Songs That Fall from the Sky

Meet the Handsome Family: The story of the band that forgot time

"I'm kind of tired of people writing all this half-baked stuff and recording it in an even less professional manner. It's not that hard to make a good recording. It really isn't. Get a good mic, get the level right. There's this certain affectation associated with the DIY movement that gets irritating..."

"Like, it's authentic if it's sloppy," Rennie chuckles. "I think people believe something is authentic because it wasn't thought about too much. It's such a crazy way to write."

But if the Handsome Family are careful and purposeful about every aspect of their records that they can control, it still leaves the matter of conceiving and writing songs, a process Rennie has never had much luck trying to steer. "I sit down every day to try to write, but I write a lot of songs on the way to Home Depot, in Home Depot, or on the way home," she says. "Home Depot is such a horrifying experience—you're always there because something's broken and there's a huge puddle of water. The one we have to go to is far from our house and there's a lot of traffic. It's really exhausting. Sometimes when I'm in the grip of that kind of stuff, the part of my brain that writes songs can go to work. I'll be driving in traffic feeling shitty, and suddenly I'll have a moment of clarity and wind up scribbling something on a piece of paper in the car and swerving all over the road."

There's no telling where you'll catch a thread that has the kernel of a song tied to the other end. "The Giant of Illinois," a strikingly vivid ballad from Through the Trees, sprang from a AAA Travel Guide blurb about Robert Wardlow, the Giant of Illinois, who in the early 20th century grew to a height of nearly nine feet and became a sad, minor newsreel celebrity. The song "Tin Foil," on Milk and Scissors, was inspired by Brett's mother, more or less. "His mother freezes everything," Rennie explains. "She was wrapping something in tinfoil, and I was just looking at the tinfoil and thinking how beautiful tinfoil was, and how sparkling, and how great it was to have this beautiful thing that you just wrapped things in and put them in the freezer. The tinfoil never actually made it into the song, though, only the title."

A promiscuous reader, Rennie also finds nuggets of songs in history books and tabloid articles. "I read a lot of first-person narrative things, like pioneer stories and stuff," she recounts. "I like things like that. And stories about people who cured themselves of cancer by going macrobiotic. I tend to go to bookstores and just pick stuff at random. I found some good books that way. Out here, especially, you see a lot of books, like, about people abducted by aliens. I like that kind of tone, the real ominous quality of first-person autobiography.

"I'm not really after the truth," she says later. "I tend to veer off pretty quickly. I'm not interested in being a journalist, or a historian. I'm more interested in what myth-making is about." Occasionally, though, she has latched on to historical figures or real events to seed songs. On the new record, there is "Tesla's Hotel Room," which imagines an inner life for the father of alternating-current electricity and contains one of the funniest lines she's ever written.

And on Singing Bones (2003), there is a song called "The Bottomless Hole" that's based on a true story, though only a few people with high-level government security clearances possess the complete details. Brett and Rennie know because they heard about it on Coast to Coast with Art Bell, a syndicated late-night AM radio show that regularly features dispatches on secret agencies' research into telepathy as a tool for spying, and interviews with investment counselors who have discovered that all the market's moves are foretold, in code, in the Bible. Even though Art Bell has since left the show ("the new host is a moron," Rennie moans), the two of them try not to miss it.

"Yeah," Brett confirms, "that song is all Art Bell. We heard about this bottomless hole, Mel's Hole, on his show. He talked about it for like three weeks. Then the government got rid of somebody, and then I don't know what—oh, it was great. A scary story, too, really weird. Scarier than our story."

A chat board poster from unsolvedmysteries.com fills in the rest:

have you heard of mels hole? theres supposed to be a hole near elensburg washington that goes down over 15 miles. the man that owned this land was on coast to coast with art bell. the next [day] the goverment had his property blocked off and told the man that there was a plain wreck on it. months later art bell got an email from the man now liveing in australia saying the goverment is paying him millions of dollars for the land. if you heard about this story what do you think?

There are a lot of Handsome Family songs that invoke hidden or barely seen worlds. Does that fact, coupled with the serious Art Bell fetish, lead them to feel a certain sympathy with those folks who spend their lives hunkered down waiting for the black helicopters to come?

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