Murder By Death’s Adam Turla Ranks the Band’s Seven Albums
The music industry outliers have quietly amassed one of the most unique and consistent catalogs in indie rock. Here's how their frontman views it.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
When Murder By Death frontman Adam Turla took the call to do this interview, he had to step out of the studio, where the Kentucky-based band was recording fan-requested cover songs. This has become something of a ritual over the band’s last three album releases. They were early adopters of Kickstarter for their 2012 album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, and have used the site for each album launch, offering weird, overly ambitious, and sometimes wacky prizes to devoted backers. One of them is covering any song of the patron’s choice.
Murder By Death began in the year 2000 as a college project between the now husband and wife team of Turla and cellist Sarah Balliet. Their new album, The Other Shore, is their eighth studio record, which Turla describes as a space Western opera. That would be an incredibly distinct curveball to throw into most bands’ catalogs, but it’s sort of par for the course for Murder By Death. They’ve historically taken the longform narrative approach to album-writing, weaving vignettes together to create an overarching story.
“You start writing and then you find a thread and say, ‘Boy, I kind of see something happening here and I’m gonna run with it,’” explains Turla. “It’s tons and tons of small decisions before you’re willing to admit what you’re doing, and you’ve got to let it happen naturally.”
Turla says work on The Other Shore can be traced all the way back to when he was 16 and began working on a glam rock opera. He finally brought some of these loose ideas to the band recently and their eyes lit up. And now, months later, his peculiar teenage idea has become a reality.
It’s these audacious experiments that have made Murder By Death the perfect fit for Kickstarter. Although the band has always been an outlier in the music industry, never seeing huge critical or commercial success, they maintain a close relationship with their loyal fanbase which continues to support their endeavors—space operas and all.
Ahead of the release of The Other Shore, Turla looked back on the band’s seven albums and played favorites.
Noisey: It doesn’t seem like your sound was fully cooked on your debut.
Adam Turla: Oh, no, no. We started this band when we were kids in college. Sarah had just turned 18 and I’d just turned 19. We recorded them when we were 19 and 20, all to tape, old-school. We were splicing tape and everything in, like, five days over spreak break while we were still in college. I don’t hate that record or anything, I actually think there’s some really creative stuff on there considering our age, but I think there’s some songs that the best they did for me was that they told us what kind of band we don’t want to be. There are these two instrumental songs, “Those Who Left” and “Those Who Stayed” which I actually think are really cool songs that are influenced by Godspeed You! Black Emperor or something like that. There are people who love those songs, and we like them as a piece of who our band was at the time. We’ll go out with those as a big finale on our set or something.
As we continue to do more instrumental songs, we’re always just like, man, there’s only two indie rock instrumental songs and we’ve already done them both. “Those Who Left” is the long, ambling rise and fall dynamic and “Those Who Stayed” is the one where you’re playing around with time signatures. We used all the tricks in the instrumental thing. Every time we write a song like that, it’s just like, this is the same song, there’s nothing new here. So we learned a lot with that record. I was very uncomfortable with my singing back then, I’d never sung before. I’d always been singing into a mic in a basement where no one could hear me.
And this was made right after you switched the band name from Little Joe Gould?
We actually made it and released it as Little Joe Gould, which was from an E.E. Cummings poem. We released it but then we wanted to change the name because everybody thought we were a solo acoustic act. And the funniest part is that we changed it to this thing where now everybody thinks we’re a death metal band. But that’s the story of a 19-year-old—there’s no middle ground.
The name Murder By Death is very misleading. Has it ever come back to bite you?
A thousand times, yeah.
Like, literally having a deal in place for somebody who is gonna pay us to play a special event that has a corporate sponsor and then they drop us at the last minute. Or we were about to have a whiskey made with a company and then the lawyer said no. And we don’t get put on festivals that we fit in with because the name is too aggressive. When I think of—from a marketing standpoint—what could have been done to get us in front of more people, it’s a disaster. It’s like the worst choice of our career. But I have to remind myself, we are not a pop act, we’re not trying to reach those people. Our songs are more for people who are a little different, our songs are a little weirder. We’re not a mainstream band, we don’t write singles. So the culty, weird name, I think in the end, even though it’s absolutely objectively hurt us in a lot of ways, I think it has unobjectively helped to define our weirdness.
It’s a weird check and balance on your career.
That’s my honest assessment. You know, you had Lucero for this. Lucero has such a wider audience even though we came up playing together, because they came up in the punk scene being an outlier, playing more rootsy music. But now, as roots music got popular, they were able to really dive into that. And that’s great. But we always knew they were gonna have more opportunity for that, as a friend’s band that you watch grow. You’ve just got to accept who you are at some point. [Laughs]
One thing that Exorcist does have, which became a defining point of the band, was that you incorporated the cello into your sound. Is it difficult or limiting to feature the cello on every song?
The only two bands I was familiar with when we started that had cellos were Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Dirty Three had a violin. People weren’t using strings a lot. Cursive added a cello for Ugly Organ and all of a sudden they got all this press for being the band with a cello, and we were like, “...Goddamn you!” [Laughs] It was the worst, because they were on the cover of, like, every magazine and it was always all about the cello and we were like, “But we’ve been doing this for years!”
I wrote the oral history of that record and in talking to them it became clear that I don’t think they intended for that to be a full-time feature of their sound. I think they wanted it for that one record.
Yeah. It was brutal for us. We actually felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us. And I think they’re a good band. Tim’s a really creative writer. I had Domestica when we were writing some of our early stuff. So I knew their stuff.
But as far as writing stuff with the cello, the way I always think of it is: The cello is the lead guitar. It’s the color, it creates a lot of the emotion, a lot of the aggression, and a lot of the sweetness. We’re covering “Purple Rain” in the studio right now and I’m like, man, I am not Prince. I’m proud of my ability and my work, but I am not Prince. So we’re splitting up Prince between me and Sarah. I’m gonna play rhythm guitar and the vocals, I’ll do the best performance I can without being a caricature. Sarah’s gonna take all the lead guitar and do it on the cello. But she had trouble writing for rock because she came from a classical background. She used to doubt herself a lot. We had to build up her confidence.
This was your most recent record. How’d it end up so far down?
I think it’s probably because its more recent that I put it lower. In playing these songs lately, I really like them. There are some that it took us a while to pull out live, and started to get a reaction later. The record’s been out three and a half years now. I don’t dislike this record at all.
Maybe you don’t have a nostalgia for it?
Yeah, I don’t have a nostalgia for it, partially because it was a really difficult couple of years for us. We were working a lot. There was very little free time. There was a lot going on in our personal lives. It just made it really hard, so I don’t have the associations with the album that make me smile. I’m impressed when I read your stories about these records. I’m impressed how some people will trash their own record. I don’t feel that way about any of them. Our fans don’t seem to either. There’s no consensus on our worst record.
Do you have a good gauge on your audience’s favorites and least favorites?
What seems to float their boat?
From a fan perspective, the top three would be Red of Tooth and Claw, Bitter Drink, Who Will Survive.
This album came out in the lead up to the 2016 election. All of your records sound timeless to me, largely because they skirt current affairs. I was wondering if it’s hard to stay away from current events or politics when it feels like the world is increasingly on fire.
I definitely feel stressed every day reading the news, and having to go through and fact-check things you read. Not being able to trust things you read is scary. When you’re a kid, even a teenager, you don’t think there are people out there trying to manipulate you. It’s so exhausting. So I want to make sure I’m not doing that with my material, and touching on things that are human interest matters, not just this tiny miniscule toxic ship that you can get so obsessed with and then a year later, it doesn’t make sense. For me, I want to touch on ideas that are timeless, that are truths. When I was a teenager and a college student, I was obsessed with morality. I read every religious text I could find. I have hundreds and hundreds of religious and philosophy books in my house. I’m very interested in why people do things. My question is more like: What would make a person do something?
If you don’t mind me asking, around when did you and Sarah become romantically involved?
Oh, we went our first date the day after our first show.
Yeah. We made a conscious choice not to publicize our relationship because we thought it was tacky. We saw a lot of bands using the angle of “they’re the sweetheart couple” and we thought it was just lame. So we were like, “This sucks, let’s just be a band.” I also think it puts a weird pressure on the women, like some status quo bullshit. She’s a full-time member, that’s the deal. We just thought that was way more true.
But this record, the reason I have it lower even though it has some really good songs is that it’s so ambitious. A lot of what I was trying to do I think just got missed by people, even though plenty of people liked it. I wish I had been less insistent on doing this crazy, artsy… Like, I had been reading Dante’s Inferno a lot. I was trying to take inspiration from those stories and put them into this circles of hell idea with this record. I was also trying to find my singing voice. I had taken some voice lessons and was learning to sing better. I was trying to explore the idea of the album as vignettes, like each song is a person’s story.
The other thing we were dealing with was our piano player, Vincent [Edwards], left the band before we started writing that record. He was like, “Hey, it’s been fun but I don’t want to be on the road 200-something days a year. I want to make furniture. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” He went back to school and he’s doing great with that and we’re still good friends, but we were just kids who accidentally got into a band. There were just a lot of challenges. It was the first time where we had a record deal where they gave us money. So there was a lot of pressure. We also wanted to not do what everyone else was doing and just writing singles. We wanted to express our uniqueness. While that helped it some ways, it hurt in other ways.
J. Robbins produced this record.
Yup, love him.
He had just done Against Me!’s Searching for a Former Clarity right before you toured with them. Did that have anything to do with that decision?
A hundred percent. We didn’t know who to work with and we were opening for Against Me!. I remember sitting in the van with Andrew [Seward] and them playing me the record before it was done and being like, “This sounds great. It’s raw but also sounds clear and good.” Working with J. was awesome. We stayed in this old hotel in Baltimore for a long time and made that record. I have great memories of working with J. But I feel like I was responsible for things about that record that I would do differently now.
What would you do differently?
I think I would probably rework some of the songs, cut some of the songs, work on my vocal style to try to cultivate my own voice in advance and not test it out on the record.
And now you own a restaurant named after this album.
Yeah, isn’t that funny?
This was your first album to sneak onto the Billboard 200 chart, literally at #200.
I saw that. That made me laugh so much.
You guys have always been such an anomaly, because you’ve never had much breakout commercial success, but you’ve never had much critical success either. Most bands would probably give up. What keeps you going?
If you were to go to our shows when that record came out in 2010, we were selling out all the 500, 600-cap venues—the Troubadour in LA and the Bowery Ballroom in New York. Big rooms for a small band, just blowing them out. This has been our whole career—we’re constantly assessed as smaller than we are, from labels, from any industry-type person. They tend to treat us like we haven’t broken because I think people are used to seeing it where: they’re small, then they’re big, and from that moment on they’re big until they’re small again. And for us, it’s been a very gradual slow line upwards. We went on our first tour to basement and DIY spaces, and showing up to people who didn’t know who we were, we came home with money because we sold that much merch.
You typically sell a lot of merch, right? More than most bands I know.
We do, I don’t know about that, but we do sell a lot. Part of it is that the way our band grew was that we were willing to show up and open for other bands across genres and just show ’em like, we’re a good band, check us out! So we’d get in front of people and then those people would buy the records and the shirts. 2006 was the first time we really started headlining, because we’d been opening so many tours for so many different kinds of acts, and by 2010, we’d cultivated our headlining crowd, and we were actually doing really well. But it was interesting because by then, I thought, “OK, we’re blowing out these rooms, we’ll get so-and-so to open for us.” We still have trouble getting the proper size act to support us sometimes, or we won’t get a competitive offer for us to open for another band because of this weird assessment, because we don’t do things the normal ways. But we were always doing fine. Some bands need that critical success or that Billboard sales success. We had fans—people who really cared about what we did, who took care of us. You might not be drawing from a half a million people, but if you have fans that check in with you and participate, and you treat those people well, what are you missing? The other stuff is ephemera. It’s not real.
Speaking of trajectories, we talked about Cursive before. When Tim [Kasher] did this series, I think he had conflicted feelings about Ugly Organ. It was their breakout record, it sold almost a quarter of a million copies.
Wow, did it really?
It did. But I feel like he has this thing where he’s always trying to chase that.
I think that’s a big challenge, where you feel like you’re letting people down with every new creative thing you do, whether or not you’re actually letting people down, just feeling like you did. That’s a tough pill to swallow and I really empathize with that idea. I haven’t had that experience. I remember taking a walk with Sarah in October of 2008, when we were on tour, and thinking: “The band’s doing fine. I’m still having fun, but if something doesn’t happen soon, I could see the idea of calling it a day.” And then we went out on a tour, like, four months later, it was a headlining tour, and it was really the first tour where we did really dang well. And still, even then, there were shows where we were being massively underpaid. You had Minus the Bear recently, I remember one promoter being like, “Man, you did 100 more than Minus the Bear and I paid them ten times what I paid you.” And that was a normal story we’d hear. I think we got $250 for a show that 300 people paid to get into. But yet, that tour was still so good that I was like, ”I think we got something here.” Every tour since then has been much better.
This album has one of your most beloved songs with “Foxglove.” I’ve seen people play that at weddings and things.
Yeah, I’m aware of at least 500 people who have walked down the aisle to that song. I get emails about it all the time. Proposals at our concerts to that song, at least a hundred. I think that’s the reason the record is higher up. I have a lot of positive associations for the band finally reaching its moment. It’s a record that reaches more of an adulthood. And with “Foxglove,” for a lot of people, that’s their song. That’s their love song. There’s something really nice about reaching that level.
More people heard about you here. When this came out, it was a boom time for indie rock. People were willing to give weirder, more offbeat things a chance. Do you think you benefited from right place, right time?
Sure, I was very into the indie scene in high school, going to see bands who were getting out their first record, like Modest Mouse. I was definitely hip to the scene and I think our sound was influenced by that stuff, so to an extent, yeah, right place, right time. We were listening to bands like Black Heart Procession and bands that started to trend. There were a lot of young people pushing boundaries back then, and it was right before the label money completely disappeared. Some bands cashed in, some didn’t. For that record, we were on a little label, Eyeball out of Jersey, but they did blow up, because they were a bit of a tastemaker. They discovered Thursday and My Chemical Romance which were huge. Funny enough, we let [Thursday] on our show at an anarchist bookstore in Indiana in, like, 2001 because they were touring and their show fell through. We were like, “We’ll throw ’em on, they can have our money and we just won’t get paid.” I’d never heard of the band, it wasn’t even a style I was that familiar with. I thought they were good, they thought we were good. And then a year later they were famous and were like, “Hey, do you want to be more serious about your band?”
One thing that I think gets forgotten about this record is that both Geoff [Rickly, Thursday singer] and Gerard Way contributed vocals.
William Elliott Whitmore, too. Basically, we were just friends. They were the musicians that we knew at the time. We were writing out of Jersey for a couple of songs, staying at the Eyeball house. And they came up to the studio to see what we were doing. And we were like, “Do you want to sing backup vocals?” And they were like, “That’d be cool.” It was really spur of the moment. It’s a weird little time capsule.
There’s a huge sonic evolution on this record. Exorcist had only come out a year prior. What kicked that huge jump in songwriting?
I think trying to find an identity. The first record was just a bunch of kids playing around. Who Will Survive was, “I have this idea. I want to tell a story.” I remember I was driving home from Detroit over Christmas, and I wrote the opening line to the song, “I’ll take two shots, said the Devil to the man.” And suddenly I had this whole song that I was singing to keep myself awake on the drive. I called Sarah and I sang it to her while I was driving, and suddenly I flushed out a whole story. And that was the birth of a lot of what Murder By Death is, these longform narrative songs that fit together.
I remember when this record came out, from the very first seconds it seemed like you were trying to showcase a drop in vocal range. How deliberate was that?
I think that just seemed like a good opener, honestly. It had this rolling beginning that’s a slow build and tension. But yes, it comes off that way for sure. It’s a confident opener. This was the first record we made with Dagan [Thogerson], our drummer. He joined in 2007. We were a well-oiled machine, just the four of us. We were like, “Let’s just make a rock record that throws a few weird elements on.” All killer, no filler. People really like the whole record. It’s probably our most popular record.
Did it feel like you had something good on your hands after you made it?
I think so, yeah. I really liked working with Trina Shoemaker. She was a really cool producer.
A Grammy-winning producer.
Yeah, many, actually. It was cool to work with a female producer because it’s such an underrepresented part of the music community. And she was just awesome to work with. She made us really comfortable and pushed us. I was really proud of that record when we finished it because it was so articulated. I was also proud of the message, which is: Here’s this very headstrong male character who’s kind of a bad guy. He’s an anti-hero. And as the album goes on he realizes, “I don’t wanna be the bad guy.” It’s an album about transformation. For me, it’s a coming-of-age, late 20s experience in self-reflection. It really resonated with a lot of people. But the thing I remember whenever people praise me for this record was, I think it was SPIN magazine that gave it a review, and they gave it three out of five. We usually do pretty well with reviews. I think the worst one we ever got was a five from Pitchfork. But SPIN said, I’m paraphrasing, “This record sounds good, it has cool songs, but it just doesn’t have anything a modern person could relate to.” [Laughs] And I remember thinking, “You’re criticizing me for something that’s not right in the moment?” I found that to be so funny. All the reviews that are negative, I usually wear like a badge of honor, because they usually say the exact opposite of what I’m intending. They’re criticizing me for the thing I’m most proud of.
Is it your highest selling record?
Actually, Who Will Survive is, but that’s because people still bought albums then. It’s hard to tell now, with streaming culture.
You guys are big movie fans. This one seemed to have the most success with soundtracks. “Comin’ Home” was in the Inglourious Basterds trailer and on Sons of Anarchy. Do you like having them featured like that? Do you ever get offers for commercials?
I do. And yeah, we’ve had commercials. Funny enough, they used “’52 Ford” from that record on a Harley Davidson ad. I have friends who, they’ll use their songs in cat food commercials or stuff that’s so innocuous and lame. But whenever we get asked, it’s always something kind of cool. Most recently, there was a video game, Destiny, that used a song. And it was a huge placement, millions and millions of views. And I was like, “Man, I actually played that game.” If there was something I was opposed to, absolutely I would turn them down. But that hasn’t happened yet.
This was the first album you launched with Kickstarter and had this wildly successful experience. You were sort of on the forefront of the crowdfunding wave. How did you get the idea to do that?
So, first of all, I never considered that we crowdfunded these records. I would say we pre-sell them on Kickstarter. The distinction for me is that crowdfunding is when you say, “If you guys are into this, I’m gonna make this.” But what we do is we make it and then we put it for sale on Kickstarter. I’d heard about Kickstarter and I thought it sounded like a place for people like us, who know they have an audience and just don’t have the support of the people with power and money. That’s been the story of our career—here we have this thing with a big audience of people who really care about it, but all these people just pass on us, whether it’s booking agents or labels, whether it’s because we’re a little too weird or not hip enough or whatever. So we just always had to make our own path. I had supported somebody’s project on Kickstarter and was like, “Man, this is a great format. It’s simple, it’s well designed. We should do this.” I thought we could’ve gotten a lot of press if we were the first indie band doing it, but then the record got delayed. So we delayed the record three or four months and then Amanda Palmer launched hers and goes on to do 1.1. million dollars, which is awesome, and soaked up the press, which is really good for her. So the negative was that I think we could’ve driven ours even more if we’d done it first. But the positive was that I got to observe what she did and what worked and didn’t work.
But that record, I think the reason it’s number one is that it’s the record where we went all-in. It’s also the first record where we went back to being a five-piece. It sounds like what Murder By Death is supposed to sound like in my mind, with a variety of instruments. There is a bit of a world music influence. We’ll throw in something that has an Irish feel, or a country feel, or even some references to Hungarian music. This record, because we were able to have that fifth member, we were able to achieve that full sound.
When a band plays the record label game, there’s always a question about how much you’re worth or how big your audience is. But when you personally handle a fan campaign like this, I imagine you develop a really precise understanding.
You know exactly how big you are. I’ve always been hands-on, and that’s why this made so much sense. I was already mailing them their packages. They’re the patrons. If they don’t show up, there’s nothing. We’re just playing music to nobody. It’s not like I think we’re kowtowing to them, we’re just acknowledging them in a way the bigger music industry doesn’t.
Can you tell me a bit about what it takes to fulfill all these pledges? I know you had oddball prizes where you rode roller-coasters with backers.
I’m in it right now. We’re in the studio recording cover songs that fans picked. We just did a live performance in a cave in Tennessee that was through the Kickstarter. Sunday, we start mailing out these 6,000 packages and it’s me and our bass player Tyler. We’ll probably spend three weeks—14 to 16 hours a day with shitty movies running in the background, taping up boxes, adding labels, adding special goodies, doing the logistical nightmare of taking it to the post office. I turn my house into a warehouse. But if we just do this once per album, we’re cutting out so many middle-men. The fans are directly handing their money to us, which means that we can then spend more money to get a better printer for the handscreened poster or a higher level of vinyl with a better packaging or take more time in the studio. If you were counting 40-hour workweeks, it basically takes me six months to do everything to get an album done on Kickstarter. But we’re not on tour all the time. It’s just my other job.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.