Adam Turla of Murder By Death

by Dan MacIntosh

Murder By Death is an appropriate name for a band that sings so much about, well, death. Lead singer Adam Turla, with his lower-than-low voice, may remind you of Brad Roberts with Crash Test Dummies (remember "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm"?), but that's where the similarities end (OK, sometimes they have sideburns in common). This Bloomington band uses an arsenal of instruments - cello, accordion, and trumpet among them - to evoke the stories in their songs.

The group is signed to the esteemed Bloodshot Records, which in 2012 released the band's sixth full length, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. We spoke with Adam at the Hootenanny festival in Silverado Canyon, California.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): The style of music that you play, I can kind of hear a punk rock influence, but I can also hear a folk and a Celtic influence. Can you start by telling us a little bit about what your musical influences are?

Adam Turla: I think the main thing is that we try to approach each song differently. When we started the group we didn't have a band we were trying to emulate or a style or genre that we wanted to be a part of - we just wanted to have each song stand on its own. That makes for a pretty eclectic band. There are moments where we're borrowing from the Pogues, and vocally sometimes I borrow from the Animals. I really like Eric Burdon, his vocal style.

Songfacts: You have a unique voice.

Adam: Yeah. And it's taken a long time to get comfortable singing. That's just what it is.

Songfacts: Did you write songs before you were comfortable singing them?

Adam: Oh, yeah. We made albums before I liked singing at all. We started when we were about 18, so when the band started we didn't really know what we wanted to do and I started singing because nobody else would. But it took me a while to get comfortable.

Songfacts: You're signed with Bloodshot Records, which has fans that will buy a release simply because it has that imprint on it. Did that label hold a sort of aura for you?
Bloodshot Records is an independent record label located in Chicago. It's best known for roots-oriented indie rock – particularly alt.country. Some of its more notable artists over the years include Ryan Adams, The Sadies, Neko Case, Exene Cervenka and Graham Parker.
Adam: I know that they have devoted fans. It's hard to say. I think it's different because we've been playing for a really long time.

Songfacts: How many years have you been a band?

Adam: Thirteen. So we were coming into it in a position where we've been around for a long time, we know how many people are going to come and see us. So it's hard to tell what came from the label and what didn't, but I do know that when I meet someone that's a Bloodshot fan, that they're very passionate about the label. I think that's really cool, and that's the kind of label we wanted to be on.

Songfacts: You have a lot of songs about death.

Adam: Yeah, I guess so.

Songfacts: What kind of experiences influenced some of these songs? Did you encounter deaths of people close to you?

Adam: It's more that I didn't want to do just love songs and the usual sort of "I want this" song. So many pop songs have an angle of, "This is what I want" or "this is who I am" or "I'm awesome" or "I love this person and they broke my heart, fuck them." It's all these tropes that I just didn't want to play ball with.

I have some very close friends who lost family members or loved ones, and we've, of course, lost people as well. I wanted to do some darker material rather than just light music.

Songfacts: How many albums do you have out?

Adam: Six full lengths. Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon is the first one with Bloodshot. And then we have four EPs, so it's a lot of material. I wanted to tackle a different subject matter, and I wanted to be darker and heavier. It's not for everyone.

Songfacts: What songs are you most proud of on the new album?

Adam: On the new album I really like a song called "Lost River." Sarah Balliet [cellist in the band] started working on that song and it's named after a river in Southern Indiana, where we're from. We drive by it a lot and we say, "Oh, lost river." It's a really great name - sort of conjures up great ideas. So we wrote a song about a person who drowned in that river and their spirit tries to drag down their lover with them, calling them to the river, like, "Come on, come on in, the water's fine." We do a lot of songs that are sort of supernatural.

Songfacts: You ever heard the song "Kern River" by Merle Haggard?

Adam: No. But I like Merle Haggard.

Songfacts: It's one of these rivers that have these signs everywhere, "Don't swim."

Adam: The undertow.

Songfacts: Right. It looks really inviting. And it's about how he'll never swim that river again because he lost somebody that died in the river. So when you were talking about the river, I thought, Man.

Adam: Rivers, I think, have a very inspiring quality to them.

Songfacts: Well, there's "The River" by Bruce Springsteen.

Adam: Sure. There's a Neko Case song, too ["Make Your Bed"]. There's a song that she does where she's singing to another girl and she's basically saying that this girl stole away her lover and so she wants to bury her at the bottom of the river. It's pretty cool.

Songfacts: I met her one time, but interestingly enough, it was a Los Lobos show on Cinco de Mayo. She was one of the opening acts. They had an after party and she was standing in the corner. It's kind of weird, here's this really beautiful woman, really talented woman, but Los Lobos was there, the Blasters were there, a lot of really talented people, and she was all by herself.

Adam: I've never played with her, but I know someone who works in her crew. They were rehearsing in our town before the start of the tour with My Morning Jacket.

Songfacts: They toured with My Morning Jacket?

Adam: They did. About a year or so ago. I invited them to come to my house. We were having a BBQ that night and we were already having a handful of close friends over. I said, "We're going to be hanging out all night, if you want to bring the group over, it'll be quiet. We're rock & rollers, we're not going to bother her."

They ended up coming over and partying all night until 2 or 3 in the morning. Her bandmates were really nice people. They were very nice guests. We went and saw them the next day in Indianapolis, and they were very good. I've always liked her. But that was cool. Kind of fun having Neko Case partying at the house.

Songfacts: Do you think you fit in at Hootenanny?

Adam: We're always outsiders, and that's just the angle we play. Not everyone here is going to be into us and that's fine. But there's always people that will.

Songfacts: Did you hear what the Old 97s said about you guys?

Adam: No.

Songfacts: They were raving about you guys.

Adam: Oh, cool.

Songfacts: They praised you and Nashville Pussy.

Adam: Oh, good. That's great. The idea is that we want to come out here and try something a little out of our wheelhouse. We're not a punk rock band, but I do like some punk rock. I've heard Social Distortion - they're a really good band. They're great at what they do, but it's not what we're trying to do. We just want to do our own thing. We've played with such a variety of groups, everywhere from Americana to punk rock. We've played with metal bands; we've played with solo acts. Everything, Americana, whatever. When you have a long career, that's what sustains it, jumping around. It's not the same thing all the time.

Songfacts: Let's talk about your songwriter influences. Are there songwriters that really inspired you when you first started writing songs?

Adam: I was so young when I started this band. I think we were being more rebellious than worshiping. A lot of people start and they say, "This is what I like, this is what I want to make music like." I kind of went the other way. When we started this band, I was 18. I'd been a big fan of the Cure, I liked the soul music. And brought up in Detroit, I was a big Motown fan.

Songfacts: Did you hear Lindi Ortega's set?

Adam: Yeah. She played Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man." Yeah. I love that song. That's a great song.

Songfacts: I thought it took a lot of guts. I got to talk to her earlier today. Anybody with the guts to do a song associated with Aretha Franklin, you have to really have a lot of confidence in your singing.

Adam: I agree with that. Even though they're not a direct influence on the music that I make, I think about the music of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles a lot. Those are probably my two favorite musicians of all time. They're great at the slow songs and the beautiful songs, and they're great at the upbeat sort of rowdy or belty songs. And vocally, I love to sing low. It's the most natural thing for me to sing. I love to yell, too, and that kind of singing, they were both so good at that.

And The Cure for that matter. Those guys had such a variety of songs when you listen to the singles. I mean, it's straight pop songs, they had super goth songs, they had weird, like, Latin songs. That's why I love groups that are just all over the place.

Songfacts: Who were some of the songwriters that influenced you?

Adam: Shane McGowan of the Pogues, the Celtic influence. I love his lyrics. Fantastic. David Bowie. My favorite of all time is Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It's so weird, it's silly. It's rockin', it's dark. The album opens with "Five Years." That song is so brutal, it's pure apocalypse. And then "Starman" is a goofy, goofy song. And so is, "I'm an alligator, I'm a rock and roller comin' for you." ["Moonage Daydream"]. Just silly, silly lyrics. I love the combination of seriousness and silly with songs like "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," with real heavy arrangement-based songs.

I'm an album guy. My favorite albums are any group that's all over the place. Pulls it off.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which is many times shortened to Ziggy Stardust, is David Bowie's 1972 concept album about a fictional rock star. It featured Bowie's alter-ego, Ziggy Stadust, which finds the character bringing messages from extraterrestrial beings. Released in 1972, it was one of the first, and most important, glam rock albums.
Songfacts: Are you a Neil Young fan?

Adam: I've never been a big fan.

Songfacts: He's all over the place.

Adam: Yeah.

Songfacts: He's a guy that his record company sued him for not making a "Neil Young" album.

Adam: I don't dislike Neil Young at all. I just have never been into both him and Bruce Springsteen, for some reason. I like Nebraska, and there are Neil Young songs that are just indisputably great, but I've never been one of those people who just pores over their catalogue.

Songfacts: Did you ever see the Pogues live?

Adam: We played three shows with them when we did our reunion tour about 7 years ago. Spider Stacy [Pogues vocalist] picked us to open for them, and it was the coolest experience. If I could play with any band in the world, I would have said, "I'd like to see the Pogues, I'd like to play with them." And they really liked us. Which was so cool.

August 29, 2013. Get more at murderbydeath.com.
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