Murder by Death talks life, love and longevity

Q&A with guitarist Adam Turla

By Keegan Rammel

Indiana’s own Murder by Death released their seventh album “Big Dark Love” on Feb. 3. Lead singer and guitar player, Adam Turla, talks about their new album, tour and Kickstarter Campaign. 

Murder by Death is best known for their dark Americana sound and Turla’s huge baritone voice that conveys cinematic stories of revenge, sin, whiskey, and most recently, love. 

“Big Dark Love” is a change for Turla and the band, being an album of 10 love songs. Topics range from parents’ love to the love a stalker feels towards their prey. The music has also been stripped down and represents a reflection of their career. 

Murder by Death used a Kickstarter campaign to fund their last two albums. Both times their fans have supported them. 

“Big Dark Love” was funded 185% of their goal of $150,000, and 2012’s “Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon”received 187% of the original goal of $100,000. 

This is the second album the band has funded with Kickstarter and the second time your goal was almost doubled what does that mean to the band?

Well definitely a lot of positivity and it’s hard to not feel good about it. It kind of confirms the longevity and the possibility of what we think we can do and what people want to hear. So yeah it’s fantastic. It’s a ton of work, since we actually do every single part of it ourselves. There’s no help, from the fulfillment standpoint, we get friends to help us out. It’s fantastic, it’s a strange development in our careers it’s really helped us out a lot. It’s put our music in a lot of people’s hands, and it’s something to talk about. 

So for the Kickstarter some of the rewards were trips to Cedar Point and this Year the Kentucky Derby, what are those trips with the fans like? 

No one took the Cedar Point trip this time around, but someone took the Kentucky Derby package and the Grace Land package this time. The idea is that, you know we meet a lot of fans at the shows and stuff and most are generally nice people, so we tried it with the last one. Everybody we met was great, we had a nice time. We went to Cedar Point basically just rode roller coasters all day, and then it started to rain, so we went into the bar and just got a bunch of beers and then rode some more roller coasters, and took silly photos of ourselves. It was just fun, the idea with the Kickstarter is to get as many people to buy the record as possible and to create a story that surrounds the whole project. To do something fun instead of just be like, ‘buy our shit.’ You know the Cedar Point thing we really didn’t make any money on it because we spent it all on the trip, we invited not just the fans and the sponsors but also the people that helped us with the project. For example, my friends who helped me mail order, or my friends who worked on graphic design, or the tour manager for the band or who sold merch on tour, we invited them all out to the party of the trip. We are doing the same thing with the Kentucky Derby trip this year, we are throwing a party for everyone who helped contribute to the record and it’s a nice thing to be able to do when you’re flushed from a new album being out. There’s a lot of moving parts beyond just the band, even if it’s just a friend who helps me for a week to pack orders, I need that help, just acknowledging it. 

Your last album reached no. 76 on the Billboard Top 200 and so far “Big Dark Love” seems to be doing well as all Indianapolis local record stores are out of copies of the vinyl. 

Yeah, I’m actually really surprised because the presale was so strong, but I got some numbers this morning that were really surprising to me because we sold so many copies through our website and Kickstarter that I kind of thought that the amazon and iTunes would be slow because all the people who were going to rush out to get it would’ve already had it but it turns out that the numbers that the label has been sharing have been really strong. I don’t know if that actually means something, but the fact that we are selling records is of course fantastic news, you never know what to expect this day and age since the industry has changed so much. 

The new album “Big Dark Love” is a change it’s lighter and brighter than your most recent records what were the influences on the new album? 

Life in general there’s a couple family life events that ended up turning into songs, just some big feelings that we were feeling during the writing process. The way that we decided to pursue this record was that we’ve done a lot, seven records, we started writing and we talked about that we just didn’t know what direction we wanted to go. We knew that with it being our seventh album we all talked about, we took a lot of time of last year we wanted to try something that was just wearing some different influences or like going to a different side of the kind of music that we enjoy playing. The songs have just a different tone because it was time to try something else. I think that’s the thing that when people hear it, I’ve seen probably a thousand responses already, maybe more. Some people are surprised when they hear it, some people totally get it right away, they’re like, ‘yeah I get it you don’t want to do the same thing your whole life.’ My opinion if you are going to create something it should have needed to be created, if I was to just go write a generic Murder by Death record, just to sell copies of it, that would be sort of depressing. That would have removed the whole point of the band from the start, which is to try to make music a little different, and something fulfilling to me. These are the songs that we thought were the most interesting ones, I probably wrote almost an album of songs that I scrapped that could have been a sort of more generic Murder by Death songs. They aren’t bad songs they just strike me as sort of not breaking new ground, I just don’t see any reason to move forward while staying still. 

The opening track “I Shot an Arrow” sounds like a throwback to “I’m Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was this album kind of a look back at your career?

That’s a great observation, that’s actually funny that you’re the first person to say that, and every song on this new record we have a link to it, where we say, ‘OK what is a Murder by Death song that makes this fit into the catalog?’ We do that with every song, we are very like scientific about the way we pick our songs and develop them and that song is different for us, it’s got a different feel than a lot of our stuff. I was surprised that some people were like shocked to hear that song, well yeah it’s a weird song for us. But it also reminds me of “Virginia Woolf” from our first album meets a David Bowie song, that was the way that we approached it we said okay that’s how it fits into the Murder By Death World, it even has a little element of “Spring Break 1899” kind of like a ‘50s feel. We did that with every song and said, ‘how will this song make sense to the fans and to the new listeners?’ We had to make that connection ourselves before we were going to put out the songs. We have some really serious listeners, many of our fans have everything we’ve ever put out and that’s another thing about how we wrote this record. With the context of our past to say what are some cool kinds of songs that we have written before that we haven’t written in a while or that we would enjoy to do again? That’s one of the things this record was kind of a response to our catalog. It works really well, we’ve been on tour for a few days and it’s really cool how the songs fit into the set. They feel very natural and they fill in some sort of parts of the set where the arc was kind of missing certain things, so it’s been really fun adding them. We’ve been playing three of four new songs a night, and it’s cool to fit them in and see how it makes the whole arc of the set work. Also how people, of course, react is always exciting. 

Photo by Greg Whitacker

So the response to the new material on the tour has been pretty positive then? 

I will tell you right now that we have never had so many people email us and write us messages of positive responses in our entire career. The thing that always happens to us is, we put out a new record and people are so attached to the old ones that people are sort of quiet for a while and then like a year later everyone is talking about the record. We never get any celebration right off the bat. So the fact that we are getting celebration off the bat with this one is really cool. I know there are people who are still digesting it, and that’s the whole point. We try to make music that takes a little time to digest, while this is a more subtle record it may be more acceptable from the get-go for a new listener. It’s what it is, and so far, the emails, we’ve never had so much positive response. For the most part the reviews have been outstanding. There’s a few, you know there’s always some where people just don’t like it, or whatever, and that’s fine. With the reviews I’ve seen about 15 and like 12 of them loved it, so pretty cool, but not really the goal there. The goal is to make a record that pleases us and gets the fans checking out some new sounds and make it a fun experience.

Murder by Death is coming back to Bloomington to head line Pit Stop Fest, of course Bloomington is where Murder by Death was started. Does the band see it as a homecoming? What does that show mean to you personally? 

I lived there 15 years and it’s a great town, our bass player still lives in Bloomington. It’s the last day of the album release tour, it’s five weeks long. It’s going to be a fun show, I love the Pit Stop Fest coming back. I know all the guys who put it together, their old friends. I think it will be a great show, our Bloomington shows are always fantastic. Well really we’ve been lucky to have great shows kind of the whole time [on this tour]. That will be a really fun place to end the tour. 

Everyone always focuses on your deep baritone voice, but your first album you sang a lot higher, what was the cause for the change? 

A lot of it is, it sort of comes up constantly in our career, we basically started the group when we were 18 years old. Part of it was as I got older my voice changed, but I also when I was going to IU I was told I was trying to sing to high and that was making singing way more difficult for me. I started singing lower and I realized how much happier I was, and yeah that’s basically the difference between the first album and now. Although, on the new record, I sort of explore my range a little bit more and see what’s possible. 

That’s probably why “I Shot an Arrow” sounds so similar to “Virginia Woolf”? 

Yeah, that was something that I wanted to do to cover new ground I guess, I hadn’t tried to revisit the higher vocal style for a while and it was fun. It’s fun to sing songs in a different range, I love singing low but plenty of songs that do that. I kind of think of everything in the context of a show because that’s the most repeated experience that we have. Like you go in and make a record and you’re only in there for a couple weeks, it takes a long time to write, but you’re only in the studio for a couple weeks. So the experience of making a record while I think a lot of people think that it’s some big experience, it kind of just happens, you just make it. The writing of the songs occupies a lot more of your time and mental space than making the record does, like actually recording it. Ultimately most of the time you spend playing the shows, so for me I like to think what songs will fit into the set and be cool a set to perform each night. 

You said the writing process takes you a long time, I know that your songs are more cinematic and telling a story more so than most other bands, what’s your process like? 

It takes me a while because I want to write songs about things. I don’t really like pop music and I don’t like songs that are just kind of I don’t know, I know what the word is but I don’t want to say meaningless. I don’t like songs that are flat lyrically. They need to have either interesting words or be about something interesting. One things I like a lot in lyrics is to do a subtlety or a confusing theme setting thing, for example “Dream In Red” on the new record is vague and sort of spooky song and I know what it’s about and I’m curious to hear what people, after they’ve heard the record more, think it’s about. The goal is disorientation, it’s just a different style of writing. Sometimes it takes a while to develop, sometimes it comes quick though, you never know. 

In the past you’ve had concept albums based around literature, and you’ve done book clubs, so what are you reading now?

It’s kind of hilarious, because it is true, I do like to read. I read classics usually. But this [last] year I’ve been so busy; I moved to Louisville, fixed up our 130 year old house and restored it, every element of it, we wrote the record, recorded the record, did the Kickstarter, got our tours booked, got everything ready to hit the road. I’ve not had any free time whatsoever to read for the whole year. So when we were getting ready to leave for this tour I was just so worn out that I was like I need to read something really simple. So I’m reading Harry potter because I never read it, I just needed something really easy I’m going to be like, ‘oh geez look out a spell,’ *chuckles* and it’s definitely that. It’s fun though. 

You are also a big movie buff and you guys do a show at the Stanley Hotel from “The Shining” every year what’s that like?

It’s crazy man, it’s incredible. We play in a concert hall that is the most haunted room in the haunted hotel. It’s a great show, the perfect size like 500 people. Everybody dresses in like formal wear, the girls are dressed like flappers, the ‘20s flappers, guys wearing suits and tuxedos. It’s kind of like a crazy whiskey party and we’re playing it. After the set we go into the amazing whiskey bar and lobby of the hotel, where there’s crackling fires, and get drunk with everybody, it’s just a party after that. We do three days every January, it’s amazing for me. It’s a perfect event, and the most fun I’ve had playing out. 

The band’s 15th anniversary is coming up in April, so looking back what has it all meant? 

Yeah it will be, wow. I think about it sometimes and I think how lucky we were to have, even though we’ve had a real slow grow with our career to get to where we are now it’s always been a lot of support and hope with our group. There’s always been a reason to keep push, there was never a moment where we thought, ‘nobody cares about what we’re doing, we should just quit.’ We’ve never really had to question the fact that there are a lot of people who support us and are moved by what we do. That’s been a huge lucky break for us. That people have reacted to what we make. I know so many great bands who are doing something incredible, that for some reason they just can’t seem to get enough people to really care, to push them forward to keep them driving with the music. I think that’s really tough, I mean for us it was just a financial struggle for a long time where we just didn’t make enough money to make us not have to worry about money all the time. That’s a really tough thing to overcome in this industry, but it’s a lot easier when you’re younger. But I would say that I reflect on it by saying I feel really lucky that we were supported the whole way to get to where we are now, and that we were blessed enough to be able to do this. The tour we are on now has just been fantastic. So far every night has been sold out. Every night we’re setting records, the audience has been great, the responses have been fantastic, we’ve never had it this good in our career. So I feel really lucky to be here still, and to be growing.