Brett and Rennie Sparks, red-eyed off an 18-hour flight from the tumbleweeds of their New Mexico hometown of Albuquerque, are phlegmatic about their cult status Stateside. "It's difficult for a duo like us in America," offers Rennie, by way of explanation on why the Handsome Family may never be as big as Britney. "Seeing as we're not 16 and neither of us have really nice breasts, we have to exist on a very underground level." Working in an area that's loosely termed as alt-country, the Handsome Family specialise in songs about death, suicide and misfits. "We're marginalised," rumbles Brett, the bass-voiced singer who has a happy knack of putting more life into the word "die" than any singer this side of Nick Cave.
The good thing about all this is that it means there'll be more Handsome Family to go round Europe – and Britain in particular.
Returning to Britain for the third set of dates in six months, here, at least, the Sparks's star is in the ascendant. Rennie, the Family's lyricist, is a New Yorker who spots UFOs and sees the mysterious undertow to life; her mother told her that Santa Claus had started the Second World War. (She's still scared of Father Christmas, but felt better after a Swedish friend told her that Santa is really a Laplander and his red suit is soaked in reindeer blood to keep him warm.) Brett, a native Texan, met his future wife while they were both students in New York. He's not averse to using songs to show – well, why not? – the funny side of life as a bipolar sufferer.
And yet, the Handsome universe is perversely, poetically beautiful. Detailed over the course of five albums and (from Rennie) one book of short stories rejoicing in the title of Evil, it's an unheimlich place where sirens lure fisherman away from Styrofoam coffee, where pigeons go missing and people laugh uproariously in diners, oblivious to the submerged cars in the adjacent lake.
"We do play with the idea that country music is famously miserable," says Rennie, "but it also has such dignity at the same time. It balances out the silliness already there." They slide off into a conversation about Dollywood, the Country & Western theme park set up by Dolly Parton that they've yet to visit. "Oh, those Precious Moments chapels!" enthuses Rennie.
Such is their concentrated focus on the darker side of the tracks, critics have described the Sparks as country music's answer to the Addams family.
"That's just lazy journalism," growls Brett. I think if you're going to go to the monumental effort to write songs, you might as well do something that resonates a little – through their symbols and their styles – rather than just going la-la-la ... It's nice when you can look at something and say, 'Wow, this is cool, this is bigger that me.' That's not to say we always achieve this, but it's an aim."
"We don't write dark things because we take great joy in other people's misery," Rennie continues. "We write about misery because suffering is a part of everyone's life." And it's their ability to freeze a moment, to spot the ineffable oddness of a glancing instant that gives the Handsome Family their gut-wrenching power.
Sure, they're dark songs, but they're ones you can laugh to. They also see themselves as part of a tradition that takes in terrifying fairy stories and songs ("Come on, what is 'Rock-a-bye-baby on the treetop' about?" demands Rennie) on the one hand, and the early music that Brett embraced as a medieval music specialist at college.
It's one of the reasons why both are drawn to folk song, a tradition they see as "faceless" inasmuch as the songs have a longevity that outstrips their creators. So faceless are the Handsome Family that they tend not to feature band photos on their albums. Their latest, Twilight, has a rather nice picture of a white owl and two prairie dogs, the previous one a contented-looking duck. "It doesn't matter what our experiences are," insists Rennie. "We want the songs to have a life of their own. In fact, the less you know about the writers the better."
'Twilight' is available now on Loose Records. The Handsome Family play Patti Pavilion, Swansea (01792 473 960), Sat; Memorial Hall, Sheffield (0114 2789 789), 14 April; Lyric Hammersmith, London W5 (0208 741 2311), 15 & 16 April; and touringReuse content