RENNIE SPARKS of THE HANDSOME FAMILY talks to LYDIA LUNCH for
SEX AND GUTS MAGAZINE
published June 1, 2002
SEX & GUTS #4
Lydia Lunch: Since the gentlemen of this scenario seem to be the sensitive ones, I guess weíll just plow through this interview ourselves.
Rennie Sparks: I was worried about Gene, is he okay? He sounds like heís been sick or something.
LL: Well, thatís an understatement..
RS: (laughs) Okay. Give him our best.
LL: Heíll survive. Yeah, so Iíve been hearing about you, and reading reviews of the Handsome Family. Actually when we were on tour, is the first time I read a review and just stuck it in Geneís face, and said ďWe have to get these CDs! Where are they?!Ē It took us a long time to track one down, and finally, someone I know had one, and thatís how we originally heard you.
RS: Oh Iím glad you found us. Weíre not exactly on billboards along the highway. (laughs)
LL: Yeah I understand, although that could be changed any day now, who knows with a bit of pranksterism
RS: I think itís fine the way it is, really.
LL: I know, I know. Believe me, flying under the radar is much better.
RS: I think in a way, Iím safer this way.
LL: I understand. Alright, so letís just start in with this. Now, did your mother really tell you that Santa Claus started World War II? (laughs)
RS: (laughs) Yeah. I was brought up Jewish, but my parents theyíre really into art, theyíre athiests, and they claimed that religion was the cause of all troubles.
LL: I agree with them.
RS: And I agree, in certain respects. I mean, when I was a kid, they thought that if I didnít know about Christmas, I would be safe. So they didnít tell me anything about it. Then one day, we were in the mall, and we saw this man wearing a red suit, out front. I said ďWho is that?Ē She said ďDonít go near him! Heís a very bad man." (laughs) And I said ďwhy?Ē She said, ďbecause he started World War II.Ē
LL: Oh, thatís so wonderful.
RS: (laughs) So I was terrified of him for a very long time. But then I heard from someone in Sweden who told me that they were always told that Santa Claus was in red because he was wearing bloody reindeer skins.
RS: Thereís a lot of blood and guts involved with wearing that suit.
LL: Exactly. Thatís what Christmas is, using your blood and guts, fraudulently, to celebrate a pagan holiday. It has nothing to do with the original theme other than to spend all your money. Iím very anti-Christmas. Gene loves Christmas.
RS: But you know, itís encouraging to me that people still seem to need the red, even though we have taken it so far away from the blood. And the green of trees, and we still know thereís some reason why the red and the green are important. Even though most people donít want to consciously talk about nature and blood and all that sort of stuff.
LL: Well, exactly. And speaking of nature, you have a lot of animals and wildlife and nature mentioned in your songs, and in the CD artwork. Now nature: friend or terrifying foe?
RS: Oh both, I think. Iím a cuddly kitten and a venomous snake all at once.
LL: Probably, much like us, prefer their company to that of other humans.
RS: Yeah, I think itís a little more honest, anyway. But a cuddly kitten will bite you, and pee on you, so itís always a much more genuine relationship.
LL: My cat has a three-stroke limit and then she attacks.
LL: So, itís like three pets, and then...
RS: Oh, but that second pet, when you know about the third one
LL: Uh huh.
RS: So like a cat.
LL: Yeah. To quote Bill Hickís claimed that humanity was a ďvirus with shoesĒ.
RS: Yeah, there is something strangely different and other about us, we just donít seem to be able to sit comfortably on this planet the way other animals do. We make a big mess, for one thing. We donít clean up. I donít know why that is, necessarily, that we need to leave our mark. I was so intrigued once, when I went down to southern Indiana, thereís these caves that I donít know, some Indian tribe that we killed off not long ago, they lived down in these caves, a hundred years ago, they lived down there for a hundred years, and they didnít leave anything. Except maybe two broken pieces of pottery, and in the late 1700s and late 1800s, when white people first started going down there, they covered (laughs), littered EVERY inch of the cave with graffiti, initials, everything. Every single person, it seems between 1740 and the present, put their initials up. I mean, itís not every human being thatís like that, but most of them.
LL: is a bloodline, especially to people that are so obsessed with the truth, and since most truth is completely painful, you deal with a lot of miserable
LL: intensely miserable subjects, in your songs.
RS: Thank you!
LL: Of course. But I hope that like myself, because I deal with a lot of negative obsessions, and maybe you deal more with miserable obsessions, but I know that in my private life, thereís certain things that I have to find. If not joy, or happiness I mean, satisfaction is my goal, and Iím just wondering what brings you joy, and if not joy, then respite?
RS: I think for the first half of my life, for twenty or so years, I just moped. I became an excellent moper. And I think that through that intense moping period, I think I started to understand that there was a lot of despair and sadness everywhere, and it wasnít anything that I was personally experiencing all by myself. You come to a point, where you realize either that all this sadness is overwhelming and Iím going to jump off a bridge, or Iím going to figure out a way to understand it. My way of understanding it is that, I feel that so many things are sad because so many things are beautiful. And I think that if the world wasnít beautiful, and full of these miraculous moments of grace and I canít really explain, necessarily, one way or another, but if it wasnít for those things, and the way that they pass or are fleeting, there wouldnít be any sadness at all. I would just be this sort of fish, eating and pooping and then killing myself in the end. I think that because thereís so much depth to the world and so many strange and mysterious qualities to it, that thatís what brings me joy and keeps me sane.
LL: Yeah, and thatís what all the other mopers as I like to accuse people of having their ďspecial painĒ, and no pain is special. It is the most universal
RS: Itís so nice to know that, but I think everyone has to come up with their own way.
R: You can tell somebody, oh youíre just like everybody else, but they wonít really believe it.
L: The whole world is suffering, to rebel against that is not to pretend it doesnít exist but you have to appreciate every vein in every leaf, the way that light refracts off of a plant and falls on to the ground. Once I started seeing the beauty in shadows, shadows cast by light...
R: Thatís beautiful, right the two are necessarily entwined. Itís really a great gift to be able to see so much of the darkness, because it ends up being a way of seeing a lot of light.
L: When you can turn it around.
R :Yeah... but itís hard, and I do think there are so many people that feel that way and thereís so little art out there, so few comforting voices that itís important to talk about this and at least commiserate with your fellow human beings because if you just turn the TV on, you think, god, I AM crazy, everyone else is just smiling. What DO they think?
L: Name three perfect authors or films or songs that you think personally have inspired you.
R: Films, I was really inspired by SALO...
L: THANK YOU!
[Oh god. Were I present during this interview, Iíd be forced to scan the room for an escape hatch-ed.]
R: I think about it all the time. It was an unbearable thing to sit through, but at the same time, every day I think about it, three, four times a day. I saw it maybe ten years ago,
I think it was so important, for someone to depict that kind of human thinking that we all have, but very few of us actually act upon. Itís there in everybodyís brain, the concept of beauty and ugliness and just wanting to destroy beauty. I guess itís part of humanity, unfortunately.It was a really powerful movie.
L: I was born on the same day as the Marquis De Sade. Iím very familiar with all of his philosophies, which I think have been completely underrated.
R: (laughing with glee) I think he was a really beautiful guy!
L: He was very brave, I donít think any of us would have been able to write such a copious amount of litanies, while being incarcerated in prison for 17 years.
R: Itís so funny, though, sometimes I laugh at the Marquis De Sade, because itís as if heís somewhat snickering behind the curtain as he wrote it.
L:His poetry and philosophy are often overlooked, especially considering the time period he was bookended in. What about authors? Does your favorite change every few years?
R: Yes it does. I really like Virginia Wolfe a lot, most people whenever I mention Virginia Wolfe, say...ooh it sounds really boring, because theyíve usually read only one thing. But she had this way of writing really really
long beautiful sentences that capture these moments in time. She really captures what it feels like to be alive to me, more than anybody else I know, that incredible longing and sadness that goes with every second of life passing by. I think she was another one who was incredibly depressed,
also incredibly aware of the beauty in life. I think she really really tried to stick around as long as she could. Because it was such a beautiful world, and god, every day it seems like it was hell for her, but she still wanted to get up and do something, even though I think it was struggle, and there
werenít any anti-depressants back then...(Big laugh) but I really liked her a lot. I like ďTo the LighthouseĒ.
R: Music! I really like Leonard Cohen a lot, heís a big inspiration to me, I think I like him because heís a Jew and Iím a Jew. I feel his perspective is pretty close to mine in a lot of ways. I think he had a lot more sex than I did, with a lot more beautiful women.
R: Beyond that , I think I can relate to him.
L: Now heís Buddhist.
R: Yeah I think a lot of Jews become Buddhist, thereís a real link to it, they_re both so much about suffering and existence and not trying to pretend that everythingís going to be a brighter day tomorrow. Thereís certain tenets of Christianity that just repel Jews and make it impossible for them to accept . One is sin, and two redemption. But Buddhism is a nice stepping stone for Jews, for them to think they have a way of understanding all the nastiness of the world without having to resort to ďWeíre all doomed."
L: I hear a little Pixies in some of your songs, and Gene says he hears some Pere Ubu. Were either of these groups an influence to you?
R: Iím sure they are, Iíve listened to both those bands quite a bit. But I donít sit down and say now Iím going to rip off the Pixies but Iím sure if you listen to a band enough and you like them, then those kinds of things trickle through.
L: What I really enjoy about your music is the bizarre androgyny apparent, for instance in lyrics youíve written and Brett sings. I think thatís a really beautiful twist.
R: I like the fact, I think as a woman itís really difficult to...thereís certain things you want to talk about as a woman, but sometimes itís hard to have them seem believable coming from your mouth, so heís sometimes my voice when I want to write about things, like, oh I donít know, axe murdering. Itís just more believable from a male point of view...
L: THATíS BECAUSE ENOUGH OF US HAVENíT DONE IT!
R: I KNOW!
L: Lizzie Border is not enough...
R: Weíre not well represented in some areas.(laughs)
L: Maybe we just havenít been caught because weíre just better criminals.
L: We get away with it more often
R: Poisoning is so much more subtle...
L: I guess....
R: I think Wendy Ruth Judd chopped up a bunch of people and put their bodies in trunks. There are female ax murderers out there....
L: Well because women usually kill out of passion, their crimes, especially murder is usually within the family, or within their relationships, where when men kill, itís often because of what they lack, what they donít possess.
R: But as a writer, for me, itís liberating to have someone else read, or read and sing and be my voice because otherwise I feel like it becomes too much like people just assume itís an entry from my diary. I want a song to feel like a song that anybody can sing, itís not so much about the singer, but more about the song. It should be interchangeable. A good song should be able to be sung by
L: Do you always agree on your material?
R: Oh no...we donít agree on anything, heís all wrong and Iím right. Sure we argue a lot, but arguingís part of the creative process. Itís interesting to work with people, most of my life I worked alone as a writer, itís more interesting. We end up coming up with things that neither one of us would do on their own. And usually neither one of us quite 100 percent understands what weíre doing. So we have that gray area that neither one of us can lay claim to. Which is nice.
L: What were you doing before The Handsome Family?
R: Brett was in bands writing music, and I was writing stories on my own.
L: Where was that?
R: We lived in Michigan and Chicago for awhile before we actually became a band. It was a lot of lonely toiling. It was fun to work with somebody, especially since I was already living with him anyway, so it was nice to...
L: Put him to work.
R:Yeah. I think thatís kinda how it happened, he was working on the music, and tired of rewriting some lyrics, so he said, ďYou look at them, youíre a writer.Ē So I started looking at them and I said you know that song would be
much better if instead of just saying ďIím sorry I left you, and we had a great night together that one night standĒ why donít we make it that he drags her in the woods, and clubs her and leaves her body in a cave, wouldnít that be much more interesting? We both sort of immediately took to it.
L: And youíre living in the Southwest now?
R: In Albuquerque, Brettís from here, we moved back here for him. Iíve always wanted to live here. Every time I came to visit, I ended up not wanting to leave.Thereís big, big horizons.
L: Music videos...I like the enhanced CD music video on Through The Trees. How do you feel about videos in general. Would you like to make more?
R: Well, it seems a little ridiculous.
L: Yeah, Iíve never made a music video...
R: Every time weíve made one, itís usually a director who wants to do it for free, because we never have any funding for it, so weíre usually kinda under their thumb, and the first thing they say is ďIíve got this little girl we want to put in itĒ and the second thing is ďIíve got this old manĒ...always little girls and old men...and thereís a lot of real trite images that video directors seem to propose.
L: But thatís a beautiful video
R: Oh, thatís nice, but Iíve never really made a video that I wanted to make.
L: Steal a camera!
R: Yeah, Iíve thought about it...now that itís getting so easy to edit videos. Maybe for our next record weíll do one. I kinda feel like it takes away from the song in a way.
L: Thatís how we feel too...
R: It takes the fun away. I want people to make the video in their head.
L: And you have so much mystery in your music anyway.
R: I think even on the basic level of , ďis this song funny or sad?Ē If itís funny, then youíre tilting the balance one way. And I donít like to do that.
L: So where you going on your tour?
R: Weíre going all over. England, Ireland, Scotland, Europe. For two months.We do a lot better over there. Europeans tend to not have so much trouble with the basic stumbling blocks that most Americans have. Like ďIs
that a funny song, or a sad song? It canít be both.Ē And if itís a sad song ďWhy are you so depressed? And why would you want to write a sad song?Ē
L: And on your return, then what?
R: Then hopefully weíll have some time off. Do some gardening, I got some cactuses I need to plant. Everything out here is a cactus though, Iím finding, even plants Iím familiar with from out East, you touch them here and they have thorns on them! And theyíre growing in strange shapes, theyíve been distorted from the sunlight and lack of water into these strange killing machines.
L: A lot like your songs.
L: Youíre probably in the right location.
R: And the BUGS! Giant bugs out here. Thereís a lot to inspire you out here, so Iíll be happy to get home again.