by Lewis Martin

On March 20th I had the pleasure of interviewing The Handsome Family as a part of their tour for the 20th anniversary of their album Through the Trees. I interviewed Rennie Sparks, half of the band’s duo, about the difference the band offers from the usual Americana band (and if they are even an Americana band), what it’s like releasing music under your own label, and if being in the spotlight makes their message more powerful.

It’s been 20 years since Through the Trees was originally released and is seen as a pivotal album for Americana music. How would you say American culture has changed over the last 20 years?

American culture is getting worse and worse. We’re not really an Americana band, as we’re telling different stories. Americana offers a romanticised version of being American and we aim to tell more truthful, realistic stories in our music. When True Detective used our song we were really happy as we felt that showed a real life depiction of American life. The reality of American culture is that it’s more about shopping, drugs and crime not whisky.

Would you say that you’re a more realistic depiction of US life?

We (Americans) constantly tell lies about what it’s like to be American to ourselves and the world. I am American but I don’t feel attached to the culture, an insane culture we have spread to the world. It’s appealing as it’s all about stuff and bright flashing lights.

Many Americans find our songs depressing, and they are depressing, but the usual Americana artists are just repeating the same songs as one and other.

America won’t talk about the issues with plastic straws and bags. There’s no concern for climate change and many don’t see it as an issue or existing. Capitalism isn’t a concern as its constant expanding but only a certain amount expansion can take place on the world before we can’t expand any further. Trickle down economics is about making sure that money doesn’t trickle down. The wealth divide in the US is massive and they’re living different lives.

Many Americans find our songs depressing, and they are depressing, but the usual Americana artists are just repeating the same songs as one and other. There’s certain clichés in movies and songs that exists but if they’re repeated enough people believe they’re true. Americana repeats tropes that people believe to be true. Nobody gets more romantic with whiskey, nobody is more attractive with whiskey they just eat bad breath and get stupid.

Your Latest Album Unseen was released on your own record label pin the states. What was that like?

We wanted to do it for a long time but was tied into a contract that forced them to work with that label for 20 years. The previous label owned our masters so we couldn’t control our own music until they went bankrupt.

In some way it was like being released from prison because we were free to have our own music back and could do what we wanted with it. It’s been great but we have a fan base that will buy our music where as a new band would want to go to a label who can help make them famous and increase their chances of making a career out of it all. We have been able to do it now but 20 years ago I’m not too sure we could have done that

Radiohead are the biggest band in the UK I’m aware of to break away from their record label, but in the process lost all of the rights to their original recordings. Where you ever concerned about that happening to you?

That’s crazy! I was willing to do that after HBO [the company who produced True Detective chose their song] but we tried to get our music back and he [the owner of their masters] said no. He would rather us quit and he retire than give us back our music. The stubbornness of it all was funny. He would rather retire than give up our music. Nobody should own other people’s art.

Nobody’s doing this for charity, people are trying to make money and record labels are trying to make money but nobody should own other people’s stuff in perpetuity.

This can affect the level of art that can come out in the system. Stormzy has been on the receiving end of issues surrounding his politics and his music mixing together and received attacks from the right wing media in the UK. Do you find that as artists you have a wider and more powerful voice for political comments?

It feels therapeutic to be able to say what you want. In our little world of people who want to see us share our values that it’s easier to day stuff.

I don’t know if I’m changing the world but it certainly make it feel a little less awful. It’s good to speak even if nobody is listening.

You can buy the bands albums here, stream their music here and see them at the rest of their tour dates here.

Featured image from Meow Wolf / courtesy of artist – via npr

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