Leave No Tombstone Unturned: An Interview with Rennie Sparks

By Neil deMause

Some things that are seldom mentioned in articles about Brett and Rennie Sparks, aka The Handsome Family:Some things that are seldom mentioned in articles about Brett and Rennie Sparks, aka The Handsome Family:

  • Brett is the boy and Rennie is the girl, though from the names it could just as easily be the other way around.
  • Rennie has made an art of the fan e-mail update. One recent example: "The Handsome Family are preparing to leave the house to begin touring in support of the new record. This involves conquering several phobias including but not limited to: fear of water, tiny things, large dogs, small dogs, dogs with ESP, invisible dogs, shape-shifting dogs, dogs who look like spiders, dogs who dance on two legs, dogs pretending to be humans pretending to be dogs, spiders."
  • "Web of Gold," the first story in Rennie's self-published short story collection Evil, appeared in HERE #1, though the ending in that version was somewhat different.
  • It is a scientifically proven impossibility to walk into a record store and ask for a Handsome Family CD without the clerk replying, "Hanson?"

Some things that are mentioned far more often: Brett Sparks, raised in West Texas, met Rennie, from rural Long Island, many, many years ago. After initially shanghaiing her into playing bass on his songs, it was soon discovered that her real genius was for lyrics - as Rennie has recalled the writing of "Arlene," their first collaboration: "I said, you know, that song would be much better if instead of just saying, 'I'm sorry I left you, and we had a great night together that one night stand' why don't we make it that he drags her in the woods, and clubs her and leaves her body in a cave?" That lineup - Brett playing guitar, banjo, and sundry other instruments, while Rennie writes the lyrics and accompanies on bass, melodica, and autoharp (the third Handsome, a drummer named Mike, quickly fled and was unceremoniously replaced onstage by a minidisc player) - continued through albums Milk and Scissors, Through The Trees (their first as a two-piece with drum machine, and arguably their classic), In The Air, Twilight and their latest, Singing Bones, whose highlights include a song about a journey into a bottomless pit in a clawfoot tub, and a pair of a capella musings on the destruction of the world by ice or fire. According to, the Handsome Family "is the reversal of the stereotypical role of the guy writing the songs and the girl singing them," "is a group that seemingly leaves no tombstone unturned," "is a musicians' favourite," "is consistently the opening act for top shows," "is another bloodshot band that uses country and turns it into crazy new ideas," and "is very sexy."

Rennie Sparks recently sat for an e-mail interview with HERE, to discuss various pressing matters.

Your latest album, Singing Bones, has more mesas and creosote bushes on it than we're used to. How has your move from Chicago to New Mexico been for you, and for your songwriting?

There are lovely sunsets here that make you believe that the world is far more mysterious than it seemed back in Chicago. You can see for miles in any direction too. It induces a sort of out-of-body feeling in me even in the Home Depot parking lot where the same guy keeps asking me to cash a $10,000 check for him.

In addition to Chicago and New Mexico, you can count Long Island (Rennie) and Texas (Brett) as your homes. So naturally, you seem to have found your greatest popularity in Europe, especially Ireland, isn't it? Any guesses as to what that's about?

People in England and Ireland are far more literate than your average American. They enjoy pondering lyrics. This is a service I can provide. Also, they are terrified by/obsessed with the seeming lunacy of America and our songs only further this point.

It's almost impossible to write about the Handsome Family without bringing up the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, so let's get this out of the way: When and how did you first discover it, and how important was it to you? And what do you think of being credited by Greil Marcus for carrying on its tradition of "American fatalism"?

Brett found a copy of the vinyl set of the Anthology in the public library in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1989. We really liked it, but I was very confused by the snickering liner notes and occult symbols all over the thing. It definitely was an influence on us, especially "The Ballads." We are, of course, highly thrilled to have Greil Marcus say anything about us. He's a very smart writer and his leaps of thought are inspirational. I'm not sure I feel fatalistic though. Maybe in the Buddhist sense of understand that all is dream. I never thought of the old ballads as fatalistic either. More ritualistic, i.e., that they were a very carefully choreographed dance, a prayer to dark forces, in which each step is vital or the spell will not be conjured.

There's definitely a thread of intertwined wonderment and horror at life that runs through your songs, especially the ones about nature (and almost all of your songs are about nature in one way or another, even when they're about parking lots). I'm reminded of a friend who once worked studying wildlife on the Farallon Islands off the coast of California, who was forever reminding me that nature was no more or less about sublime beauty than it was about seabirds being torn to shreds by killer whales. That can be kind of a hard perspective to appreciate, don't you think?

Some might argue that there is a sublime beauty in watching seabirds torn to shreds by killer whales. You should see what seabirds do to little fish and clams. We are all killer and victim in this. You can try to be like the Jains and brush every step of your path before your foot falls to make sure you don't step on even the smallest bug and cause the slightest bit of suffering, but even then--doesn't the orange tree produce fruit because it feels itself dying? Suffering is everywhere. All we can try to do is have compassion for the dying dog and for the maggots crawling upon his wounds.

Judging from your stage banter, you have a strange obsession with dressing up animals in human clothes. Should we be concerned?

I don't think I"m hurting anyone. I haven't actually forced my cat into a sailor suit yet. I do tend to feel an instant bond with most non-human mammals as well as birds, plants, snakes, lizards....I don't think I was properly socialized as a child. Spent most of my childhood talking to my dog and listening to her wise advice.

You're becoming a popular band to cover, at least in certain circles - Sally Timms has done several of your songs, the Sadies have recorded "Drunk By Noon" and Andrew Bird "Don't Be Scared," Barbara Manning has done "Too Much Wine" in her live shows. [Editor's Note: And Cerys Matthews covered "Weightless Again." Somehow we left that one out, probably because she's actually semi-famous and so we don't listen to her.] Any requests for a musician that you'd most like to see cover one of your songs?

Gee whiz, we're thrilled when someone does a cover of one of our songs. I'd love to hear Stephen Foster sing, "I Know You are There." Maybe in the next life.

George W. Bush says a moonbase would carry us "forward into the universe," but Ernie from Sesame Street says if he lived on the moon, he'd "miss all the people and places he loves." Which side do you come down on in this debate?

I suspect Bush wants

A. to get up there and cover the darn moon with American flags before the Chinese get up there

B. to see if there's anything worth drilling for in the craters

C. to divert attention from the crater he's made in the Middle East

D. to look for a new place to build a secret Skull and Bones club house.

Can we get Jimmy Carter back?

You once said that your mother used to sing you songs like "The House Carpenter" as a child. Is this true? I've met your mother at your shows, and she seems like such an unthreatening woman. And which songs of yours would you like people to be singing to their children in turn?

No, I don't think I ever said that. [Editor's Note: Yes, she did, but she might have been joking.] My mother is not a singer. She does have a lot of folk records from the fifties that she put on for me to fall asleep to as a child. I do feel that listening to Burl Ives singing about little black bugs swimming in the water probably had an effect on me. I hear that a lot of kids like our song, "Down in the Ground." [Editor's Note: Let the record show that this song features such couplets as: "You call me softly down in the dark / down where the red worms circle like sharks." Let the record further show that Burl Ives never quite wrote anything like that.]

And finally: Any plans for a followup to Evil?

Yes, I'm working on a novel now that will take awhile to finish. It's about a forest in the 18th century and a warehouse store in the present. Very spooky.

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Photo by Ted Jurney