American Renaissance: An Interview with Murder By Death

When I was introduced to Murder By Death over a decade ago in 2005, they were already two full-length albums in and more than piquing the interest of pre-Millennial torrent-freaks, MP3 scavengers, and compact disc purists sharing music suggestions on instant messenger and Jersey pizzeria napkins. Their first album, Like The Exorcist, But More Breakdancing, off of North Jersey’s now-defunct Eyeball Records proved they weren’t a metal band or any sort of –core band (that name, dubbed in fact for the 1976 comedy of the same), and their second, Who Will Survive, And What Will Be Left of Them? featured guest vocals from then-labelmates Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance and Geoff Rickly from Thursday.

Those first albums and every one that followed put the not-quite-indie, not-quite-Americana quintet on the highly-debated path to bringing us Big Dark Love, a distillation and expansion of themes evoking Old West outlaws, whiskey and myth, love and death…but as they see it now.

Founding member and lead singer Adam Turla talked to me about the new record, their cult-ish fanbase, and Kickstarter campaigns.

Where’re you calling from?

            Louisville, Kentucky, where I live.

Tell us a bit about Bloomington, Indiana. What was it like for you, Matt [Armstrong], and Sarah [Balliet] linking up at the tender age of 18?

            I mean, we moved there… The band is from pretty much from all over the country…most of us met at Indiana University when we were 18, we got together there just playing music for fun every Saturday night. We found ourselves dropping out of school and hitting the road a lot.

A lot has changed since we lived there. Actually, only one member still lives there, our bass player [Matt Armstrong]. Now, we’ve scattered to Oregon, Indiana, Kentucky, and Atlanta, Georgia, so we’re pretty spread out.

You were brought up in Detroit, right?

Me? Yeah.

Big Dark Love is your seventh full-length studio album. How much of this new album’s reception do you think is influenced by direct reference to your previously recorded material, especially for a band with such a devoted following and knowledge of your sound?

            Well, I think at this point, like, if you’re not a new listener…We try to make our albums each distinct from each other, and some people, the people who are really into the band, tend to like that because I think that different albums have different moods for periods of time. Unless you are trying to create one thing and just try to perfect it, and, you know, basically…

            Some bands will really, truly write the same album or the same song over and over and try to get it right, which is one way of doing it. But ours is more out there, depending on what we are hearing at the time, we tend to write our different styles.

            I would say this newest record, what I would say I was thinking about when we were writing it was that we were trying to write some of the songs from a…as if we were first starting the band, but through the filter of being older. So there are some nods to our first two albums on this new one musically, and also just sort of content-wise. So we’re kind of trying to make some sort of versions of, like, instead of the recording gigs we had when we were 19, here’s a version of a similar sort of song done by a 34-year-old.

            So that’s a kind of a fun way to approach writing, but we’re always now looking for little ways to think about how to approach writing a song. It’s different than just sitting down and writing a song…Like, “Maybe if I change my perspective, I’ll get something interesting,” or, “Hey, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.” I mean, we scramble all the songs, and then the ones we keep are the ones that we believe in the most.

            One thing we’ve also said is that if we’re writing a record, and it’s just not working, then we’ll just stop, and…There’s not really a point to put out something that doesn’t need to be put out. But this one, we thought it had a cool, “something old, something new” quality to it.

Yeah, that is something that I personally appreciate about you guys, that you don’t have a sentimentality about your previously recorded material or what you “used” to be like…You kind of…grew with each other, and that’s why you’re so great…That’s what I think.

            Thank you! I’m glad that’s what you think. I think the reality is that you stack up the members of a band or really any creative person who’s doing the same thing their entire life or trying to be the same person at all times, that’s just unrealistic. And I think one of the things that holds people into being a certain way is when you’re dealing with putting yourself out on a stage, whether it’s on the Internet or performing or whatever, character actors…When you are expected to be the same thing all the time, you’re creating a false persona.

I just think it’s better to say, “Here I am. This is what I’m into right now. This is what I feel like writing. I hope you like it. If you don’t, I guess, everything’s fine.” Haha, you know? It’s like, it’s not the end of the world if not everybody who has a favorite record doesn’t get exactly what they are looking for or expecting every time.

We often get people saying, “The first time I listened to this record…” and, I mean, literally every record we’ve ever put out, we get people saying, “You know, I really liked the last record, and when I heard this one, I wasn’t sure, but now I prefer it.” I always get that starting like a couple months after it comes out, after some time has passed. Like a flood of emails of people saying, “OK, now I realize that it’s just different, and that’s okay.”

Your current label, the independent Bloodshot Records, just came up on over 20 years championing, in their words, “the good stuff nestled in the dark, nebulous cracks.” I find that so many independent record labels claim to be just that. What about Bloodshot was the click?

            I gotta say they’re really…they’re just good people. When people ask me about the label, the story that I immediately go to in my mind is that last May we were playing a show. We had done it before. We were the last band to play at this big, free outdoor event in Chicago, where the label is based. And we did it the first time a couple years ago, and the weather was amazing, and 15,000 people showed up and it’s just this beautiful summer, spring event, and as we were playing, as the sun was setting…

And so we were asked to play it again, and we were like, “Great!” But unfortunately, the second time we played the weather turned terrible and it was 40 degrees and raining for 36 hours hard. And that concert basically had, like, a rain or shine policy, and so nobody showed up. So by the time we got there, the other bands had just been trudging through it, and performing in jackets and everything, but we had no idea it would be so cold.

And a man from Bloodshot showed up with jackets for us all, and that was one of the moments where you’re just like, “Man…this is a good person. This is a person who is thinking about little things, a person who’s in it the right reasons.” They’re in it cuz they love music, and they’re still passionate about it. They’ve had their record label going for over 20 years. And it’s like, I just think they are people that are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.

And we’ve been around for a while. We’ve bounced around on labels, because the record industry is constantly changing. When we first started the band, people still bought CDs, and now they don’t. Since we started the band, people have started downloading stuff for free, and the media has changed, and the Internet’s evolved, and it’s crazy to think about that but, like, when we started the band, none of us had Internet in our apartments.

It’s weird to think about how much has changed in the time we’d been in this group. But I dunno, finding a label that we’ve been working with for three and a half years that we still feel really strongly about feels pretty fortunate.

Speaking of revenue and paying the bills, you’ve previously said that because Murder By Death isn’t part of any particular scene or genre, you have to do things differently than most bands and think outside the box. Do you think the band’s immense success with Kickstarter campaigns is a direct reflection of its cult-ish fan base?

            Absolutely. We started to realize that that we had something different from other bands pretty early on, because we kept getting offered these tours that were completely different from whatever we were doing at the time. We’d done indie tours, a folksier tour, we did a metal tour, we did an emo tour. So many different kinds of shows.

And that does create this sort of cult-ish fanbase. What we realized was that our music wasn’t for everybody, but it was really for some people. And at that point you just wonder where it’s going to go. We had no clue what our trajectory was, we had no idea that we’d still be doing this years later, that people would still be so passionate about the band. We just kind of ran with it and had been taking it bit by bit.

I remember realizing, it must have been 2008 or something, like, “Oh yeah! We’re what they call a cult band!” Basically, where we’ve never had a big song on the radio, we’ve never been mainstream, like, even for a minute. Like most of our friends’ bands had a moment, when it seemed like they were blowing through the mainstream. We just never had that

But that being said, by having to figure out, “What do our fans want? How can we engage them? How do we get them the ideas that we have in the most effective way beyond just the music?” Like with these concept shows and everything… “How do we make this happen?”

And luckily, we live in a time where you can just send a message out into the ether of the Internet and just like, “Hey, are you guys into this idea? If so, click here!” And yes, as it turns out, so far, most of our ideas are really well received. And so that gives us a lot of confidence to be able to say, “OK, cool, we’re going to crowd source some really incredible stuff.” It’s been a blessing to have such support for our beta endeavors.

Murder By Death has played a 1800s opera house, a secret man-made cavern, an antique shop, a tent up in the Catskill Mountains, a Wild West movie set’s saloon outside the Joshua Tree, and an annual three-night run at the infamous Stanley Hotel in Colorado where Stephen King had a ghost experience that inspired The Shining. Do you recall your experiences in New Jersey, New York, and Philly?

            Oh yeah. Our old label Eyeball [Records] was there and Alex from the label would just put us up when we were kids. We’d stay at his house, and eat really good subs…We just had some really good times. Really fun times partying with those guys. It was such a huge experience for really young kids. I think of how young they were…we were like 19, 20 years old hanging out there. Meeting all these new people in the industry. It was an incredible experience, and formative for us. So I always think fondly of that area.

And I think some of our first, best shows were specifically in Philly and New Jersey. I remember playing a really fun show at Club Krome. We would open up for some of the bands on Eyeball Records. Opening for these totally cross-gene bands like Thursday and My Chemical Romance. There wasn’t music like that in the Midwest. This was more like an East Coast thing at the time. It hadn’t gone national yet, but they were so popular in New Jersey, so we got to open all these shows for them. It was really fun to play for an audience that you have no idea what they were going to think, and get a great reaction.

I remember dressing up at a Halloween show in New Jersey; we were The Addams Family. It was really fun. And playing shows at First Unitarian Church in Philly, playing with totally different bands. Just jumping around, so many shows… And we’d never played any places that big, you know? Being kids and getting to play in a room FULL of people. It was quite an experience.

To celebrate the release of 2008’s Red Of Tooth And Claw, y’all played two shows on the same night in your hometown of Bloomington. What was that like? Did fans show up to both?

            Yeah, we’ve done that a few times. Like, we had never played at the Mercury [Lounge] in New York and I remember a lot of friends saying, “Oh, it’s a really cool club, you should play there,” but it’s pretty small, so we always skipped it over. But a year or two ago we played a couple shows there, and the same thing happened. People attend both shows, and get two totally different sets.

It’s pretty common for bands to do a two-night stand, but this tour that we’re about to do…we’re doing an Irving Plaza play, and then we are doing a Rough Trade show, which is 20% of the size of Irving Plaza. It’s going to be two totally different sets and two totally different shows, which I think is cool because of those people who say, “Oh, well they didn’t play this song.” Well, we’ve learned over 50 songs for this tour, so they’re going probably going to hear it if they come to both.

The tour starts with two nights in Seattle, two nights in Portland, two nights in Boston, and it’s also a really nice way to see a town. So often you just come in a play the venue, play a show, and move on. This way you can actually go out and see somewhere cool, go to a museum, or see a ball game or something. I dunno, it makes you feel like you actually get to see a place.

The atmospheric nature of your music has lent itself to numerous movie soundtracks, including a trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s award-winning film Inglourious Basterds boasting your song “Comin’ Home” from 2008’s Red Of Tooth And Claw. Do you think the band will ever score an entire movie in its entirety, like The Polyphonic Spree (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Thumbsucker) or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Gone Girl)?

            That IS the dream. Fortunately, it’s just the sort of them. If we had ever moved to New York or L.A. early in our career…it seems like…Well, since a lot of scores are moving away from classical music and orchestras and stuff, there are more musicians and bands that are doing score work, and the competition is stuffer. And I think being a band that is living scattered across the country, with no connection of Hollywood…If somebody asks us, yeah. That’s like, our dream. Like yeah, we wanna finance, let’s do it

            Until then, the way that’s it’s kind of worked so far is that we’d have TV shows and things here and there picking up our songs. Usually, someone seeks us out, like, “Hey, I want to use this song”

            Harvey Weinstein emailed our publisher saying they wanted to use our song “Comin’ Home” for Inglourious Basterds. That was pretty cool. That was a really big deal to us. And recently, last month, we got a request to use one of the songs on our new record on…uh, it’s a top show with Ray Liotta and Jennifer Lopez…Shades Of Blue! Physically reached out, the music supervisor to the group. That’s the sort of thing, like, thank you! Yeah, sure, go ahead and use our song.

            I would love to do something specific, and say, like, “Yes, hand me a script I will write something,” but there are obviously a lot of people out there doing that. A lot of musicians, so…

You said that you haven’t smoked weed on stage since you were a teenager. Do you ever sip at a shot of whiskey when you are performing?

            The only ritual I have is that I have a glass of whiskey on stage with me at all times (laughs). It’s the only ritual. It gives you a little jolt of energy, it kinda clears your throat. If you see me sipping something that is not a bottle of water on stage, it’s whiskey. When you’re a band living in Indiana for 15 years, and I’ve been in Kentucky now for two, whiskey’s just what you drink, specifically bourbon. But that’s just the culture. Not only is whiskey such a part of the culture, but the songs celebrate the dark side of it as well.

Whiskey: Neat, on the rocks, or with some soda?

            I usually just drink it straight. Sometimes I’ll put ice in there just to, like, hydrate (laughs).That’s the one thing, because you’re up there for an hour and half, running around on stage. It makes you, uh, pretty tired. But yeah, I mostly just drink it straight.

Ever thought of a run on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with a show at each of the member distilleries?

Actually, we did that at the Kentucky Derby once…We did a Kentucky Derby package called Derby Eve [a show night before the Kentucky Derby]. And after that, we were thinking like, “We will go to Graceland!” and basically we’d play and hang out and eat ribs and stuff.

It kind of seems like, if you want to take a vacation, show up at this place and just party…Kickstarter kind of lets you do all those things. It’s this blend of tangible things and sort of, like, silly ideas, and trying to figure out how to create an actual value and something that feels worth it. It’s just so intangible and Kickstarter is still a pretty new idea. It’s like a sort of patronage, like it’s the Renaissance or something. “We have patrons!”


Murder By Death performs April 15 at Irving Plaza in New York City, April 18 at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, and April 23 at Union Transfer in Philadelphia. For more information, go to