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Handsome Family song becomes a surprise HBO hit

| Sunday, March 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

On Jan. 12, when the opening credits for HBO's “True Detective” began rolling, it marked the birth of TV's latest cult hit and the rebirth of a talented dark Americana band.

The Handsome Family, composed of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks, has been releasing deeply haunting albums since 1995. They've built a solid career over time, blending murder ballads with hidden histories and gaining fans such as Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr. Now they're experiencing a boom, thanks to musical maestro T Bone Burnett, who, as the show's music supervisor, helped pick their evocative 2003 tune “Far From Any Road” as the “True Detective” theme song.

In a phone interview from their Albuquerque home, the couple — who have been married for more than 20 years — mused about the music they make together, the curiosity behind “Far From Any Road” and how this exposure has affected their careers.

Q: When did you guys first meet, and then when did you start writing music together?

Brett: We first met in New York, where I was going to school, and she had tequila in her purse that I could smell from five miles away. But we were married in 1988, or something, and it was five years before we could ever write a song together.

Rennie: Basically, when he couldn't find a bass player for his band, he was like, ‘Well, chicks can play bass,” and brought me on and now I write all the lyrics.

Brett: Yeah, when my rhyming dictionary ran out of words for “baby,” I thought I'd bring her on. (Laughs.) I'm not what you would call a wordsmith. I'm not a lyricist, I'm just a hack that throws together chords, so it was easy to work with her since she's so good.

Q: Where did the name “The Handsome Family” really come from?

Rennie: Well, his version was that we had a drummer that kicked us out of a band because he said we “couldn't rock hard enough” and he always said it kind of sarcastically to Brett. But for me, it reminded me a bit of the Carter Family and the Manson Family, and I feel like we kind of live in the middle of those two.

Q: Specifically, for “Far From Any Road,” what was going through your mind when you wrote that song, both lyrically and musically?

Rennie: I saw some jimson weed and it's a plant that only blooms at night and you can see these huge white flowers and there are these moths that feed on them just at night, so it's like a secret nighttime blooming and romance. Jimson weed actually goes back to Jamestown, and there's a story of it driving people insane because it's psychedelic and because it gets into people's water all the time. So it's about these moths and this sexy, forbidden ritual they have in the darkness.

Brett: The vernacular here is that it's “loco weed.” So the song is basically about psychedelic plants and love and dark love.

Rennie: And also the poisonous plants that you can't get really close to. I found that really interesting.

Brett: So if you have any questions about Rennie's lyrics, you can go to nature, that's usually the first step.

Q: How did you first find out that your song was going to be used for a major HBO miniseries?

Rennie: We were on tour in New Zealand and we got this email that was like HBO saying that they're considering our song for one of their shows.

Brett: And we considered it for two seconds and laughed for about 15 minutes.

Q: So, since you really didn't know until the show aired, what was it like seeing your song on television for the first time with all this insanely cool imagery in the opening credits?

Brett: I pinched my leg until it was literally black-and-blue. It was a highlight of my life. Absolutely awesome.

Rennie: I think they understood the song and, you know, we always worry that they're going to misunderstand the song and that there's going to be an overlay of like kids riding ponies and we would have to freak out and be like, that's not what the song is really about.

Brett: There's this really great article that just talks about how they took the song and kind of frame by frame deconstructed the opening credits, and one night I watched it like 30 to 40 times because I was just so amazed by the quality.

Q: Then, after seeing a few episodes of the show, do you think your song blends well with the series and all its themes?

Brett: I read that the hard thing was not to make it like “down in the bayou” kind of stuff but to make the music more evocative and another character in the show. I think the song is perfect because it's evocative and (has that) weird clicking sound ... and actually, when creating this song, I wanted to get this insect sound that I heard on a Miles Davis record for the first time. When somebody told me that the song was in question (for use in the show), I thought immediately that it was because of the weird clicking sound.

Rennie: It's really about things taking place in the middle of nowhere. It's about tricks and death and something sinister, and I think they —­ the song and the show — live in the same emotional landscape but exist in different physical landscapes.

Q: In what ways has this exposure affected your careers?

Rennie: We've heard from people from all around the world. A few days after the first show aired, we got an email from a guy from Tehran, Iran, about how he just put our song as his ringtone and we get emails from places like Kyrgyzstan and we're actually charting in Ukraine right now, which is totally insane.

Brett: We have been doing this for a really long time and our longtime fans seem to be really nice, and you know how people can be like, “You guys are sellouts, man,” but it's not like that at all. Everybody's just been so nice, and there's this new group of people finding our stuff, which we think is great.

Rachel Lubitz is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

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