Van Life: Rennie Sparks (The Handsome Family)

Got to be honest, there probably isn’t a square mile of the US or Europe that Brett and Rennie, The Handsome Family, haven’t covered at some point. The husband and wife duo must have one hell of a relationship to endure that many miles on the road together without serious risk of divorce or mental instability.  That they appear, at least on the surface, as musically and harmoniously entwined is surely testament to a rigorously tested van life routine that has stood the test of time. I catch up with them en route to Aberdeen to get the lowdown.

So you are out on a pretty substantial tour of the UK at the moment which means endless miles on the road.  You guys must have every aspect of road life down to the ‘nth degree by now? Any quirks that have become the norm? Any ‘no-no’s’ that really would unsettle the whole experience? Do you enjoy that aspect of being a touring musician or do you just see it as something that has to be done? More importantly, who gets to ride shotgun? 
It’s not easy. dirty clothing is the main issue. usually no time or place for finding a laundrette. When we find a hotel with a towel warmer or radiator, we get happy. hotel shampoo in the tub with a bunch of dirty clothes– that’s as clean as it gets, or a lot of Febreze! Writing this in the van heading to Aberdeen. We definitely have our assigned seats but usually, it is based on where you sit the first day. We are like baby ducks that imprint our seat-mother on first sight.  It’s very important that first seat choice. best to choose a seat where napping is possible.

Dressing room riders provide food but it piles up…we have a lot of several-day-old food stuffs in bags behind me. Every few days some hard choices have to be made. we get a lot of oranges, apples, bananas. Yesterday we tried to make a pipe out of one of the apples. Didn’t work. I often don’t eat hot food for weeks. Being on the move is hard, you keep packing and unpacking, but we always leave things in hotel rooms. The best time to repack for me is about 2AM after a show because in the morning I am like a Frankenstein monster. In the morning on tour I often can’t remember anyone’s name and will say “you, the not drummer”  to refer to my long-time guitarist Alex. No one takes offence. We are all so tired that we act like people who have a head injury. Where’s my phone? In your hand.

The weirdest part of touring and hardest to deal with is the ‘groundhog day’ aspect. Every day you do pretty much the same thing with a completely new set of people and new scenery. It’s hard to remember that the people you meet have no concept of why the ‘where have you been’ and ‘ where are you going next’ are things we don’t want to contemplate or talk about. Let’s talk about anything but the endless days behind us and ahead.

We do usually have the same conversations over and over again but with different people. It gets kind of psychotic. The great challenge is that we must fight through tiredness and detachment to remember the reason for all of this. I spend all my mind and physical strength trying to be here now when on stage. I am exhausted after shows but never can sleep. so I pack! The best thing about touring is to share this magic experience of playing music to an audience. They make the experience. They either feed us or they don’t and we never know till we try. We are always grateful for the chance and even more grateful when people show us love and buy our merch. That is truly a gift as we know you can steal our music easily. When you choose to buy it you support us financially and emotionally. It’s very easy to get very depressed over a bad show.

You can take ten records (albums or individual tracks) to accompany you on your adventures. What are they to be? It’s your choice, guys, just tell me why you couldn’t envisage a day tarmac treading without them!
Oh come on, we live in a world where everyone has access to the entire history of music. In the van several people take turns choosing two songs to play from phone to blue tooth speaker. Left to our own, in our hotel room, Brett has the controls, his list…

JS Bach – ‘Art of Fugue’
The Beatles – ‘White Album’
Neil Young – ‘Tonights The Night’
Alasdair Roberts – ‘No Ordinary Man’
Warren Zevon – ‘The Wind’
Robert Johnson – ‘Complete Recording’
Hank Williams – ‘Complete
Thelonious Monk –  ‘Blue Monk’
Dock Boggs – ‘Smithsonian Recordings’
Harry Smiths –  ‘Anthology of American Music’
Nino Rota – ‘Fellini Film Music’

Okay, a hotel is in sight. Time to unpack everything and lose a sock under the bed.

20th Anniversary vinyl edition of ‘Through The Trees‘ is out now on Loose

March UK Dates

17th – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds
18th – The Plug, Sheffield
20th – Waterfront, Norwich
21st – The Junction, Cambridge
22nd – St George’s, Bristol
23rd – The Brook, Southampton
24th – St George’s Church, Brighton
25th – The Quarterhouse, Folkstone

1 thought on “Van Life: Rennie Sparks (The Handsome Family)”

  1. I love this band. Their infectious in so many pleasant ways. The songs grow on you till they fit like your favourite clothes. Some songs take a few listenings to settle in others like If the world should end in fire/ice are instant hits. The lyrics range from tales of banal domesticity through to tales that must have been made after ingesting doses of strong mescaline. Others are yarns about flora and fauna and if they floated might better be described as sea shanties. Whatever they weave a special magic and I know they never voted for Trump.

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