Interview: The Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks on the joys of storytelling, Andrew Bird’s cover album

The Handsome Family
“I love telling stories. We dream in stories,” says Rennie Sparks (right). — photo by Sally Payne

The Handsome Family (sold out)

Englert Theatre — Wednesday, Aug. 20 at 8 p.m.

The Handsome Family have been playing since 1993, originally as a trio consisting of Brett and Rennie Sparks, and drummer Mike Werner (who has since left the group). The band hit its stride when their focus turned to Rennie’s dark, brooding lyrics and Brett’s alt-country arrangements, leading them to work with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on their third full-length, Through the Trees.

Indeed, having been based out of Chicago for much of their career (they now call Albuquerque home), they’ve worked with a huge cast of Chicago’s best musicians, including the aforementioned Jeff Tweedy, as well as Andrew Bird. Bird’s admiration for The Handsome Family is clear on his latest record, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, a collection of Handsome Family covers.

But Bird’s cover album is only one of the big surprises 2014 has given the Handsome Family. Their song “Far From Any Road,” from 2003’s Singing Bones, was used as the main theme song for HBO’s True Detective. And with the release of last-year’s Wilderness, one of their best records to date, it’s pretty obvious that if there was a time to catch up with the Handsome Family, that time is right now.

Rennie Sparks took the time to answer some questions over email in anticipation of their Intimate at the Englert show tonight at 8 p.m.

Little Village: Your song “Far From Any Road” has been featured as the theme for HBO’s True Detective. Although you two are obviously already an established act, and have been playing together for two decades, have you noticed any major impact from that song placement? Different kinds of audiences, perhaps?

Rennie Sparks: Europe has been great. This is the tour we’ll see about the USA. Sure hope we get a few more American fans. It would be so nice to be heard and understood by the place that inspires us.

I first discovered your music through your cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which kind of has the same “short story in song structure” template that you work in. What draws you to that style?

I love telling stories. We dream in stories. I love stories that have mysterious holes to ponder. Our songs usually improve when I remove the most important verse. I learned that from all the folk songs in the U.S. that had the sex and death edited out of them leaving you to ponder where all the emotion is coming from. Inadvertent genius of puritanical minds!

In the song “Woodpecker” (a favorite of mine off your latest record, by the way), you sing, “She was a woodpecker, she couldn’t help but see / All the things that hide inside all the pretty trees.” Is that at all analogous to your approach to songwriting — needing to see hidden things?

Yes, the more you know about the world the more amazing it becomes. There was a woodpecker in our front yard when we left on tour today. A good omen.

On a related note, what do you think it means to “Lie down in the dirt…and be a mirror to the night?” as you sing on the song “Frogs”? It almost sounds like an artistic call to arms whenever I hear it.

I don’t know, but I know I want to do it. Maybe to feel a part of the natural night song and no longer be a visitor, an interloper in the midst of natures’ beauty? I have a great longing for mud since moving to the desert.

Andrew Bird released a collection of covers of your songs this summer. What was it like to hear so many of your songs re-contextualized by a single artist? And if you were to release a collection of covers of one act, which act would that be?

Andrew’s versions of our songs were breathtaking to hear. It’s like he took our old car and made it run on strange and beautiful ethers.

We have been trying to do a covers record of the songs of Stephen Foster. Amazing and difficult music, full of the greatest of vision and the most awful racism — it continues to be so important and relevant. Black face minstrel music was popular in the USA a lot longer than rock and roll. We haven’t begun to acknowledge it. I guess we just want to continue to write the songs of our experience here and now in this strange, beautiful and violent land.

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