The Handsome Family—the stage name of the actually quite handsome married couple Brett and Rennie Sparks—have made a name for themselves the last few years with their intoxicating blend of dark Southern Gothic rock. It's only natural that one of their songs "Far From Any Road" ended up as the theme song to HBO's True Detective. The duo will play at Mercury Lounge on Houston Street this Saturday and this Friday in Brooklyn at Rough Trade.
Our reporter Kaitlyn Mitchell sat down to talk with them.
Brett, what type of music were you pursuing before you asked Rennie to try her hand at writing lyrics and formed The Handsome Family?
Brett: I was working on a master's in music history. I studied "classical" music. At that point I was into a lot of avant garde art music, like John Cage, George Crumb, Elliot Carter, etc. I was at SUNY Stony Brook, and at the time the best teachers were focused on early music—Renaissance and medieval. I was also in a rockabilly band at the time. I was really getting into early rock and roll and country.
Rennie, were you first a painter or a fiction writer? And did you play the ukelele before The Handsome Family?
Rennie: It's actually a bass uke that I play—just like a regular bass, but easier to carry on a plane. I played bassoon as a kid. I have always wanted to make art and tell stories. In elementary school I wrote a long story with many drawings about a boy who lived in a cave of bears. I haven't changed much.
You both lived in New York during the late 80's and early 90's. How did you meet each other?
Rennie: I had a bottle of tequila in my purse.
When you visit New York, do you feel nostalgic for the time you spent here? Or is it a completely different place now?
Rennie: I grew up on Long Island. It changes, but it doesn't change—the same pizza boxes, but my grandmother's neighborhood has gone from elder Jews, to Russian mobsters, to bearded hipsters. I feel at home here. My Long Island can get thick enough to garble my words entirely. I don't think Brett could understand a word I said when we first met. That and the tequila was my entire appeal.
You've said that the band name came from a nickname an "obnoxious drummer" once had for Brett. Have you grown fond of the name?
Rennie: Sort of like Sonic Youth or The Beatles it no longer means that much in my ears. I do find it strangely amusing when people are compelled to post pictures of their 'handsome family' on our Facebook page—some really cute babies.
Did you find yourselves being recognized more frequently after doing the True Detective theme song, "Far From Any Road"? Are you fans of the show?
Rennie: Someone recently tweeted after a show we did in Austin that they'd just seen the band that did the theme song for The Sopranos.
Are you heavily influenced by living in Albuquerque?
Rennie: There's always a breathtaking sunset in our home town that lingers in reds and oranges and purples across the sky. That surely has an effect on my psyche. I find enormous moths here and there, and road runners run in pairs down the street. The ants don't seem to notice me at all. I try not to take it personally.
Many of your songs seem like they could come from either a male or female perspective, despite Brett singing. Does perspective play into the songs where Rennie joins in on the vocals?
Rennie: I always think Brett has the voice of authority. I have a shiftless, untrustworthy breathiness and I can hear my Long Island accent when I sing. So I prefer to write for Brett. I think of my voice as just a way of adding harmony.
Brett, your silver-streaked beard has become a trademark, as have Rennie's red lips. For some of your publicity photos, you've even sported subtly coordinating outfits. Do you choose your own ensembles for performances and public appearances?
Brett: I started noticing that the beard was becoming essential to my identity, so I shaved it. I missed it instantly—I'll be growing it back.
Rennie, in an appearance on NPR, you named "Old Shep", a song by a very young Elvis Presley about a heaven for dogs, as one of your inspirations. The innocence of the song reminds me of The Handsome Family's "Amelia Earhart vs. The Dancing Bear" in its ability to be simultaneously tragic and uplifting. Any connection?
Rennie: I haven't made that connection. I do remember that in our school library in third grade, the only women biographies available where Amelia Earhart and Anne Frank, so I did a book report on cave men. I do love songs that make you laugh and cry at once. The biggest moments in life often feel like that.
It is an ideal arrangement to work with your spouse, being on the road constantly as you are. How do you avoid conflict whilst always being in each other's company?
Brett: We don't. There is conflict. That's only natural.
Rennie: I take long walks along the highway or run in place in my motel room. I alway feel more agreeable afterwards.
You're known to have a witty interplay between songs during live concerts. Did you start off performing/recording together in this way, or did this live performance repartee develop over the years?
Brett: There's no artifice or plan here—just us being ourselves.