We're sitting in Brett and Rennie Sparks' little adobe house in Nob Hill, and it's not at all what we imagined. We were thinking there might be gargoyles over the entrance, maybe some taxidermied owls and a moat. Now that we're here, though, the Handsome Family's home seems perfectly natural.
Rennie's folksy animal paintings ornament the walls. The coffee table is constructed from an old door. An astonishing variety of dog food cans lines the top of the kitchen cabinets, even though the couple has two cats—but no dogs. (Rennie collects dog food cans.) They've converted a backroom into the self-contained studio where they create the curious albums that have made them cult figures in the United States and superstars in Europe.
The couple has released a string of brilliant CDs over the years—Through the Trees, Twilight, In the Air, Singing Bones and others. Their latest is called Last Days of Wonder, and it might be their best yet.
As on past projects, Rennie writes the lyrics. She's a published author with a short story collection called Evil to her credit, so it’s no surprise that her lyrics can sometimes seem closer to miniature jewel-like short stories than the verse and chorus structure of more ordinary songs. Brett sets these lyrics to music in their home studio, singing them in a resonant baritone that perfectly complements his wife's otherworldly narratives. The subject matter can be macabre. It can just as often be hilarious.
“Actually,” says Brett, “I think our songs are more funny than they are sad.”
“They're always talking about us like we're crypt keepers,” Rennie says, “but we don't feel that way. You can't write happy songs without acknowledging that there is darkness in the world.”
The duo's music is too often unfairly described as depressing, which makes some sense given that the traditional rural American music that's been such a huge influence on their work so often involves murder, suicide or other forms of gruesome, spontaneous violence. Still, many Handsome Family songs are comical—in an admittedly dark sort of way.
“That's the difference,” says Brett. “In America, you play [one of our songs] and people are like, 'Ew, that's creepy.' In England, they're wetting their pants, laughing their asses off.”
Their fertile partnership obviously works well. The couple met while Rennie was an undergraduate and Brett was a grad student at Stony Brook in New York state. Their story could almost serve as the basis of one of Rennie's crazy, off-kilter lyrics.
“He was under the mistaken impression that Stony Brook would be really cosmopolitan because it was 60 miles from New York City,” she says, “but 60 miles from New York is a big deal. It was a very suburban, horrible place. The day we met, I was walking around campus with this little card I'd made with this quote on it from Thomas Pynchon's book V.”
“You had a lot of time on your hands,” says Brett.
“Yeah, I didn't have any friends either ... I was walking around asking people, 'Would you like to see my purpose?' and showing them this card, and no one wanted to see my purpose, but Brett did. I had some tequila in my purse. It was the tequila that sealed the deal. He was actually waiting for another girl, but by the time she got there, it was too late. So always carry a little tequila in your purse, ladies, just in case.”
“Yes, girls, let that be a lesson to you,” her husband says.
They didn't collaborate musically for a long time, not until they moved to Chicago in the early ’90s. Brett started a band, and he asked Rennie to play bass. They brought in a drinking buddy neighbor to play drums.
“Back then, there were so many bands that were just so shitty, you know?” says Brett. “All those DIY bands, they were great bands. They didn't really play very well, but it was a cool time for music. There was a lot of great stuff coming out, and it didn't necessarily have to be played well. We were going for a minimal thing. We were really noisy.”
“Most of the people who saw us back then can't believe that we're still playing,” says Rennie, laughing.
Brett and his brother Darryl (the Alibi's circulation manager and a member of the local rootsy band The Rivet Gang) grew up in the Baptist Church, which steeped their musical upbringing in old Christian hymns. Eventually, Rennie and Brett developed a deep interest in traditional American music, keying into such prime sources as the early country work of Charlie and Ira Louvin, and Harry Smith's famous Anthology of American Folk Music.
"He [Harry Smith] was a numerologist and really into the occult. He thought a lot about the order of the songs and what the songs said,” Rennie says. “I think he really did think of it as a book of spells that would change the way America thought about itself. And it did. It's very intimate. It's very magical."
“There was a time when country music or folk music or whatever the hell you want to call it was filled with mystery and spiritual qualities and weirdness and murder and happiness and sunshine,” Brett says. The couple soon decided they should remake their sound by injecting some of these qualities into their music.
Under the influence of these old songs, Rennie took over composing the lyrics, and Brett began setting them to music. Their joint songwriting soon began to attract a small but steadily expanding audience of admirers.
They moved to Albuquerque, the Sparks family's hometown, and began throwing everything they had into their collaboration, eventually building up a worldwide fan base. “We never thought we could do this full-time,” says Rennie. “I think it's a miracle to do art, to make it your livelihood.”
The bulk of their fans are in Europe, but they've got quite a following here, too. “For a while,” says Rennie, “the only people who would come see us were 60-year-old men with cobwebs all over them. Gradually, we're getting younger and younger crowds, and now there's some downright attractive people coming to see us.”
“You'll see a goth kid with black lipstick and next to him is a guy with a bolo tie,” says Brett.
“A lot of Midwestern tattoo artists seem to like us,” Rennie adds.
Last Days of Wonder, their latest, has its fair share of distorted comedy and wild, dark tales that sound like they're from another era—maybe the distant past, maybe the distant future—about running around naked on golf courses, malfunctioning motion-sensor faucets in airports and old ladies dirty dancing alone in bowling alley bars. It's a tender, waltzing set of songs revolving around science and nature, where the apocalypse sweeps over our strip malls like a thicket of grass.
The album is strikingly varied, and there isn't a dud on it. Last Days of Wonder still contains plenty of morbid and just downright weird bits, but it also strikes the listener as an almost cheerful collection, music that celebrates the appealing bizarreness of ordinary existence.
“To me,” says Rennie, “it's very important to find some kind of magic to everyday life. Maybe you don't have to be jumping for joy every minute, but it's nice to feel like things are meaningful or that there's beauty in the world.”
“It's like in that commercial when they're using that organic shampoo,” Brett says.