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Handsome Family - Interview

  by Richard Lewis

published: 30 / 6 / 2013

Handsome Family - Interview


New Mexico husband-and-wife Americana duo the Handsome Family talk to Richard Lewis at a show in Liverpool about their critically acclaimed latest album 'Wilderness'

Arriving in Liverpool, for a booking almost exactly a year since their last appearance in the city, the Handsome Family have become something of an annual fixture treading the boars of the UK gig circuit. Hailed as "The Beatles of the folk world" by no less an authority legendary US scribe Greil Marcus, the New Mexico band have released a dozen albums of idiosyncratic Americana to a slowly burgeoning worldwide audience since 1994. The group’s recent LP ‘Wilderness’ scored some of the best reviews in their twenty year career, the album revolving around the theme of the disc’s dozen tracks all being written primarily about the animal kingdom. Descending the stairs from the dressing room to the stage of The Kazimier, husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie on vocals/guitar and ukulele bass/banjo/backing vocals respectively joined by additional member Jason Toth on drums commence the sepulchral glide of ‘Octopus’. Brett and Rennie in characteristically laidback, talkative mode resemble a latter-day Johnny and June, swapping stories and anecdotes as freely as if the audience was sat in the couple’s frontroom. "This song about is about the invisible owls that controlled Phil Spector," Rennie explains, introducing the titular ‘Owls’, the link between the legendary producer/Wall of Sound architect and feathered strigiforme unclear, aside from their nocturnal hours. Juxtapositions such as these in the fantastical world of the present band, one based on mythology, folklore and deeply rooted in American history make perfect sense. Via a bare-bones rendition of live favourite of ‘So Much Wine’ and recent LP standout ‘Woodpecker’ led by Rennie on banjo, the setlist scans almost all of ‘Wilderness’ to dazzling effect. Pre-show, in the band’s dressing room, the couple, slightly frazzled from jetlag but entirely lucid discuss the new LP. The beautifully designed book that accompanies the disc expands on the themes found on the parent album with essays and artwork created by Rennie, the band’s lyricist. Running in reverse alphabetical order from an opening piece on The Woodpecker via entries on The Prairie Dog and The Eel, the book concludes with a chapter on The Ant. "I just had a lot to say about animals!" Rennie laughs when asked about the subject matter. "I was thinking of it like a medieval bestiary, chaptered by different animals. In the middle ages they used to have bestiaries that were like an encyclopaedia of the known world of animals, but they were also full of fanciful animals that people thought really existed but didn’t like unicorns and griffins." "Unicorns exist! Everyone knows that," Brett chips in, mock-aggrieved. "I wrote a lot about different animals but some of the songs never got finished. There was so much for me it was whatever really I could finish. Finishing is hard, but starting is easy," Rennie explains. "The next one is going to be historical figurees." Brett says of the next album. "And you’re the first (to know). We just leaked it to you!" "We’ll definitely have a book again," Rennie adds. A figure who is highly likely to feature in the lyrics for the next album is late British mathematician and father of computer science Alan Turing. One of the most brilliant minds of generation, Turing was best known in his lifetime as the head of the Bletchley Park team that developed the decoding device for the Enigma machine, used by the Axis Powers in WWII. Meeting a tragically young demise as a result of a botched treatment designed to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality, Turing is presently the focus of a campaign to have his 1952 conviction for gross indecency posthumously overturned. "I’ve read a few biographies of him. He was such an amazing person that it’s bewildering to me the mindset that could say anything negative against him. Everyone recognised that he won the war basically," Rennie says. Unsurprisingly, given the fluency of the band’s lyrics, Rennie is inspired by authors as much as fellow songsmiths, listing Franz Kafka and Brunel Schultz as influences. Brett by contrast claims to avoid the written word. "I don’t read at all," the guitarist shrugs. "Someone asked him to write a hundred word essay today, and he couldn’t even be bothered to count the words he was writing!" Rennie laughs. "The subject was ‘Write a hundred words about your favourite Bruce Springsteen album’ so I just wrote about myself," Brett grins. "I wrote something about living in West Texas and my girlfriend giving me ‘Born to Run’, a great thing to get at that point in my life. It’s weird when things intersect with your life at the right time." Figures from American history, both famous and unknown populate the Handsome Family’s material, from the aforementioned Phil Spector to those that became well-known by a different route. A perceptive reviewer from 'The New Yorker' surmised that the couple were ardent readers of ‘The Wisconsin Death Trip’, a 1973 publication compiled by photo-journalist Michael Lesy. "e’ve had it for decades," Brett nods. "That was a really powerful book for me to read," Rennie adds. "It’s mostly a collection of photographs and clippings from newspapers from these little towns in Northern Wisconsin in a few years at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century," Rennie explains. "It’s beyond belief, the crazy stuff that was going on in these towns. It was a really extreme time in American history and a lot of it had not been talked about before. I think most Americans would know these things but they don’t." On the subject of formative years in American history, General Custer, an almost mythic figure appears in ‘Flies’, a vignette that recounts his dying body staining the earth blood-red. Despite his standing as an US icon, greater research into his life reveals he wasn’t the military mastermind some have made him out to be. "He was a dandy, he was a rock star too, had these long, curly blond locks, really well-dressed," Brett explains. "He was a press whore. He loved to have all the press at his battles," Rennie adds. "He was famous for being famous." Stephen Foster, widely acknowledged as the father of American music appears in ‘Wildebeest’, which recounts the grim demise of the songwriter, a musician whose catalogue of songs continues to cast an influence over American music in the present day. "I’m an American so I have something to say about where I live I suppose, and I do think that Stephen Foster is somebody if you want to know about American music is very important. To try and understand why America is the way it is, it’s good to know about these people a bit more<" Rennie explains. With the Handsome Family’s output scanning multiple genres; blues, folk, rock n’ roll and overlaid with highly detailed lyrics, the duo’s material demands close listening to fully appreciate the component parts of the songs. "I don’t think our records are a very casual experience. We really ask people to listen to them. They’re not background music," Rennie states. The Rolling Stones’ country-themed songs, material hugely under-rated by fans and critics of the band are highly revered by Brett and Rennie. Any vague similarities between ‘Dear Doctor’ from the Stones’ country oriented collection ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ (1968) and the present group’s cut ‘Spider’ therefore is entirely deliberate. "That’s exactly what I was going for," Brett nods vigorously. On the subject of more contemporary fare, aside from fellow countrymen Wilco and Andrew Bird, the pair largely avoid it. "No, not really no. There’s too much good music to waste time on that shit," Brett says. "At least half the day I mostly listen to classical music. When I get up I’ll listen to some Brandenburg concertos." In tandem with investigating the lesser-explored parts of American history, much of the Handsome Family’s material seems to lament the passing of a less-commercialised United States. "It’s gone, it’s already over," Brett shrugs. "I mean you go the Southern United States, and it’s all fucking Applebee’s (nation-wide chain of diners) and Wal-Marts," he grimaces. "We don’t have an actual frontier anymore, but we have these huge shopping malls that are just vast forests," Rennie muses. "I think we still like to be hunting. It’s still like that feeling of the unknown territory."

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Handsome Family - Interview

Handsome Family - Interview

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