Five questions with: Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family

The Handsome Family w/ Chris Crofton

The Mill — Thursday, July 19 at 8 p.m.

The Handsome Family heads for The Mill on July 19. — photo by Brandon Soder

The Handsome Family will be returning to Iowa City, performing at the Mill on July 19 at 8 p.m. (tickets $20). The band, a longtime favorite of artists and musicians, catapulted to the awareness of the American public through the inclusion of their song “Far From Any Road” as the opening credits for the HBO show True Detective. Having noticed that 90 percent of the interview questions over the last four years emphasized the band’s relationship to the show, I asked Rennie Sparks, one half of the married couple who make up the Handsome Family, if we could talk about their website instead.

With a resounding “Hell yes,” Sparks, who also paints and makes music videos for the band, agreed to supply answers to a few questions via email. To start out, I asked her about their news page; at the time, the most recent update was in February of this year, when they announced the Lizardcaster auction, UK tour dates and a message to shape-shifting lizard replicants from outer space.

Why did the UK get its own tour announcement in the news, while the U.S. had to wait to find itself in “Shows”? Why only update your news section a handful of times a year?

It’s an accepted scientific fact that the UK has more Hidden Lizard Replicants per capita than the U.S.A. The next newsletter will be as American as a Cracker Barrel (both the restaurant and the traditional storage unit for salted wheat squares). It concerns our U.S.A. tour dates, yes, but also survival in the arctic (where, FYI, you can use your own frozen excrement as a knife if necessary). It seems like a good subject for the hot days of summer.

I got a medical marijuana card this year so I have been somewhat distracted by cars going by and bright flashes at the corners of my eyes. My “idiopathic neurological pain” is well-controlled though, or at least I am so well-distracted I can’t find my limbs for much of the day. As I’ve said, arctic news is forthcoming though. (Frozen caribou tongues are delectable, say four out of five Inuits surveyed. Others prefer moose noses with berries.)

When someone stumbles onto the “Biography” section, they learn that you’re touring in support of the 20th year anniversary of Through the Trees. What do you think makes this album such a pivotal point not only in your discography but, according to experts, American music overall? What about the album still resonates 20 years later? Do you think of your approach to those songs as “covering” them, in a way, or are you still able to channel who you were then, as humans and as artists?

It’s actually been a great pleasure to revisit these songs and play them. We’ve been playing a lot of them live for the first time ever. There’s a certain creepy place in American folklore that I think is still being underserved by the Americana music community (no more songs about whiskey and/or small towns, please!). Luckily Brett and I are both stuck permanently in a psychic Sleepy Hollow. Most American music fans are familiar with murder ballads and disaster songs, but few have considered deeply why we need such dark songs. I still feel firmly connected to the ancient Greek notion of catharsis. There are scary places inside the American mind and inside the American landscape that we have trouble talking about or even acknowledging. Through the Trees still does a good job conjuring up those scary places: wilderness, killers, suicide, desert, bones, apples, snakes, snow. The songs feel necessary to me and full of American archetypes that still resonate. Also they still do feel like our songs.

Those who sign up for your newsletter, like those who read your interviews or have seen you banter back and forth at a live performance, are aware of how incredibly witty and funny you are. Those who only listen to the Gothic overtones of your music (and other work, like your book Evil) would perhaps not expect this. Although most humans are not one dimensional, you seem extremely good at being both earnestly creepy (music) and hilariously weird (words). Which of these is more true to your personality? What do you find more beautiful?

I’ve always found that earnestly creepy lives right next store to hilariously weird. I sometimes listen to Joy Division and giggle. I know this makes me a bad person. I often don’t know if something is funny or scary. Mostly life feels like both at once. When it’s beautiful, too, things move into the realm of “unspeakable,” which is where you really need a song or a story to live. That is the necessary function of songs, I think. They are an emotional language that stretches beyond our speaking language. If a song doesn’t make you feel something then it’s not working, but if it makes you feel happy, sad, scared, whatever then its done its job.

How would you define the American music tradition, in its purest strain? What elements are most necessary or important to it? What does this tradition, as you define it, help us learn about what it means to be American today?

I’m a student of what is missing in the American songbook. I love to find the earlier European versions of our songs. We often take out any reference to sex and even love, but all levels of violence are okay and even added to in our versions. Americans are very bad at self-reflection. That’s where the music comes in — hopefully, to give us a way of looking at what we’ve done without it becoming too much to bear. We have made a lot of plastic bags and a lot of bombs. I try to sing about the situation.

Let me be a bit more clear about this question: If America is a God, and you are its prophets, what do you make of the current political administration? (especially given your feelings about the Bush election, posted on the “Interview” section of your webpage)? How do you speak for justice? Whose justice is it, and what does it resemble? And what else has changed with you as a band since you were last in Iowa City, back in 2014?

The Bush years seem so quaint now especially after seeing W’s paintings. I really liked them. America has always been a place of bloodthirsty, vengeful and spiteful thieves. And yet we keep professing we’re about freedom, democracy and self-worth. We’re an old testament god masquerading as a new testament one. We actually don’t love freedom. Nor are we that crazy about democracy. We love winning and profiting. All things are acceptable in the pursuit of those goals. We’re happy to smite our enemies even if we take a whole bunch of innocent people with them. This is because we also believe that almost everyone who is not American is slightly suspicious. I don’t see us accepting these hard truths anytime soon.

Did you know we’ve been losing wars ever since WWII? No, we never say we’re losers. I’ll probably get red-flagged for saying it. Yet, when you look closely at all the mayhem we cause around the world there is usually someone raking in billions. None of us notice. We’re too busy shopping and clicking on things to like or not like them. We create need in each other that is insatiable because our country comes to halt if no one shops and no one needs. This is capitalism. All of us own more stuff than most of humanity ever owned and yet it’s not enough. At the very least we could stop wrapping everything we buy in plastic that will last 5,000 years. “Thanks for shopping and have a nice day!”

Obviously I’m more bitter than I was [in 2014]. These are dark times. I worry about the ocean dying when I probably should focus on practicing these dang songs. We’ll be a four-piece band this time which will help cover my inevitable goofs when performing. I sometimes completely black out for seconds a time on stage. Rock on! We have a dedicated shredder in the band now though, Alex McMahon. I can confidently promise the show will include: creepiness, laughter and some mean pedal steel. Also, FYI, our drummer, Jason Toth, plays goat toenails with great delicacy.

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