The Handsome Family: A marriage made in gothic

Alt-country couple The Handsome Family are making waves thanks to a certain hit HBO drama

It’s taken a while for The Handsome Family, the Albuquerque couple once proclaimed “the Beatles of the folk world” by revered US rock critic Greil Marcus, to get the world’s attention. 

“21 years if we’re counting,” grins Rennie Sparks, one half of the band and writer of some of the mostly darkly sublime lyrics country music has ever known. “It’s easy to tell yourself ‘Well, maybe our songs can’t be understood by a lot of people’. But it turns out they just needed to hear [them].” 

The game-changer came late last year when HBO decided to use “Far From Any Road”, a song about a psychedelic plant that blooms at night, as the theme tune for True Detective, their much-acclaimed murder-mystery drama, whose first series, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, recently ended.

Many assumed that this 11-year old song had been commissioned specially, so perfectly did its mood chime with the series’ unsettling themes of murder, mental disorders and Gothic weirdness.

“The show references a lot of things that you rarely see referenced in mainstream TV like [HP] Lovecraft, pre-historical cave paintings and musings on time and quantum physics,” reflects Brett Sparks, Rennie’s husband and collaborator. “I think maybe we’re part of that too, this referencing of things that have always been under the radar.”

The couple were sceptical when HBO first got in touch. “We were all ‘Yeah right, we’ve heard that before,” recalls Rennie. “We’ve had our hearts broken with offers in the past that have come to nothing so we’ve learned to be wary.”

“But then we heard back and it was for real,” continues Brett. “And now we’re been getting emails from people in Iran and Kyrgyzstan who have just discovered our music. Not only that but they’re buying it, which in this day and age is a really meaningful gesture. I mean, who the hell buys music now?”

Since the first episode aired in January, sales of Singing Bones, the 2003 album on which the song first appeared, have skyrocketed, while “Far From Any Road” has had more than two million views on YouTube. Suddenly the song is charting in Hungary, Israel, Poland, Spain and Slovenia and it has been in the Top 20 of the UK Indie Charts for over a month. For their upcoming tour, the couple have had to switch to bigger venues to meet the demand.

Such adulation had never seemed likely for the Sparkses, who met in the late Eighties at university in New York – she was studying philosophy and writing stories while he divided his time between a masters in pre-14th century classical music and playing in a rockabilly band. From New York, the pair moved to Chicago where Rennie got a series of secretarial jobs and Brett stayed at home immersing himself in the old-time sounds of his youth including The Carter Family, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers.

Eventually, they decided to pool their resources and form a band. “There’s this strange notion that if you love somebody you shouldn’t work with them for the sake of your relationship but it works for us,” explains Rennie. “What always intrigues me is that we end up with a finished product that’s neither his nor mine completely. The process is always a bit mysterious, even to us.”

Over two decades the pair have maintained a modest following in thrall to their strange ditties about sad milkmen, poodles who think they’re cowboys and supermarkets where pine forests spring up between the aisles. Theirs is a potent mix of the macabre and mundane, with Rennie’s surreal couplets and understated vocals gathering greater shape and potency amid her husband’s stripped-down compositions and mournful baritone.

If their music doesn’t fit with the conventional notions of country music - you won’t see any 10-gallon hats at a Handsomes show – neither do Brett and Rennie. She is a black-clad acid casualty who collects cat’s whiskers in jars; he is a thick-set ex- born-again Baptist who, in the throes of a mental breakdown, once tried to re-write the Bible, and now takes lithium to keep the demons at bay.

At the heart of their sound is Rennie’s unique storytelling style, which pays elegant homage to the narrative traditions of folk music. When they first met she was writing a novel and 20 years later “I’m still working on it,” she says “but the songs seem easier for me. Besides, I’ve never been a fast writer.”

Their latest LP, Wilderness, released last year, is about animals and how their existence intertwines with human experience, and comes with a book of essays written and illustrated by Rennie. This sense of wonder at the natural world and its mysteries is a recurring motif for a couple who, 10 years ago, found themselves so gripped by New Mexico’s otherworldliness that they upped sticks and moved there.

“I’ve been bitten by fire ants and I share my house with spiders as big as my shoes,” says Rennie contentedly. “Every day the sky does things that makes no sense to me. No matter what I’m doing I’m always aware of being surrounded by this vastness and of living on this land that was once an ocean. On the mountains you can see seashell fossils everywhere. I feel like I’m living in a dream world.”

Neither of them anticipates their lives being turned upside down by this sudden flush of success. “We’ve been around long enough not to go nuts,” Rennie says. “And we’ve learned the hard way how to protect our fragile psyches. So for our upcoming tour we’re going to splurge and hire a driver – because the novelty of driving four hours to a show, unloading your equipment and then doing the same straight afterwards wears off after a while.”

“And it’s nice to know that when you sit down to order a set of strings you can order a dozen instead of six,” smiles Brett. “A dozen?” exclaims Rennie.  “Hey, that’s pretty extravagant for us. If we can afford a dozen strings, we must be going places.”

The Handsome Family begin their UK tour at the Deaf Institute in Manchester on 9 May. ‘Wilderness’ is out now on Loose Music (www.handsomefamily.com)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone