Interview: Murder By Death

When you have a voice that sounds like a resurrected Johnny Cash dabbling in the forces of evil with Glenn Danzig, no one really expects songs about girls, cars and endless summers to come rolling off of your tongue. Indeed, Murder By Death’s Adam Turla is well-accustomed to narrating stories through song with heavier themes – sin, guilt, revenge, and (of course) death, just to name a few. However, the band’s most recent full-length release, Red of Tooth and Claw, is much more than an assortment of direction-less tragedy. Murder By Death bring the spirit of centuries old Americana to life with haunting, ragged tinged tales that instantly provoke brutal self-reflection. In anticipation of their Friday show at the Annex, Turla recently took the time to answer several questions about the band’s inspiration, and the art of storytelling.

Tell me about how you all found each other and created the band.

We were drinking buddies at college in Bloomington, Indiana – thought it would be fun to have a different kind of band.

What were your musical experiences growing up?

I took blues/jazz studies from 13-16 and occasionally played live in a group with my teacher in Detroit. Sarah [Balliet, cello/keys] went to high school at a youth performing arts school in Kentucky, and Dagan [Thogerson, percussion] and Matt [Armstrong, bass] were always looking to be in rock bands.

What inspired you to start writing?

A lack of anyone else I knew writing original stuff. Same reason I started singing.

There’s a line in “Boy Decide” that goes, “You’re too old to fuck around and too young to die.” Did you relate to this stuck-in-the-middle kind of existence before making the decision to seriously pursue music?

We never actually made a decision to seriously pursue music. It kind of just happened, and suddenly it was our lives. Sarah actually came to Indiana University with the intention of going to the music school here (one of the best in the country) and then decided she didn’t want a music career…ironically, two months later, she joined the band that gave her one.

That line from “Boy Decide” is very reminiscent of topics like aimless youth, societal dissatisfaction and moments of significant personal choice that were popular with beat poets. Is literature a big influence for you? If so, who are some of the writers you admire?

Literature is a huge influence and interest of mine. When I was 15 the beat poets were of major to interest to me with themes of Buddhism (which I went to college to study), and travel. My favorite authors have been pretty steady for the last 5 years, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

How did Tent Show Records come about?

A strange record deal that involved having our own label that was paid for by someone else. It worked and didn’t work—we didn’t have time to run a label for anything but our own bands and didn’t want to sign a band and then not have time to work hard for them.

How do your songs usually evolve from initial idea to finished piece?

I write the melody and lyrics all in my head and then eventually show it to the band who make it real.

How much of your own life are you comfortable injecting into your music?

Some, but like my favorite authors I like to fictionalize some of it and wrap a shroud of mystery around some of the stories.

Why do you think music is such an effective vehicle for the stories you create?

Brevity. I have more trouble writing long passages.

There’s a Greil Marcus quote that says, “It is a sure sign that a culture has reached a dead end when it is no longer intrigued by its myths.” Taking this into consideration, it seems that your band is doing all that it can to perpetuate American culture. What attracts you to the mythology and romanticism of old America?

Exactly what you are suggesting – fear of a dead end in culture. With 500 channels on cable, entire neighborhoods of boorish taupe monstrosities, and Paris Hilton a major news figure, I try to give people a little more credit for the kind of material they can take in. We create stories that attempt to have a meaning, rather than temporary entertainment.

Your lyrics frequently describe themes of physical suffering and a kind of dark emotional desperation that isn’t always easy to find in modern music, but they’re common in old traditional folk and blues. Do you think our generation is at all affected by the more “sanitized” content in popular modern art, music and literature?

Maybe. I think giving people only media that is easy to swallow is practically criminal. Ok ha maybe not that bad. But luckily there will always be an ebb and flow of intelligent trends in order to counteract the inane.

Lots of your songs (like “The Big Sleep” for example) seem to hint at religious prophecy. Do you look to religious texts as models of powerful storytelling?

The greatest, most insanely improbable stories are our religious stories. They illustrate peoples’ fears and hopes.

Do you ever worry that the excitement of your music takes away from the power of your words, or does it alternately serve to amplify their affect?

We attempt to have the music evoke the tone of the lyrics – we spend a lot of time trying to create an interplay.

Tell me about recording Red of Tooth and Claw. How did that experience compare to the recording of your other albums?

We were very practiced and just blew through the 3 weeks. The producer Trina Shoemaker was a badass – we just went in, played 2 or 3 takes and it sounded great. It was a very organic recording with few little edits.

What do you enjoy about performing live?

Everything.

What is the most important thing you try to achieve when sharing your music with a crowd?

Not fucking up because my mind wanders.
Murder By Death will be in town on Friday the 29th for their 9:30 pm show at the Annex. Madison’s own National Beekeepers Society and Crane Your Swan Neck open the show.
-Shelley Peckham

Murder By Death- Brother

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August 27, 2008