Formed in 1993 by vocalist and guitarist Brett Sparks and his wife, bassist and lyricist Rennie, Chicago hasn't been able to claim the Handsome Family as one of its own for some time: The couple moved to New Mexico in 2001 just before the release of its sixth album, "Twilight."
In its 16th year, the group still is going strong, standing as one of the most distinctive in the roots-rock underground, and celebrating the release of its ninth disc "Honey Moon" on the local Carrot Top label. I caught up with Rennie Sparks as she and Brett geared up for a tour that brings them to Schubas for two nights next weekend.
Q. So, Rennie, I've got to ask: Are you missing the wind screaming up Ashland Avenue, to borrow a phrase from "The Woman Downstairs" back in '98?
A. No, I had enough of it, I guess! I'm glad I was there for a long time, though, because I appreciate the still blue sky out here more because of it.
Q. What do you miss about Chicago?
A. All of the musicians! There are just so many people there to help and guide you. Whatever stage of our career we were at, there was always somebody who'd been there before to get some advice from. Everybody I knew there was always very helpful, and there was this great community of people to play on our records. I remember when Andrew Bird played on our record, and Brett lost all the recordings and Andrew had to come back and play it again. And all we gave him was a taco! But that's the way it was back then, and it was a wonderful thing.
In Albuquerque, there are a lot of musicians here, but it's a different thing: They can't really give us any advice about where to tour or what it's like. In a way, it's more pure here, because nobody makes any money playing music. The only reason you would play is just for the sheer love of it, and that's interesting, too. But as a band just starting out, Chicago is a wonderful place to be.
Q. Tell me about making "Honey Moon."
A. It took a long time. I think the problem and the advantage is that we have a studio in our house, so we tend to go over things and over things, and with computers the way they are now, you can try out a hundred different instruments and MIDI parts if you so desire. We did that with a lot of things--trying out a lot of parts before we replaced them with other parts.
Q. That's interesting, because the album has a very casual and intimate feel.
A. We had to build it up and then tear it down. It would have been too easy to keep it simple!
Usually when we get a demo going, it's just Brett singing with a little guitar behind it. Then he starts working at putting tracks on top of that, and before you know it, we've got an insane amount of tracks and this huge orchestra. So the question is, "What has to go?" Sometimes, everything has to go. On "Singing Bones" (2003), we wound up having a song that was just Brett's vocals. We had all of these instruments and wound up taking them off one by one until we just got to the vocal and said, "OK, now it's ready." You never know.
I always think about those Butterball turkeys that have the little thing that pops up so you know it's ready. I wish there was something like that for songs!
Q. Are you your own toughest critics?
A. I think one good thing about writing songs with someone you've been married to for so long is that we can be critical of one another and it doesn't break the band up. We own a lot of things together--furniture, cats--and it would be too complicated to just walk away! We get in a lot of arguments, disagreements, and we don't always see eye to eye. But I think in the end we're better for it, because we come at songs from different points of view. If we both had the same idea, I think we'd be bored with it.
Q. Have the mechanics of the way you write songs changed? Are you still writing most of the lyrics and Brett most of the music?
A. Yeah, but I think now that we have a studio, there's a lot of time where it's just the two of us sitting there together, trying to fill in parts. The solitary parts of me writing lyrics and him coming up with a way to make it into a melody and a song are one leg of it, but the second leg is when we kind of make it into a song both of us like. We do spend a lot of time doing it together now, whereas with our first few records, the time in the studio would be very brief, as opposed to the time spent writing the songs.
I think it's good because we're really comfortable saying things to one another now about rhythm and chord progressions--really basic stuff about songwriting that we maybe weren't able to communicate as well early on.
Q. When you were writing a song like "Pony" on your first album "Odessa" (1995)--"I want a pony/Want to feed him carrots/Want to feed him baloney"--did you ever think you'd still be doing this?
A. No! Be careful kids: This might ruin your lives!
I always wanted to be a writer, and Brett always wanted to be a musician, but we never really thought about pooling our talents. Even when I first started being in a band with him, it was because he didn't know that many people and he needed a bass player, or he wasn't very good with lyrics and he needed some help with the lyrics. I never really was that emotionally attached to it all until probably the third record, and it took me a while to see lyric writing as writing that could be satisfying. I think listening to a lot of folk music helped with that. If you just listen to songs like the Ramones or something, it's a lot of fun, but it's not the kind of writing I wanted to do.
Q. It seems to me as if there's a sort of Harry Smith/1920s vibe to this record. Was that the feeling you were going for?
A. We certainly were thinking a lot about Tin Pan Alley songs--that early era between the '20s and the '40s when jazz and blues started getting mixed together. That's an era that fascinates us.
Q. Where do you think the Handsome Family fits in the music industry today?
A. We're able to pay our bills, which is a miracle, I think. The Internet has helped bands like us so much, because years ago, if we got a review in a magazine and somebody went into a record store and didn't find the record, that was it, they'd forget about it. Now, anything you read about, in an instant, you can find our complete catalog and download it. For example, Andrew Bird does a lot of covers of our songs. If he says, "This is a Handsome Family song" that night, a thousand skinny girls with glasses can all go Google us, and things like that really help a band like us that isn't on TV or mainstream radio every day. It levels the playing field a little bit.
Q. What horizons are left for the Handsome Family to conquer?
No, our goal is just to write songs that we think are beautiful. It gives us a lot of pleasure when we do it, and it's still incredibly hard to write a song that we feel really good about. For me, every time I write a song that I think has somewhat succeeded, that to me is another little victory. And if someone else likes it, that's even better. We don't sit down and think, "How are we going to crunch the numbers and make our profit margin?" We just want to make enough money to keep doing what we love, which is writing songs.
The Handsome Family, Marissa Nadler
Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19
(773) 525-2508, www.schubas.com