Go to the Light: An Interview with Murder by Death
Ten years into their career, the Indiana band (who is not, by the way, a metal band) reveals their Kickstarter secrets and why not every record is a concept album.
Since releasing their debut album ten years ago, Bloomington, Indiana band Murder by Death have forged a unique path for themselves. Call them alt-country, gothic blues, or Americana folk revivalists if you want, but they truly are a genre unto themselves. In their decade of recording, the group has harvested roots music and permutated its disparate forms, perfecting a distinct sound that is heavy on atmosphere and narrative gravitas. They have released albums both conceptual — one depicting the devil’s unholy war on a small southwestern town, another a more debauched reinterpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey — and other albums composed of stand-alone vignettes of sin, punishment and redemption.
Coming off a successful endeavor with Kickstarter that saw them garner $187,048 in fan pledges, the third most of any musical artist to use the platform, the quintet is readying to release their sixth album Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon on Bloodshot Records in September. In the midst of a US tour, lead singer and songwriter Adam Turla talked with PopMatters and dished on how the industry has changed since the inception of Murder by Death, the pros and cons of being a band apart from the crowd, the influences on his work, the stories behind the new record and whom he’d like to collaborate with (it may surprise you at first, but then you’ll realize how much sense it makes).
Where are you guys at right now?
We are in Omaha right now. It’s our day off and we are going to go to Lee’s Summit, Missouri. We’re going to go to a barbecue and go swimming. We play St. Louis tomorrow. It’s one of those things we’ve been looking forward to.
How’s the tour been going so far?
It’s been great, actually. It’s kind of interesting because we thought this was going to be our album release tour, but by time we found out the album wasn’t going to come out until the end of September, it was too late. We already had the tour booked and everything and we couldn’t change it, so we ended up just doing the tour anyway without the album out and without any publicity, and yet it was still done quite well.
The last album, Good Morning, Magpie, was inspired by your solo camping expedition in the Smoky Mountains. Was there an experience or overall theme that influenced this record?
Yeah, it’s funny because I never intended to have any sort of link, but it ended up being very much about a small town in Indiana. I noticed a lot of the songs (had) a very dark vibe happening underneath the top layers, where it’s like there’s this seedy underbelly, so there’s a couple songs where everything seems sort of fine, but if you dig into the lyrics, or there are some musical sub-tones going on that are sort of unsettling. We were writing the album in our hometown of Bloomington, which is a pretty quiet, small town, and there were a couple incidents that happened locally last year when we were writing that just kind of revealed that every town has its seedy underbelly, and that just naturally found its way into the songs.
What were some of those incidents you mentioned?
There were really weird things. Two girls went missing, there was a murder just down the street from my house, which was very odd. Just stuff like that, pretty horrible stuff that I think just kind of worked its way into our consciousness.
Would you consider this album to be a concept album in that sense?
Nah. I think when you set out to write an album, themes naturally emerge and you just have some links that happen anyway.
So you didn’t set out with a coherent plot or narrative to continue throughout the songs like with some of your previous records?
No, I’ve done that before. Part of it is I just don’t want to get bogged down doing that every time. I’d rather only tell the stories that I think are good stories. It’s the sort of thing where I don’t want to force the issue because I think that will make the work not as good. We just focus on the stories and individuals of the songs.
What was the recording process for this album like in comparison to previous efforts?
The big difference was that we spent much more time writing it. We spent from May until New Year's just holed up, unless we were playing a show. So we just wrote and wrote and wrote. We got to road-test a lot of it. We went down to Dallas for the month of January and recorded with John Congleton, who we have talked about working with for a long time and it finally just happened. He brought something really cool to the table. I thought he really played up some of the spookier kinda moments.
He had a vision for how he wanted it to sound and he made a lot of choices that I thought were interesting. It’s a less straight[forward] recording and there’s a lot of stuff going on. There’s a lot of hidden stuff in there that I like; it’s not just straight sounds that stay the same for the whole song, and I really like his vision and how he chose to deliver it for the band. The songs were all ready to go, but he just made them sound cool.
Would you work with him in the future?
I would definitely do it. He texted me a month ago and was like, “I just listened to the record again. I love it. Let’s make another album together.” I just texted him back, “No.” He wrote me, “Seriously?” I said, “Yeah, tough titties.” (Laughs.) I’m sure he knows I’m joking, but that’s where we left it.
You guys went with Kickstarter this time to help finance the vinyl pressing of the record. How did that come about?
We weren’t sure exactly how we wanted to release it with the industry changing so much. It’s tough ‘cause when we started this band, record sales were a more regular and expected source of income. We work on this band every day. Whether we’re playing a show or setting up a tour or doing interviews, I’m coming in eight hours a day. I work probably 100 hours a week. It’s our only job and when all of a sudden record sales just dry up, and that’s just not a thing anymore because people just download music, it’s a very harrowing feeling to realize that’s just going away. Since we’ve been around, that was a big part of our income and we just watched it disappear, so I thought, “Kickstarter’s interesting.”
We have such a relationship with our fans and we’re very accessible and people tend to propose interesting ideas to us that we often take them up on and I just thought [we were] the perfect band to use Kickstarter. I think it’s going to become pretty common for bands to do it, or more common. We’d been working on ours for a while when Amanda Palmer announced hers. I was like, “Aw, man, if we had just gone a month earlier, maybe we would’ve gotten some of that press.”
But the truth is she’s such an amazing cult figure -- she’s got like 600,000 followers on Twitter -- she’s like the perfect person for that vehicle. Hers was so successful; it was a really cool guideline for us to study. She was actually doing some of the same things we were proposing to do, so it was cool to see them actually work and see people are interested in this kind of thing.
We did something that was really fun; we engaged the fans and had a good time. We were able to raise a lot of money to produce a really beautiful product. I also feel that for all the bad luck we’ve had and the opportunities we haven’t had as a band, it kinda feels like it came around for us with this thing. I’ve gotten thousands of messages from fans who are supporting us entirely about the Kickstarter. It’s been a beautiful thing.
How has the addition of Scott Brackett (Okkervil River, Shearwater) influenced the band’s creative process?
It’s been awesome. He plays pretty much every instrument, so we’ve been able to add so many lush sounds to recordings. We’ve gotten to do things we’ve never done before, and that’s made it really fun. To be on stage and just be like, “Oh, now I’m hearing a mandolin.” I’ve never heard that on stage before. Just new sounds, new arrangements, more exciting arrangements. He plays a cornet, which is like a warmer trumpet. I never knew that would sound awesome with a cello. We found that out and we did a couple moments on the record where it’s just those two sounds together and it sounds so good. There’s a lot of cool discoveries happening.
Your songwriting has a very strong literary quality. Who are some of your literary influences?
I love Steinbeck, I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a lot of people who have a sense of humor but also a darker quality at times. I like people who appreciate the extremes, who are willing to do something humorous but also have real, heavy content. I’m person that doesn’t like the middle, the easy way. I like the bigger feelings, like joy and true desperation.
If you could collaborate or share the stage with any one musician, living or dead, who would it be?
You know what would be really fun, just because I love her? I would love to do a duet with Dolly Parton. We read her autobiography in the van, and it is just so charming and awesome. It’s just fun. It’s a very positive outlook on the world. I think it would just be a riot.
I love Tom Waits, Nick Cave -- those guys are fantastic and it’d be really interesting to sit down and see how they write their songs and to watch them go around and do their thing or do it together; that could be really cool. They’re amazing.
Getting into the specific songs on the new album, what’s the story behind “My Hill”, the first song on the record?
It’s a song about finding a place that you love and then somebody else is taking it away, like it was nothing to them and they’re just putting it on their pile of things. I guess it’s a song just about having little and having someone who has more just totally disrespect that.
“I Came Around” shares much in common with the Pogues’ “The Body of an American”, both in subject matter and the overall structure. Was that a deliberate homage or was it coincidental?
They’re one of my favorites. When I was writing that song, the two ideas I had in mind were I wanted it to be like cross between the Pogues and Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life”. That song took so many revisions before I got it right. I wanted it to be a really complex story. I like the idea of writing a song about someone just being wrong, where the narrator is just like, “Yeah, I was wrong.”
You never hear songs like that, especially on pop radio. There are so many tunes out there that are just like, “I’m awesome, I’m so special, I’m empowered.” I just liked the idea of doing the opposite and being like, “Oh my God, I misjudged this person and it’s too late. I can’t make up for it because they’re gone. I missed an opportunity to hang out with this person who was amazing.” I just thought it would be an interesting subject for a song, because nobody usually does that.
“Ramblin’” seems like an update on the protagonist from Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them? or Red of Tooth and Claw. Was that intentional?
I think that’s a good observation. I don’t know if I wrote it exactly like that. I think it fits into that world, absolutely, that sort of predatory character. I wanted to do a really creepy song. There’s a lot of songs about the idea of wandering or rambling around, but I wanted it to be from just an untrustworthy character. It definitely fits into that world. Whether that’s exactly what I was choosing to do or not, that could very much be a character from those albums.
You guys are great at conveying different moods and emotions simultaneously. In particular with this album, “Lost River” is both creepy and romantically endearing. Is that a focus of yours to ensure listeners can walk away with completely different perspectives?
That’s exactly what we were trying to do. I like three-dimensional songs. That’s what I try to do with our material is create believable characters that actually express some complex emotions. With “I Came Around”, it was the idea of going somewhere with one idea and then over the course of the song, changing your mind and then feeling regret. With “Lost River”, the idea is that it’s these two lovers, one of them has drowned in the river and is trying to, whether it’s a manifestation of the living person’s mind or not, they’re trying to drag them into the river and bring them into this sort of death reunion.
It’s supposed to be very beautiful, but also very creepy and untrustworthy. It’s supposed to be the dead calling out to someone and it being very hard to resist.
You guys recently started playing songs from your debut album (Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing) again, which was also recently re-released. Ten years on, what’s it been like revisiting those songs?
It’s been interesting. We’ve been playing for 12 years; when we wrote them we didn’t record the album till much later. It’s crazy -- I’m 31 now and I had just turned 19 when I started writing those songs. It’s funny to have that perspective. There’s a huge difference between a 19 year-old and a 31 year-old. It’s interesting to go back, read the lyrics and play the songs. One thing I’ll say, I’m still very proud of it and enjoy playing those songs.
I think it’s good to acknowledge your beginnings. When it came out, nobody, nobody , knew who we were. We felt it never really got much attention, so it’s fun to play [the songs] in a 1,000-seat theatre rather than a basement.
What is it you think has allowed you guys to continue for ten years, consistently releasing albums, touring regularly and not taking any long hiatuses?
I can answer that a couple of ways. The first thing I would say is hard work and determination. We work harder than a lot of bands I know in the sense that we’re highly involved in planning and plotting and making an effort to continue being able to do this. Luck is always part of art. We’ve really made an effort to cultivate a positive relationship with our audience, hanging out after shows, taking pictures with people. When you get over yourself to other people, they naturally give back. They’ve supported our career and been awesome to us.
That’s why Kickstarter succeeded -- we have a good thing with these people. It’s something we’ve been working on together on since we started. [And] not every city is New York, Chicago, or LA. We’re from a small town in Indiana. I don’t want to write (small towns) off because they might not offer us as much money. You have to try other places.
There are several TV shows I’ll watch and think, ‘Hey, a Murder by Death song would perfectly fit this scene’. Are there any shows you’d be interested in having your songs featured on?
There’s a few we’ve tried before. Breaking Bad, we wanted that. We had a song on Sons of Anarchy and we’d love to have another one. Back in the day, we wanted a song on Deadwood. There’s a lot of stuff out there. Justified, a lot people are like, “You should have songs on that.” We recorded a version of the Squidbillies song and sent it to them, but they haven’t used it, so we’ll see about that.
One thing that seems often overlooked with your band is its sense of humor, the recent Twitter hashtag of #murderbydeathisnotametalband being an example of that. How did that come about?
Somebody wrote it on a poster a couple of years ago and we had forgotten about it until someone mentioned it recently. Our cellist decided to make a little hashtag, Twitter thing out of it. It’s funny to see how everyone responded to it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with metal -- metal is awesome -- but we’re just not a metal band at all. We were making a reference to a ‘70s movie when we named the band.
It’s one of those funny things that’s kind of chased us our entire career. We’ve lost so many opportunities because of companies not knowing how to market us. It’s such a quirky name, in some ways it’s really helped us. It sets us apart and it’s memorable.
Your sound is so distinctive and uniquely Murder by Death. Can that be a limitation or is that something you cherish?
It’s both. The whole thing about our band, the reason we’re still around and our fans still support us is we do something that’s true and totally unique to us, something that only could happen from the five of us getting together and doing this. In that way, we’ve set ourselves apart, and the people who like you truly like you. The limitation, though, is because we’re not part of any scene, we’re left out of a lot of stuff. For example, we’ve dallied with different scenes where offers were coming from, but we’ve never been the hot band of the moment.
Whether it’s indie rock, punk rock or emo, we’ve never been at the top of any of those worlds, we’ve always been the outsider. In some ways, that’s very limiting. But it’s what gets people into us. They say, ‘Ah, I’ve never heard anything like this.’
What's on the horizon for Murder by Death?
The album [came] out September 25, so essentially we’re spending another year touring on it. We got some gigs in October, we want to get back to Europe, and we’re hoping to make up our Australian tour that got pulled out from under us. The big thing now is to fulfill all these Kickstarter orders.