supporters. Most countries in Europe are okay for us especially where they speak english well. It's hard for Italians to understand a lot of our lyrics, but they try!
HML: What effect has the still fairly newfound/renewed success of "Far from Any Road" had for you? Another big song for us here in the UK was, obviously "So Much Wine".
They both helped us to find new fans. We are incredibly thankful.
HML: What is the background your relationship with (multi-instrumentalist, composer and former Squirrel Nut Zipper) Andrew Bird and how did his Handsome Family cover album (Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of...) come about? What is/was your reaction?
We were in the Empty Bottle one night (in Chicago) and heard him play and were just floored. He is a unique genius and we have always been just awed by his talent. It brought us both to tears to find out that he found our songs inspiring, too. It's a wonderfully gratifying experience to feel understood by someone who you admire so much. Also, he always seems to find ways into our songs that we never knew were there. It's like he comes to our house and finds all these new windows and secret hallways we never noticed.
HML: As a working band coming of age professionally right as the business shifted for the old ways to a hugely digital existence, how have you adapted to the shift in emphasis away from record sales to live performances as a way to sustain your career?
Yes, we remember when you could live off of record sales and touring was a necessary expense but didn't have to be profitable in itself. Now it is the only real source of income for a lot of us. That being said, it has become incredibly meaningful to us when anyone buys our music. We know they don't have to. It's a much more meaningful exchange now even if the numbers are lower. Really, it's made me thankful for what I do have because so much of the art world has been decimated by the internet age. Few artists are paid for what they do. Thankfully we are two of them. It's miraculous.
THE HANDSOME FAMILY (w/ William the Conqueror)
An MJR Group Presentation by arrangement with Rockin' Good News
The Handsome Family will be at The Assembly on Sunday, Feb 19th! Here's the official word from their promotion team at SonicPR...
THE HANDSOME FAMILY ANNOUNCE FEB - MAR 2017 EUROPEAN & UK TOUR.
TICKETS ON SALE NOW: punkrockblues.co.uk
Cult husband and wife duo The Handsome Family will follow the release of their much anticipated forthcoming stu-dio album release Unseen, with a tour of the UK and Europe, in February and March 2017.
The UK leg of the tour includes the following dates:
Sat 18 Feb - CARDIFF, The Globe
Sun 19 Feb - LEAMINGTON SPA, Assembly
Tue 21 Feb - NORWICH, Arts Centre
Wed 22 Feb - MANCHESTER, RNCM Concert Hall
Thu 23 Feb - GLASGOW, St Luke's
Fri 24 Feb - EDINBURGH, The Caves
Sat 25 Feb - GATESHEAD, Sage 2
Mon 27 Feb - LEEDS, Brudenell Social Club
Tue 28 Feb - BRISTOL, St George's
Thu 2 Mar - LONDON, Union Chapel
Fri 3 Mar - BRIGHTON, Concorde 2
Sat 4 Mar - FOLKESTONE, Quarterhouse
The European leg will include Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin and Paris.
'Unseen' was released on 16 September and has already been described by Mojo as "The Handsome Family's master-piece". It's causing a serious buzz online with recently released singles 'Gold' and 'Back In My Day' receiving rave reviews and support from key blogs and streaming services such as Spotify including New Music Friday Playlist UK for both their singles...
NEW ALBUM 'UNSEEN' REVIEWS:
"Beguiling tenth album from American husband and wife duo" ★★★★ - UNCUT
"'Unseen' is The Handsome Family's masterpiece" ★★★★ - MOJO
"Words that in their everyday surrealism have no parallel in contemporary writing… music that mines the deep veins of fatalism in the Appalachian voice..." – GREIL MARCUS
"Beautifully surreal" - THE INDEPENDENT
"Haunting, primal and strangely heroic" - THE TIMES
"They come from Hell's ditch armed with love" - NME
The band also release a video for their recent single 'Back In my Day', the second single from their forthcoming 10th studio album 'Unseen', released on 16 September via Loose. The video is a fantastically surrealist visual to accompany the tracks' celebration of years past, which sees the band harking back to a time where we could "drink from the river", had "mile-high glaciers", when "the birds were always watching" and "there were monsters in the sea"...
"'Back in My Day' grew out of my frustration at the new street lights put up around our house in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It no longer gets dark here. We get a half-twilight orange dusk for a few hours and then the sun comes up again. I miss the dark night. I miss the stars and the calm that comes from looking out into black space. In this darkness-deprived state I can't be held responsible for whatever false memories pop into my head, but I truly do remember playing music on rings of ice. I remember trying to fold a map. I remember feeling the entire forest watching me as I wandered off into the pines. Brett says all the instruments used to record this song were actually made from ice. He still wears a wristwatch. It may not be removable. He has seen monsters in the sea." - Rennie Sparks, The Handsome Family.
'Unseen', The forthcoming album, with its unique mix of country instrumentation and intriguing surrealist lyricism, explores the unseen stories, people and places of the American west, where The Handsome family live - in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 'Unseen' shines a light on the obscure and forgotten.
The album's first single, 'Gold', recently released to rave reviews and support from streaming services such as Spotify (New Music Friday Playlist UK) is a modern classic murder ballad set against a backdrop of "wide empty streets, the air shaking with heat". 'Gold' paints intense images of a protagonist, with snake tattoos, a ski mask, and gunshot wounds – all the result of feeling "hungry to do something mean". The first track on the album – 'Gold' is the beginning of a journey taking the listener "past the last lights of town" – driving us into the unknown – a place familiar to The Handsome Family.
In 2015 Rennie and Brett Sparks saw their song 'Far From Any Road' about "fire ants on their driveway" picked by American actor Matthew McConaughey to be the theme tune to the HBO TV smash hit: "True Detective".
Rennie Sparks describes an event that personified the band's strange experience of being propelled into a surreal state of limbo by their post True Detective fame, when she miraculously disappeared in an airport. Rennie stated: "At the height of True Detective S1 excitement I disappeared one afternoon while waiting for a flight at O'Hare. A middle-aged businessman, McDonald's bag in one hand, rolling-bag handle in the other - walked up to me and, without pause, turned and sat down on my lap. A second later his French fries and rolling bag were on the floor and he was sputtering apologies, insisting he'd seen an empty chair. This strange invisibility felt similar to the night Brett and I watched the series in our little house in Albuquerque, feeling oddly alone. I have learned to embrace my power to vanish. As a songwriter, you have to be willing to disappear and let your songs outshine you in order to embrace points of view bigger than your own. It was great that a song written about ants in my driveway became a song about cops in Louisiana. That's the best any songwriter can hope for."
And so, Rennie happily remained invisible, even as the band became visible to millions, with YouTube counts for The Handsome Family's 'hit' song climbing to twenty million and more. The song was in the top 10 in US and UK Spotify charts and spent months in the iTunes top 100 in countries as far-flung as Vietnam, South Africa, and the Ukraine.
'Unseen' continues The Handsome Family's embrace of things beyond easy view: the slow dive of the sun, enormous bugs awakening in thorny yards, sirens and coyotes that cry out to the purple sky. 'Unseen', an epic western gothic masterpiece, draws from real life events. 'Gold' began when a bunch of twenty-dollar bills blew in Brett's face in a parking-lot dust storm. 'Gentlemen', is a tribute to William Crookes who built the first vacuum tube in 1875, hoping to detect spirits from unseen dimensions. Many tracks fix around the idea that light that emanates from things we can't see - behind 'The Red Door', in the empty hands of blackjack losers ('The Silver Light'), and amidst desert bones bleaching in the sun ('King of Dust').
'Unseen' was recorded by Brett at his home studio at night – "with only hawk moths listening". It features a rich tapestry of instrumentation, which conjures images of the magical landscape of the Sparks' New Mexico surroundings. David Gutierrez plays mandolin on 'Tiny Tina' and dobro on 'The Silver Light'. Alex MacMahon: guitar on 'The Silver Light', baritone guitar and pedal steel on 'Gold'. Jason Toth: drums throughout (except 'Green Willow Valley'). Rennie wrote all the lyrics. She sang and played banjo and autoharp, but "didn't bother to write down on which songs".
The Sparks have released 10 albums since 1995's Odessa. Their songs have been covered by countless YouTubers and well-known artists like Jeff Tweedy, Amanda Palmer, Cerys Matthews, Christy Moore and Andrew Bird (who released an entire record of HF covers). Guns 'N' Roses used, 'Far From Any Road' as stage entrance music for a South American tour, and both Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr are fans. Decades into their careers, after win-ning the TV theme tune jackpot - the Sparks still find their greatest reward in disappearing into new songs.
Unseen, the new album from The Handsome Family, was released 16th September on Loose. Available on 180g Pond Green vinyl, CD and download.