Detective work uncovers a Handsome theme tune
Now their song is the theme fo ‘True Detective’, The Handsome Family have been lifted from obscurity
True believers: Rennie and Brett Sparks
Brett and Rennie Sparks have been a creative and married unit for more than 20 years. Until recently the pair, who are better known as The Handsome Family, seemed relatively content to release niche-audience albums and to be regarded, reluctantly, as the genre’s Morticia and Gomez Addams. But then HBO’s True Detective came along.
If ever there was a theme tune that mirrorred a series – Gothic goings-on, bipolar disorders, personality defects, occult leanings, trailer-trash parking lots and murder most foul – then The Handsome Family’s vivid, evocative Far f rom Any Road is it.
Rennie, who has been nursing her husband, Brett, back to full health after “the very manly ailment” of a hernia operation, says that nobody has yet told her how or why Far f rom Any Road was chosen for the show. (They have yet to meet T Bone Burnett, the show’s music supervisor.) “I can see that a lot of thought went into it, though, because the show works in many, very interesting ways.”
The Handsome Family are in good company: the series also includes tracks by Lucinda Williams, Bo Diddley, The Staple Singers, Captain Beefheart, 13th Floor Elevators and Grinderman. Each song has its place in an episode’s narrative, but it’s Far f rom Any Road that sets the tone: folksy, unsettling, and equal measures ambiguous and eerily clear.
“All of the music choices are apt, very judiciously juxtaposed,” says Rennie, “almost as if the music is another character in the narrative. How T Bone found us I have no idea, but I’m delighted he did. We’re not the most obvious choice, but then I don’t think any of the music selected has been.”
There was a time when people saw The Handsome Family as nothing other than an alt.country sideshow. Then, as now, there is nothing like them. Rennie recalls the looks on the faces of early audiences. “People are confused as to whether we’re joking about certain things or whether we’re serious. I always find that surprising, because it seems to me that we’re a bit sad and funny at the same time. Of course, people like to put things into categories, but why do I have to choose between funny and serious, dark and light? Why can’t we all be both? That’s what life feels like to me. Earnest, yes, but also slightly absurd.”
The call for True Detective arrived in an email from HBO. “It was about how maybe they’d use the song,” says Rennie, “and then about two months later we got another email, saying they were definitely going to use it. We couldn’t believe it: it’s something pretty much every band dreams of.”
The turnaround in their profile has been nothing short of shocking, but the real pleasure, says Rennie, is the band “now being acknowledged by those that once dismissed or ignored us. We were invisible, and now we’re on a hugely popular television show – and people seem to understand how we fit in with that. The nicest thing someone has said to me recently is that they never want to fast-forward through the title credits, because they just like listening to the song and how it sets the mood for the show.”
As overnight successes go, it has taken The Handsome Family more than two decades of touring and a series of low-budget (and often beautiful if occasionally puzzling) albums to be really seen and heard.
“It’s not the way things are supposed to happen, is it? For one thing, bands just don’t last over 20 years; for two, they’re not supposed to be a married couple writing songs together; and, for three, nothing new or exciting usually happens. So for us to be a new band to so many people is amazing. People are finding out all about our older records, delving into our world, and that’s terrific.
“We spent a long time struggling, just to survive – like many acts, we asked ourselves, How do we get our artistic voice heard? True Detective is a really nice gift for us, because people have heard us in a way that makes them understand what we’re trying to do in a more interesting way.”
And, lest we forget, a good portion of The Handsome Family’s tours over the past 15 years have started or ended in Ireland. We understood and embraced their weirdness years before T Bone Burnett came along.
“There’s this notion that music is about selling personalities that are larger than life – it’s always about the singer, not the song,” says Rennie. “In Ireland you’ve never forgotten what it’s like to focus on just the song, and how beautiful it is to share it with other people.”
The Handsome Family play Black Box, Belfast, on May 5th; Dolan’s, Limerick, on May 6th; and Crane Lane , Cork, on May 7th. Their latest album, Wilderness , is distributed by Loose Music