A band that loves to play and sing songs about whiskey, love, and the Devil, Murder By Death are a musical beast that’s difficult to be tamed. It’s a result of never tying themselves down to one genre and continuously forging their own path; their latest release Big Dark Love, which came out this past February via Bloodshot Records, attests to that with a cavalcade of styles colliding together to make an amazingly original album.
The quintet, forged fifteen years ago out of Bloomington, Indiana, will be playing two New England shows this weekend: tonight at The Met in Pawtucket, and then Sunday at Higher Ground in South Burlington. With the local swing about to kick off, Vanyaland had a chat with guitarist, songwriter, and frontman Adam Turla about not keeping up with trends, working with the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, the band’s longevity in an ever-changing music industry, and the art of the concept album.
Rob Duguay: A dynamic thing I discovered while listening to Big Dark Love were the hints of synth and psychedelic elements going on with the band’s trademark gothic roots style. You can also notice a bit of pop when it comes to the song structure on a few tracks. What inspired you all to meld these dimensions together while making the album?
Adam Turla: I think it’s just trying a way to push the band forward into new territory while also staying true to the bounds of what we’ve been doing. Sometimes it’s a tonal thing, sometimes it’s an instrument thing or sometimes it’s song construction. When I started writing the songs before we even started rehearsing, I was writing in a bunch of different styles and I went in a way where I wanted to push the group. For the last three or four years the Americana revival sort of just exploded to the point where I was writing this record a year-and-a-half ago and by then my ears were fatigued and tired of the sound.
It’s something that we’ve always dabbled in and I decided to move away from that and more towards some synth sounds, a little bit of a psych element and more delay. It’s just to embrace a side of the band that had appeared on a few songs before but we were gonna make a record that was more into that direction. The guy we worked with on the record Kevin Ratterman enjoyed that type of stuff as well so it definitely encouraged us to go that way.
When the Americana revival happened a few years ago, what was your initial reaction to it? The band was doing that type of stuff back in the early 2000s, so were you immediately alienated by it or did you start to embrace it?
When you’ve been in a band for 15 years like we have, you become an intimate observer of trends and our whole thing our entire career is that we never fit in. There’s always a group of bands that we can play with during whatever the current trend is but it doesn’t necessarily make us the lead group of a genre. We’re always kind of doing our own thing and we’ll play with this band, then this other band and then we’ll open up for whoever is exploding in popularity from out of nowhere. We just embrace the career element of being a versatile and flexible band. Musically it has little or no effect on us, when it happened I thought “Hmmm, maybe I won’t write as many Americana songs because I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.” I tend to be very reactionary if I’m doing something that a lot of people are doing, it instantly leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I want to go in the other direction.
You don’t want to ground yourself to one thing.
It’s not the nature of this group. We’ve always been on the fringe and on the outside so the idea of trying to embrace a popular trend would be counter-intuitive for all of us.
Now Big Dark Love is the band’s second release off of Bloodshot Records, so how has the experience been from working with the Chicago based label?
They’re great. They’re almost an anachronism at this point in that they’re a classic example of what an independent label is supposed to be. They’re people who love music who are fully invested, they’re celebrating their 20th anniversary this year which is pretty awesome. They’re in it for the right reasons, they believe in the bands that they represent and they treat their bands with integrity. They’re known for being really good about paying their bills, I can tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard or been a part of from the music industry with a bunch of crooks. It’s populated with people who are just not honest, they are aloof or they’re flighty. It’s so refreshing to work with people that are doing it the right way, it’s been a great experience for us and we’ve been very happy with them. In a week or two we’re going to be heading to Chicago and playing with another Bloodshot band called Banditos.
Banditos are fantastic, I absolutely love their self-titled debut they came out with this year. I’m a huge fan of them.
I haven’t heard the album yet but I was going to get it at the show.
It’s a gem, it’s going to blow your mind. You mentioned before how Murder By Death has been around for 15 years, it’s funny how time flies. If you can bring up a memory of insanity and chaos from being out on the road over the past decade-and-a-half, what would it be?
Here’s something to put in perspective, our van is called The Pork Chop Express 5 because our first van was The Pork Chop Express and we’ve been successively naming them as we get new ones. We were totaling up the miles that we’ve put on each tour van and in just the vans that we have owned in the United States, not including shows we’ve flied to, we’ve driven over a million miles. We figured out that we’ve driven to the moon and back twice.
That’s nuts. As proof from a few Murder By Death songs, you’re no stranger to whiskey. So what’s your favorite brand of it these days? Do you drink any specific brands or do you don’t care?
I’m not that big of a brand guy, we live in Kentucky now and all the good whiskey is there. There are so many awesome companies here that are making affordable, awesome whiskey, we just buy whatever is around and if there’s something new we always try it. I’ll totally drink Bulleit because it’s probably the best big box, mainstream one out there that’s not super expensive. It’s the local drink and I consider it to be the national spirit.
One of my favorite Murder By Death albums is Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left Of Them? that came out in 2003. For those who don’t know, it’s a concept album about the Devil waging war against a small village in Mexico. What inspired the band to create such an album and songs with themes including the Devil among other topics? Can we expect another concept album in the future?
Maybe, I don’t know. I think every record we’ve done has a thread that we follow in the songwriting and we try to link together songs to make it feel like a concept album. I might do another thing like that, I have an idea for one but I’m just not ready to write it right now. I need to decide if I want to approach it that way. Having set ideas when you sit down and write can sometimes be problematic because you try to force it but with that record it just came very naturally. It was really early in our career and I was experimenting with lyric writing for the first time. I was taking a lot of poetry and creative writing classes at the University Of Indiana and I just found myself being so bored during the classes by most of the lyrics in the songs because, like usual, most of them are love songs with throwaway lyrics.
I was trying to create something that I just had never heard before so I just wrote this story and I tried to tell it through those songs. It was fun to have a comprehensive theme and I was really lucky that people reacted to it. We were all 20 and 21 when we were working on it so it was a long time ago. It’s nice that people still like it, we’re lucky that though the record was how we got our start people have payed more attention to us as we’ve moved on and we’re grateful for that. When that record came out and during the years surrounding it we were still very small and very broke.
MURDER BY DEATH :: Friday, July 10 at The Met, Hope Artiste Village, 1005 Main St. in Pawtucket, RI; 8 p.m., all ages, $17 day of show; advance tickets :: Sunday, July 12 @ Higher Ground, 214 Williston Road in South Burlington, VT; 7:30 p.m., all ages, $15 advance and $18 day of show; advance tickets