Stein interviews 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
Sunday 19th February 2017
The Assembly, Leamington Spa
14+ £15 adv
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