It was back in 1998 that husband/wife duo The Handsome Family released their third album Through the Trees. It’s still considered a landmark album and following its release, Uncut magazine declared it to be the year’s “Best New Country Album”, Mojo magazine named it one of the “10 Essential Americana Records Of All Time”, with The Guardian going on to call the album’s opening track, Weightless Again, one of the “100 Best Songs Ever Written About Heartbreak”.
It was also a landmark for record label Loose Music being their first full-length release. To mark the anniversary The Handsome Family have announced the release of a 20th Anniversary Edition of Through The Trees on 9th March. The sky blue-coloured vinyl comes with an exclusive “Invisible Trees” bonus CD, comprising of 15 tracks of “out-takes, live performances and bickering”. The band will also be incorporating the entirety of Through The Trees into their forthcoming tour (dates below), in which Brett Sparks (guitar/vocals) and Rennie Sparks (banjo/bass/vocals) are joined by drummer Jason Toth and multi-instrumentalist Alex MacMahon. Tickets are on sale via http://bit.ly/THFUK2018Tour.
To celebrate the release, The Handsome Family have shared a new music video for Weightless Again which premieres below. Rennie shared the following: “For the twentieth Anniversary of Through the Trees I made a video of the first song on the record “Weightless Again”. Maybe our most American song: it’s about suicide, drug addiction, deforestation and Moby Dick as well as the great angst that only comes from the lack of real cream for coffee. This video features all of the great musicians now playing with us live as well as some soft-shoe dance moves that Brett has been working on for twenty years. He’s either ready for the big top or the padded cell”
In 2015 The Handsome Family became famous for providing the theme tune to Season 1 of HBO’s hit TV drama series True Detective, introducing them to a whole new audience and a whole load of new fans. The featured song, Far From Any Road, has been streamed over 50 million times and counting. The Handsome Family suddenly became a little less of a secret. However, even before this worldwide success, the band weren’t short of admirers, counting Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr amongst their fans, and with the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Amanda Palmer, Cerys Matthews, Christy Moore and Andrew Bird all having covered their songs. In 2016, the band released Unseen. The highly anticipated new record explored the unseen stories, people and places of the American west. It was greeted with rave reviews from the international press with Mojo declaring the album to be “The Handsome Family’s masterpiece”. Our own Mike Davies appeared to be in agreement.
However, it was way back in 1998 when Brett & Rennie Sparks got their first big break, with the release of The Handsome Family’s third album, Through The Trees. Rennie recalls the recording process: “We wrote and recorded all the songs for Through the Trees in a third-floor walk-up loft in the heart of Chicago. This was the actual forest of Through the Trees— an old warehouse space with high, crumbling ceilings, huge chains hanging from cracked sky-lights, fat black cockroaches wobbling across the uneven floor, a broken elevator, a DJ booth (where we slept) and eight foot high windows preparing to fall out onto the street. Light bulbs exploded when turned on and frost formed in the living room. We named one of the many large paint chips hanging from the tin ceiling (Chippy). Outside was a garbage-strewn, urine-stinking street that was a constant parade of wind-beaten people.
Walking home from a bar one night I saw a rat scuttle behind a dumpster and felt a surge of joy. I began to notice pigeons cooing in girders below the highway and the way leaves fluttered in the scrawny branches of sidewalk trees. Living in a man-made wilderness made me begin to see nature. It made me begin to write about falling snow, barking dogs, snakes, forests, mountains, fire… So began the songs of Through the Trees.
When Brett recorded a take in that make-shift loft studio I had to stand perfectly still so the floor wouldn’t squeak. We still managed to make so much noise that our downstairs neighbor often turned his stereo on full blast, pointed the speakers up at the ceiling then left for the day. We deserved it. We were two crazy kids. Literally.
Dave Trumfio, who had produced The Handsome Family’s first two albums, encouraged Brett to make the record on his own. In those days making a record outside a studio was fairly unheard of, but Brett was determined to learn. We couldn’t afford to buy recording equipment, but we found a rental company in the suburbs. We did own a drum machine. Our drummer, Mike Werner, had called it quits a few months back and Dr. Rhythm (Boss DR-770) had taken his place. The rental equipment wasn’t easy to work with or of high quality, but it was a start.
During this time, our favorite venue was Chicago’s legendary Lounge Ax. The owner of the club, Sue Miller, had just married Jeff Tweedy. Brett had given Jeff a cassette with some demos on it. Jeff offered to let us borrow a bunch of gear he had but wasn’t using (an ADAT, a Mackie mixer, Lexicon reverb and a fabulous Tube-Tech compressor). This was a huge gift – Jeff gave us more than gear, he gave us time. We returned our rental equipment and slowed our work pace. We were finally recording music without worrying about how much money each hour was costing us. It completely changed how we worked.
As Brett finished recording the basic tracks, Dave offered to help mix the songs at his apartment. He had an actual computer at home with something called Pro Tools. It was the first time we’d ever seen waveforms turned into computer files on a screen. Revolutionary.
Dave didn’t just help mix our tracks he also added some great sounds (like the circus drum on, “Weightless Again”). Jeff also offered to add some overdubs to our tracks. I am still in awe at the generosity of both these talented guys. I remember Jeff taking his guitar and Univibe into Dave’s tiny bathroom to record guitar for “Where the Birch Trees Lean.” I remember Jeff clearing his throat to sing backing vocals on “Cathedrals” while we sat on Dave’s sagging couch staring up at him. Brett found some noises on a sound effects CD to add to “My Sister’s Tiny Hands” (a squawking parrot) and “The Bottomless Hole” (a creaking door). We recorded our own stamping feet on the loft floor (torturing our downstairs neighbor again) for “Down in the Ground.” Brett remembers Dave playing the in-the-pocket bass on “Stalled” and arranging the horn section on “My Ghost.”
In the UK a new label, Loose Music heard our song “Moving Furniture Around” on a compilation released by Chicago’s Bloodshot Records and now were interested in licensing Through the Trees. It was Loose’s first full-length release. Twenty years later, we’re both still going strong. Miraculous!”
”Through the Trees was written at a time when being a full-time musician seemed an unattainable dream, but it is the record that made that dream come true,” says Rennie. “The songs bring me back to real moments in our lives: “Cathedrals” is about a winter trip we took to the Wisconsin Dells because all the hotels were half-price. “Down in the Ground” is about my childhood fear of basements. “I Fell” is about a horse’s jaw bone I found in the dirt outside Albuquerque. Robert Wadlow, “The Giant of Illinois,” came to me via a travel guide to Illinois. There is no mountain north of Winnipeg, but I never imagined I’d ever go to Canada or that there would be an internet where people could look at maps in an instant. “Weightless Again” started as a stupid joke: Brett is a child of the desert who never learned to float. “The Woman Downstairs” actually got fat not thin, but, yeah, that was one awful apartment building. “My Ghost” is perhaps the most misunderstood song on Through the Trees because the words are my imagining of Brett’s experience. I’m glad they ring true to bi-polars even if they are the work of a depressive. I am still a person of dark moods, but I haven’t jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. I remain deeply thankful and sustained by all who have helped us live the lives we dreamed up for ourselves so many years ago.”
If you’ve yet to see The Handsome Family live then this is a golden opportunity. Don’t miss out.
Get your tickets via http://bit.ly/THFUK2018Tour
The Handsome Family European Tour Dates 2018
01 MAR – BIRMINGHAM Mama Rou
02 MAR – GATESHEAD Sage 2
03 MAR – LIVERPOOL Leaf
04 MAR – MANCHESTER Academy
06 MAR – CARDIFF Tramshed
07 MAR – EXETER Phoenix
08 MAR – HEBDEN BRIDGE Trades Club
10 MAR – EDINBURGH La Belle Angele
11 MAR – GLASGOW ABC
12 MAR – ABERDEEN Lemon Tree
13 MAR – STIRLING Tolbooth
15 MAR – LONDON Round Chapel
17 MAR – LEEDS Howard Assembly Room
18 MAR – SHEFFIELD Plug
20 MAR – NORWICH Waterfront
21 MAR – CAMBRIDGE Junction
22 MAR – BRISTOL St Georges
23 MAR – SOUTHAMPTON Brook
24 MAR – BRIGHTON St Georges Church
25 MAR – FOLKESTONE Quarterhouse
24 MAY – BIELEFELD Forum (DE)
25 MAY – DÜSSELDORF ZAKK C (DE)
26 MAY – HANNOVER Café Glocksee (DE)
27 MAY – BERLIN Lido (DE)
29 MAY – DRESDEN Beatpol (DE)
30 MAY – REGENSBURG Alte Mälzerei (DE)
31 MAY – VIENNA WUK (AT)
02 JUN – FREIBURG Great Räng Teng Teng (DE)
03 JUN – ZÜRICH El Lokal (CH)
05 JUN – REUTLINGEN Franz K. (DE)
06 JUN – HEIDELBERG Karlstorbahnhof (DE)
07 JUN – WIESBADEN Kesselhaus (DE)
09 JUN – AMSTERDAM Paradiso Noord (NL)
11 JUN – AARHUS Atlas (DK)
12 JUN – COPENHAGEN Jazzhouse (DK)
15 JUN – GOTHENBURG Pustervik (SE)
16 JUN – Södra Teatern & Mosebacke (SE)
Tickets via http://loosemusic.com/live
Photo Credit: Jesse Littlebird