The new-to-Louisville residents Murder By Death have been creating albums and stories through song for over a decade now. They've built an (oc)cult-like following and maintained an impressive pace in the independent music world. The band continues this legacy with their newest full-length, Big Dark Love, which hits the shelves and Internet downloads on February 3, 2015. Interviews Editor Britt Reiser and Bojangs Hughes sat down with vocalist/guitarist Adam Turla on the morning after night one of their three-night run at the historic haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado to discuss the annual Stanley Hotel shows, the new album, the Great Lakes and ghosts.
Where did the inspiration for these Stanley Hotel shows come from?
Just my idea; I kind of said it last night. When we started the band we just had a lot of really weird ideas of everything and anything you can do being in a band -- the power to coordinate something through an audience. We had all these ideas for concept shows, and I would tell you what some of them are, but honestly I don't want people to steal them. I let one leak to a friend and they stole the idea. They acted like they came up with it. And it's my dream, my number one concept idea and they're probably going to do it. It sucks.
We have these ideas for something that's more interesting than just another club show. We came up with it five or six years ago. We have become pretty popular in Denver, our shows do quite well here. I talked to Scott from AEG about three years ago. He said, "I love this idea! You should do it; no one's ever done it. I'll help you." He started talking to the hotel, trying to feel it out, figure out what it would really cost. We had the help from our booking agent and management, too. We have to bring in a PA system and we're basically running a one-band music festival. It's the perfect place because we have a lot of movie lovers as fans. We're popular here; we're looking at airports that are cheap to fly into, rent cars from. People can come from Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado. People come from all over. Last year there was a girl from Russia, from Australia.
The idea was to create something that is not traditional. We're basically just hosting a party. We're the entertainment and then the party can keep on going. That's honestly my favorite part of the whole show, it's afterwards. I like the shows, 25 percent concert, 25 percent atmosphere, 25 percent party, you know? There's an element of vacation to it for everyone. Three people got engaged last year, someone got engaged last night. I met a couple last night from Fargo who had said they had not taken a vacation since 2001. Life just got in the way and they were so happy to be here.
Last year we sold 300 tickets a night. We said we'd do two nights, I think people will come? They're $50 tickets though which we've never done. I think the highest we've ever done is $25 in New York? Hopefully it works. It sold out the first day, both shows. So we added a third and it sold out. This year we upped the capacity to 500 and all three shows sold out almost immediately. Obviously we're tapping into something we like. And for us it's a dream because we love it. It makes more sense with more people too. The hotel is sold out, they're happy. The bar is full, they're happy. And with a lot more people it's more festive.
How did the hotel respond when you brought the idea to them?
Well, that was Scott. He was the intermediary promoter. From the get go I saw the e-mail threads. It seemed like they were interested in the idea, and said, "Well, let's give it a shot."
Do you think they were intimidated by your name?
Probably, but they're also known for film festivals. We get a lot of grief for the band name. I was in a final list of being a "brand ambassador" for a Bourbon company. The marketing team loved it, our band is known, we do whiskey songs, it makes a lot of sense. The lawyers were just like "nope!" It's happened quite a few times in our career, which I didn't expect. It doesn't even make sense! It's a Neil Simon-written movie with like a million famous people in it. The argument is that for every person you lose, some people like it more because it's weird. We've become this cult band. Every time we've kicked ourselves for not becoming more popular in the mainstream or something, well, actually we're doing a lot better this way.
We noticed y'all do well in Colorado. Do you get to explore? See things? Smoke some weed?
[Laughs] I don't smoke actually. I still haven't smoked a legal joint here. Someone gave me one last year at the Stanley and I was like awesome! Totally gonna smoke this! Then it sat in my bag for a week and then it was time to fly home and I was like well… and gave it to someone. I guess I'm just old. I haven't played a show since I was a teenager smoking weed. I'm not even sure if I'd remember the words. I remember I was really bad smoking weed while playing music.
Do you have a chance to hang out at other shows when you're on tour, or mostly you just have to drive in and drive out that night?
We stayed in Denver for the last week. I didn't go to any concerts, but we went to a lot of restaurants. I love to eat and Sarah (Balliet, Cello) is a big eater. That was fun, we didn't do anything crazy. We had a lot of brunch; Denver is like the Brunch Capital of the World. I live in Louisville, Kentucky, which is turning heads in the food world right now, it's being written up everywhere. But there's no brunch!
I understand you'll be playing in a cave soon? Can you tell us about that inspiration and how that came to be?
A cavern actually! It's man-made, and it's in Kentucky. With the success of these shows, we had the idea to do more shows like this in various place because not everyone can come here. And we wanted to do a special show for the Kickstarter.
We wanted to give something to the people who don't want physical goods to go and check out the site and pick up the new record. You want people to hear the new stuff. I was talking to a guy we were working with for recording in Louisville, and he was like "Oh, my cousin actually owns that." It's no joke, there's a hill, with a door in it. Like a hobbit hole. That's the venue. We rented it out, you walk in the door, and it's all stone, man-made cavern. There's red velvet curtains, a table for will call and merch, get your ticket, go through the curtains and you're in this big dome.
There's going to be about 200 people a night, very small. We're not as popular in Louisville, we just moved there, it's a smaller town. We said "Let's announce two shows," and it sold out in an hour. So we added a third show and it sold out in an hour. We were like "whattt?" You know we have our club tour on sale at the same time and none of these shows sold at that rate. It goes to show, people want the experience. And I do too.
That one is going to be an acoustic show because it's so small. We rented it for a week so we can do our rehearsals in it so we can tailor the songs we're playing so that they fit. We're going to have to re-arrange some of the songs we're playing. We have never played a show like it. It'll be a unique event.
Are you going to record it?
The guys who are filming this show said they're coming and they want to film it, so yeah! Hopefully we can do something with that.
Big Dark Love comes out February 3; can you tell us about the album, the inspirations, what you're most excited about?
We wrote it last year, rehearsed and recorded it in Louisville. Kevin Ratterman recorded it, he's a friend of ours. He's most well-known for My Morning Jacket. And then the guy who produced our last record, John Congleton, mixed the album. We work really well together.
It's a pretty different record for us, but that's kind of our thing. Do different things to keep it fresh. I have a short attention span; I could never be in a band that writes the same song over and over again. I don't think I'd remember the songs. When we start to write a record we never mean to have a thread going through it. We started realizing there were a lot of love songs with this one, and Murder By Death doesn't do a lot of love songs. Even the songs we didn't realize were love songs were. Like there's a song, "Big Dark Love," which is about an untrustworthy love. The person who is the narrator is saying "let me in" but it's menacing, it's not probably a good love. There's that one. "Natural Pearl" is a song about parent's love for a child. How sometimes it's overbearing, and overprotective. It's sung from the parents' perspective, but there's a hint of irony in there. It's too much. "Dream in Red" is one of the weirdest songs we've ever written, it's two minutes long and is basically just a creepy short poem set over this rhythm. Very little music. It's about seeing someone you love commit a horrible act that you weren't supposed to see, and then not knowing what to do. Do I tell the police, or…? It's more subtle than that in the lyrics but what's required when you love someone? What do you have to do? The expectations? There are all these weird, different songs. It's fun, I love the record; I'm so excited about it.
Hopefully people like it, I think it's awesome. The thing that always happens with us is that we put out a record and people are like, "Eh, I don't know about this…" Because it's different, then they turn around and say it's their favorite record. They don't know how to feel about it. I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, "I didn't like it at first." We work with a different producer or sometimes produce it ourselves; we work with a different engineer every time in order for it to have a different feel. Each one is like a time capsule.
You give back to the fans a lot, and seem to really care about the fans. Is there an inspiration or place that came from?
It's graciousness. I never planned to be in a band. None of us ever thought this was going to be our life. But people just supported us. We had a really slow rise to get to where we are. We didn't make much money for the first decade. There were years where I was getting food from the local charity because you're in that time where you're writing an album or recording, so you can't go on tour which was the only way we were making money. I'm totally destitute and have to go wait in this line to get some free bread from Mother Hubbard's cupboard. There were times it was really slow, but it's built, doing much better now. People have just given us so much. We've always been lucky because we sell a lot of merch, our shows do well. Nothing crazy, but we want to thank people. If people are into something, I like to push it.
When researching your Kickstarter, we saw that you tracked down all the artists for the poster book to get permission and make sure they'd be compensated. That was really cool, it shows you care.
We just got those art books, We'll be spending two weeks packaging all those orders with a group of friends. My house is a box fortress right now. I am sending all the artists a check for letting us use their image and a copy of the art book. Which is a considerable expense, but the fans are paying for it because they're buying the books. It's built into the cost. It's one of those things where… I really like when companies are able to do things well, and do it right. It's a part of the deal. I just met with some of the folks from David Lynch's Coffee Company, they were at the show. They donate a portion of every purchase to the David Lynch Foundation, which is a charitable organization. It's awesome; it's just how they do it.
We're attempting to get more involved in fundraising and charity. We did a day on the Kickstarter that said something like, "Today if you buy anything on the Kickstarter we're going to total up the proceeds from the sales and match that," and we gave it to a local women's charity in Louisville. This record has a lot more femininity and feminine themes to it than our other records. I was inspired by a lot of women in my life for this record. And the lyrics are a little different on this one, so we thought it'd be a cool tie in. We raised $1,500 in an afternoon for this. We're trying to do more stuff like that now that we realize we have more power to do so.
You're from Detroit, you've lived in Louisville, Bloomington -- do you think geography, location or whatever influences each record? Like how the East Bay is a part of Rancid, along those lines…
I like to travel. I think that's why our music is such a hodgepodge of sounds. Some people are so one thing, and who they are. You know such a punk rocker or whatever. That's the opposite of what we are. Our whole band is so eclectic and we're all into different things, both artistically, musically -- and life wise. I think that comes mostly from the fact that I have a lot of interests and my band members have ones that I don't have, and so we draw from a lot of things. I think it works, but I spend a lot of time trying to make it work. But I have seen criticisms saying that we're too scattered. It's usually from someone who hasn't spent much time with the group. But, that's totally their right.
I don't like anything! I don't like any music. [Laughs] So it's fine if you don't like what I'm doing. I probably hate everything you love. I know when something moves me.
What was the last record, movie or book that did move you? What did you walk away from that you felt the intensity leave with you?
I saw "Interstellar" recently and so many people dogged that movie because it's kind of sappy. I saw it with my mom so maybe that helped, but she loved it. I think I saw it right at the right time of my life. The movie is kind of about space, but it's ultimately about love, and the idea that if you're attempting to save humanity -- why are you trying to save it? It really hit me at the right time because Sarah and I specifically have been trying to think of ways to do good in the world. How can we use the band to empower people to do good. And what we can do ourselves, whether it's personal donations or volunteering. We've been trying to do more of that lately. And that movie just sort of hit the right notes for me. I don't care that it's sappy, it's beautiful!
My favorite record of the year was J Roddy Walston and The Business' Essential Tremors. We took that band out on tour in 2008, basically their first real tour. And I heard one song and just thought it was hilarious. Fun, wild rock and roll and I love it. It's so exciting to see them grow, it hits a lot of glam notes. Which I love, I love David Bowie and T. Rex. And there's a lot of T. Rex in there. The fact that people are responding to it, it gives me hope. When I see what people buy sometimes I'm just like, "Oh no no no!" Like, EDM? Seriously? Still happening? Please go away! Not to be a dick but… well, I'll be a half a dick.
Favorite Detroit Tiger of all time?
Frank Tanana. I was in a band in high school called Frank Tanana.
We wanted to ask if there'd ever be a Frank Tanana reunion?
[Laughs] The bass player has been living in Nepal for 11 years as a teacher. He just moved to California, so he's back in the States. So who knows! Weirdest reunion of all time. We only played basements and living rooms. I don't think we ever played a single venue.
Bulleit Bourbon or Bulleit Rye?
I like them both for different reasons. That's kind of my go-to tour whiskey. It's so ubiquitous right now. It's not my favorite out there, not that I really pick favorites. I've been liking Willet a lot right now.
Is "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald" the best song ever written?
Wow, that's a very Michigan question. Curiously, we're doing covers for the Kickstarter, and this guy from Canada picked three Canadian songs. And that's one of them! We have to choose from one of those songs. But to tell you the truth, when I listened to it recently my adult music filter -- it's SO long. Its verse after verse and it never changes! I don't know if I can do it. That song holds a place in every Michigander's heart.
For how often MBD has dark themes, do you have a favorite ghost story or haunted place?
I have a personal ghost story! It's the only one ghost story I have. I was 18 in Ireland with my mom on a trip before college. Stayed in this house, I was reading a book late at night. I heard these really weird sounds and was like, "What's going on?" I got a real feel of dread. I heard footsteps all of a sudden. I heard someone that I thought was in the bathroom, and I run up, and rip opened the door and there's nobody there. A second later my mom opened her door; I looked at her and asked if she had just been in the bathroom. She said, "No, were you?" She said "I woke up, and there was something pinning me down on the bed! I couldn't get up! I tried to get up; when I heard you open the door I ripped myself out of bed to open the door." And I was like, "I just had a fucked up experience, too!" So there was an extra bed in her room and she asked me to sleep in there with her. Nothing else happened but it was crazy. We talked to the owner of the house and he was like, "Oh yeah, this house is haunted." It was a 200-year-old house.
Well, thank you for spending the time to chat with us!
Yeah, it was fun. Thank you!