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

An Interview with We Are Scientists

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The first thing you need to know about We Are Scientists is that they are not, in fact, scientists. Shock! Horror! Yes, it’s true. In sharp contrast to rock and roll tradition, this Brooklyn-based indie outfit’s tour bus is devoid of any chemical experiments (for all we know).

“We have no affiliation with the field of science. I think we’re as happy about that as the field of science is,” bassist Chris Cain jokes.

The trio of Cain, Keith Murray (lead vocals and guitar), and Michael Tapper (drums) became We Are Scientists after graduating from college at the tail end of the ‘90s. Initially, the band was conceived with little more intent than to be a way to pass time. Cain acknowledges that their success in music came somewhat unexpectedly.

“I listened to music when I was younger, but it wasn’t really a passion for me, I wouldn’t say,” he admits. “I didn’t play any instruments until we started this band. Keith, on the other hand, has been playing guitar since he was twelve, I think. His parents forced him to take up guitar because his older sister had played the guitar her parents bought her for three months and then cast it aside, and they decided that somebody had to play that guitar.”

However modest their early motivations were, it quickly became apparent that they had more musical talent than they had given themselves credit for. After gaining popularity playing live gigs around Berkley, CA, the band released their debut album, With Love and Squalor in 2005 to much acclaim from the British press. As to why they rose to success so quickly in the UK while remaining relatively unknown in the states is a mystery to the band.

“I think our style of music is more mainstream in the UK,” explains Cain. “Beyond that, I think it’s just a bit of a crapshoot, I would say, really. I think there’s work involved in success anywhere—in music I mean. For us things started to take off in the UK, so we really just pushed it. We toured there really consistently for almost the entire first year, and sort of neglected the US where things didn’t take off as quickly. I don’t know, I think the UK gave us the initial spark, combined with our willingness to apply a solid year of hard work to seal the deal. Here, we’ve just never really felt that we’ve been in the same position.”

Now a duo following the departure of Tapper last year, Murray and Cain are carrying on, touring in support of their sophomore release, Brain Thrust Mastery. Heavy on 80’s post-punk and pop influence, the album is sure to bring to mind hints of modern artists as well. The urgent savagery of The Strokes, the witty charm of Kaiser Chiefs and the glossy dance-friendly euphoria of The Killers are present in high quantity. We Are Scientists explained that they wanted Brain Thrust Mastery to be an album that was “difficult to define, but easy to absorb.” Mission accomplished. Their myriad of musical influences and unique personalities addresses the former desire, and their pop sensibility and relatable lyrics satisfies the latter.

“Certainly I think our lyrics usually tend to deal with interpersonal relationships–often romantic, but not always. That’s really what every song’s pretty much about. It’s not the same incidents being retread over and over again, but there’s that theme.”

Despite their undeniably hip sound, the members of We Are Scientists haven’t been able to shake the “geek rock” label that journalists seem to love to affix to their descriptions. Cain, with the band’s signature good sense of humor, assured me that they don’t mind.

“I think it’s a label that, to be honest that we have sort of secretly fostered. It’s little more than a marketing angle…really we’re more the sort of jock, frat boy-type dudes, but I think that doesn’t fly very well in indie rock. It’s not really what the fans are looking for, so as the band started to take off, we sort of finessed it. Tossed on some glasses, dropped about 50 pounds of muscle and beefed up our vocabularies a little bit.”

Arguably just as entertaining as the music itself is the band’s website, where Murray and Cain offer responses to queries of advice from fans and review everything from the quality of a public restroom’s sink (“You’ve never felt manual vertigo till you’ve held your hands out there over the basin of the sink in the public toilet at the Ekko in Utrecht.”) to Cain’s moustache (“My mustache, were it a sandwich, would be a club. Were it a plane, it would be a MiG-28.”), which offers fans a rare opportunity to appreciate the band members’ personalities underneath the veil of their sound.

“I think it changes the way people digest the art if they know something about the creator,” Cain considers. “I don’t think it’s necessarily better. I don’t know if it’s even good. It’s certainly different, but I think that any art that’s published, one should be able to appreciate it without any knowledge of the author or creator. In the case of pop music, it does feel like there’s a strong urge for people to know something about the musicians. But I guess it’s unlike painting, for example. Music involves performance as well as composition, so it stands to reason that the personalities of these people onstage who are performing live for you have an image and voice you’re familiar with. I don’t know….music is a weird situation. I kind of think that in a painter or a dancer or in literature the artist should be irrelevant. That’s not to say that we aren’t curious about them, but I guess in music there’s something inherently legitimate about the inquiries of the artists.”

So what should concert-goers expect when We Are Scientists hit the stage at the High Noon Saloon this Wednesday night?

“They can expect a lot of magic tricks, and I don’t mean that in a glorified way,” Cain deadpans. “I just mean that we literally do a lot of card tricks and coin tricks onstage, which not everybody does. That’s a trick we picked up from Jimmy Buffet, actually—a rather unlikely source for an indie rock band, but it worked for him and frankly it works for us. They’re going to see a lot of synchronized dance, which is a tradition that goes back to the golden era of musicals and cinema, and also vaudeville.”

In addition to picking a card—any card, and shaking those jazz hands like nobody’s business, rumor has it that We Are Scientists will also be setting aside a decent amount of time to perform their unique brand of fun, indie “geek rock” that you won’t want to miss. Oxford Collapse and Brighton MA open the 8:00 show.
-Shelley Peckham