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.
That 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 among 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'.
However, it was way back in 1998 when Brett and Rennie Sparks got their first big break, with the release of the their 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, a Boss DR-770 drum machine 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. 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!'
Following its release, Uncut magazine declared Through The Trees 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.
'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,' adds Rennie.
2018 marks 20 years since the release, which Loose will be celebrating with a 20th Anniversary Edition of Through The Trees, released on March 9. 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 be incorporating much of Through The Trees in their forthcoming tour.
The Brook, Southampton
Friday, March 23
St George's Church, Brighton
Saturday, March 24