Since 2003’s Who Will Survive, And What Will Be Left Of Them?, their second full-length, Indiana’s Murder By Death have been ardently courting the musical essence of America’s West. Falling somewhere between folk and country, rock and blues, the band has developed greater and greater skill in whittling down larger and larger branches into their vague, epic yet personal tales, furthering the development with 2006’s In Bocca Al Lupo. Now with Red Of Tooth And Claw, out this week, the West’s spirit might just be ready to accept the quartet’s proposal.
Featuring the most rounded performance yet from frontman Adam Turla, Red Of Tooth And Claw is perhaps no radical change, but it’s an unexpected turn. The storytelling, arrangements and vocal performances are richer than ever, and as concept records go for Murder By Death, they’ve constructed their most intriguing storyline to date—a modern-day ill- intentioned traveler loosely following Homer’s Odyssey.
Turla spent some time talking about Red Of Tooth And Claw’s construction.
On the new album, the immediately striking thing is that you’re much deeper in your vocal register than ever before. It’s something that you’ve been changing from album to album— are you playing a different character, or is it just a process?
More than anything else, it’s just learning how to sing. Our first album, we recorded it in early 2002, I was 18 years old or 19 maybe, and I had never sang before, and that was that. And Who Will Survive was recorded in early 2003, and then we had a long time in between that and In Bocca Al Lupo, and in that time, I took some voice lessons at Indiana University, which has a great music school. The first thing they did was show me what my range actually was, how I should sing, so with In Bocca, that was the first album where I actually got to apply that stuff, and with this album, I’m definitely at my most comfortable. It’s the most natural.
And I guess part of it is making that work with the music. More than anything else, it just comes from, ‘I’m 26 years old, and I haven’t been singing that long.’ It just took me a while to figure out what my voice was.
Does that change the way that you’re singing the previous material?
Um, I sing it better now. (laughs) My pitch is better. My voice has changed in the time since we wrote those songs. After every show, by the time we’re done playing, I’m pretty gravelly, so it changes to some extent.
The only reason I ask is if you’re not paying close attention, you could think that the band changed singers.
Yeah, and that’s the thing, when I hear those records, the old records, I kind of cringe. Not because I don’t like the songs or anything like that. It’s just that it was so long ago, and I don’t have the sort of style that I used to.
Lyrically, there’s a lot of ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘me,’ much more one-to-one communication in your storytelling.
Yeah, I was trying to mix it up a bit. I wanted to do a narrative this time. Who Will Survive had sort of an omnipresent narrator, and I thought it would be more fun to experiment with an album that’s mostly first person. We’ve got four albums out now, and you want to try different styles as a writer. I, personally, am very opposed to doing the same thing over and over, so I try to find new ways to fit into the same world. I still want it to be Murder By Death’s material, but I want it also to be branching out. I don’t want to write the same songs over and over.
Do you think it was more effective for the narrative?
I hope so. (laughs) As I was writing it, I was conscious of it, and I thought it was the most effective. There’s kind of two voices on the new record. There’s the main character, which nine of the songs are him, and there are two songs that are from the perspective of the gods looking down on him. One of them is called ‘A Second Opinion’ and it’s the gods watching him, willing him to fail, the main character.
And there’s another song, ‘Rumbrave,’ which is kind of a god hunting down the main character. But I thought it was effective to do it that way, because everyone, both the gods and the main guy are very sort of egotistical and confident characters, so I thought it would be effective to use that perspective, so their gritty self-confidence shows through.