There isn’t another band quite like Murder By Death. Sure, they’re not the first to add cello and other classical instruments to otherwise basic rock tunes, however they might be the first to do so cohesively while still appearing unpretentious and genuine. They have unfailingly shirked indie and pop rock trends with lyrics and imagery that evoke classic American folklore. Murder By Death play songs that have existed in the American consciousness since our nation’s birth.
They’ve done it the hard way too; gradually winning new fans with extensive touring and consistent high-quality releases. From their landmark third album, 2006’s In Bocca Al Lupo, to their most recent, and highest charting recording, 2010’s Good Morning, Magpie, Murder By Death have been deserving of every bit of success they have gained.
The band will headline a show at the Bowery Ballroom on March 1. Singer, guitarist and main songwriter Adam Turla checked in from his home in Bloomington, Indiana to talk about the benefits of bourbon, trying new things and being creative, among other topics.
Throughout all the albums whiskey has been a recurring theme.
Yeah, a little bit I guess.
Where does that comes from?
Well, it’s sort of the regional drink of choice where we live here in Bloomington. We live in southern Indiana and we’re close to the Kentucky border. And, pretty much all the good whiskey—American—the bourbon all comes from Kentucky. It’s sort of what everybody drinks here. When you go out, it’s that. So, I think that it just kind of creeps in there because when we think of a drinking song, that’s what we think of.
Do you think you also use it as a symbol?
I think, in some ways sure. A lot of our songs are about harder characters and tough times, and I think the escapism of drinking and the classicism of whiskey—in American culture you have this classic image of whiskey drinking Americans—I think that just works as a symbol or a device.
Is that what you guys drink when you’re on tour?
Well, for me, drinking beer isn’t good for you voice—or at least I keep telling myself that (laughs). So on tour I just drink whiskey, I just have a glassful every night and I sip it on stage. It’s really important to me that we sound good every night because this is our job, in addition to being fun and creative. I just don’t want to be screwing it up because I’m getting drunk or something and drinking the wrong stuff.
Is whiskey good for your voice or is it just not as bad as beer?
Good question. I would say that, from what I’ve heard and what seems to ring true, it opens up your vocal cords for a few minutes after you have some. For me, it’s not just about the voice, it’s about the fact that when you’re up on stage, you want to get loose and it certainly doesn’t hurt with that. Also if you have a tolerance and you want to drink ‘cause you want to get loose on stage and you have 10 beers, you’re gonna be all sluggish and full and have to pee all the time. And it sounds funny but, I mean, you play for an hour and a half, you don’t want to be sluggish, you want to be energetic, you don’t want to go to the bathroom. And, you know, it’s not like you can stop in the middle of the set and be like, ‘Pardon me, guys. I’ll be right back.’ It’s not part of the deal. You’re an entertainer, you gotta be busy entertaining.
Since we’re talking about your voice, what were you doing on Red Of Tooth And Claw that you sort of went from a tenor, that you were very known for, to more of a baritone?
For one thing, my voice has been a constantly changing thing; my singing voice has changed a lot over the 10 years this band has been together. The main thing is that I did not really learn how to sing, in my opinion, until I started taking some voice lessons in 2004 and they told me to start singing a lot lower. And I feel so much more comfortable. I used to sort of dread singing because I just didn’t feel comfortable, and then I started singing lower and it’s now my favorite part of the job.
“Comin’ Home” is my favorite song vocally to perform because I love to the jump between the real low [sings] “I’m comin’ home,” and the yelling, basically (laughs), which is a lot more aggressive and higher up. My favorite songs often have a very dynamic vocal performance, so for me that’s exactly what I’m going for.
For you as a songwriter and the band as well, how do you think you guys have grown?
The main thing has always been to keep in interesting, for us and for the people who have been kind enough to support us over the years. It’s funny. I feel like when you have a long career in music, from the perspective of other people, they’re gonna have favorites, they’re gonna think that you were better at one point then another, or they’ll think that your newest material was a lot better than your older material or vice versa.
We certainly don’t think of having a heyday, we just keep moving. What we’re hoping is that we continue to provide music that is a little left of center, you know, not just the same as the majority of the stuff you’ll hear, whether it’s mainstream radio or the trendy, whatever the indie world is doing at the moment. We’re just trying to do our own thing. My hope is that—in terms of growth—that we’re able to continue satisfying ourselves creatively and not feeling like we keep putting out the same record. And so far, I’m pretty proud of the diversity among these albums. Our latest record has a lot more sort of upbeat and major key songs, and that was something that we have talked about doing for a long time, but just weren’t sure how to pull it off to our satisfaction. So that was an achievement for me. I feel like we were able to grow and make Murder By Death songs that were a little more upbeat and yet not diverging too much from the world of Murder By Death.
We’re constantly trying to push the boundary of what makes sense for this band while also staying within the parameters of Murder By Death.
As far as Good Morning, Magpie goes, it felt like you guys were exploring more of a country sound. Is that the new Murder By Death or just another aspect that you were trying to bring out on that release?
See I wouldn’t have even—you’re probably right. Maybe that’s what we were doing, I don’t know. We weren’t really thinking about making a more country sounding record. That’s kind of the stuff that came out. We don’t usually do a lot discussion during the writing process. Either, I write some songs and bring them to the band or we work on something together and we see what happens, and we scrap the ones that we don’t think are very good.
I never think of us as having a new sound because I never think of any of the stuff that we do as being final. In the sense that, just because maybe this record sounds more county, for that reason—like we’re just starting to write a new record, we’re just starting the creative process up again—there’s a part of me that says, “Oh, the last one was really positive and upbeat, maybe we should go for a really dark album next?” It depends on whatever tickles our fancy at the moment when we’re writing.
I kinda see the creative process as a circle where you can go back to things you’ve already done before, you can push the limits of the things you’ve already done before, you can try and branch off in a new direction. I certainly don’t think that we’re going to put out another album that sounds just like Good Morning, Magpie.
What initially attracted me to you guys was the strength of the lyrics and some of the metaphors and the symbolism. Do you every write lyrics without music?
I usually do lyrics with a melody. I usually add the instruments later, but I usually just start singing something and that’s where a song starts; with a melody and a line. I have done some poetry writing over the years. I did some classes when I was in college back in the day and I really enjoyed that. It was a nice way to write.
These days, I’m so busy with the band that I tend to do mostly just lyric writing. But there are certain songs—for example, “White Noise,” on the new record. That one I wrote originally as a poem. There’s tons of lyrics and I paired it down to maybe a third of what it ended up being for the song. We just sort of sat down and I said, “Listen guys, I’ve got these lines and I’m just gonna throw some chords under it to see what happens,” and in about 30 minutes we had the general outline of the song, it just came so naturally, just seeing what makes sense. That song came together quickly and we were very happy with it.
Obviously, you’ve been doing this for a while, but does it come easy? Putting chords under a melody?
You know, it’s funny. I mean, I write everything in my head so I’ll tell you there have been many times when the final result was different then what I was hearing the whole time. And I think, ‘Oh, this is what it seemed like the chords should be.’ But somehow it’s different. So that’s always a little oddity—the fact that I expected something different somehow.
I mean, I’m very aware of what chords are supposed to go under a melody, you just learn that stuff writing. But there’s always another way you could do it, I suppose. That’s kind of an interesting thing. I actually was talking to the band today about how I want to do a couple more songs on this record where we write music first and I want to try to write to that, because I just never do that. It may or may not work, and if it doesn’t work we just won’t put out the song.
I never put out songs that I don’t feel good about. Like I don’t even bring ones to the band that I don’t feel really good about. And we go through another process of self-criticism before we put them out. Obviously, not everyone is gonna like everything that we put out, but we try to keep the quality control pretty strict, or at least as much as we can.
As far as lyrics go, how do you develop some of the symbolism and metaphors in your writing?
I don’t know. I never have a direct message. I mostly just—it sounds silly, but I write down words or phrases that sort of illicit a response in me. Then I tend to try and come up with a story for each song. I have a couple rules, I guess. For example, I don’t like writing about feelings unless it’s extremely relevant to the story of the song, and even then I try to keep it to a minimum. Because I think that most bad songwriting is just an emotional gushing. There’s a million love songs out there that are just all platitudes and expressing nothing.
I try to protect myself as a writer by not doing the most obvious, traditional thing. Whether that works or not, I can’t say. But I make an effort to stray from the usual trappings.
So what are your sets gonna be like for this tour?
We always mix it up. We try to do stuff from every album. We tend to do some requests. You know, if there’s more obscure stuff and it’s possible to perform live. You know, I don’t want to push new material on people and make them listen to it because it just takes time for people to identify with stuff. I find that a year or two after the album’s come out, people start requesting it on their own. So, there’s no point in forcing it on someone. We’ve got a lot of material out there and I know the songs that get asked for the most so we try to play the ones that people might want to hear, then we throw in some obscure ones that we think are stronger. It’s never about “marketing” the new record, that’s the last thing we’re thinking about.
Murder By Death will be playing an 18+ show at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC on Tuesday, March 1. More info at murderbydeath.com.