A version of this story originally ran in Substream #45.
As their name suggests, Murder By Death are a band who thrive off darkness. Formed in 2000, the Bloomington, Indiana, five-piece have always existed in the shadow of the devil, their dusty, indie-rock/alt-country melodies—Americana Gothic, if you will—formed under black storm clouds and from whiskey hangovers in a sepia-tinged limbo that’s as much the past as it is the present. That’s something which hasn’t changed in their 15 years of existence, as seventh and latest full-length, Big Dark Love, attests from the get-go. It’s a record that very much exists in the timeless world that the band’s songs have evoked since their inception, but talking to vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Adam Turla is a reminder that the five-piece—completed by founding members bassist Matt Armstrong and cellist/keyboardist Sarah Balliet (who is also Turla’s wife), as well as multi-instrumentalist David Fountain and drummer Dagan Thogerson—are also real people living in the here and now, and who aren’t immune from the very basic problems it presents to people, especially to bands on tour.
“The first week,” says Turla over the phone from New York, ahead of two consecutive gigs there, “was just amazing. We had all this extra time and we were getting to go out to eat at, usually, fun places. And then the van had to have three repairs in the course of two weeks and we almost didn’t make two shows and we got sick. But it’s a winter tour—at this point we’ve just come to expect certain issues and we just deal with them.”
You might think that, after all these years, Murder By Death would have learned to stay off the road when the temperatures are in the teens, but far from it. In fact, Turla relishes winter tours.
“I think they’re great,” he says with a chuckle. “I kind of prefer it in a way. There are less bands on the road, so you don’t feel like there’s competition where every single night at the venue you’re playing there’s a similar band playing the day before or after. And there’s something kind of nice about getting onstage and doing your set, and by the end of the night, everybody’s not too sweaty or gross.”
Murder By Death, you see, like to do the unexpected. They’re their own unique entity who have been forging their own path the whole time. That’s something that guides both their ethos and their music, and which led, for both this record and its 2012 predecessor, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, to the band raising money on Kickstarter. The latter raised a total of $187,047, at the time the third-highest amount raised by a musical act on the website. For Big Dark Love, the band raised a total of $278,486, which currently sits at fifth place on that money-making chart. It might seem like a lot, but, says Turla, take into account that time spent fulfilling pledges and making the album, and it suddenly doesn’t seem so outrageous.
“It takes about a year to a year-and-a-half,” he says, “working all the time, to write a record, record a record, promote a record, play music, fulfill the Kickstarter pledges, and it’s fantastic that several thousand people are able to say, ‘Yeah, I got this. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ Because we have experience putting out our own vinyl and because we do our own mail order, I like the Kickstarter backend for getting the message out and for having a fun marketplace where people can, kind of, be a patron.”
If it seems slightly incongruous that the guy whose imagery is so riddled with anarchic, religious, desolate and quasi-apocalyptic old-time imagery, well—it is. But just because the band are able to operate within the technological parameters of 2015 to release their albums doesn’t mean that their music follows suit. And it doesn’t. Rather, like all their albums, Big Dark Love is an anachronistic, unclassifiable affair, sitting on the periphery of a multitude of genres—in some places it’s dark, moody pop, in others forlorn country, in others shimmering and anthemic indie rock. But then, true to their own idiosyncratic attitudes, Murder By Death have always been outsiders. After all, their 2003 album Who Will Survive, And What Will Be Left Of Them?, featured both My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way and Thursday’s Geoff Rickly singing backing vocals, but the band always kept a distance from that scene—and every other one they’ve been associated with.
“One of the things our fans like about the band,” Turla says, “is that it’s its own world, and I think partially that comes from the fact that none of us are really interested in what’s happening right now. We’re all very independent people who know what we like and believe in what we like and we’re not influenced by transitory culture. So I think it comes from having a strong sense of self. When we write a song, our references come from all different eras of music. We’re not trying to be part of something that’s happening right now. Like, the first time I heard Katy Perry was when I watched the Super Bowl halftime show. That’s not my world. Katy Perry is not part of the world I live in. I love the fact that she rode in on a lion, though. I was pretty into that.”
Katy Perry aside, it seems Murder By Death are more than content on ignoring the outside world and forging ahead with their own vision of what surrounds them. They’re continuing that tradition with Big Dark Love. It still sounds like Murder By Death, yes—with Turla’s whiskey-graveled vocals and the ominous strains of Balliet’s cello underpinning these songs, it always will—but it’s yet another twist in their dark, foreboding journey.
“It’s way more subtle,” admits Turla. “That was a very conscious effort. Something both Sarah and I brought up when we first started writing it was that it’d be cool to have songs that were less verbose and to just embrace simplicity for this record. It’s just the kind of decision you make when you’re writing your seventh album: What can you do that haven’t done? What would be fun to do? What have we thought of doing but didn’t know how to do before? I feel like some people talk about records as if there’s evolution, but that implies that there’s one direction, that it’s constantly improving. I really like the idea of just saying ‘What haven’t we done?’ and branching off in all these different directions and doing whatever feels satisfying creatively.” You can bet the devil your soul they’re going to keep doing just that for a long time to come.
A version of this story originally ran in Substream #45.