With their dusty, dramatic brand of folk-affected indie rock, Murder By Death have long been one of the most intriguing bands in their scene. Led by singer/guitarist Adam Turla, Murder By Death have maintained the delicate balance of having a trademark sound but also breaking into new territory on each subsequent release. Their latest album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, is similar to the rest of their albums in that it’s not quite like any other.
From tinny, somber opener “My Hill” to the subdued punkabilly timbre of “Straight At The Sun” or the summery blithe of “Hard World,” like Turla says in the Q&A below, many of the songs are familiar but unique additions to the MBD catalogue. Furthermore, tracks like “Ditch Lilly” and “The Curse Of Elkhart” bring decidedly new textures to the band’s repertoire.
Turla took some time to discuss his and the band’s evolving songwriting methods, having one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever, and how Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon has grown up since its September 2012 release.
Congratulations on the new record. When last we spoke [following the release of Good Morning, Magpie], we talked about how you usually write lyrics and melody first. You said you wanted to try instead writing music first and then putting lyrics to that; is this record a result of that approach?
Somewhat, yeah. We tried a lot of variety for this record. We definitely did some more group writing than we did for Magpie. And we did some more approaches where, for example, Scott [Brackett, keyboards] would start writing a song or I would start writing a song, and we would proceed from there. With Magpie, it was more me starting all of them. It’s definitely a little more eclectic, which is one of the things we often do, but we definitely went for that for this record.
Was it a struggle to change your process?
I wouldn’t say so because it was more like we kind of decided to take a lot more time to write this one. It was interesting adding Scott to the group because we suddenly had so many options for what he could bring because he plays so many different instruments. So we spent a lot of time figuring out, “Okay, what’s he going to do on this song? He could do this, this, this?” [We spent a lot of time] trying to pair it down and figure out what would sound the best. That was a big part of what made it take longer. Also, we didn’t want to hurry it.
We have so many albums; you don’t want to just put out another one just for the sake of putting out another record. You want to do something that’s still interesting.
You say you took longer to write it, but it’s still about two years from the last one. Were you concentrating on writing more during the period between Magpie and this one?
It was about two and a half years [between the two albums], I think. It was also just that we started writing earlier. At this point, I think a lot of people are saying an album cycle used to be two years, industry people [are saying that]. Now [the album cycle has] just been shrinking and shrinking. Now they’re always trying to push it so that every year you have something new. I think that’s just very detrimental to the material.
With this record, we waited a lot longer before we started the writing process. We spent about a year writing before we went into the studio to record it. [On] Magpie, we didn’t spend as long because there wasn’t as much time available. We were touring longer on the previous album, Red Of Tooth And Claw.
Certain bands can go out on tour a few times for each album. They have a lot of time off because they maximize the shows they play and only do so many. When you’re more of a blue collar touring band like we are, you have to play more shows than a very popular band. Your schedule changes and you don’t have as much opportunity to write because you’re just working more.
When you went into the studio, were the songs 100 percent done or did you still have a bit of writing to do?
They were 100 percent there in that we could play them all. We had even played many of them live. The thing that really happened—and we were really happy that it happened—the producer, John Congleton, took away a lot of things. I think we’ve always felt that we’ve struggled with details. Sometimes there’s a bit of clutter to the songs, sometimes I really like clutter in a song—it can add a lot of personality—he made a few choices that we thought were really effective. Like just taking away the guitar on a song, telling us to simplify our parts. We were really grateful for that.
Did you have any reservations about bringing in Scott to write the record? The core of the group has been together for almost 10 years now; were you worried that someone new might get in the way of your process?
No, I wasn’t worried that it would get it the way. I just figured that it would take longer, and it did. We brought him into the group because we thought he’d bring something valuable, and I definitely think he did. There are a lot of moments on the record that are much more exciting because he is part of it. It was the sort of thing where we just knew it was going to take a little time. Every time you change something it’s exciting and somewhat—I don’t want to say hazardous, but you have to account for the fact that it’s going to be a little different. You add another person, one more person has to understand what the chords are, and they have an opinion that counts. It just takes more time.
What was it like to have such a successful Kickstarter campaign? Did you expect such an outpouring of support?
We hoped for it. I really designed the whole thing and spent a lot of time working on it. Before we launched it, I had put a couple months of preparation, work and design into it, and a lot of thought. I think that’s the mistake that a lot of people make when they do those is they don’t really prepare themselves from the amount of work they’ll be doing if they do it well.
Ever since we had such a successful campaign, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how to help their own Kickstarter. So many people just don’t really think of giving real value to their fans. It’s more like they’re asking for money and maybe they’ll give you something back. I saw it as very different. I saw it as, I’m just asking you to buy something, rather than starting with the idea of you giving us money and maybe you get something back. I had higher hopes than a lot people who might just go into it hoping that people will be generous to them. I was trying to give people something they actually wanted.
I was thrilled that it worked out and that it got to where it did, but I think the thing that I didn’t expect was that it would take so long to fill all the orders and to deal with all the emails. I basically worked on it every day from, like five to 14 hours a day from April until late October. It was a huge undertaking.
Are there certain things you do to push yourself as a lyricist—certain exercises or anything of the sort?
Yeah, sometimes writing exercises. I’ve tried doing more of a scheduled writing thing, but that doesn’t really work for me. I think what it really comes down to is I always take notes. Whenever I come up with an idea, I write it down. That way I just have this surplus of ideas. I think that writing more is always going to be good for you. My issue has always been that—you know, I hear about groups like Weezer, the groups where people just write tons and tons of songs—I just don’t have that many subjects that I like writing about. I don’t do like feeling-type songs. I do more story songs. Writing without a story is really tough for me. When there’s a record and you need a dozen songs, I’ve never written like 50 songs.
That’s something I’ve been trying to work on, just writing all the time, writing a ton of stuff and then selecting the best.
Whenever we write, I think we’re putting a bit of ourselves into a bit of that work, but how much do you consciously draw from personal experiences?
You want a percentage? (Laughs) I just don’t know. Like you said, it’s impossible to know how much of yourself you’re putting into anything. When it comes to the content, it’s more the idea of amplifying something. I like the fantastic element, that’s why there tends to be a big story to all of our songs. I never got much out of music that has really modern elements in them, you know? A lot of songs talk about things like, the internet or “I’m on my cell phone.” I find those modern-like lyrics immediately take me out of songs. I think music has such an opportunity to be an escape or something more exciting than everyday life. So if I’m taking something from my day, I try to make it as interesting as possible and make it incredible. A lot of parts start with something I feel or I believe or something that’s happened to me or someone I know.
You don’t want your music to be timely.
Yeah, that’s definitely part of it. When we write songs, a big part of it is that we just don’t want to write something that is so of that exact moment. I’d rather write something that I think is just good. That’s certainly the way I view all books and music and movies. I’m never so caught up in the moment of time when something comes out.
Now that you’re six or so months removed from the record release, how has your perspective on the record changed? Have certain songs fallen out of favor? Do you have a renewed appreciation for others?
That’s a really good question actually. That’s one of those things—I never really listen to our records after we made them. At that point, I know the songs, I’m going to perform them live; that’s the context I’m going to know them in.
Over Christmas, I did listen to this record, actually. And it was fun. It was really fun for me to hear it. There are a lot of things about it that I thought were some of the most exciting sounds and choices we’ve ever made on a record. It’s cool to go through and hear it.
There was a song that—I don’t know why—but Sarah [Balliet, cello/keyboards] and I, at some point, just didn’t think the song fit on the record. It was “The Curse Of Elkhart.” Even though we liked the song, it’s a weird song. I listened to the record and I just thought, “What was I thinking?” I really like the song and I really like it on the record. It’s just one of those things when you start nitpicking, you just get caught up with something. Sometimes you just make weird decisions. That was definitely one of the times where I felt really different than when we were recording.
I definitely feel really good about this one. There are some really strong works and I found myself really enjoying it. It felt like a very new album for us in some ways in that there are songs that we’ve never done anything like them before. Then there are songs that feel like we could have written them a long time ago, some throwbacks to our first couple of records. It was fun.
Murder By Death will be performing at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on Feb. 28, and Philly’s Union Transfer on March 2. For more information, go to facebook.com/murderbydeath.