Custer was the first rock star, really, because people loved his brash stupidity. He did that thing like you see in Dances With Wolves where that guy just rides out in front of the enemy. He'd just ride out with his red cravat on and everybody would shoot at him but either they were all bad shots or they didn't want to shoot him because he was so beautiful, and he got away with it and became a general.
B: Oh shit, yes. To me, it's a lot different. It was an intentional avoidance of Honey Moon basically. Of all the records—and this will be our ninth studio record—Honey Moon was the anomaly. This, to me, is more continuous with Last Days of Wonder or Singing Bones.
R: Maybe lyrically, I don't know about sound-wise.
B: I was thinking form-wise. Then again, I learned a lot on Honey Moon about technical shit. I spent a lot of time on that. So that might come through on this record, hopefully. To me it's a return to form, whereas Honey Moon was like an exit off the highway. [general laughter] Not a bad exit, just an exit. You have to take a leak every now and then, you know? You gotta pull off at the motel and have a nap and then you come back. Honey Moon's cool. I listened to the vinyl a couple days ago.
Some of Wilderness sounds inspired by bygone eras. Are you guys listening to different types of music these days? Older or more traditional music?
R: Time passes.
B: Some of it does sound “older,” but I'd say for every song like “Woodpecker” and “Wildebeest,” which stylistically are about as far back as you can go in terms of recorded music history, there's a song like “Flies” or “Octopus.” “Octopus” is basically a “Penny Lane” shuffle. There are a lot of influences, stylistically and in terms of periods.
R: There wasn't Spotify when we recorded In the Air.
B: Even on Honey Moon we had songs like “Whisper,” which basically sounds like a Bill Monroe song to me. I've got this thing [lowers voice confidentially] and you might as well use this, too, because I'm probably going to name-drop the Beatles every five sentences; I've always been influenced by people that can do different things. The sequence of Rubber Soul is “Drive My Car”/“Norwegian Wood”/“I've Just Seen a Face”/“What Goes On” ... and every song is different. It's almost just a songwriting thing, a challenge. I refuse to sit down and write 12 fucking songs that sound the same. I don't want to do that. I think if you have the ability and the desire to write in a bunch of different styles, you should. And I know it's commercial suicide but so is living in the present era, so might as well do what what satisfies you. It's fun and it lets you do a lot of different things recording-wise, too.
Self-plagiarism is worse than the other kind. I can hide the other kind.
R: Lyrics come first. And the same goes for lyrics: The more you write, the more challenging it becomes to not repeat yourself, which is worthwhile, because why would you want to rewrite something. You always want to say something new, don't you?
Rennie, do you write lyrics differently for Brett as opposed to yourself?
To Europeans we seem quintessentially American, but Americans tend to find us a little strange. I feel really American, but people always say “You're really American, like David Lynch is!” “David Lynch is to movies what you are to music.” And Americans don't think of David Lynch as quintessentially American, but Europeans do.
B: That's part of the fun of it, part of the game. Her writing a song like “Sister” [the actual title is “Frogs”] which is about a guy who loses his sister and basically goes insane and tries to destroy the world—or the forest, anyway. That song could work from Rennie's point of view, too, but the voice is part of what gives the lyric its ambiguity.
Does Brett change the phrasing and emphasis in lyrics you write for him?
R: Oh yeah, we barely speak the same English. I was thinking about that today because when I was learning the backing harmony for “Owls,” I was finding it very difficult to sing in your rhythm and cadence because the way you talk is so unnatural to me, and that song is very country, so it does bring out your Texan. Your delivery of the song is so [makes a bewildered face] to me as I'm trying to follow it, but that's good because it always transforms things a little bit and then we end up with something that's interesting to both of us, and neither one of us knows exactly how it came to be put together.
B: But it shouldn't sound hard, it should just sound the way it is.
The stories in the accompanying book Wilderness bring together seemingly disparate creatures, events, tangents and ideas.
R: I think maybe that's why I needed the book, because I couldn't get it all into the songs.
B: Yeah. What's weird is it started out as a record that's kind of about animals, but now it's turning into a record [lowers voice dramatically] that has a book with it. I think it's weird how it's morphed into that. “Album about animals? No, no. It's an album, with a book about animals.”
R: That's the way it goes. And this isn't the Sierra Club's wilderness. It's more just about America. America the wilderness.
Which came first, the lyrics or the essays?
R: Probably the lyrics. The things I couldn't fit into the lyrics ended up in the book. The chapter about jellyfish is mostly because I couldn't get any lyrics to sing “jellyfish.” It doesn't sound good. Some things aren't meant to be sung.
I think the pleasure in songwriting is to create something that seems mysterious to you, like, “Where did that come from?” That feeling is a nice feeling, and it's easier when you have someone else involved. If it just seems confessional, it doesn't interest me.
R: I don't take the piss out of zoology! [pauses] The skinwalker woodpecker isn't real, it's true. I want it to be real.
B: Shape-shifting woodpecker.
I had never read about Stephen Foster until the lyrics in “Wildebeest” inspired me to. He wrote a lot of songs.
R: I find him pretty fascinating. I was thinking today while I was out this morning that I really like how—and I did this subconsciously—Custer opens the record and Stephen Foster closes the record and I think those are two really ...
B: … Seminal figures.
R: Seminal, fucked-up American figures.
B: Strange figures, really.
R: Custer was the first rock star, really, because people loved his brash stupidity. He did that thing like you see in Dances With Wolves where that guy just rides out in front of the enemy. He'd just ride out with his red cravat on and everybody would shoot at him but either they were all bad shots or they didn't want to shoot him because he was so beautiful, and he got away with it and became a general.
B: Little Lord Fauntleroy.
R: But when he went out to the frontier and tried that shit, it wasn't the same. What's really weird about Custer to me is that he had a Cheyenne wife and he had a Cheyenne son, so he knew these people. They weren't savages to him. He had a son who had blond hair with this Cheyenne woman. He just loved war. On the other hand, Stephen Foster had the opposite problem because he had a huge ability to empathize, to write all these songs from different points of view. But none of them were his point of view, I think. He wrote all these happy songs for blackface and sad songs for whiteface, but neither face was a real face.
What are some of the songs he wrote?
When I hear something, I just like to go ahead and do it instead of thinking, “Is this appropriate? What will people think?” or “This doesn't sound very country.” On the other hand, when we used to bust our asses to be country—and we love country music—all the message boards would be like, “They're making fun of country.” So you might as well just say fuck it and do what you want to do.
B: “Camptown Races,” “I Dream of Jeannie ...”
R: “Angeline the Baker,” “Old Folks at Home ...” But he died penniless because he blew his money. He was drunk all the time. But empathy is what I was trying to get at with these two songs, because the more I know about the world from another animal's point of view, the bigger the world is to me. Somebody sent me a book called When Animals Die ...
B: Danish. Maggots.
R: It's a children's book, but it fails miserably because it starts with a rabbit being hit by a car, and it talks about what happens to the body and how the flies come and have a beautiful party where they feast and feast and feast and make love and lay eggs, and little babies are born and they have stuff to eat and then birds come and pick the bones clean and how wonderful it is. It's just all in your perspective. Lack of perspective is damning and Americans are notorious for our lack of ability to see anything from anyone else's point of view, let alone another species.
What is the newsletter?
R: You can look at them under “news” on handsomefamily.com. People subscribe to it. Usually they come out of whatever lyrics I'm trying to work on that month. My first job is trying to write song lyrics and everything else just gets mixed up in it.
When did you guys start working on this album?
R: As soon as we finished Honey Moon; we're just slow.
B: We're not slow, we're meticulous. No, we are slow. And lazy.
R: I'm not lazy.
B: She's not lazy; she works her ass off. I'm lazy. That's the way it should be: more artists should be lazy and slow.
That's the way it should be: more artists should be lazy and slow.
Does “doomed optimism” fairly describe this album?
R: Learn to embrace your cage.
B: What's going to work every day? You think something great's going to happen today?
R: We all know how our story's going to end, but we still manage to find things to be excited about. Some people take pleasure in their lives.
B: Let's listen to one of the acetates. This will probably disintegrate after three more plays. Test-pressings only make it to about five or six plays. [Listening to the first song] This sounds fine! I need to remember to have at least one beer before listening to them.
Are you excited to get out of town on tour? Is it just a U.S. tour?
R: No, we're going to the U.K. first and then we're going East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast after that. It's always scary and nerve-wracking, but there are lots of good things about it, too.
B: I'm excited now, but we'll get going and it will be exhausting.
Handsome Family has a very strong following in Europe.
R: To Europeans we seem quintessentially American, but Americans tend to find us a little strange. I feel really American, but people always say “you're really American, like David Lynch is!” “David Lynch is to movies what you are to music.” And Americans don't think of David Lynch as quintessentially American, but Europeans do.
B: Europeans always like the best stuff. The Sadies make a living over there, Freakwater, all the good country makes it. We run the fucking Dixie Chicks into the ground.
R: I think we were maybe surprised when the country community in this country didn't quite embrace us. We don't play folk festivals or country festivals in this country—I'd love to but they don't want us, really—but we play them in Canada and Europe. In Canada we've played every folk festival there is and fit right in.
Is there a really a Walmart where Custer died?
R: I'm sure there's one nearby. That reminds me of when we went to Dachau, and it was closed on Tuesdays.
B: We looked through the fence.
R: So we went to the Dachau mall instead and I felt really bad about it, but I needed some sneakers.
B: Dachau tennis shoes.
Who's publishing the book?
R: Me. I've been through the wringer with too many editors.
B: Our label Carrot Top is selling it. R: They're selling the color version.
B: Is the color version just—see, I'll ask the questions here—is the color version just like the black and white book except for they're color art? This whole thing confuses me. There's so much product I can't keep track of it.
R: It's laid out differently, but the text is the same.
B: It's bigger, right?
R: Well, it's supposed to fit into a box with an LP, so it's bigger.
How did you do the illustrations for the book?
B: She uses a pad and a stylus.
R: [Gets out the pad] With this you can make anything look like anything, it's all based on skill. It's as good as you want it to be or as shitty as you are. I've been using this five or six years. For something you want mass-produced ... I mean, a painting is good, but then you have to take a photograph of it and it never looks right. Paintings I do for people who hire me to do a specific painting. For the box-set, I just colored in the black and white illustrations.
Did you go with the second test pressing you told me about?
B: The second test pressing I think was adequate, you could go on forever. You hear a little crunch or sandy sound in there ...
R: You could drive yourself nuts.
B: It's a pretty quiet cut too because it's long.
R: For vinyl it's long.
B: So the grooves are close together and when you do that you have to cut it softer. It loses a little fidelity. Unfortunately those are the kind of sacrifices we have to make when we're living in the age of the collision of digital and analog.
There are hardly even CDs anymore.
B: And that's weird. That was a shitty format to begin with and the new paradigm is 20 steps below that. I mean, we're getting close to cassettes again. By the way, the Ramblers released their last record on cassette. I thought that was pretty clever.
I like cassettes.
B: [Getting excited] I like cassettes! I have a car with a cassette player. I got Ziggy Stardust, The Who Sell Out, couple of Neil Young albums, you know? I used to have Abbey Road but it melted. Buy ‘em at thrift stores for a quarter. It's easier than vinyl now. You can't find anything at record stores, everything's picked over. That's all the vinyl I have right there [points to a single crate of records.]
R: We're not hoarding them, that's for sure.
B: I used to have thousands of records.
I lost all mine.
B: Me, too.
Because I'm a dumbass.
R: Strange times in the music business.
B: Hmm. Well, they're heavy. They fall away. It's like carrying around a thousand magazines, like carrying around every issue of Rolling Stone.
R: It is always strange on tour when we finally get to a show in some crazy out-of-the-way place we've traveled weeks to get to and someone says, “Did you bring any vinyl?”
B: Well we did when we started the tour but by the time we get to you local-yokels we don't have any!
They weigh a ton.
R: It's hard. They don't travel well.
B: It's a motherfucker; it's impossible.
B: They can get hot but if you keep them out of the sun, they usually don't melt.
Have you ever seen The Thing With Two Heads?
B: That's what Jeff Tweedy said: We're “two halves of a songwriting brain.”
R: I think the pleasure in songwriting is to create something that seems mysterious to you, like, “Where did that come from?” That feeling is a nice feeling, and it's easier when you have someone else involved. If it just seems confessional, it doesn't interest me.
B: It's neither one of us, but kind of a third person. It's more than the sum of its parts, you know?
R: Also, a good song should be able to be sung by other people, so I think songs that are really personality driven are not the kind of songs I want to write. Like Iggy Pop. Well I guess [Brett's brother] Darrell covers one, but there's personality behind those songs that really drives them in a different way.
Rennie, how do you research all this weird and often arcane stuff?
B: She reads a lot.
R: You can order things on Amazon, it's crazy, especially with Kindle, people have scanned all these old books and they're 99 cents. You'd search forever in bookstores to find these old books. Also people put research papers up online. I just read this paper somebody wrote about quantum mechanics and pigeons [laughs] and how they're sensing quantum time in ways we can't even imagine. It was really crazy.
B: There's been a lot of research on pigeons lately I've noticed in the press, NPR.
R: It's the zeitgeist. Nobody really knows how birds navigate. We're not even close. B: One theory is that it's subsonic vibrations, like, below our hearing.
R: All these theories have to do with the fact that we have no fucking clue what it feels like to be a pigeon. They are experiencing the world in a very different way than we are.
Like humans trying to figure out the beginning of the world ...
B: We've already talked today about the beginning of the world. Isn't that odd? It's not every day you talk about the beginning of the world twice.
R: I've been reading about the Aborigines and their song-lives and how the original dreamers sang the world into being. It's really a beautiful way of looking at the world. But what's great about their religion and what's fucked about their religion is they believe everything was perfect, kind of like in Genesis where there was paradise and we broke it, and their task is to keep things perfect. So the idea of building a road is just horrifying.
B: Or anything! [Brett rambles on about didgeridoos.]
R: A fence! But they've had to deal with this, and some of them actually went crazy. So they have this belief that all of white people's inventions, like cars and planes, have remained underground from the beginning and that little by little the dreamers are letting them come up. That's the only way they can rationalize how a stop sign comes into being. Imagine if you had that religion and these people showed up and just started hacking away at your land? You'd be, like, “What the fuck is wrong with you people?!” [We digress into big bang theory, the nature of the universe and the Hindu version of the beginning of the world.]
Do you ever hate what you hear coming to you?
B: Sometimes it'll be a rip-off of yourself or somebody else. Self-plagiarism is worse than the other kind. I can hide the other kind. Self-plagiarism is a bitch though, because if you repeat yourself, especially within one album, the album starts sounding the same. People get into this groove and it's E minor/G/A and: “That's it motherfucker, yeah!” Then you start noticing it in every single song. It might be backwards. It might be upside down, but here it is again. It all sounds the same.
R: Sometimes people like that. A lot of people don't give a fuck, really. If somebody likes a band and that band has a song they like and the whole record sounds like that song, they're perfectly happy.
B: That's true.
R: We can't give that to people. We had this song “Weightless Again” on our third record Through the Trees, and people would say “Play 'Weightless Again' again!” [groans]
Are you guys playing with a full band at Low Spirits?
R: We'll have [pedal steel/mandolin player] Dave Gutuierrez and Jeff Ledbetter will be playing drums, so that's a band.
There’s a different drummer on the record, right?
R: Jason Toth is on the record.
There's not a lot of pedal steel on this record, is there?
B: There's “Owls,” which is almost enough for the whole record. It's just such a tour de force.
R: It's “steelerrific.” Dave plays a lot of mandolin and some guitar. So when we tour, we lose Dave, but we get to have Jason. I wish we could have them all at the same time but we can't.
Darrell Sparks doesn't play on this record.
B: We'll get him back. Darrell's a great musician all around. He's very quick.
How many harmonies are on “Glowworm?”
B: It's a five-part harmony but it's multi'd five times, so that's 20. It's just me. I wanted it to be just male, [sings the backing harmony from “Glowworm”] kind of a Welsh mens’ chorus. No women.
R: That's a pretty male song.
B: Totally prog-rock. Sounded to me like “Space Oddity” or “Lucky Man.” Early King Crimson prog-rock. Not late-Yes or anything. Really, I'm sure it ended up sounding like another fucking Handsome Family song.
R: What could be more excessive than going to the center of the earth and stealing the light?
I like how I can listen to this album over and over again, because lyrically it's dense and it takes a while to hear everything that's going on.
B: Kind of like Neil Young. The first time you hear a song like “Pocahontas,” you're kind of confused, but then the more you listen to it, it starts opening itself up. Then, after repeated listening, the song make sense, but you have to listen to it a lot.
R: Her name means “little penis,” by the way. Because she liked the boys. That didn't make it into the song.
B: You're going to have to fact-check that one. [laughter]
B: With “Eels,” I was going for something real stripped down. I really want to make a stripped-down album, but when I hear a harmony, I just have to do it.
Do you guys work on one song at a time?
B: No, we work on everything all at once. I rotate everything. I'll get up in the morning and go to the bottom of the folder and “OK, 'Eels' today.” You start getting tired of stuff, you start making mistakes, you stop caring. It's better to rotate songs because then they all sound fresh, and you open it up and there's a problem ... which is good. There's always a problem, or one will begin to develop, and you work on a song a couple of days and you just become so cuckoo about it, and it's good you say “time to rotate” and come back in a week. Tunnel vision is your worst enemy.
Would you say your sound is getting more refined?
R: I hope so, but I don't know what we're doing really. We're just doing it.
B: Maybe. Older. More boring.
R: More medicated.
B: Dave [Gutierrez] found this site that had reviews of all the records and I don't really like to read those things. ...
R: It's always nice to see your life summed up in three pages.
B: The reviewer was talking about how Milk and Scissors was the album that made us sound like we do, and I thought that was bullshit. Totally In the Air or Between the Trees. But I listen to In the Air and I don't think it sounds much different than we do now. When we did those, I think I was really thinking about my audience and that happened to be the alternative-country crew. Back then I didn't even know how to make a country record. Now when I do this, and I'm 500 times better, I do this because I just love it and I think it suits the song. Back then I was really compelled to write stuff like “Sad Milkman” and “In The Air” and “Don't Be Scared” and all this shit that was really alternative-country, but then I just stopped caring.
R: I don't even think anyone knows that word anymore. We're never going to be on top of any trends, we move too slowly and we're around too long.
B: I think it had a lot to do with living in Chicago.
R: We were in a weird slot there. We were part of this country-ish scene but we weren't like any of the other bands. We were always the forgotten stepchild of that group.
Not as “pure” country?
R: No, not as dumbass. Like, get drunk and scream “Whiskey!” and “Yee-haw,” almost a celebration of stupidity. We just didn't have a lot in common with them. Not something we could do or wanted to do.
B: I think I got into country not through Hank Williams and the early stuff, but through The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Flying Burrito Brothers and the country Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, Rubber Soul. ...
R: Even The Rolling Stones kind of make fun of country like with “Far Away Eyes.” It's great, but they're still arch about it.
Some of this record is fairly instrumentally spare, and some of it seems to employ many instruments, like “Caterpillar.”
R: This was a very nice thing for our drummer to do; he played along with the crazy drum machine. Live drums and fake drums competing with each other.
B: I don't know how he did it. There's so many loops in there. There's a real kit, there's a Casio-style drum machine and then there are loops of tabla, congas, there's a casaba and maybe an egg, all automated so they pop in and out, kind of percolating. When I hear something, I just like to go ahead and do it instead of thinking, “Is this appropriate? What will people think?” or “This doesn't sound very country.” On the other hand, when we used to bust our asses to be country—and we love country music—all the message boards would be like, “They're making fun of country.” So you might as well just say fuck it and do what you want to do.
R: Yeah, you've got to please yourself in the end, and there's always like-minded people.
Do you feel fringe?
R: I feel fringe here, but Europeans tend not to see us that way. I don't mind. The things I love about America are fringe.
B: Totally. Look at bands like Giant Sand. Those guys are cult figures. That's where people put us and it's fine with me.
R: I feel sad for somebody like Jason Molina from Songs of Ohio and Magnolia Electric Company, who died recently and was another one on the fringes of the Americana scene. Europeans thought him just so American and, in America, he was just so sidelined, and I think that did not help his mental health. I feel bad for him. It's a sad story.
B: You can't blame everything on other people.
R: No, but there's some real pleasure in being accepted in your home.
But you're happy with the success you do have?
B: There are millions of people who would love to have what we have.
R: I really do feel that anywhere we go where anyone comes to see us and claps, it's a miracle. It's a wonderful thing. You can't predict where they're going to be, but they're there, and they keep us going.
I think people who come see the Handsome Family really want to be there.
R: Yeah we have really, really lovely people who come to see us in the strangest places. Little towns in Norway, Melbourne, Perth, just weird places where I can't even fathom how they heard of us. Nashville? Maybe not as much, but that's okay. We don't have casual fans. Most of the people who come to see us have come to see us every time we’ve come to their town. They come again and again, and they buy every record and they stick with us, and it's been a long time. That means a lot to us. How many bands do you follow their whole career? Not many.
B: I think we're lucky compared to a lot of bands that are starting up right now. If you're a band like Wildewood, you're starting at an extreme disadvantage and you have no infrastructure to work with as far as selling records. It's nuts. We were fortunate to come into being when people actually bought records. People thought it was morally a good thing to do to spend money on music, and fortunately most of our fans are 50-somethings and/or people who understand that. Wildewood ... and their record is really good, they're almost done, and I'm mastering it ... They don't have a pot ... How are they going to make it? I just wouldn't know where to start building a fan base when you're starting out now.
R: They'll find a way. Everyone has problems when they start. They play a lot live and they're going to do okay. They're likeable young kids, totally sweet and nice, but their music isn't precious or anything. It's kind of sparse, but not because there isn't anything there to listen to.
B: They sound like they could actually be successful on a national level. Nice, pop-folk-country. They're good.
Everything cultural about our culture is disappearing.
B: If you don't value it, it goes away. People that provide content, you, me? Journalism? It's all falling away.
R: It's been devalued. It's not prized the way it once was, and people don't see how vital the cultural voices of their communities are. Strange times, but it's what we're given and we just have to deal with it.
Some people give print journalism about five more years, but no one really knows.
B: That does seem reasonable. Oh! Rennie just had very good news today.
R: My publicist just told us that I'm getting this article that I wrote published in the New York Times online and at first I was like, “It's only going to be online,” but then I thought: “Online! Who reads the print?”
What's it about?
R: They have a continuing thing that comes back every year or so called “Measure For Measure” that are blogs by songwriters talking about writing songs. So it's me talking about writing “Woodpecker,” and there will be a link to the song. I've read some nice ones in the past, and I really wanted to be in there. Not everybody can articulate what it's like to write a song. It's hard to talk about.
B: Well if you can talk about writing a song, maybe you should write about talking about writing a song instead of writing a song. “What does that song mean?” It's irrelevant.
R: There's no satisfying answer, really. No sentence you can ever say about your favorite song ever sums up your favorite song. In the end you have to listen to your favorite song.
B: Kurosawa was asked the same question about a film, and he said, “If I knew the answer to that question, I would write it on a big, white piece of paper and hold it up in the air, and I wouldn't have had to make the movie.”
I liked when you’re talking about eels in the book and and the possibility of experiencing memories that aren't your own memories. It struck me that these songs all include some historical narrative, someone or some animal's story, but not necessarily your own experiences.
R: I think it's good for you. It's empathy. Imagining or remembering things that didn't happen to you puts you in a place that lets you experience the world in a way you never could before.
B: This is why when your asshole alternative-country people come up to me and say, “Why don't you write some more lyrics, Brett, you know, like 'Moving Furniture?'” My response is, “Have you listened to these lyrics? That's not my thing. I'm not good at it, and I don't want to do it.
R: You've done some nice lyrics, Brett.
R: I read a quote from Roger Ebert today, he said something like, a good film lets you experience the life of someone from a different gender, a different race, a different age, from a different country. It lets you have this experience that you would never have had otherwise. ... to live in someone else's head for a period of time, and I think any piece of art can do that. What a nice thing.
Roger Ebert also said, “It is better to be the whale than the squid.”
R: Probably true.