Anywho, recently I was able to nab an interview with a true staple of American Rock. Murder By Death infuse a rock aesthetic soaked in bluegrass Americana with punk-like sense of urgency and vividly depict tragic albeit often redemptive characters set against a truly gritty, amoral, and wholly American backdrop. Adam Turla, main lyricist and guitarist for Murder By Death was able to grant me some time before their gig in San Luis Obispo to talk to me about the future of the concept album, the devil, the effects of isolation, and prequels! So feast your eyes, kids, and read on...
Behind The Hype: So, the first albums you did were really different from the albums that followed in that there was a theme, a narrative, especially with characters that are really tragic or redemptive in your later albums. When did that shift happen? Did you guys decide to start making concept records after that first album?
Adam Turla: Well, it’s like this: we tend to think of each record as a unique thing. So the way I think about our four records is that our first one, we were just trying to figure ourselves out as a band. The second album, which is a concept album, was sort of an accident in that we were just writing a bunch of songs and there seemed to be a story, and that story is about the Devil getting shot in a bar fight in Mexico and vowing to wipe out this town and the towns struggle in this fight. Sorta this good versus evil thing. When it came time to write In Boca Al Lupo, we didn’t want a linear story, but we wanted the songs to be linked, so I took the theme of sin and wrote about different sins. Red Of Tooth and Claw is actually a prequel to our second album. The theme is about this rebellious young man who’s running with the wrong crowd, and this could very well be the character who shoots the devil in the back. But we never announced that it was actually a prequel. People actually started to discover that it was a prequel on their own.
BTH: So you seem really concerned with writing an album as a whole.
AT: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
BTH: On Red Of Tooth And Claw you have a track called “Song for Ennio Moriccone”. Was his instrumentation and orchestration an influence on you? What are some of your bigger influences if any?
AT: Whenever we write records I try not to listen to any other music. I worry that I have a good song stuck in my head I’ll end up duplicating it, so I try to keep an isolated approach to songwriting. I’ve always felt a song should come from inside and should be internal rather than a response to someone else’s great work. With that tribute song, I thought it sounded like an Ennio Moriccone composition.
BTH: So the song doesn’t necessarily reflect any influence.
AT: Well, maybe. I had never thought about him before until I thought ‘this sounds like him’. And since we never have anyone in mind when we write songs, I just thought 'let’s do it'. If you avoid something for a really long time and then you do it later, it can be unique and interesting.
BTH: I only bring that up because your last album seems like the most cohesive album you’ve done yet. It has a very clear theme and is very clearly a concept album.
AT: It’s funny because in In Boca Al Lupo we were strategically trying to make each song unique, like a collection of short stories. But it doesn’t have the same flow, obviously as an album written from beginning to end as a story.
BTH: So do you have a clear idea of the aesthetic for the band and what you guys want to sound like. How does the rest of the band contribute?
AT: I usually start the songs so it generally begins with an idea I have. But I also know what the band will respond to or what they want to play live. At no point do I think of them as a backing band because what they end up playing is usually more interesting than what I would come up with. My strength is writing a melody and singing it and adding some character to it maybe, but they’re much better at making the song unique and making it nuanced. I tend to scrap songs that I think they won’t want to play. Sometimes I’ll write something that’s really catchy and for another band might be a hit. But when I picture it in our context, they would be like, ‘this is boring, let’s not do this’. They’re very critical, which is great because it keeps me level and they keep me from doing something just because it’s poppy or catchy.
BTH: So you’ve had a few minor line-up changes. You replaced your drummer a while ago, you’ve had a keyboardist playing with you on and off. How has that affected the band?
AT: Our new drummer (of 3 years) is really intuitive and understands song structure the way really great drummers do and I really appreciate him being around. If I want a certain emphasis on a hit, he knows what to do and he makes it much more nuanced and interesting so it doesn’t just sound like we’re playing the same beat over and over. Our piano player was a little different. He started an idea on a few songs on the first couple albums, but when he left I just took on more writing. He just didn’t want to tour anymore. It just wasn’t his style.
BTH: A lot of your songs are in a narrative format. Do you draw anything from any personal experience? Some songs are obviously fiction but do those derive from anything you’ve been feeling or have gone through?
AT: Well, I try to think of a mood first. Some songs are pure fiction, some songs are real stories or come from real feelings but are poeticized. You try to indulge the ideas that you have and make them more dramatic so a lot of the songs are real or may be about real relationships or experiences with people. I just think you have to make them a little more interesting when you present them. I like a little of color.
BTH: So what inspired you to make music?
AT: I started playing guitar when I was maybe 13 or 14. The idea of going to high school and trying to do something more interesting than playing Super Nintendo. So it started just with a desire to have a new skill basically, something else to do. It’s funny because I’ve never really thought about it that much. When I got to college I was writing and recording and a met a few other musicians and we started playing together. Then people started asking us to do shows. Then other bands started asking us to play with them.
BTH: You guys tour an awful lot. You guys must really enjoy it. How do you guys get writing done while on touring?
AT: We do love touring, but we just don’t get any writing done. But touring is how we make our money. We’re essentially a bar band. We go around, develop our audience in places and that I love. We like it, but sometimes you do get pretty beat. This tour we’ll be gone for two months. We’re recording our new record at home. Workin’, workin’, workin’, haha.
BTH: Your albums are mostly concept albums, but that idea is kinda dying out. A lot of bands aren’t doing what you do. Few bands ever did.
AT: It’s just a change in the times, you know? I’m not actively fighing against it. We’re just doing what works and what’s best for us. I don’t know if it makes us dinosaurs, or something. But to be fair, we did do two albums back to back, Red Of Tooth and Claw right in to Who Will Survive… and that tour was sold out every night. To me that indicates that there are people that are interesting in hearing an entire album. I don’t think the idea is dead, but we do have an audience. People still buy the entire album instead of downloading just one song off iTunes. Some people like singles. But there are always people who are like “Fuck that, I want 10 good songs that create a mood and that I can get in to.” Some people don’t need to hear the catchiest written all year. And that’s why those bands climb so fast and fall so fast. There’s nothing to hold on to. They got the greatest song written all summer and then November rolls around and the rest of the album is crap. I love when you get the first taste of a band and you love that first song. But as you delve deeper into the song you start to discover other songs that you love more. Sure you still like that song that compelled you to like the band, but it’s not your favorite anymore.
BTH: So early you were talking about going back home and writing. Have you gotten any writing done? Is it going to be a concept album?
AT: It’s not going to be a concept album because I don’t want to wear out the idea. I went into the woods by myself for two weeks. I’ve got about 8 songs done. I just said ‘guys, I’m going into the mountains solo camping for two weeks and I need time to get these ideas out.’ The extreme loneliness was definitely an influence; I was writing to entertain myself at that point. There are definitely some ideas there that came from that experience.
BTH: Cool. So do you guys see yourself doing this for some time?
AT: It’s been 9 years, it’s been a while. I mean, hell, we enjoy it. We have a great time. I don’t want to give it up yet.
BTH: Alright, well thanks for your time, Adam. Have a great show.
AT: Yeah, no problem, thanks.