Bloomington, Indiana’s Murder By Death have been creating their own brand of dark, moody, challenging, and ambitious music for 13 years. More by accident than anything else, I’ve been along for most of the ride. So like some of you who maybe grew up reading the Harry Potter series, and “grew up” alongside those characters, it feels like I’ve done the same with Murder By Death. An odd comparison, sure, but given their penchant for telling brooding, slightly supernatural stories about characters sometimes literally going through hell, it seems somewhat fitting.
Working within sonic confines solely of their making, Murder By Death bask in the shadow soaked world of Folk and Americana - if Folk and Americana read Dante, listened to Rock & Roll, and got superbly drunk most nights. Driving, soaring, and often haunting cello, anachronistic piano progressions, and lyrics evoking some of our deepest, darkest thoughts and emotions, they’ve never shied away from moving in whatever direction they’ve felt they needed to go. Always with confidence, sometimes with envious swagger, their career has been more than a little fun to watch unfold, and the music some of my absolute favorite to sing along to, and watch live. I had a chance to ask vocalist/guitarist Adam Turla and bassist Matt Armstrong a few questions about their career, their touring experiences, and their upcoming show at The Southgate House Revival on February 21st, with co-headliners Man Man. It was an absolute privilege to gain this kind of insight in to a band I’ve grown up with.
As a fan, it’s been rather exciting and challenging following your progression from Like The Excorcist… to your latest release, last year’s Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. If you had to pick a common thread that you feel best expresses that progression, what would it be?
Adam Turla: Maybe age? We started the band so young, 18 and 19 years old, and have grown with it. We have always tried to maintain the themes that we started with; darkness, desolation, drinking- that sort of thing, while trying to keep a sense of humor despite writing about such dark subject matter.
Matt Armstrong: I guess it would be a genuine desire to not let things become stale. We don't want to repeat ourselves and keep making the same album over and over. If things get boring for us and we feel like we're phoning it in, how can we expect audiences to care, you know?
How do you land on a concept for each album? What’s the process that finally leads to that “aha!” moment, allowing you to put together something you ultimately feel is cohesive?
AT: Well, some records don't have a definite theme, but yeah there have been a few that there was an "aha' moment where I realized what I was writing about. I never set out to write a concept album, sometimes it just happens.
MA: It happens organically. We don't set out to make concept albums. Sometimes we'll be part way through writing for an album and notice some themes emerging and that can help guide us to make things more cohesive.
As a primarily independent band, what do you feel has been the most challenging aspect of your career? Are there things you would like to have done differently? What would you have done exactly the same?
AT: I think about that some times. The band name has scared off a lot of people, and we have lost opportunities because of it. But the fact that it is a quirky and strange name is kinda nice too in that I feel it is memorable and distinct. I am happy with where we are a t- really the only thing iI am missing is more international travel.
MA: I don't know if I would change anything because the sum of all of our experiences as a band is what got us here. The industry is in an interesting place right now due to file sharing and all that, so I'm very glad we made it a point to do our own vinyl. We toured our asses of in the early days and made a lot of friends and we stay as accessible to our fans. The fans pay our rent, and as cheesy as it may sound, we really do care about them. We're very lucky to have fans who trust us to keep trying new things and who are totally down to come along for the ride.
My first live experience with Murder By Death was in 2001, at Club Krome in New Jersey, at what was to be My Chemical Romance’s First Annual Halloween Extravaganza (I still have the poster!). The band dressed up as The Addams Family (convincingly, I might add). Some of the bands that were there are long gone, others have gone on to achieve some big successes. Are you where you thought you would be 13 years after you started? What motivated you then, and has that changed compared to what motivates you now?
AT: Wow. I remember that show. Man that was a long time ago. That’s amazing that you were there. I think if in 2001 you told us we were still doing this in 2013 it would blow our minds. I don’t think any of us realized how much we would enjoy the lifestyle, and that success comes in so many shapes. I think we had higher hopes than we have reached with this band, but I also think that the hopes of a 20 year old who knows nothing about the music industry are very random and usually not thought out. In a lot of ways we are much more successful than I ever expected to be.
MA: I remember that show! Vaux dressed up like ski instructors. I don't know where I thought I'd be now 13 years ago. I guess I just hoped we'd still be making music and touring. We've been a band for 13 years, and yeah, it would be nice to be bigger and be on a cool bus and have a light show with lasers and pyro and all that, but every band dreams about that kind of thing. The fact that MBD is our job and we don't have to constantly find crappy jobs to do between tours is awesome and we're very thankful for that. I think our motivation has stayed the same. We wanted (and want to) express ourselves creatively and see as much of the world as possible doing so.
Considering the strangeness of the music industry landscape right now (and the last several years), what have you learned that you have benifitted from the most? Are there any lessons you feel need to be shared with bands, either those just getting started, or those who might be heading down the same path of self-sustainability that you have? And, as for self-sustainability, what’s been the most challenging aspect? The most rewarding?
AT: Things have changed so much since when we started. When we started playing it was all about starting DIY and role models were bands like Fugazi. We never considered ourselves punk rock but that ethos of self-sustainability and respecting the audience, etc. was ingrained in many of our generation. Now I feel like with the younger generation (arrgg I am getting so old!) that they have a much bigger expectation of popularity and a bigger drive to be famous or successful. In turn, the trend in music is that it has become poppier in the last 5 or so years. Indie rock is now synonymous with pop-music. In terms of giving advice, I would say that there's no point in starting a band unless you really have something to say. There's too much music out there, and the world doesn't need more people just trying to get famous for a day. Bust your butt to try and make something that matters.
MA: Free-form rambling answer: I mentioned the vinyl thing earlier. That has saved our bacon more than once. Having a lot of cool merchandise helps, too. We have a lot of artsy friends, which is a great way to get cool designs for reasonable prices. Be good to your fans. Buy good cables. Have back-ups for as much of your gear as you can. Take vitamins. Have someone in the band that is good with numbers, finances, etc. Get a reliable vehicle.
Being self-sustainable itself is pretty amazing. We've slept on a lot of floors and played a lot of anarchist book stores over the years, so every little thing that goes right is a reward. Luck has a lot to do with it, so I would advise young bands to play as many shows as they can. You never know who you will meet.
Read this (NSFW).
You tour almost constantly, going through several cycles per album. Your co-headlining tour with Man Man is in support of your last release, which you’ve already completed one tour for. As someone who frequents local venues and follows a lot of touring bands online, it seems that Cincinnati is often skipped over, in favor of cities like Columbus, or Louisville. This seems to happen, frequently, without some bands coming around for a year or more. What factors determine the markets you frequent? Do you feel the need to play certain areas or cities more than others?
AT: Sometimes a city just accidentally gets skipped, and we notice. It’s funny because lately we have been skipping Louisville. We have not headlined a show there since the night Obama first got elected. We keep trying to go back but the dates aren't available. Still, some cities just keep accidentally getting missed. Glad to check out the new Southgate House though - should be a fun one.
MA: I just play bass. They don't tell me anything. Hahaha. Seriously, though, we have a booking agent who helps us with all that. The idea is to try and hit as many places as you can but not to wear out your welcome. You need a town to miss you before you come back.
Speaking of tours, you’ve gone out with a wide variety of bands, covering a lot of genres. Do you prefer to take to the road with bands who are different from you musically? And in those instances, do you find yourselves having to work out ways to relate what you’re doing with an audience that might not have any experience with your work?
AT: I always try to find a thread with the groups we are on tour with. Sometimes, when we support, it is just out on a limb, and we want to try to get in front of a new audience. We have done all sorts of tours, our main goal is to not pretend that we are too cool for school to try opening a show for a different kind of group. We have won fans at some of the strangest shows. Sometimes we make an effort to tailor a set, but often people either like us because we are different or they are just gonna like us if they are gonna like us.
MA: When it's our tour we mainly just try to take out bands that we like and we feel like our crowds will like. When we're supporting another band sometimes we do tailor our set to be more crowd-appropriate. We wouldn't play a bunch of dreamy, pretty songs if we were opening for a crowd that wants drunken punk rock, for example.
Your tour with Man Man looks to be concentrating on the the eastern half of the US this time around. This is your first time back in the Cincinnati area in well over a year! Are you excited to come back? Is there anything that you’re looking forward to most? What can your fans and those in attendance expect? How would you describe your live show to those who haven’t heard you yet?
AT: I think this is a great bill because we bring the sadder, more brooding face of dark music while Man Man makes use of the quirkier side. It’s a cool tour, and one I am proud of. I think the folks in town will dig it, and we are happy to bring it!
MA: I'm looking forward to the show. Cinci area fans usually get pretty rowdy. They can expect a fun rock show. I don't know what else to say. There will be booze and instruments and fun!
Thanks so much for your time! Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
AT: That ought to do it! Thanks for doing the story.