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The Handsome Family
|The Handsome Family consist of husband and wife team Brett and Rennie Sparks. He is the singer, the main musician, the music writer and the survivor of ECT; she is the lyricist, occasional vocalist and performer on bass, keyboards and autoharp. Together they create a brand of music which has been labelled country-noir, gothic country or some other sub-genre of alt-country. The Sparks don't consider their music to be bound by any categories and in their most recent work they explore new musical textures whilst retaining that distinctive Handsome Family appeal.
Triste: Okay, simple question: the Handsome Family, the actual name, I've never actually seen it explained. Why? Is it a play on the Manson family?
Brett Sparks: Well, no, not really. It's just kind of a stupid name. We used to have this really obnoxious drummer, and he used to call me 'Handsome', that was his nickname for me, I think for sarcastic reasons... And he wanted to call it the Handsome family because it sounded like... I guess he did think it sounded kind of like the Manson family, and the Carter family - and we thought it was funny, too. We thought it was a good name. I like the word 'handsome', because it's like, it's kind of an archaic English word - it's like... The word 'handsome' comes from - see I looked this up last year, because I started wondering, what about this word, 'handsome'? It's like, 'toothsome'. It's like 'handsome' originally meant something that was maleable and easy to manipulate with your hands. How it got from that to 'good looking', I don't know. That's a weird one. I'll have to look into that one next.
Triste: Why did you move to Chicago? Was it for work, was it for 'artistic reasons'?
Brett Sparks: Well, we wanted to live in a big city, I guess? 'Cause I grew up in the West, in small towns. I guess the biggest town that I lived in was Albuquerque, which is pretty big, but... She lived in rural Long Island, New York, and we lived in Ann Arbor for a while, and we were really sick of the kind of 'college town' thing. So we visited Chicago. It's nice. It's a huge city, there's a lot going on there, a lot of music, lot of literary stuff...
Rennie Sparks: It was really cheap to live!!
Brett Sparks: It was very cheap to live there at the time.
Rennie Sparks: There were a lot of jobs...
Brett Sparks: And it had this real, kind of, gothic, grey, grotesque, 'New York in the 50s' kind of quality that we were really kind of intrigued by.
Rennie Sparks: It feels like a black and white movie there. It's changed a lot, now.
Brett Sparks: It's changed a lot, lately. It's not as cool as it was. And now it's not cool at all, because we left... Naaah!!
Rennie Sparks: We were just there a long time.
Brett Sparks: Yeah, we were there too long.
Rennie Sparks: And it got expensive.
Triste: Regarding the early line up of the band, was it just a three piece, yourelves and a drummer? Or was there anyone else?
Rennie Sparks: It was four, originally, but...
Brett Sparks: No, there were three originally?
Rennie Sparks: No there was four.
Brett Sparks: Oh!! Right, yeah, right.
Rennie Sparks: Yeah, and then they kicked us out of the band, and then they broke up, and we just kind of kept going.
Brett Sparks: That's how we got the name the Handsome Family, 'cause someone booked us up in that name. Even though the original band had broken up.
Triste: So you're not the original Handsome Family, then?!
Rennie Sparks: No, we're not! [Laughs]
Triste: That's like The New Yardbirds or The New Animals or something!
Brett Sparks: So yeah, we're not the original Handsome Family. The original Handsome Family was me, and these two other guys, who were kind of punk rockers, and Rennie.
Rennie Sparks: They wanted to play with hammers on the drums.
Brett Sparks: And they kicked us out, and they started their own band.
Rennie Sparks: They said we didn't rock hard enough!
Brett Sparks: Then we got booked somewhere and they booked us as the Handsome Family, 'cause they thought it was our name, before we had a chance to change it. So then we got the name, because those guys stopped playing music.
Triste: So was there actually kind of a 'scene' in Chicago at the time? And was it anything like how it was perceived this side of the Atlantic?
Brett Sparks: No, it wasn't really a 'scene'.
Rennie Sparks: Everybody sounded like 'Big Black', you know? Really grungy, noisy, punky kind of stuff, and we were the only ones who were playing country music, and people hated us!
Brett Sparks: Well I don't know, I think you can see the influence on our first record is pretty 'noisy'…
Rennie Sparks: Yeah, we put on distortion pedals so people wouldn't beat us up, I think!
Brett Sparks: You couldn't really walk into a club and say that you played country without people laughing you out of the room. So we just kind of introduced these country songs in between these 'noisy' songs.
Rennie Sparks: Yeah, we kind of made it like a joke.
Brett Sparks: Or they were country songs that we would disguise with all this noise.
Rennie Sparks: Like, "We don't really like country, we're just making a joke out of it! Yeah! That's it!"
Brett Sparks: But then, all of a sudden, you know, it became cool to play country music in Chicago. Now, it's like, almost disgusting!
Rennie Sparks: That was a surprise!
Brett Sparks: You can't, like, spit without hitting a guy wearing cowboy boots and a bandana who thinks he's some cowboy from the mid-west.
Triste: So, looking back, the first two albums on Carrot Top seem to be kind of stepping stones to the more mature, kind of sound you've got on the last few albums?
Rennie Sparks: Yeah, I think so - you like to think you're getting better!
Brett Sparks: The first record is like: you could divide it down the middle and put all the punk songs on one record, and all the traditional country kind of songs on another record. Or two EPs. That might be kind of an interesting idea, actually… Maybe I'll do that?... Ha, marketing! The second record I really liked, it was a good record. There were a lot of really bad songs on it, but it was definitely, like, more of a development toward mature song-writing, instead of just noise-making and posturing, you know? And it wasn't an indie-rock record, at all. I think we'd kind of developed our voice, at that point.
Rennie Sparks: But then our drummer quit.
Brett Sparks: And then 'Through the Trees' he quit, and then we made the record with the drum machine. And that, to me, kind of epitomises the beginning of 'our sound'.
Triste: Yeah, well I suppose that's the point I'd make next. You lose the drummer, you get a drum machine, you quieten down a little bit. Then you start recording at home and the sound has changed and it's all step by step, incremental changes. That was by accident, I take it? There was no 'master plan' to develop into this self-sufficient duo cum-band?
Rennie Sparks: No, no! We were pretty upset when he quit.
Brett Sparks: Yeah, we didn't know what we were going to do.
Rennie Sparks: Because that was the end of the band.
Brett Sparks: We didn't know what we were going to do, at that point. And then we started practising, like with a Casio keyboard, to make the beat, you know?! [Laughs] And then it was like, it would be really funny to like, have this country band with like an electronic back-up. It would like, piss a lot of these hard-core, no depression people off? It would separate the men from the boys, so to speak, about whether people are just listening to us because it's country, or because they just like the songs, or whatever. I don't know. It worked out for me! But now we're kind of doing different stuff, I'm getting ready to play with other people now. Last time we played on stage in Denver, it looked like, eight people on stage? Which was kind of a nightmare.
Rennie Sparks: I wasn't playing, though! I was just pretending! There were so many people, I could just sit there and do nothing, it was great!
Brett Sparks: It was pretty weird. Drummer, double bass, dobro, guitar, pedal steel, auto harp, electric guitar… About two or three vocals? It was crazy! But it was great.
Triste: I was going to ask you about live performance. Was it your cousin who played with you recently? Do you ever wish you had a full time keyboard player, a bass player?
Brett Sparks: Yeah, a lot of times, that may happen.
Rennie Sparks: But it's expensive! We are going to try and bring someone along.
Brett Sparks: We're going to try in April, yeah.
Rennie Sparks: Mostly we haven't just because of money. It costs more to have more people, and a lot of these tours we couldn't have even gone on if we had more people.
Brett Sparks: We're just making a living, barely.
Rennie Sparks: But now maybe next tour, we could maybe bring one more?....
Brett Sparks: Well we're looking for a solution. With Nora (O'Connor) and Andrew (Bird) who are with us this time, they came over, and we asked them to come over specifically. And they came over and they're getting, you know, this paltry sum for their performances: they're being highly underpaid! But they're getting a lot of exposure, and they're selling a lot of CDs, so they're making money. They come up and do a few numbers with us, so that breaks up the show and gives our fans something new to see, which is cool. So next time I'm going to try and bring my brother's weird band. It's like a 'hobo' band, like Tom Waits' backup band, or something? And they can open for us, and then they can also be like, our back-up band, too.
Triste: I saw the Cowboy Junkies recently, and they're on the same trip. They brought a band, who they're friendly with and musically sympathetic too, along as their support. Then they came on stage and augmented the main band, so it's obviously a sensible way of doing things, isn't it?
Brett Sparks: Well yeah, it is a good idea, because that way the other band is kind of paying for their own expenses, instead of you subsidising them. And they're kind of pulling their own weight, you know? Just because you bring more people doesn't mean you're going make bigger guarantees. I'm sorry!! I hate to sully this whole wonderful musical thing up with money, but, you know?...
Triste: Of the three albums: according to what you've said in interviews, you conceived them almost like a whole? Part way through, I think the second album, you said there were three in the cycle. Was that deliberate or something you just said after the event?
Brett Sparks: No. That was bullshit.
Triste: Was it?
Rennie Sparks: No, I do think about that stuff when I write, but it doesn't really matter to other people.
Brett Sparks: I said that to people before we started working on the record because I thought it would be cool, like it was a tryptich you know, so I could package them all, like a boxed set?! (Laughs)
Rennie Sparks: No, it is to me, though! Whatever... It isn't what the records are about at all!.He doesn't know what they're about?
Brett Sparks: I don't even know what half the lyrics are about!
Rennie Sparks: In my mind, there is a trilogy there, but it's not really relevant for other people.
Brett Sparks: There is a common thread there, running through the three of them. And they're all kind of Chicago records, and they're all kind of about nature surviving in an urban setting - in different respects. So, I mean, there is definitely - I mean, it's not like the three of them put together make this big concept, or anything. But they do have similar themes, and the next record, (musically, anyway), I do want to be a huge departure.
Triste: The reason I mention it, because I know, I saw an article you wrote on The American Folk Anthology Volume 4 and and I thought that maybe you were using the alchemical symbolism from the Harry Smith box set to think along the albums on analagous lines, Kind of like Robert Fludde. They've got quasi-elemental titles, 'Trees', 'Light', 'Air'. But no, that's just my personal fevered imagination? Do you see what I mean?
Brett Sparks: Well we hadn't thought about that! [Laughs…]
Rennie Sparks: Anyway...?!
Triste: I was referring to the different elements in the natural world, you know?
Rennie Sparks: Yeah well that's great! You know I do think you have to think that way when you're trying to write things. Not everyone just scribbles things down while they're watching TV, and doesn't care about what it means, but yeah. To me they were all directions. Like, the ways of disappearing. This way, and this way, and then inwards. Whatever. That's the way I think of them. Sort of like 'directional': motions. So this last one was the 'Imploding'. But I do think like Harry Smith. You know, I'm really obsessed with the thought that he definitely had a kind of an 'alchemical' way of looking at those records, and it worked!! Those three records together changed a lot of people's lives, and I think it definitely affected ours.
Brett Sparks: Absolutely.
Rennie Sparks: And everybody has a different anthology that was important to them, but it's always something.
Triste: Did you buy the re-issue? On the CD-ROM, the clip at the end, isn't there a clip where he receives a Grammy Award? Have either of you seen that?
Rennie Sparks: No, I haven't seen that?
Triste: Yeah, put the first CD in the computer, and it plays a little bit where he receives a Grammy, and he says, "My dream came true, music did change America," and he's like a doddery old man, at this stage.
Brett Sparks: He was a dodgy old man - he was a dodgy young man too! [Laughs]
Rennie Sparks: I didn't know that he received a Grammy? Wow, that's cool!
Triste: Yeah, it was 1988, or something. He was crashing around Alan Ginsberg's place for a year or so. He seemed quite together.
Brett Sparks: Oh that's cool, that's great!
Triste: How much affection do you have for the old musical forms? Because looking at your history, there's the classical stuff and then punk you obviously liked the folk anthology, but was that a late developing thing, the affection for the old country musical stylings?
Rennie Sparks: Yeah, I think we both discovered the anthology and liked it together.
Brett Sparks: It's weird to me, because I don't really separate any of this stuff. I mean, I listen to like, today, I listened to Cuban pop music, I listened to Madonna's 'Ray of Light', I listened to Led Zepplin IV, and I listened to the Rolling Stones' 'Sticky Fingers'. And it's like, I don't think about things as being separate.
Triste: Well no, it's a tendency of the critics to compartmentalise, isn't it?
Brett Sparks: My love for early music probably started with stuff in the thirteenth century before stuff from the 20s. And I find music just almost like another language, in its approach. I like renaissance music, I like medieval music, I like this weird 'Americana', as Greil Marcus would call it, you know? It's just extraordinary, it's different, it resonates, you know. It's fascinating. I don't know. I don't sit down and say, "I'm going to write a folk song, or a country song, what ever," I just sit down at a piano and start writing songs!
Triste: But you do sometimes sit down and think, "I'm not going to sit down and write a typical 'alt'-country song don't you"? On 'Snow White Diner' it definitely sounds different, doesn't it?
Brett Sparks: I don't know what you're listening to that crap for! (laughs)
Triste: Greil Marcus called you something like The Beatles of folk music. Did you hear that?
Rennie Sparks: I think it's mis-quoted.
Brett Sparks: I think it was taken out of context.
Rennie Sparks: He was talking about the Beatles, and then. I don't think he actually said, "They are the Beatles of folk music."
Brett Sparks: No, he wrote this column that was about 'My Sister's Tiny Hands', and in it he wrote about 'A Day in the Life', and 'My Sister's Tiny Hands', and he literally said, "This song is the folk equivalent of 'A Day in the Life'. It is the best song that's ever been written….! (laughing)
Rennie Sparks: He liked it!
Brett Sparks: To me, that's even better, actually.
Rennie Sparks: No, he was very nice. He likes us a lot.
Brett Sparks: But, I mean, the fact that he wrote about the Beatles and us in the same column was enough to make me kind of have a heart attack.
Rennie Sparks: He said some nice things about us.
Brett Sparks: So in essence, I wouldn't put that in quotes. But I think somebody (our publicist) may have picked that up, and put one quote around it instead of two?... [Laughs]
Triste: This idea of humour, plus dread aspect, in the lyrics, this kind of juxtaposition of one and the other, is common to your records, but also features on the the recent Dylan album. What do you think of "Love and Theft"?
Rennie Sparks: I hate it!!
Brett Sparks: I love it! I love it, I love it!
Triste: Because his previous album's pretty gloomy, and down - but this one's got a sly sense of poking a tongue out at you too.
Rennie Sparks: I don't like any of them. I don't like those last two at all.
Brett Sparks: She doesn't like "Time Out Of Mind", but it's one of my favourite records.
Rennie Sparks: Urrgggh, I can't take it!! I know everyone loves it, blah blah blah, he's a genius, he's a genius, blah blah blah - I can't stand it!!
Brett Sparks: Well, you wanted to do, like, fucking 'Mr Tambourine Man'….
Rennie Sparks: Is that cat hair in your beard?
Brett Sparks: That's not cat hair!
Rennie Sparks: That's your real hair! Cool!
Brett Sparks: The guy that showed up tonight, he went, "Man, you're turning grey!" Jesus Christ… [laughs]
Rennie Sparks: Ohh, anyway, sorry...
Brett Sparks: No, I like those records.
Rennie Sparks: He loves it.
Brett Sparks: I think they're really funny, and…
Rennie Sparks: They make me ill!
Brett Sparks: I think he's kind of playing with his own personality, and taking the piss out of himself. And I think actually for the first time in his life, he's actually having a good time making records. Especially this new one.
Triste: He does seem quite a sorry looking figure. For the last 20 years, he hasn't seemed to be enjoying himself very much. To be Bob Dylan is quite a burden, isn't it?
Rennie Sparks: I wish he was miserable again, he was writing good stuff when he was miserable!
Brett Sparks: I was just thinking about that record today. I think it's got some nice tin pan alley stuff on it, I think his voice is really interesting, (it's truly horrible, but it definitely very interesting).
Rennie Sparks: He's got a nice moustache.
Brett Sparks: Whatever. She can't stand it. I can't listen to it in her presence.
Triste: Going back to your music again, if you don't mind?
[Brett's pulling a face, Rennie's laughing]
Brett Sparks: Mmmmmm……
Triste: Obviously you're placing lyrics with music. Which comes first, normally?
Rennie Sparks: Lyrics, normally.
Triste: I'm quite surprised at that. Because you look at it on a page, and you don't seem, obviously, to have natural rhyme schemes.
Brett Sparks: Tell me about it!
Triste: And yet the music seems to do quite well in fitting in with the lyrics. You end up with quite othodox structured songs. How much editing goes into that?
Rennie Sparks: I do things to edit things, or to shorten things, if a line doesn't fit.
Brett Sparks: I edit things, yeah. A lot of stuff has to be edited.
Rennie Sparks: Most things are written to some kind of structure.
Brett Sparks: "I am eating hash browns in a snow white diner. Outside cars are honking. Flashing lights on the bridge". .
Rennie Sparks: No that one wasn't, but the rest were. That was the one that wasn't written to any kind of structure, really.
Brett Sparks: But the way to try and compensate for that is to take a melody that doesn't have a regular pattern (la-la's a regular, repeated melody line, then an elongated undulating melody line) If the lyrics aren't 'sing-songy', then the melody can't really be sing-songy either, unless you want to really cut the lyrics up. And the same thing was true with our Passenger Pigeon song. So in a way it's kind of easy, because a lot of times if you read the words themselves and listen to the way the words sound in your head, the words will literally tell you what to do. The words will tell you what kind of melody to write.
Triste: Do you always read your lyrics back out aloud when you write? When you write tentative song lyrics, do you actually read them out aloud to see if it reads okay.
Rennie Sparks: Oh yeah, I mean they're written to be sung.
Brett Sparks: Then I change them.
Rennie Sparks: They're not written to be read out, they're written to be sung.
Brett Sparks: She writes prose.
Triste: Again, the way you present them on the actual albums, they're always in a big block, they're never in a 'nice structure'.
Rennie Sparks: Well, there's no room for that in the booklets, that's all. It's too hard, I mean, if you put them out 'lyric-wise', they take up ten pages. So I just block them together.
Triste: Two-way question: how easy is it to sing your lyrics, and how easy is it to write for a man's voice, or a man's persona?
Rennie Sparks: I don't write for him! For me it's liberating, I can write things that I couldn't write for myself to say or sing. It's nice, it's fun.
Brett Sparks: It's easy. She's technically adept enough to change the point of view, so that it suits me.
Rennie Sparks: What? You actually like me, don't you?! [Both laugh]
Brett Sparks: No, I mean, no really! She's a good enough writer to alter the tone so that it makes sense coming out of my mouth. And vice versa. I'm going to try to do service to the lyrics so that the music doesn't get in the way.
Rennie Sparks: It's fun, you know, because there's a lot of things he can say that I can't say.
Triste: Do you ever write lyrics for an inarticulate, very masculine kind of character? Because most of the characters come over as quite emotional, I presume you're quite an emotional kind of guy, so it makes sense. But have you ever written lyrics for like a masculine, kind of, less articulate kind of guy?
Rennie Sparks: I think "Arlene" is kind of like that? I'm sure I could think of some.
Brett Sparks: "My Sister's Tiny Hands" is kind of like that.
Rennie Sparks: Yeah. That sort of, doesn't really explain a lot.
Brett Sparks: But you could do a total, [laughing] "As I Lay Dying" type record, where it's like... [starts singing in odd deep south accents]
Rennie Sparks: [Laughing] You'll have to sing in a different dialect for each character!!
Brett Sparks: Yeah, that'd be a good idea, yeah! Tell the same story, like the same lyrics for like, ten different people. Would anyone say, "Well, he / she is totally ripping off Faulkner now!" It's a good idea though. Has anybody ever done a record like that? I don't think so?
Rennie Sparks: I'm sure they have. Yeah.
Brett Sparks: That would be an ass-kicking concept record!!
Rennie Sparks: Well, kind of like that Richard Buckner thing, you know?
Brett Sparks: Yeah but that's the Spoon River Anthology, and he didn't write that.
Rennie Sparks: No, I know, but there are different voices telling similar things. That's about the one I can think of.
Brett Sparks: Sorry.
Triste: What's the guy from Pere Ubu called?
Brett Sparks: David Thomas.
Triste: Did he not do a spoken voice thing with a cast of people, something a little similar to that?
Brett Sparks: Makes sense, it's a good idea.
Triste: Going back to the lyrics, are you conscious of the amount of colour adjectives you use? I was flicking through them last night, trying to get a handle on them. It's very pictorial. Do you visualise scenes when writing?
Rennie Sparks: Oh shit!! It is horrifying for me to hear this stuff. Like last year, we went to Duluth. Duluth is like, really far north, it's where Dylan's from, you see? And it was way below zero, so cold, all frozen. And somebody came up to me and said, "I'm so glad you're here, you're my favourite band, because you write so much about snow!" And I went, "Holy shit!!" Because I hadn't thought about it!
Brett Sparks: Every single song we'd sung had snow in it!
Rennie Sparks: Everything was snow, snow, snow!! So now I have another thing to worry about - colours!
Brett Sparks: You shouldn't worry about it!
Rennie Sparks: I don't want to repeat myself, but you just do, I guess.
Brett Sparks: Think about how many times, like, Fellini uses, like, snow, and feathers.
Rennie Sparks:That's the thing they said about Shakespeare, he never used the same adjective twice.
Brett Sparks: He's a wank!!
Rennie Sparks: Not Shakespeare!! [Laughs]
Brett Sparks: He sucks! He's over-rated.
Rennie Sparks: No, I'm not aware of that stuff. I try not to repeat myself, but I guess I do!
Brett Sparks: Well, I mean, you can't deny yourself using the word 'blue', every so often, can you? Or green?
Rennie Sparks: Well yeah, but if you say "Green grass," over and over and over again, it starts to not be so green, you know?
Brett Sparks: The grass is greener...
Triste: Why did you stop writing lyrics, Brett?
Brett Sparks: It's just not where my strength lies.
Triste: Was "My Ghost", the last one?
Brett Sparks: I wrote a lyric, and then Rennie just kind of - took the lyric and just kind of totally re-wrote it.
Rennie Sparks: I helped! [Laughs]
Triste: Kind of inspired by... [laughs]
Brett Sparks: Yeah, I think the last lyric I wrote was maybe 'Arlene'. And that was co-written by the two of us.
Rennie Sparks: He can write lyrics but maybe it takes you longer? But you don't give a shit about writing.
Brett Sparks: It doesn't give me a great deal of pleasure to do it, to tell you the truth.
Triste: I mentioned "My Ghost" because it seems quite accurate in its details. I had a friend, who went to hospital, he was bipolar and he was quoting Nietzsche and being given halperidol and lithium. He had a credit card and he used to run up huge bills buying Led Zeppelin bootlegs and stuff like that with it.
Rennie Sparks: There are certain things that happen to people when they go off the manic side.
Triste: Yeah. He was a physicist, and he was a keyboard player.
Brett Sparks: Oh! That's a bad combination! Manic physicist - that's scary!
Triste: But through his correspondence I got the lyrics, and it was so accurate.
Brett Sparks: Yeah, it's just taken from my experiences, yeah.
Triste: Okay - standard question: inspiration? Some of the songs, 'Giant of Illinois' is obviously, well, I presume it's Robert Wadlow, right. And then other things are like, common place. Where do you get your sources? Is it like, a news story of an old woman dying downstairs, or is it a book? Or a magazine article, or is it something that just comes into your head, sometimes?
Rennie Sparks: I don't know, it's different things. Like that woman downstairs.
Brett Sparks: We got that out of a guide book. Robert Wadlow.
Rennie Sparks: Yeah, that was a travel guide.
Brett Sparks: It was out of a Triple 'A' Travel Guide book.
Rennie Sparks: The woman downstairs was really fat. She was so fat she could barely walk. Like she was this huge woman, and she gained all this weight, like, within a few months. I tried to write a song about someone getting really fat, and it just seemed funny - so then I just reversed it!! [Both laughing] Sorry [laughs]
Brett Sparks: You know, but a lot of times that kind of happens.
Rennie Sparks: Yeah: if it's really funny, hey! Reverse it!
Triste: And make it sad!
Rennie Sparks: Well, I write a lot of crap - some things are good, some things are bad, but I mean I kind of read a lot. I wish there was a formula, but there really isn't. It's just sometimes your brain just suddenly goes, "Oh! That's interesting!" But it just doesn't always happen that way.
Triste: Your recording process - you record at home now, on your Mac, yeah? How long does it take to record an album? Is it five or ten minutes here or there, or do you spend concentrated times doing it.
Brett Sparks: Well, it is bits and bobs, because we're on the road so much, it's like, you come home, and write and record as much. I get some demos, then come home and start fleshing them out. So it's really hard to say how much time it takes, all told, to make a record. But I spend a lot of time on them because I can - because of doing it at home and I have the luxury of spending as much time as I want on records. At least two or three months.
Triste: Does it not lead to perfectionism? Because you've got so much in control over the process that you can do and re-do stuff until you've squeezed all the life out of it.
Brett Sparks: Yeah, you have to know when to quit!
Rennie Sparks: It's hard to know, yeah!
Brett Sparks: We're pretty sparse. I'm pretty minimal.
Triste: How do you keep it from being over clinical being a digital medium?
Rennie Sparks: He loves that shit!
Triste: I meant that Neil Young, kind of, anti-digital kind of thing.
Brett Sparks: Well I didn't start making records in the '60s, so I don't have some kind of sentimental attachment to it, the way he does. He's one of my favourite artists, but he's full of shit.
Rennie Sparks: Oh my God!!
Brett Sparks: Don't be so silly, it's just sound! You know…
Rennie Sparks: Within thirty years, everyone who's heard vinyl will be dead, so...
Brett Sparks: Yeah, so no-one will know what vinyl sounds like. It's a really weird thing to think about. One day, nobody will know what vinyl sounds like.
Rennie Sparks: Everything will be digital, and no-one will know the difference!
Triste: But there are degrees of digital, aren't there?
Brett Sparks: Yeah, sure, you can sample things at 44,000 cycles per second, or 44,000 samples per second at 16 bits, that's a lot different than 96 bits at 192,000 samples per second. I mean, the more samples per second you have, the more resolution you have. So it's getting to the point where it is almost analogue. Everyone says, "Oh yeah, it's only zeros and ones," but if it's literally billions of zeros and ones in one second's time, that's a lot of information. And actually a lot of that information gets lost in the analogue process because…
Rennie Sparks: That's what people like, though! They like the fuzziness of analogue. But you can make it fuzzier.
Brett Sparks: But it depends on the sound that you want, too. I mean, it depends on what you're doing.
Rennie Sparks: Candle light is nicer than fluorescent but...[laughs]
Brett Sparks: I can't afford a two inch tape machine, so to me it's irrelevant. This is the technology that I can afford, so I'm going to use it, you know? The computer is a folk instrument, and it's the only new one since the radio and the tape recorder.
Triste: And we're on the home straight, now: how do you find your audience expectation? You have a certain expectation which you have to push against, or else conform to. The Handsome Family is defined, now, as a certain thing. Like you said before, you want to be different. How hard would you find it to do that?
Brett Sparks: I would hope that people enjoy themselves at the shows. I can't really do a lot right now, that… Oh, you don't mean specifically live audiences?
Triste: Oh no! I'm talking about your general, 'Handsome Family buying audience' who are obsessed with certain… Who are quite narrow minded - well, not necessarily narrow minded, but certain people in a certain genre, you step out of the genre and, oh! Don't want to know.
Rennie Sparks: Well, you don't think about that when you're writing songs, you're just happy that you finished a song. And then later somebody tells you what genre it is, you know?
Brett Sparks: Yeah, I've become a little less concerned about that than I used to be. I mean, I guess it would make sense as you get more 'success', I guess. Yeah, I try not to think very much about it at all, anymore, to tell you the truth. I think it kind of 'stymies' you. Even recently, I don't even read any press, anymore. Because even if it's good, it's just confusing. I mean it'll have such a direct effect that if somebody says, "Oh, this song, there's a song that… blah blah blah, like early John Lennon, or something," and you think, wow!! I'm going to play that song tonight because it's such a good song! But it's just bull shit. You should just do what you want to do!
Triste: Lennon's "Isolation", is it?
Brett Sparks: That's true. I never thought about that! ...."Isolation". It's weird because when the stuff people stuff that influences you isn't always good - sometimes it is. I used to just scrape up every little scarp that people write abvout me , but now it just confuses me. Depends on who it is or where it is.
Triste: You seem to be doing quite well now. I saw you supporting Willard Grant in Preston a few years ago and you seemed to have lots of problems with the stage gear - you'd start playing songs and then stopping. You started playing "House Carpenter" and then you just stopped half-way through and move on.
Rennie Sparks: We're always doing that.
Triste: Then you went to the bar to the bar and tried sampling something from all the optics.
Brett Sparks: Really? That wasn't me.
Triste: I saw you last week in Manchester and you had a good audience.
Rennie Sparks: It was hard going on after Hamell (On Trial). It was the wrong mood. Like going on after Black Sabbath or something.
Brett Sparks: That would have been great following Black Sabbath. That would have been fun.
Rennie Sparks:[Mimics audience member shouting out] Yeh, do something funny now!
Brett Sparks: I tell you this was the odd thing about that show. I was in a really good mood before I went and watched his set (which I won't discuss) and I got into this unbelievably foul mood that I couldn't even speak. I was so angry. I such a bad mood. It was one of those nights were it was a case of just play the songs and don't caht. and sometinmes thats better just to pludg the songs and not chat and do a competent job. I was definitely not happy on stage. Do I have to be happy and in a good mood to play a good set. No I don't thnik so.People don't really say when they see a musician playing a good show - they were realy rocking out they must havefelt good. It's almost irrelevant. You can be completel;y knackered and out of your mind and still do a good show.
Rennie Sparks: Sometimes you're almost crying and people say "Hey you were funny tonight"!
Brett Sparks: I was literally ready to fall down. I put a chair on the stage in case I had to sit down.
Triste: I noticed during that during the show that your guitar solos were quite, how should I put it... tortured? Really digging into the strings.
Brett Sparks: Tortured? Maybe that was Hamell? Maybe he inspired me?
Triste: Your songs are quite short - three minutes or so long. You must go through quite a few songs in a set?
Brett Sparks: 20 songs. It's a total "Meet The Beatles" type of aesthetic.
Rennie Sparks: [Singing] I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
Brett Sparks: We tried to make them longer but it's like... this is too long.
Rennie Sparks: I can't stand repeating a verse or chorus or anything. It drives me nuts.
Brett Sparks: Not repeat a chorus? How can you not repeat a chorus?
Rennie Sparks: I repeat it, if it means repeating it but with a different meaning, but if it's repeated exactly the same it drives me nuts.
Brett Sparks: It's to sell records.
Triste: Your records do have strong hooks though. You play them through once or twice and they lodge in your mind. You know there are acts like a wash of sounds, but you couldn't go away and sing it.
Brett Sparks: There's a lot of stuff like that.
Rennie Sparks: We are trying to songs with verses and choruses.
Brett Sparks: Which is basically an antiquated idea.
Rennie Sparks: The choruses are there to add to the verse, because it's meaningful, not because it's time to add a chorus. It's got to be purposeful. Sometimes people ramble on. I want it to have a structure.
Triste: You can be creative with structures though too. Since we mentioned the Beatles take She Loves You starts with a chorus. That was decided afterwards.
Brett Sparks: That's interesting. You know my brother came over to my house and said you should write a song like She Loves You which starts with a chorus.
Rennie Sparks: We've got one in "Cold Cold Cold"
Brett Sparks: Yeh, "Cold Cold Cold" starts with a chorus. But that's kind of a refrain
Rennie Sparks: It's more like traditional songwriting than rock and roll to do that.
Brett Sparks: It's like Tin Pan Alley.
Triste: Thanks very much. I'd better let you go now, you've got a show to give.