- Their kinda ugly, colorless town: Chicagoans Rennie and Brett Sparks.
Like most married couples, Brett and Rennie Sparks spend most of their leisure time together. Unlike most married couples, the Sparkses also spend most of their professional time together, working as a dark folk/country act under the benign appellation the Handsome Family. And when it's time for an interview, they even answer the phone together.
"We don't trust each other," Brett deadpans. "We have to watch each other every minute. The devastating breakup isn't too far off. How else can we do VH1's Where Are They Now? The meteoric rise, the fast living, the inevitable split, the recrimination. Then we'll do our solo things."
"Of course, we'll say how much we respect what the other is doing," Rennie adds, continuing with the thread of their faux dissolution.
"And then we see each other backstage somewhere, and it's time for the big reunion tour," says Brett, with a measure of pride that is evident in a guy who's just had it all, lost it all, broken up with his wife, and gotten back together with her in the space of a 30-second phone conversation. The Handsome Family's current work/leisure project is In the Air. The duo's fourth full album, it's another engaging example of Rennie's dark and troubled lyrical bent set to her husband's equally disturbed music, either appropriately or inappropriately paced and arranged.
"We start with the lyrics, always," Brett says of the arranging process. "In a way, it just kind of organically develops as I try to flesh out the demos. Initially, when I start writing, there are certain ideas that I have, like [playing] "Sad Milkman' with a ranchero beat. Setting sad songs to happy music is not the most original or sophisticated idea, but it does create a certain psychological set that I find interesting. I like the opposites of those ideas."
"We have a really structured songwriting routine, so I think that's what keeps us from killing each other," Rennie says with a laugh. "I do the writing of the words, he does the writing of the music, and we talk about things, but we do have our separate parts of the song. What intrigues me about that is that we end up with a final product that is different than either one of us would do on our own."
The Sparkses bring the term "down home" into extreme focus with their low-key recordings, done primarily in their home studio. Brett isn't actively seeking to champion the cutting edge of the revolution with his technique, but he seems content with his minimalist operation.
"I think a lot of people are doing the hybrid thing now, where they record basic tracks in the studio and then bring the stuff home and mix or edit it with ProTools on the Mac," he says of the latest recording trend. "The editing possibilities are a lot more powerful than what you can do with just analog tape. You can add more overdubs to it, you can mix it all down to half-inch tape, so you get that nice warm analog sound. Everyone complains that digital sounds brittle and sterile, but there are ways to play around with it and make it sound good. You can save a lot of money, and you can take as much time as you want in the studio."
Although the Sparkses have jettisoned most of their bandmates for this album, one notable name remains -- that of multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird. First for the Squirrel Nut Zippers and more recently with his own band, Bowl of Fire, Bird has managed to lend an extremely authentic air to contemporary compositions. His contributions to the Handsome Family's latest anachronistic hoedown are well-received.
"Andrew opened for someone that I wanted to see at a club in Chicago," says Brett. "I was just blown away by him. He did all this teens and '20s hot jazz. I hate talking to musicians after a show, but I made myself go back to talk to Andrew. We wound up doing a little tour together last year, and he wanted to hear what we'd been recording, so he came over and brought his violin, and we put him on it."
As uniquely authentic as Brett and Rennie Sparks manage to make their Stanley- and Louvin Brothers-influenced songs, it's amazing that their backgrounds and current situation don't seem to support their roles as murder balladeers. Brett was born and raised in Texas, while Rennie was brought up in the environs of Long Island. When the pair met in college, Brett was studying music theory, and Rennie was in a creative writing program. Their musical collaboration didn't begin until the couple had been married for nearly five years.
One of the biggest influences on the Sparkses' songwriting style has got to be the aforementioned Louvin Brothers, whom the couple first heard together in a flea market in Kentucky. "They're such beautiful songs, but at the same time so violent and so scary, that we definitely try to achieve that balance between happy/ sad, scary/beautiful kind of thing," says Rennie. "I felt like, when I heard the Louvin Brothers doing a lot of folk music, that was lyrically like that very poetic language associated with murder ballads. You know, they're always killing each other in beautiful beds of flowers and under a lovely tree. That really inspired me, because I realized I wasn't psychotic; that this kind of writing is really an archetype, and that this has been intriguing to many people."
Now they live in Chicago, the self-proclaimed home of the urban blues and an area not particularly known for inspiring the Sparkses' kind of music (the presence of alt-country pioneer Bloodshot Records notwithstanding). As grittily urban as Chicago can be, the duo still manages to draw some enlightenment from it, translating the relentless oppressiveness of the city into something constructive.
"For me, the physical landscape of this city is really inspiring," says Rennie. "It's so unredeemingly ugly and Gothic. It's like being in a black-and-white movie. There's no color here. The other night, we were driving out to this radio station, and we had to cross most of the town. Every block, there's a guy with one leg or an eyepatch, or a little kid wearing his pajamas, running across an empty field, and it's 30 degrees out. There's horror everywhere here."