Adam Turla - Vocals, Guitars
Sarah Balliet - Cello, Keys
Dagan Thogerson - Percussion
Matt Armstrong - Bass
Though they\'ve had eight years to refine their sound and vision, Murder By Death rolled out of the gates fully realized in 2000, playing a blend of rocking Americana noir and dramatic post-punk that erased old style and audience boundaries as much as it tested the limits of new ones. And with their fourth album and Vagrant debut, Red Of Tooth And Claw (3/4/08), the Bloomington, Indiana, quartet are emerging as true artists in the zero-boundary sense: cinematic storytellers whose albums come together in an essential whole, and players whose jaw-dropping performances on record make you yearn for the chance to experience their energy up close and in person.
As much as the band’s previous full-lengths—2002\'s Like The Exorcist, But More Breakdancing; 2003’s Who Will Survive, And What Will Be Left Of Them?; and 2006’s In Bocca Al Lupo—document this evolution, Red Of Tooth And Claw finds Murder By Death at the height of their powers. Recorded with Grammy-winning producer Trina Shoemaker (Queens Of The Stone Age, Emmylou Harris, Iggy Pop) at Dark Horse studios in Tennessee, the album captures the drama and nuance of MBD’s sound without compromising a lick of the band’s energy. And as longtime followers of their narrative grit—equal parts Old West drama and Old Testament justice—will be glad to know, MBD’s subject matter also hasn’t softened for album No. 4. Rife with lust, betrayal, and classical archetypes of good and evil, Red Of Tooth And Claw is, as singer/guitarist Adam Turla puts it, a "Homer’s Odyssey of revenge, only without the honorable character at the center."
That notion of an epic quest rings apparent from the first notes of Red Of Tooth And Claw. Equally indebted to Eric Burdon and Johnny Cash (Turla\'s vocals have never sounded so ominously haunted and low), "I\'m Comin\' Home” sets the album’s tone with a shuffle and a snarl. Bassist Matt Armstrong and new drummer Dagan Thogerson drive the songs with equal parts understatement and brute force, and cellist Sarah Balliet, whose vocabulary spans from Kentucky bluegrass to Western classical, guides and slashes through the songs with colors both in and outside the lines of traditional Americana.
The pace may change—see the Ennio Morricone-inspired instrumental “Theme” or the huge, swinging confrontational lament “Black Spot”—but there’s a sense of forward momentum throughout Red Of Tooth And Claw that drives home the idea of moving inevitably closer to… something. “With In Bocca Al Lupo, we were getting inspiration from a basic idea—sin, in the Dante/Divine Comedy sense—and doing 12 songs that were very unique and about different people. But as a whole, it’s just an anthology of songs,” says Turla. “With this one, we got the story developed and realized that we wanted to stay moving in that direction throughout the record. The album is kind of frantic at times, and intentionally so: If it’s an album about travel, let’s actually make it sound like travel.”
Murder By Death’s own travels—the band have shared stages with artists as musically and geographically far-flung as Against Me!, Rev. Horton Heat, the Pogues, Clutch and Flogging Molly—have seasoned the band as performers, but the m.o. for their music has existed since day one. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who’s pored over MBD’s lyrics that between them, Turla and cellist Sarah Balliet have degrees in religious studies and anthropology; however, beyond the band members’ book-smarts lies a shared love not only of American roots music, but of the gut-level emotion at that music’s core. It’s one thing to be a rock band that writes concept albums, but MBD is not drawn to the sort of clinical, pretentious trappings usually associated with that idea. As Turla explains, “The real energy in our songs comes from stuff like the sexual tension, the murder, the drinking and basically any other dirt you find between the lines.”
Bio by Aaron Burgess
Interview by tosnob
Murder By Death have a rock solid new album, Good Morning, Magpie coming out on April 6th. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with lead singer Adam Turla and asking him about the record.
Here's our conversation:
T.O. Snob: First of thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Your new album comes out in a little over a month. How would you describe it versus your previous work?
AT: The may thing is we tried to progress musically and maybe be not as dark. We tried to keep the subject matter in line with our interests and our past work, but there are a few songs where we wanted to branch out and try for a more upbeat, major sound, which is something we haven't done a lot of. Songs like "Yes" and "Foxglove", "As Long As There Is Whisky In the World" have more of that feel than anything we've previously worked on.
T.O. Snob: Yeah, "As Long As There Is Whisky In the World" reminds me a lot of a Pogues tune. It's just got that vibe, and it's about booze.
AT: I am a fan for sure.
T.O. Snob: What inspires you to keep writing?
AT: This is what we do, it's our lives basically. This band, working, touring, writing. It's just what I like to do for pleasure as well as work. I hope that I'll always be so lucky to have a creative job. There are a lot of people who follow us routinely and we're lucky enough to have fans that are willing to let us experiment and try out projects. That's just something we want to keep doing.
T.O. Snob: This is album number five. How has the songwriting and recording process changed for you over the course of those records?
AT: I feel like the longer the band's been around, the better we're doing. We're more successful and because of that you become way more busy. I just find myself constantly being involved in little things I never thought I'd be doing. For example I'm just getting together artwork for the band, t-shirt orders, things that are really more of a business angle than the creative things. I think when you start a band you picture yourself just being creative all the time. I guess helping design t-shirts and that kind of thing IS being creative but it's not what I pictured. In terms of the writing process this album was unique for me because I just wanted to get away from all the work and all the extra things that come with being in a band. I went to do a solo two week camping trip and all I did was write. That was a really great experience for me because I was able to collect my thoughts in a way I've never been able to do before. I felt like I was able to spend more time just being able to create material, material I felt good about or was the best I could do.
T.O. Snob: Well it comes through because it is a great album. When I listen to it it seems that booze and alcohol are a recurring theme, is there anything to that?
AT: Ha ha, it's just a part. We've always been drinkers and we've always been social people. We're certainly known among our fans as people who like to be out and party. Our rhythm section are constant lovers of the night life. They go out every night, they're just those kind of guys. I'm social too, I like that sort of stuff. Mostly though it's just you write about what you know. I think a good drinking song is just a fun approach to songwriting. I like every album to have a drinking song. It's just fun you know and that's what music's ultimately about. You're trying to stir people's emotions. It's not like I'm writing an album of all drinking songs, I think that would be boring after a while. But I think that every album's gotta have one.
T.O. Snob: Some artists pay more attention to lyrics and for some it's the riff or arrangement that are most important. What's the most important element of a song to you individually and to the band?
AT: Our entire angle for writing is the idea that those things are the same. The lyrics should always go with the music. The only time we do something where the music is not a part of the lyrics is when we want to do a strange distinction as a method. For example we did this song on our last album "Spring Break 1899" where it's a really dark song about being a complete shithead and wanting to die, but the song is set to this very happy 1950s kind of music. But that's the idea. There's this dark sense of humour in there. We try to have all of our songs match the music. We try to ask "what are we trying to say in this song", and we try to make the music really specific according to that. Just like if you were composing a soundtrack piece for a movie, you don't just put some random music over a scene that has an obvious emotional incident. You don't have "Walking On Sunshine" while someone's crying unless you're using that as a device. So we try to be very specific. We write songs all together and make sure it's all part of it.
T.O. Snob: I saw you guys opening in Toronto a few years ago for the Reverend Horton Heat. I notice there's no Toronto date on your itinerary yet. Are we going to get to see you soon?
AT: Yet. Yeah we're gonna do a Canadian tour later this year. We were there in October opening for Gaslight Anthem and then we did a headlining tour in Canada in May. So we're giving it a little breathing room before we come back and do as much of Canada as will let us play.
T.O. Snob: No border issues I hope.
AT: Well, the other thing is we kinda have trouble getting into Canada. It's been a battle and we hope to have it resolved by then.
T.O. Snob: I've just got one last question for you. If someone were to look at your iPod playlist what would surprise them?
AT: The main thing is that I actually don't listen to that much music. Ever since music has been my life and what I do for a living I don't listen to that much music. I do have an iPod but when I listen to music I like to listen to stuff I'm not hearing at all or hear on the road. I've been listening to a lot of Latin music. That's something I'm really into.
T.O. Snob: Thanks I really appreciate you doing this and good luck with the record. It's a great one.