On his way from Chicago to Tennessee for Bonnaroo 2012, FP’s intrepid interviewer Peter Lillis chatted by phone with Adam Turla, guitarist and founding member of indie rock band Murder By Death, whom he recently saw live at Chicago’s Do Division Street Fest. Turla was seeing a friend’s band in Indianapolis and on his way home to Bloomington. They spoke about Murder by Death’s music and forthcoming album , wakes and funerals, Twin Peaks and Jeffery Eugenides, and why great art is better than money.
Frontier Psychiatrist: I’ve never spent any time in Indy, are you a fan?
Adam Turla: Meh, it’s getting better. There a great pockets developing around town for people to create. We were just speaking about how much it’s improved over the last 10 years.
FP: That seems to be a trend in the Midwest Rust Belt. Cities are learning how to use their space.
AT: A lot of these cities like Des Moines and Kansas City are getting a lot more desirable. They’re starting to build nice downtowns and pockets where people can see a show or get involved.
FP: I’ve heard there’s a burgeoning visual art scene in Des Moines. Anyway, excellent show the other night [at Do Division Street Fest].
AT: I really like those street fest shows like Do Division and Wicker Park Fest. They’re a nice change from the club shows. At a club, I feel like everyone there knows us and is there just to experience us live. At a street fest, there’s just a lot of new people there who wouldn’t have found us otherwise. I love the relaxed vibe, everyone’s out and having a great time in a beautiful night, enjoying themselves, instead of being in a dingy club. We’ve probably played Chicago 60 or 70 times, no joke, and as much as I love the clubs there, it’s great to get out and do something new.
FP: We were joking about your bumper music. It had to have been the first time Murder By Death came out to reggaeton. Big fan of the new music too. Can you talk about the new album?
AT: Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about the record, my announcement the other day was a bit premature. Keep your eyes peeled though. we’ll have a formal announcement next week. We do know that it’s coming out sometime this fall.
FP: Can we at least talk about the new music you guys played at the Fest? I loved that song about going to the wake of an assumed dirtbag.
AT: It’s a fun song, I’m very proud of it. I actually wrote it when we were on the road in Alaska last summer. We were driving around through the Alaskan wilderness in this 25 year old RV, and it just blossomed over a few days in the front seat. I knew I wanted there to be a message and a story to it, and I know I wanted it to start at a wake. It ended up developing into a song about being wrong. I’ve heard so many songs about calling someone out, but rarely do you hear songs about being wrong about someone. I love rebellious songs, sure, but I try to develop characters that are more complex. Basically, it’s a song about going to a wake of someone you don’t respect, almost out of spite, which is a pretty petty act. Over the course of the wake, you start to realize all these people love the deceased despite their faults. Ultimately, you realize of the course of this amazing event, that you were wrong about them. The song is called ‘I Came Around’, which is exactly what happens. I essentially wanted to write a positive song about death, and about the sadness of realizing it’s too late, but also the joy of discovering something about yourself that isn’t too flattering.
FP: I agree that there are so many songs are calling someone else out, but that’s human nature too, right? It’s always someone else’s fault.
AT: I don’t know too many songs, and I can’t think of any off hand, that delve into the idea thats basically ‘I misjudged this person.’
FP: Also anything that takes place at a wake tends to be awesome. My Irish heritage brings me close to wakes, for sure.
AT: Yeah, Finnegan’s Wake definitely came across my mind as I was writing this one.
FP: Your character wouldnt go to a funeral out of spite, but it seems reasonable to happen at a wake. Maybe because it’s so open and informal?
AT: yeah, it’s more of a celebration rather than a ceremonial, somber funeral.
FP: Totally. Remind me how many records do you have now?
AT: This will be number six. We’ve been at it for a long time [since 2000]. I’m only 31, we started when I was 19, Sarah was just 18. So it’s been really cool evolution since we’ve been doing it as a group. The core of the group, Sarah, Matt and I, have stayed together throughout, which keeps it great for us. We’ve built this world of Murder By Death consistently, each record just expands things a bit more, to keep things interesting for ourselves and for the fans. The great thing is that now it’s just work. We’re bigger than we’ve ever been, and the shows are the best they’ve ever been. It’s pretty exciting to have the opportunity to continue to do this, since we love it so much.
FP: By staying true to what you’ve always done and soldering on, you can enjoy your work and experience that much more.
AT: It’s been a very gradual thing. I remember things just started happening for us around 2004, when things began to come together. And things have just gotten better every year since. Sometimes it gets hard because we don’t make all that much money, but we do make enough so we can just do this. It’s really because of all those fans out there who have designated us as their ‘favorite’ and who have really invested in us as artists over the years. Today, peoples tastes are far more personalized, not like in the past where you had a few really big bands. Our friend describes us as ‘Whiskey Devil’ music, which is pretty apt. And there are people out there who choose to only listen to Whiskey Devil music. So, while we may only sell like 30,000 records, three quarters of those fans are die hard, and theyre with us all the way. They really have invested in us over the years.
FP: Like stockholders.
AT: Yeah, except we don’t have anything to offer other but a creative product.
FP: Great art is worth more than money anyway. And that’s the cheesiest thing I’ve said today.
AT: It’s true though. I’m a big movie fan, and there are certain directors who I will seek out every one of their films. Or certain authors whose work I will always seek out. And that’s because I want to support them as artists, and say thanks for what they do. Especially if it’s something that’s not blowing up, you just want to help out as much as you can.
FP: What’s your relationship with your fan base?
AT: We’re definitely not one of those bands that are too cool for school. I feel if you treat people with respect, your fans won’t treat you like a hot shot rockstar, but like a real person. If people see that you’re personable, they’re more likely to offer support. Some people just don’t know how to deal with their fans.
FP: Who are some of the directors and authors that you go out of your way to find these days?
AT: I really love Quentin Tarantino, and I thought Inglorious Basterds is his best yet. I basically watch two kinds of movies: art films and shitty action movies, like old martial arts or Jean Claude Van Damme movies, and I think Tarantino is the only one to blend those two genres so seamlessly. As far as authors are concerned, I’ve been digging Jeffery Eugenides, whose new book Marriage Plot I just picked up. [Click to read the FP Review of The Marriage Plot]
FP: I dig the characters you create and the stories you tell. Any favorites that stick out?
AT: Well, I think the new stuff is really great. But of the older stuff, our second record Who Will Survive... is the first time we got comfortable completely immersing ourselves in a whole story. The third song “Until Morale Improves”marks an important change in our band. I also like the subtlety of that song. I try to not push stories on listeners all the time, I try to be more subtle sometimes, instilling a sense of foreboding that’s more abstract than obvious.
FP: Foreboding is a pretty perfect adjective to describe Murder By Death.
AT: I really like playing off that feeling, and we are doing so on the new album. It’s basically a small town that has a seedy underbelly, and you can hear the darkness creeping through a lot of the tracks, which are just American rock songs on the surface, with some really fucked up things going on just in the background. It’s got kind of a Twin Peaks type vibe to it. It was a loose inspiration. It’s just one of those places that seem like everything’s fine, but there’s some evil just scratching beneath the surface that’s both horrifying and gruesome.
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He is now recovering from Bonnaroo 2012 and working on a wrap up of the festival.