Murder by Death is a Bloomington, Indiana quintet who aren’t quite as aggressive as their name implies. Their eclectic instrumental makeup includes a cello, accordion, cornet, mandolin and theremin to complement the usual percussion and guitars. They work with themes, and their music has been used in such places as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. On Thursday, they’ll come to Bottletree.
Weld spoke to lead vocalist Adam Turla about the band’s name, Bloomington and unlikely relationships with bands like My Chemical Romance and Thursday.
Weld: Why did you guys choose such an aggressive, metal sounding name when your music is much more gentle than that?
Adam Turla: It’s funny, we certainly didn’t think of it like that. None of us listened to heavy music, so it didn’t occur to us that it may be mistaken. There were some bands at the time that had some really heavy, dark names that we thought – for example, Godspeed You, Black Emperor! or the Black Heart Procession – and we thought the fact that our name didn’t make sense and was stupid was enough to get people to not think that we were a heavy band. That being said, 95 percent of people don’t realize that “Murder by Death” is not actually a thing; they’re thinking of “death by murder.” [Laughs] That’s what you get when you name your band when you’re, like, 18 years old. You’re not thinking about how marketable it is or how people prejudge you. In defense of the name, it’s memorable and we’ve gotten a lot of people that have embraced it and it’s kind of become a joke at this point where, “Everyone thinks you’re a metal band.”
Weld: How did the idea to incorporate that cello sound come about? She happened to be a friend and it worked, or…
Weld: It’s such an interesting combo.
AT: Basically we were doing some sleepy orchestrated music when we first started playing and we thought that would be cool. We had some [other strings] early on when we were playing around our university, and we really like writing with them, but they were music school kids and had to give their time to music school. Indiana University and Juilliard are basically the best music schools in the country and the girls [didn’t have time]. Sarah [Balliet] came along and she had thought that she wanted to study music, but she found out that she wanted to study biology – she didn’t want to spend as much time playing music. A funny part of the story is, right when she decided not to pursue that full-time, that’s when she joined the band and it’s been her life for 15 years. It’s sort of accidental, but pleasurable.
Weld: So you guys all finished at IU – is that why Bloomington is home?
AT: So we all went to college there, and we moved from all over – Kentucky, Texas, Michigan; our original piano player was from Connecticut – and we met at school, enjoyed playing together. Now we’re spread out again – we’ve gotten older and we have our various lives playing out in addition to the band. I’ve just moved to Louisville, Kentucky – we’re in the process of moving. Our drummer lives in Portland, Oregon, our bass player still lives in Bloomington, our keyboard player lives in Atlanta. So we’re really all over.
Weld: What attracts you to concept records?
AT: I think it’s the idea of organization – the idea that you try to create something that has a full package. We have never been a band that writes for singles; that’s the opposite of what we do. When we write songs, we try to think of the whole picture – putting this record in and spending 45 minutes with it. And I think that’s how we think about songwriting. We write a couple of songs and find a thread and then you start trying to tie those songs together or maybe it just happens naturally. I try to do it automatically because I think that it can get stagnant writing. It’s fun when it works out – when you find out that you have an album that has these common threads, sometimes you’ve got to just go with it and let the writing direct you.
Weld: While we mentioned that this certainly isn’t a metal band, there’s a darkness in your records that I don’t feel came from Bloomington. Where do you draw that from?
AT: We all have interests in darker material. We find it more interesting. None of us are happy, go-with-the-flow type people. We’re rebels and outsiders, in the sense that we usually reject popular culture. That’s always been something that we identified with. Part of it comes with being dissatisfied with elements in the world and you end up creating your art based on that idea.
Weld: You’ve managed some unique collaborations with guys like Gerard Way and Thursday. How did those guys decide to collaborate with you on something so different?
AT: Basically, when we first started getting approached by record labels, there was a label out of New Jersey called Eyeball Records and they were famous for discovering Thursday and My Chemical Romance. That label was very good to us when we started out because they were the first people that said, “You need to make an album.”
We were just messing around playing shows in our little town, not taking it seriously at all. Them and another label out of Illinois said, “You guys should really be a professional band. You should do this.” And we were like, “Okay.”
Basically, their up-and-coming acts at the time were Thursday and My Chemical Romance, and both of those bands broke very quickly and very popularly, and those guys were kind enough to encourage us to be a band and push us to make albums. So Gerard was recoding an album nearby when we were recording our second album and he decided he wanted to come in the studio and do some backup vocals. So he came by and threw some vocals on one of the songs. It was more just out of the spirit of friendship than musical collaboration, really. We were just like, “Oh yeah. He’s a nice guy and he wants to sing on our record? Okay. Cool.”
We had no idea that anyone in that group would be so successful. I mean, he ended up selling millions and millions of records. It’s crazy.
Weld: How far are we away from new music?
AT: We’re writing now, and we’re recording this summer in our new town of Louisville, Kentucky. John Congleton, who did our last album, is going to mix it, and we’re pretty excited about that. He’s really creative and we’re pretty pumped. We’ve got a bunch of good new songs and we’re finessing them.
Weld: Will you take an opportunity to do that at the show here?
AT: We haven’t played any out live yet. But it’s very possible – that’s the second show of that run, so that’s probably the night we’ll try one out. The first night we’ll be getting our bearings, making sure we’re comfortable – first night out kind of thing. And we might be warmed up by then. So maybe we’ll pull out one or two if we’re comfortable.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
AT: American rock bands, that’s interesting. It’s funny because I had a conversation where I was talking about how for some reason, rock bands are dominated by British, Australian – you always see these bands that aren’t American. So, one that we love, and we’re actually playing with the day after the Birmingham show, is J. Roddy Walston and the Business. We actually played the Bottletree with them, they opened our show in 2008 at the Bottletree. And we’re playing with them the next day at Wakarusa, and they’re playing right after us. They’re really good friends of ours and we’re so excited that they’re kicking ass.
In terms of the classic guys, I love Tom Petty. I like Ray Charles very, very much. I listened to a lot of that early rock and roll and soul stuff – Ray Charles, Little Richard, that’s kind of my department. Maybe Sam and Dave.
Weld: That’s five!
AT: Oh cool, that’s five. It’s ever-changing, though.
Murder by Death will perform at Bottletree Cafe on Thursday, June 5. The Secret Midnight Band will open. Doors are at 8 p.m., while the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12.