Adam Turla and the rest of Murder by Death interviewed with Nuvo before stopping by Birdy’s Aug. 28 as part of a late August weekend “jaunt.” More information about the band can be found at their Web site, www.murderbydeath.com.
NUVO: You guys have some downtime right now before your next tour?
Adam Turla: Well it’s not really a tour. It’s just kind of a weekend jaunt. When we tour, sometimes we’re gone for three months straight. This one is just four shows that happened to be put together. Then we head out in the fall for a month. But we’ve been enjoying some time off. Usually we’re just gone all the time, and we only have a week at a time off. But right after this weekend, I’m going on an outdoors thing in Alaska.
NUVO: Have you been there before?
Turla: We played in Anchorage a couple years back and really liked it. So I thought it would be cool to take a six-day trip, fishing and hiking.
NUVO: How was Europe? You were there through June?
Turla: June and July. It was fantastic. We love going to Europe. It was only our second time doing a comprehensive tour. The first time was last summer, or last April. The shows are so different there. I don’t know what it is. There’s just a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of passion for music. When we play there, the reaction is just very different. Everyone always told us that about touring in Europe, but I guess I just wasn’t prepared for how great it would be.
NUVO: Does that go across the board in every country, that level of enthusiasm?
Turla: No, definitely not. England, for example, was just a lot more sedate, and I don’t know if that’s because they just get more music or they’re just more jaded about bands coming over.
NUVO: Maybe it’s just an English sensibility?
Turla: Oh yeah, maybe it’s just temperament. Spain and Germany, Switzerland and Austria were all spectacular. England was a little less thrilling. But it’s exciting to just be there, so you can’t really care that much, because the idea of playing abroad has been something we’ve worked towards doing for so long, that we’re just happy being able to do it.
NUVO: Do you make much money off of those trips or just enough to recoup expenses?
Turla: We treat them as a paid vacation and hope that we will actually take home a little money to pay our bills and whatnot. But you kind of never know what you’re going to get with a tour over there. Sometimes a show will be spectacular and it’ll do really well, and sometimes you show up and no one knows who you are. But you can’t expect much when you’re 5,000 miles away from home.
NUVO: Have any songs off the latest record been stronger in concert than others? Anything that’s sticking with you more?
Turla: I love the first song off the latest album, “I’m Coming Home.” That song, live, is just extremely thrilling to play. The energy is really high up, and I just find myself in a cathartic singing mode. And the same way, the last song on the new album, “Spring Break 1899,” live, is just so much better than I ever pictured the song being able to be. I like it on the recording, but live, it just has something that … We’ve been playing it last, as the last song for some of the shows, and when that happens, there’s this huge release. It’s wonderful.
NUVO: Why do you think “I’m Coming Home” is so good live? I can see that there’s a repetition to the song and it builds really well.
Turla: Yeah, I think that may have something to do with it. It’s just a song that has a lot of intensity and violence and, on the right nights, if we can channel that, it works really well for us.
NUVO: Have you been happy with what Vagrant has done with it?
Turla: Yes and no. I feel like it’s such a hard thing to think about with record labels right now. With people not buying CDs, it’s really hard to tell if you’re not doing well.
NUVO: That’s a really understated point, but sure.
Turla: People who don’t know that much about the economics of rock and roll, usually say something like: “Oh, but there’s more people coming to the shows.” And that’s not necessarily true, actually. The only thing that’s stepped in to cover the loss of CD sales for bands is the fact that people have forgiven bands for using their songs for marketing, for commercials, for movies. When we started this band eight or nine years ago, that was the biggest sell-out thing that you could do. But in the last few years, that’s totally changed. I think that people are sort of making that OK because they know that they’re not buying the CDs, so the band’s got to get paid some way. Then again, we’ve never made money off that, so it’s not actually compensating for the loss in CD sales. The album is still doing fine. I like the people at Vagrant. But while I think we’re bigger than we were last year, we haven’t sold as many records as the last one. It’s such a toss-up. I think that the loss of CD sales has been a huge detriment to bands. But is there anything I can do about it? Not really. Just try and come up with creative ways to not go broke. That’s really our only option.
NUVO: Do all four of you work in some way during tours?
Turla: I do a lot of the organizational stuff, all the administrative parts of the band. I’m usually working doing that, trying to create opportunities. Depending on if we actually have time between tours, Dagan, our drummer, is a bartender at a biker bar in Nashville, Ind. We’ve done odd jobs. But living in Southern Indiana allows you to not have to make a lot of money. If we lived in another city, we never would have been able to keep up this band financially. It’s just an advantage to be able to actually have a cheap house. The cost of living is reasonable.
NUVO: Are you discouraged by the record sales or economics?
Turla: We’re thrilled to be musicians living off of what we create. Yeah, ultimately, everyone would like to make more money. But I can’t feel bad about it because I’m able to make my living off something I’m proud of and something I enjoy doing. And I just leave it at that. And I try to think of ways, without compromising the art at all, to creatively make up for that.
NUVO: Have you licensed your music anywhere? You mentioned that as another income stream.
Turla: Well, we haven’t really. That’s the thing. We want to do movie soundtracks. We want to score films; that’s something we’ve always wanted to do. But the opportunity hasn’t come up yet. Usually films aren’t looking for a band to actually write a score to a film. They just want their music supervisor to stumble across something already written that works. We actually want to create something for a film; that’s the sort of thing we’re actually interested in. Hopefully, someday that will come through.
NUVO: What’d you think of “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” movies that are in line with your creative vision, at least lyrically?
Turla: I loved “No Country.” It’s funny because we’ve had so many people write us saying, “Oh, you should totally do the soundtrack for a Cormac McCarthy film version.” And that’s exciting and that’s a cool thought, but then, the funny part is, that movie had no soundtrack; there’s no music in it. And I think that worked even better. So it’s funny to see yourself be irrelevant where you kind of pictured a possibility. I thought Jonny Greenwood did a great job with the soundtrack for “There Will Be Blood.”
NUVO: Yeah, there’s a movie with a prominent soundtrack.
Turla: But it’s interesting, because the movies [for which] musicians have composed scores, and the ones that seem like they’d be perfect for us, are getting bigger names. For example, we were pushing really hard to do the soundtrack for “The Road,” a Cormac McCarthy one, but Nick Cave got the job. He’s friends with the director. He’s fantastic and I’m sure he’ll do a good job, but we just can’t compete with a musician who knows the director.
NUVO: Do you approach your albums in any way like film music, as far as trying to match music to the lyrics? And you obviously have that tribute to Ennio Morricone on the new record. But does that make any sense — are you trying to write the soundtrack to the story?
Turla: Yeah, that’s exactly what we do. We have an incredible attention to detail, as far as writing our songs. What we basically do is I write the lyrics and the melody first, and I create a story that we want to get across, and a point to each song. And the idea is that we want to have a feeling accompany each song so that the music communicates the actual lyrics, hopefully just as effectively as the words do. We make a major effort with trying to have everything fit together very nicely. That’s part of what has kept us afloat …With the way we were writing, we realized that having these stories that were sort of in-depth, and developed beyond this one song, we were able to take that to another point. For example, when we needed T-shirt designs, some of the people that were doing designs for us starting illustrating themes from the album. And we had never thought of that before. But they started doing it and it made a lot of sense. So we tied together, not just the album artwork, but the T-shirts and merchandise. We try to unite every part of the band into one project, so that we’re creating a whole world, rather than just song by song and an image. So we sell an idea and a backdrop for a story more than we sell ourselves or a single.
NUVO: How do you think you guys decided to follow that storytelling technique?
Turla: Truly by accident. I wrote some songs that were strange and very fantastical, and then we just continued writing. It really started with “Who Will Survive,” our second album. It just continued to develop into this weird beast. From there, everything just kind of happened naturally. We had this idea and said, “Oh, this would tie in here really well.” Like I said, sometimes it was people we hired to do merchandise and designs, or sometimes people just drew pictures and gave them to us. And we said, “Wow, this is incredible. This paints the lyrics I wrote in a way that I never thought about before.” So it’s very organic, and sometimes we were creating things really naturally without thinking about it, sometimes we were working really hard to make one song fit into another and sometimes other people just contributed through their own art, and that influenced us.
NUVO: What would you think about doing musical theater or a stage show?
Turla: I don’t like musical theater, though I’ve seen a lot of it. My parents were really into the arts, so I used to see a lot of that stuff with them. But I actually performed lead guitar in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in town. Rock opera is a little more my thing. The idea has been brought up a lot of times of making a play or film of one of our albums. I’ve had maybe a hundred scripts sent to me by people. I can’t finance something like that. I love and appreciate the level of interest, but I don’t have any money; I’m broke as a joke. But I always say, if you want to pursue making a film, start getting a project together and I’ll happily …
Some people are independent and just really want to make something, like the story of “Who Will Survive.” I’ve always supported people being creative and using us as a starting ground, but I don’t think anyone has been able to make a serious effort because that sort of project would just cost a fortune.
NUVO: What new things do you see in your work when someone sends in a script or makes drawings based on a song?
Turla: Sometimes, I get an impression that a song is very different than I envisioned, and sometimes I think, that’s not how it is at all. And then sometimes I see a picture of a character or something, and I say to myself, “Wow, I never even considered what he looks like.” I can’t draw to save my life, so when I visualize characters in the stories, I usually don’t even picture them. So it’s funny to see someone else’s interpretation of what the devil looks like, or what the main character in “Red in Tooth and Claw” looks like or what his female counterpoint looks like. So it’s very interesting to see someone decide something for me, to some extent, and then to see five other artists do the same thing, and what they come up with.
NUVO: So there is kind of a central character to every song in “Red in Tooth and Claw”?
Turla: Nine of the songs are sung by one guy, and he’s the one travelling home, and then two of the other songs are narrated by these gods that are watching him and willing him to fail. The way I try to write is to have it all fit together and have it possible to read it as one story. But then I also like it when there’s listeners that don’t think the songs are linked at all, and they just think it’s an album and they just like it. So I like the ambiguity. I don’t think you have to know the whole story. Because not everybody listens to music that way.
NUVO: Can you describe that character? How well do you know him once you’ve written the songs and once you’re done with the project?
Turla: The idea is that he’s basically just an anti-hero and he’s sort of just running with the wrong crew. He’s basically just a bad guy who realizes that he’s spinning out of control and ultimately wants to change himself but doesn’t know how.
NUVO: How much material from your own life can you apply to this?
Turla: Some of it’s real: Some of the stories in the songs are actually things that happened that are just fantastical. Some happened to people I know. Some of those characters are based on people I know and how I’d like them to be. I think when you write fiction, everything is sort of real and everything is also made-up.
NUVO: Do you write other non-Murder by Death material, short stories or fiction?
Turla: I did when I was in school and I was taking the classes and I had to. I’d like to get into fiction outside of music, but I just don’t have the time outside of Murder by Death. When this is done, I’ll probably venture into something outside of that for pleasure.
NUVO: Planning on making any videos for this record?
Turla: You know we were, and we talked about it and then all of the sudden, it just stopped being talked about. We did some live videos in a studio that are supposed to be out soon; they’re just really delayed. But I think it’s really a matter of budget. I wrote a screenplay for a music video for “Coming Home” and it’s a really awesome idea. But I think we were trying to figure out the budget and who could film it. I don’t know if that idea just went out the window or not. Kind of a label question, I guess.
NUVO: Are you working on new material, using this downtime for writing?
Turla: I like to write out an album and just allow it to be itself. I don’t want to write anything else until I feel I’ve given this album our full attention. I don’t know when I’ll be writing; I haven’t thought about it. I’ve been asked that question a few times lately, but it’s only been out for six months, if that. We spent a long time writing it, and we spent time recording it and prepping the release, so the idea of just writing another album right now is the last thing on my mind. But ask me that question in a year and I’m sure I’ll have some songs then.
NUVO: Do you feel you have any kindred spirits that are trying to wed lyrics and music to create a single vision and story, reaching for that ideal of film music that complements the story?
Turla: I don’t know of any …
NUVO: Or storytellers in general?
Turla: There are storytellers out there. One of my favorite guys is a friend of ours called William Elliot Whitmore, and he’s coming out on tour with us in October. He’s a great storyteller, but he sings his stories and he doesn’t make the music cinematic, so to speak, and I don’t think that he’s blending it to the extent that we are. I think his songs are amazing — I’m a big fan — but I think he just has a different approach than we do. But he’s a storyteller.
NUVO: But you said you don’t know of anyone that’s going for that cinematic feel.
Turla: I’m sure there are some out there, but I haven’t heard of any of them, or no one’s introduced me to anything like that.
NUVO: Other than literature, what put you on that musical storytelling track?
Turla: It was more just a matter of, if I was able to be involved in making films without jumping up and going to L.A. and breaking in that way, I’d be doing that. If I hadn’t been in band that started to take off a little bit, maybe I’d be writing fiction. My three interests are film, books and music, and I had been playing guitar and I was the most prepared to launch into that. I think the writing of fiction takes a lot of time. I didn’t have the opportunity to just jump into a fiction career or a movie career, and the movie thing just kind of happened.