Murder, she wrote

Posted on March 27, 2009


Darran Anderson interviews Rennie Sparks.


Darran Anderson: When I first heard about your forthcoming album Honey Moon I was kind of puzzled and intrigued at reports it would be a suite of love songs until I read somewhere that Valentine’s Day originally commemorated a saint who had his head chopped off and I thought, now it makes more sense. Is it safe to say you’ve avoided a conventional take on love?

Rennie Sparks: Well, we do include a song about insect love. Perhaps we take a broader view of love than some people. I think of the record more as ‘romantic’ i.e. involving a lot of emotion and connection to nature.

DA: Did you have a conscious plan for the album or did it take on a life of its own as you were creating it?

RS: They never are completely in our control. I wanted every song to be like ‘Twilight Time’ but I’m not sure how close any of them are.

DA: You seem drawn to a host of strange near-mythical characters, this alternative American history populated by semi-forgotten people from Nikolai Tesla to H.H. Holmes; who has really interested you amongst those you’ve come across?

RS: I’m trying to write a song about William Burroughs right now. I love that he was obsessed with the occult, strange sex rituals, UFOs, but also with cats. I think the more you know about anyone the more interesting they get. Did you know that George Washington Carver claimed that angels told him to cultivate peanuts?

DA: There are some media-types and politicians who mistake/misrepresent fiction for reality and claim that violence in music is the primary cause of violence in real life. In which case, your fans would be a motley crew of killers, thieves and highwaymen. They seem nice though?

RS: Yes, that kind of thinking drives me crazy. It shows a complete lack of understanding regarding the purpose and possibilities of art in general. Murder ballads are nothing like real murder. They are rituals to celebrate the fleeting beauty of all things. We have really great audiences who do understand these things. People who like our music are people who know that a sad song will not physically harm them. You’d be surprised how many people are scared to watch a sad movie.


DA: A sense of darkness in your music goes hand in hand with an appreciation of beauty, even the feeling that beauty can have horror within it, like the way nursery rhymes tend to have these sinister origins; is that something you’re attracted to?

RS: Definitely. It’s so important to understand and experience that life is never simply happy or sad, good or bad, ugly or beautiful. It’s always complex. Grimm’s fairy tales were a great way to teach that to children. Yes, the dark forest is full of witches and monsters, but also magic roses and beautiful swirls of falling snow.

DA: Given your occasional subject matter, do you believe in ghosts?

RS: Yes, I get a haunted feeling a lot as if there are invisible things around me. It used to be a lot worse before I started taking antidepressants. It was sometimes unbearable then. I got to a point once where I couldn’t go in a part of our house because it felt haunted with devils. Medication makes for better living.

DA: You featured in the remarkable documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus alongside Jim White, Lee Sexton and an old Dogmatika– favourite Harry Crews. In one of the scenes, you play ‘My Sister’s Tiny Hands’ on a shack floating in the middle of a lake; where, or what, is that place?

RS: It was a fishing houseboat. Brett says his grandfather had one. We were out on the front porch of it with a lot of electrical wires and a lot of river water splashing. I guess people like to fish for cat fish while sitting in a house and drinking beer. At least Brett says his grandpa did.

DA: We did an article a while back on the Voyager space probe which is now the furthest man-made object from earth and will likely be the last surviving relic of mankind when the earth finally goes up in smoke. Onboard there’s an LP made out of gold with Mozart, Johnny B Goode and Blind Willie Johnson‘s ‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground’ on it, amongst others, for aliens to find and give them a hint of who we were. If you compiled such a record, what you put on there?

RS: Tough question. Hmm. I’d have to put some opera on there. Lucia di Lammermoor‘s mad scene, maybe. I’ve never heard a tragic opera I didn’t love. Perhaps a recording by Enrico Caruso?

DA: Your lyrics tend to get compared to novelists and poets, plus you’ve written a book of short stories entitled Evil [read the story ‘Web of Gold’ here]. How important is literature to you and what are your choice reads?

RS: Very important. I probably read more than I listen to music. I like to read a lot of history and natural science books, but also some fiction. One of my favorite books is The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop. I read that over and over for some reason.

DA: Sometimes in the music press, there’s an over-fixation with the more apparently doom-laden aspects of your sound, when there’s clearly a lot of humour in your music; do you think that’s a side that gets overlooked? Or do you really think the end is nigh?

RS: Yes, we’re not really that dour. We actually laugh a lot, especially during our live shows, but again, people get caught up in whether something is funny or sad and have trouble understanding that things can be funny and awful at the same time. I think our songs are mostly bittersweet in that they try to capture that mixed feeling of being alive. That being said, I do think the end is probably nigh. Sadly, it looks like the dinosaurs are going to have a longer legacy than the humans. I’m not that unhappy about it though. In five thousand years all traces of human beings could disappear and another species could rise up. Maybe the squirrels? The birds? A race of super-intelligent fish? The earth will abide.

DA: You left Chicago in favour of Albuquerque, where you currently reside; what’s it like as a setting and has it had an effect on your song-writing?

RS: There are really nice sunsets here and the sky is always an unreal blue. It makes me feel like I’m living in a dream.

Honey Moon by The Handsome Family is available next month (April) from Loose Music, or directly through The Handsome Family’s website.



Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika, and is a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine. He resides in Edinburgh.

Posted in: Interviews