Murder By Death

Five albums into their career, Bloomington, Indiana's Murder By Death have truly honed in on something special with their newest full length, Good Morning, Magpie. Plucking all the high points from albums past, and exploring new territory along the way, MBD's newest effort touts their signature Americana gothic sound behind singer Adam Turla's whiskey-soaked, haunting baritone howl. Just prior to their current U.S. tour, Turla took a break from cleaning squid to chat with Michael Dauphin about touring, writing, DIY ethics, labels and the lack of female producers in the music industry.

Your band has been on labels on both coasts and toured the world several times over. What keeps you in Bloomington, Indiana? And please don’t take that as a knock on Bloomington.

Well, personally, I don’t really like big cities, so I’ve never felt like we needed to transfer to a big city. I’m sure there would be benefits to our career in certain ways by moving to a big city. But I think we are happier living here than we would be… I mean, I’m not really attracted to the idea of moving to a big city. I’m not a very fashion-oriented, modern-type person. So being in the hot spot of the latest thing in culture really doesn’t have anything to do with my life. In a place like [Bloomington] I can have a nice little house; I can do this rock n’ roll thing without having to spend a ton of money on rent and bills. My friends are here and the people I love are here… I just love this town. It’s like a perfect blend of a small country town, but it has the college element as well where you can get your counterculture. You get your live music, your indie movies, and that kind of stuff.

Murder By Death is gearing up for the release of your newest effort, Good Morning, Magpie. How would you explain this release compared to all of your previous albums?

Well, with this one, it was like every record we’ve made, we try to make them each distinct. You know, we don’t want to keep making the same record over and over. With the last record our goal was, "let’s make a rock record. Let’s make it a mid-tempo upbeat rocker." I think it’s important whenever you’re writing to not get stuck doing the same thing over and over. We were just really happy that we came out with material that we thought was different, yet still fresh and consistent with Murder by Death.

The first song we released online was "Foxglove." The thing is, when the label said, "this is the single we think you should stick with," we thought, "really?" It’s so… like… happy. It’s not just purely happy—we just hoped people didn’t get the wrong idea. But the thing is, people really liked it and the coolest thing I’ve seen are the comments from people saying, "It’s different but I like it." I love the faith that people have and, you know, they’re not assuming we’re going to make some huge 180 that’s going to suck.

I think it may be one of the more distinct "singles" your band has written. It’s always interesting to hear a band venture in a new direction.

It’s lovely to be heading in any direction, you know? It’s been ten years now and it’s funny because it’s easy to laugh off what we used to discuss as a band. You know, for the first couple of albums, every time we put one out we would have this thought, "maybe this will make us successful." We weren’t banking on that or anything, but you’re just thinking, "who knows, maybe this will break us or something," without having any understanding of the music industry. And now we’re just enjoying ourselves while we make them—having fun with it. We still have a sense of wishful thinking, but we’re really just trying to enjoy ourselves along the way.

We’ll put out our album, hit the road, and we are lucky enough to have extremely supportive fans that basically just go out on a limb for us and come and see us every time. They buy our records, get all the vinyl and they keep us totally afloat and able to be creative and do these projects. We are just blessed to have ‘em.

Getting back to the album, I understand you hunkered down in the Appalachian Woods to write lyrics. Could you explain that experience?

Sure, it’s simple. I didn’t want to put out a record that was thrown together while I was caught up in the midst of typical band stuff. When bands get professional and it becomes their job, so often it feels like the songs become, "oh fuck, we gotta write this song! Is it going to be out in time?"

I didn’t want to just get stuck forcing myself to be creative. So what we did was… I had all these little ideas that I developed over a period of eight or nine months and then I felt so busy at home, from being on tour to recuperating from tour, or like handling business of the band and whatever at home. Which is the boring shit… I decided to head out to the woods by myself for two weeks and I basically just took all my ideas and turned them into real songs and had no other purpose for two weeks other than writing songs. And it’s funny because two weeks doesn’t sound like that much time but I had learned that two weeks without talking to another person is an extremely long time. I learned also that just the experience of writing and only writing for two weeks—I’ve never spent that much time writing songs in my life.

I had nothing else to do rather than eat, shit and write songs. It was rough but it was great. It was cool because I would get so board and then I would hike all day for like 20 miles and just write. I would have a book with me where I would write down the lyrics and the melodies as they came to me. I was just constantly editing, which is cool because there are songs where I have spent like fifty hours just changing little things and the differences are so small that it might not have mattered that much in the end, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Were you actually hiking the Appalachian Trail and just kind of camping along the way?

No, I just went down to the [Great Smoky Mountains National Park] and there was no goal in mind really. I just like to camp; I like being in the woods. I really just went to The Smokey’s because I thought, you know, I’ve been there before and it’s a gorgeous area. I figured it would be a good place to just spend some time unraveling, you know? I didn’t have any hiking path; I wasn’t hunting or anything. It just was what it was. I wanted a good setting for the creative process.

I read a comment stating that this is album is a little more personal than previous efforts. I’m guessing that is meant in a lyrical sense. In what way would you say the album is more personal than your other albums? Where there certain things going on in your life that lead to this direction, or was there a conscious effort to write more personal and not as literal?

That’s a good question… I don’t know if I had said that or if somebody else had said it about the record, but I think it has to be more personal. I was writing the lyrics during a time where it was just me. I was out there by myself writing all the words and I didn’t want it to be another concept record, and instead what I got was a record that is unique from time-to-time.

There is also a nature-themed thread in there and that’s just from being out [in the woods] so long. The last two songs are kind of doomy and nature-inspired. The whole time I was out there it just poured and that was something that was very much on my mind. I was just thinking the whole time, "God, seriously, it’s eventually got to stop raining." And it just didn’t—it was doomy, it was just ridiculous. At one point it was raining so hard my tent was just filling with water and I had to run a couple miles back to my car which was parked by a river and I was worried that the car was going to roll into the river. And it wasn’t my car—I borrowed it from my buddy. So I was like, "Oh god, I cannot let his fucking car go in the river!" I was constantly thinking, without seeing people for so long, "What if I hurt my leg or something?"

I would imagine there would be a sense of paranoia that you wouldn’t normally have.

I’m not a paranoid person, even though I like to think I have a good imagination. But still, when you’re completely on your own, you almost [get paranoid] just to entertain yourself. You got nothing else to do.

It’s funny you talk about the sense of doom and gloom because, musically, this is probably one of your more upbeat albums, which is, in a sense, building off your last album—like you mentioned earlier. But, to me, this is definitely your most upbeat album. Would you say that was deliberate?

Yeah, absolutely. I brought it to the bands’ attention as we were working on the songs. I asked them early on, "Is this out of left field, does this work for you?" The guys were very supportive. They liked the material and the reason I wanted to do was that I liked how different it sounded. I mean there are still tons of, you know… The last song, "The Day" is really doomy. And "White Noise" is pretty dark and depressing. But even the songs that are lighter, I feel like they haven’t lost the tone of previous material.

It seems like, lyrically, it kind of balances itself out because the darkness is still there musically, yet the lyrics present a brighter tone. And not to completely change gears, but last time I spoke with you, you told me about an interesting experience you had with Shane McGowan (The Pogues). You had mentioned that while you were touring with them you had the opportunity to ramble around San Francisco in a convertible with him and his wife, while the two of you drank sake. I have to say that "As Long as There is Whisky in the World" seems like a tip of the hat to Shane and The Pogues.

Sure. I love that group and I wrote that song about like six years ago and we never knew what to do with it. Then right when we got in the studio we weren’t super happy with the song. So I sat down with our drummer and we said, "What can we do to make this different?" So we changed around the drums a lot—we changed the key. Then we ended up changing the guitar to a slide guitar to have a different kind of tone. It really gave [the song] a lot more character. I didn’t want it to sound just like an Irish song or something because whiskey songs are, you know… The Irish do them well just as much as we can do like a more western American flare. We wanted to make something with more of a Murder By Death sound. I’m a huge Shane McGowan admirer, I have always loved his lyrics.

What made you guys decide to produce this album on your own? I know last time you guys recorded with Trina Shoemaker, and I know she helped out with this one too.

The thing is we’ve never really had a producer. Both with Trina and J. Robbins, we went into the studio and recorded. They were not hired to change the songs or anything. They were there to make it sound good and both of them decided to call it co-producing in the end. So with this one we talked to Trina and she said her real passion is actually mixing albums. And she suggested, "Hey if you ever want me to mix stuff I would love to work with you guys again." So we have been recording locally with a friend of ours with Farm Fresh Studios and he does great work. He knows us really well. He has been recording all our B-Sides and extra projects for years and so we decided, "Lets just go to Jake, give it a shot." We took about three weeks or a month to record and sent it off to Nashville, had it mixed by Trina. She understands us so well and Jake understands us so well that we can just be totally direct with each of them.

This is just a personal curiosity. What’s your take on the shortage of women in producing and mixing? What’s the deal?

Yeah, I think more records could use a woman’s touch. When we were looking for a producer for Red of Tooth and Claw we talked to a woman we know who manages producers and she had gotten us introduced to J. Robbins. She gave us a list and the last name on the list Trina Shoemaker and I think the comment said something like, "Say what you will about women producers, Trina is a fucking badass and she’ll knock it out of the park." We looked at the list and there were some really impressive names on it and yet we saw Trina’s name we were like… we knew some of the records she’s done and we were sittin’ there like, "Holy shit, I have never even thought of this but I can’t name a single female producer!"

It’s really weird when you think about it.

Now I could [name other female producers]. It’s just sort of amazing to realize that it’s totally a missing thing. I just don’t get it. So we basically listened to all of her stuff and talked to her on the phone just to sort of feel each other out just see like, "Ok is this someone I want to spend this much time with on the project?" And we had this conversation that was just instantaneous—we understood each other immediately. So we decided to go for it and, honestly, it’s going to be a relationship that lasts a long time.

Changing gears a bit, I have seen you guys several times live and you guys are always touring with a great mix of artists. I’m convinced you guys could tour with anyone and make it work. What do you attribute that to because I’m not sure too many other bands can pull that off?

I don’t know. Part of it is sort of out of necessity and we just tour with the bands that have asked us to support them. And then when we’re on tour headlining, we always just pick stuff that we like. We will often get bands that will submit for our tours that are much bigger than the ones we take out. We will just say, "I don’t think our audience will like it and it will end up costing us a lot of money because those people could have brought a lot more tickets to the door, which would have benefited us." But we’ve had so many people come to us and say they have heard of so many bands because they went to see us and liked the opener. We’re not going to just bring out a band because they are going to make a little more money. We have a decent sense of trust between our band and our fans and that wouldn’t work out for either of us.

You guys have a lot of experience with record labels. You’ve been on an indie (Eyeball Records); you’ve been on your own subsidy of a major (Tent Show/East West); and now you guys are on Vagrant, which is like a super-indie. How do you size up all of these experiences and how are things currently working out with Vagrant?

Well, like you said, we have had a lot of experiences. For the most part, most of them have been positive. There’s been a lot of change in the time we have been a band too. And we are talking about it frequently. When we started this band people bought CD s, and that was like the main way that we made money. All of the tours in our early years, we survived those by selling cds. I remember when we would sell like one hundred cds in a night. I mean, that would like blow my mind. Even though we sell more merch on average now, I don’t think we have sold a hundred cds in a night for years. It’s like people don’t buy them anymore. That’s been a major thing of change.

You can’t really perceive labels in the same way you used to be able to because the labels are struggling to stay afloat. It’s like every experience has been totally different because the climb has been different. Like Eyeball Records was an independent label, and that was the first time anyone put our stuff out. And then we ended up going over to East/West, which was us starting our own label. We just tried to feel it out our own way with that. I think we were concerned at the time that with our rising popularity, that a label might be labels that try to alter us down and put limits on how we saw our creativity. So we went with that option because it was complete creative control.

By the time we found Vagrant, there was just sort of like an understanding. When we found Vagrant we had a few things that we had already set up, like we put out all our own vinyl. Well, basically, I put out all our own vinyl. I order the records, I send in the proofs, I have my friends do layout. I mail all the records that people order from our store. I box them up and take them to the post office. We could hire people to do that but you know, it’s kind of cool doing it yourself. It makes you so much more involved in the actual process. But this is how we make our living.

I got an email the other day asking all these questions about like the special edition vinyl and I wrote him back. I’m like, "I remember your name from the billion orders you had, and you don’t know how many times I have written your name on a cardboard box. So I’m going to give you the whole low down on this." And it’s funny as I go through it, I totally remember all these names from the eight times they ordered vinyl from me because every time we put something out they order something. And there is a connection there. Even though I don’t know these people—I don’t know what they look like, I am very aware that these people are constantly helping us and constantly supporting what we do. And I think in terms of the labels, Vagrant helps us market the records. I like everyone that I talk to that works there. They make sure people know the record is out and available and in stores. But I try to do as much stuff hands-on as possible, just because there is no one who knows your band better than you.

And on top of giving you a better perspective, I’d imagine it keeps you grounded in a sense.

I think one of the big problems that happens, I think it’s the separation between the band and the fans. And when you’re talking about bands that are playing like 200 to 2,000-seaters, you know, you’re not that famous. There really shouldn’t be that much of a separation. I understand when the person can’t walk down the street without getting recognized and just wants a moment’s peace. But it’s like if you’re playing 500-seaters all around the country, you’re just not that famous. It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t have to separate yourself so much.

I just have one more quick question for ya: What’s the story behind your flame-shaped guitar?

The flame guitar? Oh, basically a bunch of years ago this company reached out to our old manager and was like, "We are a new company, would anybody be interested in one of these guitars?" I saw the thing and I basically laughed and jumped for joy at the same time. I thought it was ridiculous and awesome. So I told them I’d take one and I ended up getting it for free. That was like 2004. It’s still a fun item to pull out here and again. I think I’m going to put it to rest for a while and then bring it back in like a year or two. You got to make people miss it, you know? And it just makes the heart grow fonder.

Maybe you can throw a bottle opener on that one as well.

Have you seen our bass players?

That’s exactly what I’m referring to. I can’t believe I haven’t seen more bands do that.

Yeah it’s this custom bass and he got it with a bottle opener thing, and they were like, "Oh, we couldn’t put it on because we were worried about if it went in the wrong place, it could really alter the sound." So the bottle opener just sat with all the screws in the case for like three months and then one day, we got to the club early and I was like, "Dammit Matt, it’s gone on long enough. Put that fucker on!" Matt was like, "Yeah, you’re right." That night he cracked his first brew on it.