January 26th, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by Lisa Strouss

The Handsome Family sees the revival of old-time music as the next step of evolution, like the rediscovery of the washcloth after decades of paper towels. Scattered, the band’s new album of covers and early lost songs, proves the path of the righteous is a country road that appears in your living room and transports you to a place back in time. Because old wisdom is new knowledge, songwriter and banjo player Rennie Sparks writes music that feels surrounded by nature. Sometimes that’s dark stuff, but then again, eagles peck each other to death when they’re born. You’ll understand soon. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

What can you tell me about love?
Rennie Sparks (banjo/vocals): I know it’s really nice to sing a harmony with somebody you love. If I could explain it, it wouldn’t be so mysteriously wonderful. Harmonies are pretty magical to begin with. You feel like you are in love with whoever you sing them with. A blending of notes, that’s what I think of when I think of love. Have you ever sang a harmony with somebody?
Yes, but not necessarily very well.
Oh, me neither. It’s hard work for me but it comes easily to Brett. He’s inherently more romantic, I guess, and I’m more cynical. But when it happens, it’s instant love. We were married for five or six years before we made music, actually. He was always playing music and I was writing stories and we kept to our corners of the house. We moved to Chicago and didn’t know anyone and he forced me to play bass and his drinking buddy played drums and there’s been no turning back.
Do you still write stories?
I write lots of things. Ransom notes, stories … A good ransom note is an important skill to have. You never know when you might need it.
You mean like placing cut-out letters?
That’s the artistic part, but if it’s not well-worded they will call the cops. It’s a skill. You gotta make them believe that if they don’t pay, they’ll get a hand in a plastic bag.
Have you fantasized about a life of crime?
Being a musician is a life of crime. It’s a subversive way to make a living. It’s not real work. It’s not like an office. I can think any thoughts I want. I can get up any time I want. I can wear pajamas for months. There should be laws against living this way.
Could you live your life any other way?
I did! For years I worked horrible jobs I hated. You do a lot of things you don’t want to do to support yourself. This—it’s like winning the lottery. It’s special. When I went to the job I hated, I would think all day how I would like to not think about someone else’s dreams all day long. You have to feed yourself. But it is nice to have a secret life. I’m here in the office but I have a secret life after work. Then you get a picture in Rolling Stone and you come into the office and everyone looks at you like you’ve betrayed them. ‘You’re not as miserable as the rest of us! You were faking it.’
Why are you into animals?
Because I am one! We all are. I stake a firm stand against the mineral world. I think it’s important to remind yourself you are a living creature on this earth. It’s a lifesaver to look around a parking lot and see sparrows. [Brett says something in background] Brett says the birds are falling out of the sky recently. Did you know that? It’s lovely to remind yourself you aren’t just living in a parking lot though. You are in a huge organism full of creatures that eat each other and live in harmony. We’re all made to eat and beat and that’s OK. You must live in the middle of it and have a good time.
Are you a carnivore?
I’m not opposed to it but I try not to too much. That’s my own emotional problems. We’re meant to kill and eat. I’m more a berry gatherer. I’d die of lack of protein in the wild. Unless I could find a nut tree. I probably could. The world is a violent place but it’s not inherently evil. Eagles kill to eat, but they have to do that to survive. Did you know that eagles have two eggs in every nest? When each one hatches they begin to fight. From the nest, they have to fight to the death. Only one can survive. The one that lives is going to be a stronger animal.
What’s the life lesson here?
It makes you realize that violence and death are a part of life and they’re not something we have to avoid to have a good life. Eagles are gorgeous but it’s not easy being an eagle. Sharks fight in the embryo. The mother has several fetuses in the womb and one eats the rest of them. It’s not easy being a shark. And you have the wildebeest that eat grass and everywhere they turn they are being killed. My petty emotions and problems are not on the scale of the violence and toughness other animals deal with every day. There’s no saying, ‘How can this or that happen to me?’ Of course it can happen. It happens every day in the wild. We get in this cult of personal growth and triumph, but the way of living with optimism, it’s childlike. It’s not adult to be like, ‘Believe it and do it!’ If you end up as the eagle that gets pecked to death, it doesn’t mean your life wasn’t worth anything. Stephen Foster died penniless and lived as a hard and mean man. When he died he had 38 cents of civil war scrip in his pocket. Worthless money. He had a note on him that said, ‘Dear friends and gentle hearts …’ He was in the middle of writing something sweet. ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ was published after his death and now it’s on every Casio keyboard as a preset. The human race is much better having that song, even if he wasn’t a good guy. As a herd our flock was strengthened by a song like ‘Beautiful Dreamer.’ But the wildebeest Foster got eaten by a crocodile basically. You have to think about things on a bigger scale.
Do you go out and observe things a lot?
I walk around with a blindfold on. [Laughs] Of course, the writer’s job is to contemplate. Some feel they have to live through something to write about it, but I think you can observe, contemplate, and be a good liar.
What’s your favorite topic to lie about?
Probably love, really. When you write a love song you have to feel the emotion of the song but it doesn’t mean I have to have 1,000 disastrous love affairs to write about heartache. Otherwise I would be living in a drunken stupor at a bar, like Foster. I hope our songs are uplifting. I think a lot of our songs are uplifting in a childish way. You want to write an uplifting song that takes into account that eagles are going to peck each other to death. If you don’t acknowledge that, it’s a lie. You have to acknowledge truth in order to transcend and be enlightened.
What level of transcendence are you at?
I’m down in the mud I think. Every day is a challenge. We want to write songs to remind ourselves the world is strangely beautiful although it is intensely cruel.
Would you still make music if no one listened to it?
I’d be working in the cubicle again. I think it’s wonderful to create art that other people enjoy. It’s a way of lessening the alienation. It makes me feel less lonely for sure. It’s a gift to feel you are playing for an audience of friends. It’s usually people I would be friends with if I met them in the street. People who right away say, ‘Oh, that’s too sad’—those aren’t the people that are there. They can listen to top 40. We are not worried about them. We’re for the contemplative kind that have felt some pain and want to find their way to happiness.
Do you have to know darkness to shine a light in the dark?
That’s the science. There can’t be any shadows without light. That’s the way the physical spectrum is made out. It’s crazy to think of the balance of light and dark. I think the reason why it’s important to understand pain is that it makes you empathize with other people and other creatures. It’s a great gift! It’s an antidote for being alone on a highway around a bunch of cars.
Do you have any pets?
We have some cats. I travel a lot so I can’t keep a donkey. I would if I could. A donkey, they have those great sad eyes. It seems like a great face to look at.
They can carry your groceries.
‘I’m going down the street to get groceries with my donkey.’
How is reaching back to old-time music a way of doing something new?
Sometimes it’s shocking when you hear an old song and it shocks you how much it moves you. ‘This is 100 years ago, and he is breaking my heart right now.’ Being human has not changed even though so much has changed in our physical lives. There’s a lot of ways to play the banjo but it’s been forgotten and so it can be new again. You listen to the banjo, the old-timey clawhammers—that was better than this crazy bluegrass picking. Most people are picking away like slugs. Now you can find the great clawhammers all on the internet. It’s a great time to be a musician, for anyone. You don’t have to be in the library. Back in my day, in the industrial revolution, we thought the steam engine was cool. The cotton gin was a big thing for us.
Now we have refrigerators.
You don’t have to get the icebox filled anymore. It’s all in your perspective. My dad was always amazed by Walmart—all the things you could buy. He remembers the days when he was living on the farm. It made him appreciate how great paper towels were. His generation thought paper towels were from God.
What do you use?
I use a washcloth to be environmentally correct. The old farmhouse washcloth. His mom probably used that. His generation thought using something and throwing it out was delightful.
You’re right—we are all cavemen, every generation. Like the clawhammer, now the washcloth is a new discovery. ‘You can clean the counter with a washcloth?!’
Well, that’s evolution. People used to know these things and we just had to remember them.