Murder By Death
Contributed by writethatbitch, Posted by Vagrant Interviews

Last month, Murder by Death joined Gaslight Anthem on a US tour. Murder by Death's dynamic indie rock sound sat well with audiences before welcoming Gaslight Anthem to the stage each night. Now in their ninth year, they've played shows internationally with a load of different bands from a variety of genres and that's what they're aiming to do. They recently completed an instrumental soundtrack for the new science fiction book Finch by award-winning author Jeff VanderMeer. While they're currently working on new material, you can check out their 2008 Vagrant release, Red of Tooth and Claw. Stephanie Thornton spoke with vocalist and guitarist Adam Turla before their sold-out show at the 9:30 Club in D.C. on October 22nd.

So you were playing shows throughout Europe over the summer, how were those tours and did you have a particular place you preferred playing in Europe?

We mostly just like going over there because it’s really wild to jump from one sort of cultural style to another. I think the fun of touring Europe is being somewhere new everyday or every couple days. You go to Italy which is such a culture of food and a certain attitude and a look to the land. Then you go to Germany and it’s completely different in every way and there’s something exciting about getting to jump between these various cultures that we love. We had a great time and then we toured Greece about a month and a half ago which is gorgeous. We played in front of Mount Olympus and we played in Athens in view of the Acropolis. It’s just crazy to find yourself in this sort of foundation of Western civilization while you’re playing a rock show.

That’s got to be pretty breathtaking . . .

Yeah it’s just crazy. I think when we started our band there was no thought we’d ever find ourselves in Greece because of the band. You hope that you’ll get to travel to see the world… you’re sort of thinking of travel as sort of a generic thing, and then you realize how many opportunities you have to see crazy stuff. I mean this summer we played Italy and we were taking a ferry to the island of Sardinia and on the way we stopped at Pisa and saw the leaning Tower of Pisa. You know, it’s like "What?! Alright!"

How is the tour with Gaslight Anthem going? Is this your first tour together?

Yeah, this is their first bug headlining tour. They were going to come out with us a year ago when they were starting to get some buzz, so they wanted to be the second band, but we had already confirmed a band. So we went with another option and we were like, "Oh we’ll just go with them next time," and then when the next time rolled around they were asking us.

Oh man, that’s wild.

Yeah, so it’s been a good tour. The shows have been really big. And you know it’s always incredible to play a big room that sounds great. We’ve been able to play places we wouldn’t normally have been able to do on another tour.

Cool. So, how do American audiences compare to the ones you had in Europe?

It’s funny, in some ways it’s more complicated and in some ways it’s even similar than I would’ve expected. For one, American audiences sing along more. They speak English better (laughs). It’s so simple, but even if they are rowdy, or super into the show, or really respectful in Europe, you don’t get the amount of singing along. I love that about American shows - they’re always a little crazier. But even when you go to Europe, their attentiveness is incredible. We’ve played shows that were a 20 song set, and they want us to come on for an encore, and we’ll do that - we’ll do two songs. And then they want us to come on for another one, and we’ll do two songs. And then they’ll just keep clapping and they won’t stop clapping to the point where we’re standing there saying, "Do we know any more songs?" Then we’ll be like, "Alright this is the last song we know how to play." And that’s kind of hilarious. Obviously they do an excellent job of stroking our egos… its fun. It’s interesting to compare because when we’re in Europe we’ll be the only band - there’ll be like one band opening for us instead of like a whole tour package.

Yeah they want more out of one band. So, Gaslight’s style is pretty different from Murder by Death. Are you all fans of Gaslight Anthem?

We weren’t as familiar beforehand. We had just heard a little bit. But yeah, we have come to be, certainly. I guess it’s different. There are certain songs that make more sense to their audience. They have a really upbeat, nostalgic sound. We have a much darker thing… some upbeat songs, but more downers and slower instrumentals. We have been testing out the material and seeing what people respond to. Trying stuff that’s really different from what they do, trying stuff that’s more similar. We’ve been experimenting over the course of two months what we should do, and how people will respond to each style.

Yeah, I was going to ask about that. This tour has a pretty varied line-up featuring Gaslight Anthem, Murder by Death, The Measure (SA), and the Loved Ones. So, what advantages can you find in such a diverse tour and are there any disadvantages?

This tour has changed a lot. There have been different openers. The Measure has only played one show so far… and before that it was Broadway Calls which is a punk band from Portland. Before that it was Frank Turner from England… and we have the Loved Ones who are like smarter, older dudes playing rock ‘n’ roll punk… they’d all get the audience into a excited frenzy, and then we’d play and maybe depress them a little bit.

Yeah (laughs)

We’ll do our drinking song thing, but we’ve had a great response. And then Gaslight will come up and obviously it’s their tour… It’s kind of nice with the diverse tour because then we can meet bands that we never would’ve met. We never would’ve played with any of these bands if we were headlining a tour because it’s just a tour of a different circle. It’s definitely more of a punk tour than we usually play. It’s been cool to kind of branch out.

Yeah I was going to ask a question about that. You guys are praised for having a unique style that incorporates a cello and an electronic keyboard. What type of fans are you able to draw with that style? Do you feel you can kind of steer people in a different direction from what they’re typically used to?

That’s kind of the idea. That’s what we’ve done since we started playing as a national touring band. We would just take tours, just take whatever the best option was, and sometimes we’d just take the only option. So we’ve just played for a huge variety of fans. We’ve played with metal bands, we’ve played with indie bands, we’ve played with artsy bands, goth, emo, punk, stoner, rockabilly, we’ve done it all. It’s been our angle - you go up there and you play for these people and you try to win them over no matter what their genre is.

It’s been an advantage for our career, since we’re sort of a unique band, we do go up there and people are surprised, people who have never heard of us. They’re surprised by the sound, and you can see them and they’re either like, "Eh, whatever" or they’re like, "Wow, this is unique, I like this". We’ve actually won a lot of our fans by playing in front of other acts. It’s really helped us. But then again, you don’t have an identity in the same way. Like, if you’re a young punk band and you’re going out with an older punk band you know that fans are going to respond really well to you. It’s an identity that they’ve already committed themselves to.

Yeah, totally. You kind of touched on another question I was going to ask just for fun. People are quick to judge a band by their name rather than reading a review or listening to myspace tracks for a few seconds. I’ve seen a lot of hilarious assumptions made about Murder by Death’s style. Just for fun, are you more annoyed or amused at these assumptions?

These days we’ve been playing for over nine years together. We’re not really worried about that anymore because we have a pretty good thing going and I guess at this point it’s so easy to go online and in 30 seconds you’d know that we’re not a death metal band or something.

(Laughs) Right.

It’s pretty clear with the fact that we have a cello and the way that we sing . . .so it’s kind of one of those things where I’m not like annoyed or amused. I’m just kind of like, "Yep." It’s just part of the deal . . .

So getting back to the tour, although it seems to be rarely updated, I enjoy the food blog on your website, especially Sarah’s most recent haiku about a feta wrap. What was the inspiration behind turning your tour blog into a food blog?

It’s just that when you tour as much as we do, you eat every meal at a restaurant. And so, the idea is that Sarah and I especially are both really into food. It was before we were in a band; we both come from families that love to cook for fun, you know? So when you are eating out at every meal, it becomes an important part of your day in that it’s an opportunity to sort of escape from the idea of being on the road - to go out and have a good meal. It can totally change your mood . . . I started going out and I’m like "Man, that meal was awesome!" We just went to some random restaurants that were some of the closest ones to the club and they turn out to be really good. I finally decided I needed to start writing them down. Then I realized, I could just write a review about each of these meals… and people liked it. People responded to it and thought it was fun. A lot of people these days are really into going out and trying new restaurants. It’s been a fun thing to write about, and it gives you something to do on the road.

And Sarah’s doing an anti-food blog. For all the worst meals of the tour she writes a haiku.

Yeah, that’s the one I read. I think that’s a pretty creative idea.

Yeah, we’re doing that for fun, just to make ourselves feel a little better about the awful meals we had.

So tell us a little about the book soundtrack for Finch. How did you get involved with that?

The author, Jeff Vandermeer, reached out to us. He said "I’m a big fan. I’ve got this new book coming out in November. I listened to your records pretty much the whole time I was writing it, so I would love if it makes any sense at all, for you to write a soundtrack. I would include it with the special edition copies of the book." We read that e-mail and our publicist got back to us and said "This guy is for real. He’s got a lot of fans and he’s got a whole lot of science fiction awards…" So we wrote back saying "It’s such a weird idea, that we like it, we really like it. So send us a copy of the book, and if we like it we’ll move forward." So we all read the book and we thought it was really cool. So we went into the studio - we rarely have time to do stuff like this, but it happened to work out. We went into the studio in August and we took five days and we wrote music to go with the scenes of the book. We wrote like it was going with a movie almost, and we scored those scenes. It’s all instrumental, and we got to experiment and try something we had never done before - to write to a book, and also to do an all instrumental release. It was really fun. It just worked. We just wrote and wrote and recorded. It’s just something totally new for us.

It seems like something totally new in general. I had never heard of something like this before.

Right, neither had we. That’s what we thought was cool.

Your lyrics tend to be honest and heavy. Who are some of your favorite lyricists, what do you admire in lyrics, and how do you incorporate that into Murder by Death?

I like unique lyrics. My favorite thing to do is to write about stuff in a different way. I try to stray from love songs because it’s such a traditional material and there are so many people that have an entire career of like relationship songs. I jut didn’t want to get sucked into that world of sort of repeating yourself. I mean some people do it so well. That’s just not where we saw ourselves when we were writing material. We were trying to get it to more of a fictional approach, which is a weird idea and we totally just write about weird subjects. Who Will Survive… is about a devil getting shot in a bar fight, and it’s a whole album based around the idea of revenge and it’s sort of a fun story that you can kind of immerse yourself in. We always would try to make the music fit the lyrics. So we kind of look at the lyrics and we’re like, "How do we communicate this musically?" and that’s kind of just the aim of the band is to kind of unite the words with the music in a way that’s much more thought about than a lot of acts do. I think we really wanted to make sure that it’s not just words over music. They exist together and really function off of each other. That’s been a major step in writing. We’re going to go home and do a lot of writing a recording in about a week. I’ve got all the songs and melodies done, but what we really need to do is set it to music.

So do you think the upcoming album will have a theme to it as well?

I didn’t want to do a concept record the way we have done in the past because I didn’t want to repeat my self and I knew the guys would probably enjoy something different from a writing perspective. This album has some themes, but it’s not about one thing. I wanted to have more isolated tracks. That’s creatively what sounded more fun.

I wanted to ask about the evolution of your sound overall. When you look back on the four full lengths and the latest project with Finch, what are your thoughts on Murder by Death’s musical progression over the last nine years from Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing to Red of Tooth and Claw?

The main thing about the band to us is to try and keep it interesting. We wanted each album to feel different and also fit under the banner of Murder By Death. We wanted to sort of create a world of Murder by Death, but yet make each album have its own thing. Our first album we were just trying to figure out what sort of band we wanted to be. Our second album was like an accidental concept record that told a story. Our third album, we were trying to make it like a book of short stories where each song just had a certain feel. On our fourth album the idea was to do a linear story but a very consistent rock record. We wanted it to be more of a rock record than our past records. And so the Finch record is totally different. It’s funny because at times we try to make homages to kind of older styles or songs. I think in some ways the Finch record, which is the latest thing we’ve done, starts out like a full release. I think at moments on it, fans of our first release will identify with it most, more so than our more modern fans. That’s something I saw - that musical tendencies that we had on our older records were coming up as we were working on that, which is pretty fun. We were kind of able to bring back some old style. The whole thing with us has been kind of moving forward while occasionally making nods to the past.

I’ve heard a few people compare your voice to Johnny Cash. Did he play into your major influences at all or Murder by Death’s influences in general and what other artists have had a profound impact on Murder by Death?

Yeah I’ve been getting that one a lot. Probably thousands of times. It’s one of those ones where I feel people naturally when they hear something that want to find a frame of reference. They say "What is this like, what does this remind me of? Ok, this." And that’s great. I think I like Johnny Cash just as much as anybody, but I don’t really listen to him a lot or anything. I certainly didn’t mean to sound like him or something (laughs). It’s a very big compliment to be compared to someone that is one of the major recording artists of the last century. For me though, the singer that I always wanted to be about to sing like, that I really like, is Eric Burdon of The Animals. His style, where he sings like a very low part and then he kind of yells. It’s sort of ballsy shout-singing. That really attracted me as a style, and that’s been something that I’ve been enjoying. I love the idea of a very dynamic song vocally. It’s just so much more fun to sing that way than to do a flat, straight forward song. I love dynamics with singing.