Murder By Death | From Rage to Nature Retreat

Adam Turla found time to give us the hometown dirt on John Mellencamp and discuss ghost sex in South American literature. Oh yeah, and we also talked about the new album.

Since the release of Good Morning, Magpie in April of this year, Murder By Death have been touring in support of the album. During that time, they’ve seen large swaths of the United States, Spain, France, Ireland and England, both as headliners and supporting acts. We caught up with them in Providence, RI, at Jerky’s Music Hall. Amidst tattoo artists, curtained-off pool tables and the pounding bass drum from the metal showcase downstairs, Adam Turla found time to give us the hometown dirt on John Mellencamp and discuss ghost sex in South American literature. Oh yeah, and we also talked about the new album.
Your last album, Red of Tooth and Claw, expressed a lot of revenge and darkness. What do you think was the underlying theme of Good Morning, Magpie?
Well, I didn’t intend for there to be a theme, but then there was anyway. It’s not a linear story like Red of Tooth and Claw . . . . When I think about Red of Tooth and Claw, it’s about a young, angry man who learns to figure himself out and discovers . . . that revenge is not the answer, anger is useless, but those feelings are still legit. Good Morning, Magpie, I wrote in the woods. I did a two week solo camping trip, and basically I found a lot of nature themes, themes of loneliness, and that stuff just naturally came up while I was writing. I’d never had such a clear experience of inspiration, so to speak. Usually when I write, It’s just like, “OK, I’m writing,” but this time I felt the surroundings actually changed the content.
So, would it have been a different album if you had written it somewhere else or written it with the rest of the band originally?
Yeah. But it’s not to say the band didn’t do anything. I brought it back, we changed a lot, we scrapped a bunch, we wrote a few songs all together.
Your music seems to have a lot of Western and Americana influences. What do you listen to that informs that?
I see it as Midwestern (laughs). . . . It’s not music, it’s movies and books and travel. I don’t really listen to much music. It’s all we’ve done for years and years, so when I want to relax my instinct is not to put on music; It’s to NOT listen, or for silence, to watch a movie or read a book. I think that happens to a lot of people who work in media; their passion is something else. “OK, I’m an author, so fuck books!” People find their solace in things that are not work related.
I’m too informed to just put something in now. . . . I can hear the auto tune on the vocals, I can tell they comped this together and it’s not a live track, it’s like, cobbled together. I can hear all the nuances, and it kind of kills. I mean, I still buy CDs. I’m not such a curmudgeon that I just hate it. I’ve always been into soul. I’ve been buying more classic records rather than new stuff. Though, I just got a great CD the other day that’s a favorite, it’s this band called the Budos Band. The only way I can describe them is like instrumental, . . . James Bond porno music. It’s tight as fuck. It’s very swanky and slinky and dark.
When was the last time you were on a trip, other than the trip to the woods just to write, that wasn’t part of a tour?
I just got back from Morocco a couple of weeks ago, and I went camping in the Sahara and took a camel trek. It was awesome. I love to travel.
You just played Asbury Lanes in New Jersey, an area that tends to be overshadowed by the legacy of Bruce Springsteen. I think there’s a similiar thing for your hometown; when the general public hears Bloomington, IN, they think of John Mellencamp. How do you live with that mantle? How do you get away from it, or embrace it or both?
I’ve never seen him in town, . . . but that’s because we’re never there. Most people have seen him around. He’s a really weird character because he’s very much . . . to Indiana as Bruce is to Jersey. I mean out here, Bruce Springsteen, he’s like a god. But in the Midwest, [people are] just like, “Oh hey, it’s Bruce Springsteen.” He’s sort of like Neil Young, whereas Mellencamp, he’s a local guy.
What’s so weird is that . . . he’s super democratic in the sense that he donates a lot of his money, he believes in programs to help out people who have less, he has very generous politics; but he’s a notorious egotistical asshole. He treats people like slaves, apparently. Everyone I know who’s worked with him—I know guys who have recorded with him, I know guys who have toured with him—says he treats everybody like they’re pieces of shit, and [thinks] he’s, like, God’s gift to the world. Which is so fascinating to me. I don’t understand how you can have a political ethos of helping other people and then insult every person you’re around. 
He’s kind of like a mystery to me, more than anything else. I just want to know, how do you reconcile those two ideas? But also, the young people aren’t talking about John Mellencamp. Frankly, they’re not. And I mean, although we do really well [in Bloomington], they’re not really talking about us, either. When we’d go home when we were younger, I couldn’t go to a bar without some 21-year-old bar kids freaking out, “Oh you’re Murder By Death!” But now that our fans are older, people just kind of leave us alone.
You’re allowed to live your lives normally?
Yes [we have a] very, very normal home life. Not that we’re successful enough to have a weird life, but it’s a great place to live and come back to. We love it.
Speaking of your younger days, you just put out a DVD with 10 years of live concert footage. What was that experience like, going back to see the old stuff ?
I realize how different the show was when I see some of the old footage. I arranged it with my friend Bob [Renock] and my friend Jake [Belser], and Bob’s been trying to get us to do this for five years. He had films from shows from the past, and we had some camcorder videos we threw on there, just lo-fi fun.
I forgot how much shorter shows we put on. When we were playing in 2003 we were never really headlining shows. We were always opening, so we were playing 30-40 minutes a night, as opposed to now, we’re [playing for] like, an hour and 20. Or sometimes, like the tour that we filmed the dvd on, we’re on for an hour and 40 minutes. So, definitely a different experience, but you know, the band for the most part has remained the same. We changed drummers 3 1/2 years ago. Our piano player quit in 2004 because he just didn’t like touring. He went back and now he’s a furniture maker, and he does really nice stuff. We got our new guy [Scott Brackett] playing piano, trumpet and accordion now and that’s been fucking amazing.
There’s a lot of those instruments on the new album. I like the way your band layers sound in the recordings I’ve heard.
We try to keep it minimal. Sometimes it sounds like there’s a lot going on, but we don’t do much overdub. It’s mostly live, and we try to make it so that we can actually play it live, you know? And now with Scott, we can do everything, which is cool. . . . I have this idea of doing a request tour, like, when you pre-buy the ticket, you get to request the three songs you want us to play the most. So every night, the set will be created by fans. So we’ll probably play some songs we’ve never played live, or haven’t played for years or play like once or twice a tour, depending on what people ask for. I think that’ll be a cool, different way of approaching a tour.
You’re doing a series of singles on 7” where you guys pair up with another artist and each cover one another’s songs. You’ve released covers with Amanda Palmer, William Elliot Whitmore, O’Death. Who’s next?
We put one out just now. It’s a local guy; he was our touring manager for years. His name is Sam Lowry. It’s a benefit for our friend’s band because one of the guys got cancer, so we’re putting it out to help raise money for him. The next one is going to be The Builders and the Butchers, a great band from Alaska (now they’re in Portland, OR). . . . Frank Turner, from England, is doing one, and J. Roddy Wallston is going to do one. I’d like to get a few of our more successful friends’ bands doing it. Like, I’ve been trying to get Against Me and Lucero, but they’re just so busy. And they’re so lazy. I mean, they don’t want to have to learn our songs. Even though they like us—I know they’re fans, just like we’re fans of them—but, I don’t want to push them, like, “Come on, do it, do it!”
Dagan Thogerson has been trying to do tour updates. Is it hard to do that on the road?
Yeah, well, it’s kind of boring to do it, to write about yourself. I’d rather just have a conversation. Honestly, the best way to do that, . . . if a website wanted to do a tour diary, would be to come up with a few questions every week. Ask me a question, and I’d be happy to talk about it. I just don’t want to sit down and have to plug in my computer . . . and think of something funny to say. It feels more like work.
What’s your crowd like? You go from city to city to city, are there any common characteristics of your audience?
Rock and rollers. A lot of folks who drink, have a good time. I’d say the biggest theme, though, is sort of diversity—we don’t have a very obvious crowd. Like, every night, there’s metal heads, skinny college kids who like indie rock, punk rockers, rock and rollers. When you look around, it’s not like there’s a typical Murder By Death fan. I mean, like [there is with] Lucero. You know there’s going to be a dude wearing a PBR hat, he’s probably about 30 years old, he probably works, like a lot of service industry dudes, rock and roll dudes. We get those guys too, but that’s quintessential Lucero. . . .
Certain bands, they’re like, clear cut. . . . Ra Ra Riot just played here. That’s going to be skinny kids in glasses, you know, young kids. And this show [gestures to the club below us, the metal showcase], probably a lot of black t-shirts, you know? We get a little bit of everything and I like that.
You talked about movies and literature influencing you. What are you reading or watching lately?
Well, right before we started talking I was reading a book called Eva Luna by a Chilean author, Isabelle Allende. She’s awesome. . . . I’ve been reading a lot of South American literature. I really like South American literature because magical realism is really big down there, . . . there’s some pretty heavy, dark shit going on, but it’s also very vibrant and fun—a lot of sex and weird shit. I like a lot of fantastical elements to my reading. I can’t read Tom Clancy or something, where it’s just like showing up for work. . . . I like adventure, but I don’t care about technical specs. I don’t give a shit about fighter jets. I mean they’re cool, I’ll go to an air show. But my thing is more like, this ghost showed up, you know, and had sex with this lady, and then she called the local shaman, and they threw chicken bones on top of a fire, and a spirit was released. | Courtney Rau

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