Murder by Death: Writing from the wilderness


To Adam Turla, singer/guitarist of Murder By Death, there's

nothing worse for a band than getting stuck in the same place musically.

"I hate that when I hear a record and I think 'Wow, this

sounds just like a less interesting version of their last record,'" Turla said

in a recent phone interview. "That's just the most disappointing feeling for


In making the latest Murder By Death album, Good Morning, Magpie, Turla and his bandmates did plenty of things

differently to help achieve the goal of giving the album its own distinct


One of the big steps involved the way Turla went about writing songs for Good

Morning, Magpie. He decided to get away on

his own to write, so there would be no distractions that would interfere with

the initial songwriting process. It was the first time Turla had stepped away

from the band to write a Murder By Death album.

Turla got away, all right, all the way to the mountains of Tennessee to kick

start his writing process.

"I wanted to just be creative," he said. "And I love to camp when I can, and

the band has sort of in some ways has prevented me from doing some adventures I

would have set out on...I'd never done just like a solo camping trip. I thought

this is a perfect opportunity to just take the ideas that I had for material

for these new songs and focus entirely on that, with nothing else in my way.

Wake up in the morning and just start writing and write until you go to bed. I

mean, I hiked and I fished. I had other things going on. But I always had like,

what do you call it, a (note) pad in my back pocket and a juicy pen ready to

write down those ideas as I got them together."

The isolated setting, Turla said, definitely filtered into the songs he wrote.

He wrote one song, "You Don't Think Twice (When You're Shaving' With A Knife),"

as a way to amuse himself, never thinking it would develop into a song the

group would want to record.

"I had no intention of introducing (it) to the band," he

said. "I wrote it because I was bored and lonely. I didn't speak to anyone the

whole time I was out there."

Other songs also came to reflect Turla's surroundings and experience.

"The last two songs on the album,

'White Noise' and 'The Day,' are gloomy nature songs," he said. "That comes

from the fact that while I was out there, it just absolutely poured the whole

time I was there. I got stuck in some pretty scary situations out on a trail by

myself...Nothing is more terrifying than nature out of control.

"One other thing I noticed about

how the experience shaped the record was that there were a couple of songs that

actually have like a hiking speed to the song," Turla said. "I was writing them

while walking quickly down a trail, and I noticed that a lot of them are

perfectly sort of timed to my footsteps, which I think is really cool."

Once Turla returned to civilization, he and his bandmates gathered in their

home town of Bloomington, Indiana for six weeks of rehearsals before doing

something that was another first for the group – staying at home to

record Good Morning, Magpie.

"We just had a very reasonable work schedule," Turla said of the recording

sessions. "We worked 12 to nine every day. All of the songs were ready to go

when we went into the studio. So it really was just a question of going in,

getting as much done as we could. We kind of had an open time schedule, and we

didn't kill ourselves. I think that by going in prepared and being ready to

record, it really made for a comfortable setting."

Together, the various steps in the process of creating Good Morning,

Magpie resulted in an album that Turla

thinks retains the basic musical identity of Murder By Death, but also

introduces some notable new facets into the group's sound.

"I think the main thing is that we tried to be very aware of our past material,

while also deviating from it," Turla said. "So with this one, we tried to make

it a little more upbeat and a little brighter at times. We wanted it to be an

album of extremes. So there are dark songs, especially 'The Day' and 'White

Noise,' are really dark, and the bright songs are bright without being like


The sound that has carried through the five Murder By Death albums is nothing

if not unique, and it was present when the group's original lineup of Turla,

cellist Sarah Balliet, bassist Matt Armstrong, keyboardist Vincent Edwards and

drummer Alexander Schrodt made its debut album, Like The Exorcist,

But More Breakdancing, in 2002.

Four more albums have followed, along with a couple of personnel changes.

Edwards left the group in 2004, while Schrodt was replaced in 2007 by Dagan

Thogerson. But Murder By Death has maintained its unique and

difficult-to-categorize sound from the start.

It's a sound that falls somewhere between Americana, rock and blues, and has a

certain feel of the Old West and Southern Gothic built into its cinematic


Turla finds it hard to explain exactly how a band rooted in the heart of the

Midwest came to write music with rather far-flung influences. He noted that the

band certainly didn't try to imbue its music with any certain influences, be it

old west, Southern Gothic or otherwise.

"I remember the first time I saw a write-up that said Southern Gothic. I had no

idea what that was," Turla said. "Like I knew Edgar Allan Poe was Southern

Gothic. I knew about it in terms of literature, but musically (I didn't).

"We never had a goal, we never had a main motif that we were going for in our

writing process," he explained. "So it's just a matter of getting these

individual musicians together, we all have these varied tastes, but we can kind

of agree on Murder By Death. We just piece together these songs according to

what we think the temperament of the content suggests. That's where we come


However Murder By Death fell into its sound, it is a compelling mix. On Good

Morning, Magpie, the group retains its

rustic sound, but applies it to an enticing range of settings. "As Long As

There Is Whiskey In The World" is a cheery romp that combines spaghetti western

and Irish tones. "King Of The Gutters, Prince Of The Dogs" is a deliberate

track whose measured pace gives the song's winsome melody time to really take

hold. A more rocking side of the band comes out on the fast-shuffling "Yes."

Fans can expect to hear a few of the new songs during Murder By Death shows

this spring. But the group isn't forgetting earlier material, either.

"This is our fifth album, and there is stuff that people expect to hear

and want to hear, and we're happy to oblige them and do the old

stand-bys," Turla said.


Recommended for you