Rennie and Brett Sparks
I’ve been a big fan of the band The Handsome Family for over 15 years. This summer I had the chance to finally hear them play live. They were touring to support their new album, Wilderness. It was a show that stirred the imagination: bottomless holes, phantasmagoric encounters, and incalculable fates were sung about with warmth, humor, and intimacy. I wanted more! So I emailed them asking if they would be willing to be interviewed for Environmental Critique.
Who are The Handsome Family? They’re the married songwriting duo, Rennie and Brett Sparks. Rennie writes the lyrics, adds backing vocals, and plays a variety of stringed instruments. Brett writes the music, sings, and plays guitars. A visit to their website is highly recommended to find out more and to hear some of their songs: http://handsomefamily.com/.
Rennie spoke on behalf of both in what follows. (I’m RH; she’s RS.)
RH: Your music is filled with images and tales of animals and other natural beings. Why is it obvious to you that nonhumans are such an important part of our world? Why do you suppose this isn’t obvious to most musicians and writers?
RS: Maybe a better question is: how did humans manage to forget they were living things on a planet of living things? We have a real blindness for our own connection to the rest of this world. That being said, I believe if you asked the ants who was running things on this planet they wouldn’t hesitate to say, “The ants!” Maybe all species are born blind to the needs and fears of the rest and our task is to perceive the connections?
RH: What’s the difference between living in Chicago vs. Albuquerque in terms of inspiration from, or awareness of, the nonhuman world? Do you think big urban areas are places of hope or despair in this regard?
RS: Chicago taught me to look carefully for wildlife. There is great wonder in observing the pigeons cooing under the overpass or the rats scuttling along the edge of buildings at dusk. For many years in Chicago I noticed the big downtown buildings were growing kale in their little squares of garden at building entrances. Strange that for so long no one thought of kale as food. It was an ornamental that grew in cold weather! Chicago was all about noticing the little things for me, but Albuquerque is all about expansive views. It is just as bewildering to learn to see the great expanse of the desert sky and understand a little of how big our universe is. The ability to see for many miles in all directions is a great gift and reminds you of the presence of the infinite in all finite things. Big urban areas are neither hopeful nor despairing, I think. They await an eye to look at them and a heart to decide.
RH: Your music seems to help you stay in a productive relationship with the troubling aspects of existence – mystery, loss, decay, mortality. When did you realize it had this power as therapy?
RS: Writing songs, or making any art for that matter, is always about finding a beautiful balance between opposing forces. It teaches you that light needs dark, soaring notes need deep tones. Life wouldn’t feel precious if it never ended. Beauty would not feel miraculous if we didn’t see chaos and decay.
RH: Would you like to be immortal, like nature is? (Okay, in about 4 billion years the earth will be swallowed by the sun. Nearly immortal, then…)
RS: When the earth explodes the matter that makes it up will merely change form, but will not disappear. That means we’re all going to be outer space travelers eventually! I don’t think we can have any concept of immortality. We are creatures trapped in time and space, always pushed from past to present to future. There seems to be nothing in our universe that is not subject to this change except, maybe the singularity at the center of a black hole. Maybe that’s the only true immortal in our universe and nothing in our universe can even approach it without being utterly destroyed.
RH: If you could become a different animal, what would you become and why?
RS: Golden retriever! They always seem to be living in utter joy over the smallest pleasures!
RH: Can we expect a song featuring a golden retriever on the next record?
RS: I’ve been trying to write that song for a long, long time. There are so many ‘good doggie’ songs out there like Old Shep, it’s deep waters to tread.
RH: I’d like to focus a bit on your new album, Wilderness. As a concept, “wilderness” has become problematic. Some say we need to retain an idea of the wild in order to keep ourselves humble, others say this idea reinforces the harmful separation between humans and the natural world. What say you?
RS: I say we need to remind ourselves that we are part of a huge web of life on this planet so, yeah, the idea of wilderness is really a sad one. I always remember William Bradford as he sailed into Plymouth Harbor for the first time and was so dismayed to see the ‘hideous’ wilderness before him. They got their axes swinging pronto. That being said I think there is something really soothing in contemplating vast multitudes. The vastness of herds and hives and forests, the group soul of the termite. We can learn a lot from the termite. We may not be all that different.
RH: The album cover art is mesmerizing. Why did you decide to depict the animals who share the song titles in the form of a mandala? Does the mandala symbol have special meaning to you? The glow worm surrounds a black hole at the center of the mandala. For me, the parallel musical image is in the song “Glow Worm,” when Brett sings,
Tightly in my fist I held that glowing worm
Deep down in the hollows I held the center of the world.
Do you see this couplet as the spiritual/emotional center of the album, to mirror what the cover art suggests?
RS: Bingo. How nice that you were thinking as I was thinking. Yes, mandalas are very important to me. I love the idea of artwork designed to pull you inward to infinite space. The best kind of wilderness, I think. I used to have recurring dreams about visiting the center of the earth. It would probably not be good to spot the little light there and grab it in your fist. What not to do at the center of the earth! Yet how many of us could resist at least touching with our little finger and inadvertently turning out the light of the world.
RH: In the songs “Caterpillars,” “Woodpecker,” and “Gulls” you describe humans transmuting into other animals. Is this a way of imagining what it would be like to be other-than-human?
RS: Maybe it’s just a reminder that our bodies are always changing shape. Also who doesn’t wonder how wonderfully strange it would be to cocoon yourself and then emerge into a totally new life. Rebirth is a grand fantasy.
RH: Have you spent time in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Mary Sweeney’s hometown in “Woodpecker?” I went to college there and I think Mary might have been my anthropology professor.
RS: I stopped at Taco Bell there once in a snow storm. That was the extent of my ground research. Mostly that song was inspired by reading, “Wisconsin Death Trip” and also by a series of windshield smashing I witnessed one morning in Chicago on the way to work. These two boys were just running down the street smashing all the windshields with bricks. The street was crowded with people, but we all just stood there in shock. The noise was beautiful, but the sight was very disturbing.
RH: Any final thoughts about how academics and artists might be able to work together more (or better)?
RS: Maybe we can plan a sailing trip to the center of the world. I know a spot we can start from.