Murder By Death at The Casbah
Murder By Death are currently on a U.S. tour supporting their most recent album, Good Morning, Magpie with The Builders And The Butchers. Good Morning, Magpie has been considered a departure in some ways from their past albums, and has also been hailed by many critics as some of their best work. I, personally, am a huge fan of Magpie and was more than happy to sit down with singer/guitarist Adam Turla before their show to chat about the story behind their most recent album, being compared to Johnny Cash, and the band’s interesting name.
First of all, let’s start with the band’s name. It comes from a 70’s movie of the same name, correct?
What made you want to choose that as your band’s name?
Well we were just starting out, and we wanted to pick a dark name, that also sort of had a sense of humor to it, and that’s what we like about it. But the problem with it is that a lot of people don’t realize that it’s a play on words, they think it should be Death By Murder or whatever, and people think we’re a metal band if they haven’t heard us before.
Yeah that’s what I was going to ask next. Have you had people come to shows expecting something different?
Well they don’t really come to the shows, but the funny thing is that the metal guys tend to like us. We attract a lot of metal fans, which is awesome because for being a not-heavy band, I think everybody in the band actually likes at least some metal. So it’s cool to meet some of the fans, who wouldn’t listen to us if we were named, like, the Fluffy Bunnies or whatever. It works both ways, we’ve definitely scared some people off with the name, but… what can you do.
I recently talked to Geoff from Thursday, who I saw had a hand in getting you guys started. What was the extent of his involvement?
What happened was, our seventh show, we were playing in our town at like, an anarchist bookstore, just doing some little show, and some band ended up getting thrown on because they were trying to pick up some shows, and it was Thursday. They jumped on the show… and later they were telling us “Oh, we’re on this label, you guys should look at recording your music,” but we didn’t really have any money. Anyway, they came back like six months later and were huge, and we opened up for them. It was the first sold-out show we had ever seen. We live in Bloomington, Indiana. I had never even heard of a show selling out. They said they were getting paid to make a record, and encouraged us again to make a record… Their encouragement and support meant a lot to us as a band just getting started. A couple years later, they brought us into Eyeball, who paid for the recording, and then they took us on a tour, which was the first time we had ever supported a tour. I mean, we had been doing shows wherever we could get them, DIY stages, anywhere we could play music… we didn’t know what we were doing. Anyway, on that tour, people began responding really well, and it was the beginning of a new phase for this band. I mean, we were opening shows to a few hundred people for the first time, when before the best show imaginable for us would have been like, a hundred people.
Now since you’ve started, all of your albums have been concept albums, more or less. What is the appeal of doing an album with a continuing storyline?
For me the appeal is that the songs… matter. It forces you to edit the stuff that you’re writing in the sense that… like we have two narrative albums, and the idea is that it’s a story set in the world of these people. The fun part is figuring out how to make it relevant. Like when I started Red Of Tooth And Claw, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just doing it for the sake of doing it. I had really just set out to write songs, and I started to realize that it was a story, and then it becomes really fun. You’re trying to crack your own brain’s code, like “What am I writing about?” Then it leads to, “Okay, this song isn’t really relevant, it’s not going to make the record, because it’s not important to the overall story.” For me it makes it feel like every song has important value.
And with writing stories, do you have any kind of literary background?
In college I studied literature, and I took a lot of poetry writing classes. I tried my hand at a fiction class, but that was really difficult, for me to write such long stuff. I really enjoyed the poetry writing though, I think because it was more like a song, you know?
How did you come up with the general storylines for the albums?
It was always just, I’d be driving by myself, or doing something on my own, and I would just start to get bored, and start humming to myself, build a melody and some words, and that’s kind of how the whole fictional Murder By Death world sound began. I remember the drive, I was driving home for Christmas, and I called Sarah up and said, “Hey I wrote this funny little thing, and this is the intro to Who Will Survive” and it ended up being the beginning of the next ten years of the band… it was just one of those silly things, like “That’s fun, I’m telling this little story about this crazy… the devil, and murder, and this sort of crazy, made-up fantasy world.”
What’s the appeal of that specific subject matter, like the Gothic tones and Western themes?
The fact of it is, I just started writing and that’s the stuff that came out. I think the main thing is, I’m not really interested in feeling-oriented lyrics, and I was wondering how I was going to write songs. I wanted to write about stuff that was interesting and unique, and so I just started writing about whatever sounded interesting to me. It just happened to be stuff that was more… fantastical. I was trying to create fantastical worlds but talk about it in a way that was just like, that’s how things are. It was this idea of taking crazy stuff like the Devil, and make him just a guy. Instead of making it all metaphors, I just wanted to tell a story. I think it really came from being opposed to just writing pop songs, and writing songs that are like… “Oh I miss you, oh I love you…” Like there’s so many people doing that, and many people doing it well, I just hate that relationships are the go-to for 99% of songs.
On your earlier albums, you’ve done a song with Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, You’ve done a song with Geoff from Thursday… What was that experience like?
What happened was, they were both on Eyeball at the time and we knew them, and we would just hang out. Nobody was really that well-known then. So what happened was they were just like, “Hey I want to sing on one of your songs.” So they just came up to the studio where we had been recording, and it was like, “Alright Geoff I guess you can sing some back-up here…” At the time Eyeball was just very family-oriented. Everybody was just really good friends and it was that kind of atmosphere. Unfortunately over time, people just went their different ways. Eventually you find another label and you’re just not working together anymore. I haven’t seen Geoff in years, and it’s been a couple years since I’ve seen the MCR guys, and now you see them in such a different world. They’re like, massive stars… It’s just like watching your college roommate get famous, just one of those things where it’s like, “Wow no s—! Good for you guys!” My mom is still like, “I can’t believe those guys slept on my floor.” We’re really proud of where those guys are at now.
On a your most recent albums, your voice has been compared to Johnny Cash. Is that something you noticed yourself, or didn’t realize until someone pointed it out to you?
Well I started taking voice lessons in 2004, and I had been singing high, and I was not comfortable singing low in the least bit. I hated it. I started singing lower at the instruction of my teacher, and then we started laying down vocals on In Bocca, and then once that album came out I started getting it all the time. When I read that, I was like, “Oh wow, awesome… what a cool person to be compared to!” Like I hadn’t even noticed it… I’ve listened to a few Johnny Cash CD’s… I mean everybody knows some Johnny Cash, but I’m not like a huge listenter. Anyway, it was cool at first, but that’s kind of faded, and I think people are actually getting tired of writing it… It’s a compliment, always, but it’s not like you can do anything about your own voice. I mean you can, you can work with it, and I just hapened to go with that lower tone for the darker stuff.
I’ve read that your writing process for this album was a little different than past albums. What did you do differently?
Well what I did was I went on a back-country camping trip for a couple weeks, just me, by myself, didn’t talk to anybody, and it was… extremely painful. After a few days of being out of touch with the rest of the world… I’m very social, I learned. I just kept wanting to run into somebody to talk to, but that never happened. I would see some people hiking through every once in a while, but that was it. So I had brought a notepad, and I would hike all day, and build fires, and fish, which I actually liked. I wrote about six songs on the album out there that way, and there were a couple others, I scrapped a few. It was just a great way to be alone with your thoughts, because I had nothing to do. I would wake up every morning, make breakfast, maybe do some writing, and then it’s maybe 10:00 and it’s like, “Well this sucks, what am I going to do all day?” So I would just hike and write all day. I think I’m going to do some of that this summer too, with our tour manager. I think we’re gonna go out to Colorado, and hike and fish, and probably do some writing there. It will probably be a shorter trip too… A few days, that’s nice, peace of mind, but a couple weeks…
It seems like there was definitely a sense of loneliness coming out of those songs.
Yeah, it definitely came out, and until the record came out I didn’t really notice it. Then, reading reviews, it was like oh wow. It’s amazing what you can learn about yourself by reading a good review. I wasn’t aware of any theme, because I was just writing. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh I want to write a song about pain.” But going back and listening to it, yeah there definitely is that them. Like it rained a lot while I was out there, and then you see the song “White Noise,” which is about nature taking over and destroying, and a new earth dawning, and I think it was because I was huddled in my flooded tent all night, just wishing I was in a warm place.
Was “King Of The Gutters, Prince Of The Dogs” written out there as well?
No, actually. But that’s actually my favorite song on the record…
That’s absolutely my favorite song as well.
It’s probably in my top three that I’ve ever written, so I’m glad you like it too. That song, it’s funny… There were a couple songs we were practicing that I just didn’t really like for the record, and about a week before we went into the studio, I just did a mad dash, because Ireally needed to write more songs, because there’s a certain mood missing from this album. So I started writing lyrics, poem style, and Sarah also started writing, and we got together and that song just came together so quickly and naturally, and we were so excited as we were writing it, because we had never done anything like it. So we combined our lyrics, which only happens every once in a while, that someone else will pitch in. It was like this mad dash to make the song, and we were realizing that it wasn’t like any of our other songs… and it was probably the fastest we’ve ever recorded a song. As we were recording it, and adding parts, we just knew it was going to be good. I remember the first time I heard it, i just f—ing loved it. For me it’s absolutely one of my favorite songs… we’ll definitely have to play it tonight. I just love how it transforms into something so triumphant, it’s so irresistable to play live.
So you mentioned you’re going to work on new material, do you think you will go back to doing a storyline album?
I just write first, and figure out the rest later. What I want to do is write good songs, and if it works out that it can be a story, then maybe. I don’t want to get bogged down doing the same thing all the time. Like Good Morning, Magpie was not a concept record. But each song was it’s own story, with it’s own mood, like each song was it’s own concept. I liked that, I liked that it just happened. Maybe down the road we’ll want to do another storyline… I just don’t want to do it and have it not be good. I just want to write good songs.
And as it turns out, not only can Turla write good songs, but he puts on an absolutely incredible performance of them as well. It would not be an overstatement to say that Murder By Death’s performance at The Casbah was the single greatest musical performance I have ever experienced. Turla sings with a sincerity and passion that cannot be faked as he goes through an hour and a half of songs, both old and new, including a beautiful performance of “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs.” It was one of the rare concerts I have been to where I absolutely did not want the show to end, and looking around I could tell that the rest of the crowd didn’t want it to end either. There is a reason, my friends, that MBD’s shows have been selling out on this tour. Once you are in a room, surrounded by Turla’s voice, which enters your ears and penetrates deep into your soul, you can’t get enough. Next time these guys stop by San Diego, do not miss the opportunity to see them perform live. Heck, if they’re anywhere within a two-state radius make the trip to go see them. It will be worth it, I promise.