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The Shovel Mental Contagion
Conversations with other Human Beings

Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family
speaks with Gene Dillon
| Photo [left] by Ted Jurney • Cover photo by Mark Owen

Brett writes the music, Rennie writes the lyrics, together they are The Handsome Family and are beloved by fans in the U.S. and throughout Europe. The husband/wife duo occasionally perform with only a laptop computer, other times up to a six-piece band will accompany them. Performing on Hal Wilner’s Came So Far For Beauty: the songs of Leonard Cohen, they collaborated with musicians such as Nick Cave, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright, and Linda Thompson. The band was also featured in the movie, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Rennie's paintings are featured in this month's Exhibitionist.

GD: Thanks for stopping by, Rennie.

You once mentioned that giraffes only sleep for ten minutes each day. It made me sad. What is the longest you have ever gone without sleep? What happened?

RS: I had a terrible flu once in Ireland and couldn't sleep for about two days. I was on the ferry heading to Wales. It was very late at night and the wind was howling across the sea. Suddenly, out upon the waves I saw a beautiful green island full of light. There were beautiful dogs bounding in all directions across the grass and not a human being in sight. I thought that if I could only manage to die from the flu I could go and live among the happy dogs, but alas, I drifted finally to sleep and woke up feeling much better.

GD: Have you ever had anything happen to you that you could not explain?

RS: All the time, thankfully. I couldn't live in a world without mystery. When I was a child I routinely would shoot up into the air when happy or tired and then just fly in circles over the house and through the trees.

GD: I enjoy recalling fond memories from childhood, only to discover that I probably dreamed some of them. Do you think it matters whether or not memories are factual, as long as nobody gets hurt?

RS: Well, since I sort of suspect that we are all dreaming up this world together (you, me, dogs, flies, etc) whether memories are dreams or not seems unimportant. Much better to try and dream something better for the future. Sadly, the only time I am able to 100% control my dreams is when I have been up all night on a transatlantic flight and then lay down to nap. Usually I can dream I am in the real room I'm in, however when I go outside that room I can literally create the world anyhow I like it. Once in a hotel room in London, I dreamed myself into a river full of goldfish. It was lovely.

GD: If you could travel to any one place and time, where and when would that be?

RS: Samoa seems like it was a lot of fun before the white people got there. Lots of sex and fresh fruit and flowers.

GD: There is a photographer named Tory Read in Denver - she flew to Samoa recently to document the "end of paradise" there. ( There is this one photo-collage of a woman hacking through a dense thicket of tangled weeds - probably some kind of non-native plants whose seeds were shuttled to the islands on the backs of the vicious shiprats. Brought by men seeking new markets among the shoeless and content...

What is this? They screw up everything that is truly sacred and pure. Leaving behind no fruit, no flowers... Just some weeds, a machete, and a pair of nike hightops. Are they trying to speed us toward the Rapture? Destroying paradise so that God can create a cleaner, holier paradise, one without dirt, savages or Unitarians?

RS: I think the Christian world got itself painted in a corner by deciding that good and evil must battle with each other. You end up with a world that MUST have evil in it or else there can't be good. What kind of heaven would it be with just a bunch of Christians sitting on clouds? No trees, no animals, no butterflies. I always laugh about the Puritans being frightened of yellow finches and black puppies (they thought they were both demons) yet it was all inspired by wanting to feel the presence of God. I like the Hindu myth of the parade of Indras. A great Indra (sort of a god/king) sees a parade of ants walking across his palace floor. He is outraged and wants to stomp on them, but a little boy/shiva arrives to point out that everyone of those ants once was a proud Indra who lost his perspective on the world. Well, I still hate cockroaches, but I'm trying.

GD: A friend told me last night that after the nuclear tests in Utah in the late fifties, they zoomed in on the aftermath to find cockroaches sitting in lounge chairs eating Hostess Snowballs. With their little bottom legs crossed, and their middle arms folded and resting upon their thoraxes. Thoraces?

RS: Well, I'm glad someone likes those Snowballs. I've always found them very threatening. I am very disturbed when I try to kill a cockroach and they run away. Some part of those creatures really wants to live. They are not totally mindless. Anyway, they don't build doomsday machines (or seem to want to) so why should they be punished by our stupidity?

GD: What should be the soundtrack to Armageddon? Not the hollywood movie, but the real thing.

RS: Silence. At that point let the termites speak.

GD: Sometimes when life slows down, and I have a little extra free time, I pay more attention to what is happening in the world, and on my television, and suddenly I feel like I'm in a spoof of a horror movie. Are we all being driven to new levels of distraction and avoidance? What is the individual's place in a global crisis?

RS: I think if we can all manage to find compassion and empathy for strangers a few times a day it might help us all feel like life was really 'happening' and had some meaning. Sometimes I feel like crying when I have the opportunity to hold the door open for a blind man. It's a great gift to be able to feel useful.

GD: These moments are intense and powerful. What are some of the nicest things anyone has ever done for you?

RS: My friends just threw me a 40th birthday party that included a cake in the shape of a gravestone with black frosting and little plastic birds flying all over it. Very beautiful.

GD: By the time this conversation has been published, the holidays will have passed. What are some of your favorite holiday memories, both pleasant and disturbing? Did anyone ever try to convince you that Santa Claus wasn't real? What sort of music were you forced to listen to, and how much of it do you now secretly own on vinyl?

RS: I was brought up by atheist/Jews who never told me about Christmas. One year we went on a ski vacation during Christmas and I went downstairs early in the morning to the kids play room in the hotel. There were all these presents in there and I figured since I was the first one to get there I could open them. I was in the middle of tearing open all the lovely presents when a man came in with two little kids and said, "Surprise!". He had put them down there to surprise his kids on Christmas morning. I had no idea what the hell he was so mad at me for. Oh well. Once I asked my mother who that fat man was in the red suit and white beard and she said, "He started WWII".

As a child I listened to a lot of Burl Ives and his beautiful, high voice scared the hell out of me when he sang those old folk songs. He still does. I think I learned everything about the world listening him sing about little black frogs swimming in the water.

GD: Will you have any New Year's Resolutions? Can you assign one to me? These things hardly ever work out...

RS: Try to be kind to people that make you angry.

GD: I recall a specific moment, about 16 years ago. I was waiting tables at a restaurant in downtown Chicago. The restaurant was inside a hotel, and the concierge was completely insane. Her tea needed to be as hot as the sun. Everyone hated her, and one day I was in some kind of a mood, and I begged for the chance to wait on her. I scalded the shit out of her water with the cappuccino steamer, and I literally ran with it to her table, so that it wouldn't cool off, and delivered it with a huge smile. I darted behind a support column to sneak a peek and see what would happen. She took the first sip, and appeared to burn her tongue and her throat, and exhibited an expression of both shock and wonder, as she turned her head this way and that to look for me. I stepped from behind my hiding place and asked, "Is everything all right?" She looked me in the eye, smiling for the first time in her entire life, and said to me... "Perfect!" Such a simple thing, I tell you, but I honestly changed that day.

Rennie, how do you rate the importance of "giving people what they want" versus "giving people what you think they should have"? Do you ever find yourself pushing yourself in a certain compromising direction to please others, and what has been the result?

RS: I'm usually wrong when I try to decide what people should have. I used to be a very militant vegetarian, but I found myself so strident and angry at everyone that I realized I was becoming a more violent person than the 'evil meat-eaters' I was attacking. Later, I read that the Buddha died from eating a bowl of bad pork. He knew the pork would kill him and he knew eating meat was wrong, yet he also knew the bowl of food was cooked by someone who just really wanted to show the Buddha some love, so he decided it was best to accept the gift and then go off to the forest and die of dysentery rather than shame the man who only wanted to give a little love.

GD: (Feelgood Bonus Question) Describe your perfect day.

RS: Being led through a green forest by a golden retriever who occasionally lets me stop and pet him while all the birds sing encouragement.

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers