Murder by Death

Interview: Adam Turla of Murder By Death

Writers, much like normal human beings, have a bucket lists. The difference is, our bucket lists contain people – personalities, creators, and yes, other writers that have inspired, comforted, and confounded us with their talents. Many of them will likely remain names on our lists until the day we type our last words, but occasionally, we’re lucky enough to spend a little time with the artists who have influenced us most.

Murder By Death, the Indiana-based kings and queen of gothic folk-rock, have been on my bucket list since I first discovered their catalog a decade ago. I was 14 then, a freshman in high school stealing his older brother’s CDs  based on album artwork alone, and the idea of an album telling stories about devils and deserts was already inconceivably cool to me; the fact that this same album featured guest vocals from both Gerard Way and Geoff Rickly only cemented its importance in my mind.

Now, nearly 20 years into their career, Murder By Death exist in the kind of vacuum that contains a dedicated fanbase and a fearlessness to tell any tale they can conjur. It was then my great pleasure to speak with frontman Adam Turla about his penchant for Western-influenced storytelling, the band’s songwriting process, and of course, Murder By Death’s eighth, glam-rock inspired space opera (of sorts), The Other Shore.

Did you start writing The Other Shore knowing you wanted to follow 2015’s Big Dark Love with a concept album?

No, definitely not. It starts with me kind of collecting over the touring cycle of the album before, just taking notes for songs, ideas I have that I’m not necessarily sure what I’m going to do or how I’m going to approach them, and we just end up sort of trying them out. I wait to see what happens, what directions they’re going to go in, and then, if there seems to be a common thread, you start pulling on it and follow it.

In this case, we found that there definitely was a thread. I had presented a bunch of songs to the band, and we had been rehearsing them, and I told them, “Oh, I’m kind of thinking about this as a theme, it might be a concept record, it might be a longform narrative,” and they were like, “Yes, yes, yes…” [Laughs] They liked the idea, and they liked the songs that pushed in that direction, so ultimately, it just went that way. It was a happy accident because I think if you try to force something — like a concept record — it’s gonna stink. [Laughs]

And you’re no stranger to concept records, but this one varies slightly from the gothic storytelling of the band’s early catalog. Were there certain things that inspired the space-centric themes of the new album?

Yeah, I think that we all have an interest in science fiction, and we’ve always had a bit of a spacey element to some of our songs, but we’ve never really played it up fully. So when you’re writing your eighth full-length album, as a creative person, you’re always trying to find new ways to express what your style is. We started to put these ideas together, and I’ve always had a huge love for David Bowie and 70s glam, so I was trying to say, how can we use elements of that through our Murder By Death filter and make it feel natural, and these songs are the result.

And basically, the reason I think it works is that we overwrote. We wrote way more songs than necessary. [Laughs] And then there were ones where we’d say, okay, this song’s fine, but we need a song that pops more, we need a song that sounds really spacey, or we could say, that song’s too spacey, or that song’s too glammy. We just kept adjusting until we found the right collection of songs that told the story that we wanted to tell.

Something that interests me when I’m listening to the album is that, despite space playing such a large role in it, a lot of the instrumentation is still organic. I think there’s a juxtaposition there that really makes it work.

Yeah, there’s a lot of thought that went into that. We’re not trying to reinvent our band in a completely new way and throw the past under the bus, you know? We’re trying to expand on the universe — pun intended — for the opportunity to give a new look to something we’ve been doing for a long time.

One of the ways we approached the record, and one of the ways it’s sequenced, is that the album starts on Earth, so the first four tracks are way more rootsy, and they start to introduce themes of spacey instruments coming in as a metaphor. And then, as it goes on and on, the record tends to use more keyboards, there’s more open, longer instrumental parts to simulate the idea of a journey, and the ‘being alone’ quality of the narrative. And so we were each talking about, like, what does this song mean, what’s happening in the story, what is this person feeling as the narrator, what are they trying to accomplish. Honestly, we do that partially so it has continuity, and is good, but also, it’s fun. It’s a fun way to write.

Do you feel your storytelling has been a reflection of the kind of film and literature you enjoy?

Yeah, I think so to some extent. I think part of it was just that, when we started the band, I hadn’t really thought of myself as a songwriter yet. We were so young when we started the band that I just wasn’t sure what my role was, who I was, what I was good at, so I learned how to write along the way. And I think what happened was that I just knew I didn’t want to write pop songs. I just don’t care about pop music, I don’t care about “the hook.” That music just…when you approach it from that angle, it just feels so unimportant, and it feels like you’re trying to write something just so it will get popular.

So for me, it was like, how do I write something that makes me happy, and in a lot of ways, it was the idea of writing a longform story where each piece matters, or the idea that a song is a vignette, and it’s a fable, where hopefully there’s a lesson, or maybe there’s growth in the song. So the important part for me is, maybe this song can help someone by presenting a difficult circumstance and giving it some hope.

Do you happen to remember the first song you wrote for The Other Shore and whether it set a tone for the songs to come?

That’s a great question! So the thing is, I had been writing a bunch over the span of two years, and I just started taking notes on my phone where I’d have a vocal melody, and I’d have maybe a couple words, but not a lot. But I do know that for the song “New Old City,” I had a couple of lyrics, and I had the basic melody for the keyboards inside of my head. And at the same time, I had the song “I Have Arrived,” and that was the song that blew it wide open because the whole story was kind of told in that song. That song is definitely the pivotal point where…it’s the most narrative. The other ones are a little more subtle in their delivery of arc, and “I Have Arrived” is just like a punch in the face. [Laughs]

It’s definitely an outlier. It’s the most upbeat song on the album.

Oh yeah. My goal was to write something manically happy. One of my favorite things The Cure does is that they write those songs that are dark, but that are so freaking happy that you’re worried about the singer. [Laughs] So I was going through that. There’s a little glam rock there, and I’ve always loved The Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, so I was thinking about those two things when I was working on that one. I love the delivery of the story through this glossy-eyed narrator.

Earlier, you mentioned presenting songs to the band. Is that how the writing process usually goes? How collaborative is it?

I would say it’s collaborative, but I definitely present [songs]. I have, like, printed out chord sheets, but the thing is that anything can change. I have a pretty big start where I write a song and play it for them, but then sometimes we’ll cut huge sections, or we’ll replace sections, or we’ll change the time signature, you know what I mean? It can change a lot when you try to fill it out with the band. So it’s important to note that I can have something and play it for them, and the first time I actually hear it out loud, it’s like, “Well this isn’t right,” and we’ll completely modify it.

You’ve been using Kickstarter to crowdfund your records since Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. What is it about the platform that works for you and how do you feel it has affected the band’s dynamic with fans?

Honestly, it’s fun and it works. That’s why we keep doing it. There’s something exciting for both us and the fans to watch it grow and give it a little transparency. It’s a little crazy because it’s very out of context. When you see those huge numbers, there’s no way that any person looking at that number understands what goes into fulfilling [rewards], so it’s a little skewed, but that being said, we don’t really get negativity from people. The fans just seem happy that we are still doing this, and that they can be a part of it, and that they can contribute to the art.

I like it because…you have to sell records, once the record’s out, one way or another. And that’s what records are, they’re a way of funding an act so you can move forward. But I think the positive is that this makes it a little more interesting. There are options that are a little outside the typical fulfillment realm, and I think that’s what makes it a little more exciting than just saying, “Okay, it’s on sale now.”

I see Kickstarter campaigns for musical ventures all the time, and it really seems like you have a lot of fun getting creative with those rewards. I think that shines through and allows fans to really feel like they’re bringing the album to life.

Yeah. And by the way, we’re actually filling orders as we speak. You can hear the tape guns in the background. Our house is just a fortress of boxes. [Laughs]

Some bands have a tough time revisiting their early work, even if it has a cult following. How do you feel about the band’s first few recordings, and do you ever revisit them?

Well I don’t listen to any of our records because, you know, we play them. [Laughs] But…I’m actually really proud of everything we’ve done. I don’t really think we have a record that is a stinker, because honestly, I think we’ve just always tried hard. And some work better than others, but we never just phoned it in, and we never just tried to write singles. I think the records that end up being bad records are usually when a band tries to go for it, so to speak, and like, get that record that will take them to the next level. And then, they thought they wrote singles, but it just turns out they wrote boring songs. [Laughs] We’ve never tried to do that. Instead, we would always just be like, “What’s interesting to us? I hope it’s interesting for other people!” And that’s worked for us.

In that case, having released eight studio albums, is there a period of the band that is your favorite? Or an album was most fun to write, record, or tour on?

Hard to say because they’re such different points in my life. I mean, we were just talking today about when we first started this band and how we toured in the beginning. And it was just comical. I mean, we were in a mini van with a cello between our legs, resting between the two front seats. [Laughs] It’s ridiculous. It was not a comfortable thing. It was outrageous, but we just didn’t care because we were young and we were on the road and it was fun. Like, it was a totally different time than it is now, but the nice thing about doing something like this is that you do have a lot of different experiences. I’ve had a great time playing a basement with 50 people in it, and I’ve had a great time playing Red Rocks to 9,000. I like them all because they’re different. There are no salad days; they’re all salad days.

Something that’s always fascinated me as someone who plays music and writes about music is the relationship between artists and journalists. Do you care about reviews of your own work? Do you ever seek them out, or are they something you avoid?

I usually read the first couple, just to make sure that somebody said the right thing. [Laughs] [To make sure] somebody understood it or listened to it for real, but as long as a couple people put the time in to not just search for a single or a summer jam…we’re hoping someone actually listens to it the way you should listen to something. We have a funny critical response in that, we’ve never been, like, critical darlings, but we don’t really get panned either…we just have fine reviews. It’s kind of funny because it’s what I expect. A great compliment we get all the time is that nobody sounds like us. We’re a unique band and we just do our own thing. And I like that. Some reviewers, we’re their favorite band, they just don’t notice us because they’re looking for something else. And we don’t expect more. We don’t need more.

Do you have a favorite song from The Other Shore?

That’s tough. I really like this record. This is kind of a favorite from the band’s perspective, everyone’s really excited about this one – I love the song “Only Time.” I really like how it came out. I like it because when I first wrote it, I was trying to write it to be almost like a Bowie song, and then we totally changed the way that we presented it. And I basically dropped the vocals down an octave, and we just said, “What if it never gets big? What if it’s just slow and sort of a slow burn?” And we thought it had sort of a…Leonard Cohen vibe. And suddenly it just became this really beautiful little moment on the record. I think that might be my favorite.

You’ve played in caves, haunted hotels, and boats. If you could play anywhere else in the world, where would it be?

You know, I wanna do more international right now. I think that’s sort of where I’m at right now, that I want to get to the places we’ve never been. We really want to get to South America. I’d like to get to Japan and Australia. We’ve never done those, and so many bands do. I think being sort of…not a genre band, it’s a little harder to promote. [Laughs] We’re sort of just this weird band. Right now, my sights are set on getting out to new places. Like, I have never been to Japan. I would love for the band to take me there. [Laughs] I really like Japanese food. I go for the food. It’s all for the food. Countries are great, but…I’m there to eat.

What artists have been catching your ear recently?

Saint Seneca. I really like their new record. They’ve been stuck in my ear for a while.

Thanks again for taking the time to chat about the new album. I think the second review I ever wrote for AbsolutePunk was for Like The Exorcist, But More Breakdancing, and it’s still one of my favorite albums. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Woah. [Laughs] Thanks a lot, man. I think that’ll do it for me.

 

The Other Shore will be released on August 24th via Bloodshot Records.

Aaron Mook Aaron Mook is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @vancemook on Twitter.
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