By Martin Jones.
It’s hard to believe that it’s taken Murder By Death nearly twenty years to get to Australia.
Founded by Adam Turla and Sarah Balliet in Bloomington, Indiana, at the turn of the century, the band has released its eighth album, specialising in blending alternative folk and country with gothic narratives that have reminded critics of Cormac McCarthy novels.
On their newest album, The Other Shore, the narrative goes intergalactic – two lovers by the decision to stay on Earth or leave it forever, the music ranging from earthy to pseudo-psychedelic. Murder By Death will be carefully placing selections from The Other Shore alongside samples of their past releases in order to “take the crowd on a trip”, according to Adam Turla, as they tour alongside Laura Jane Grace this month.
Is it true that this will be your first ever tour of Australia? How can it have taken you twenty years to get here?
Yes! We are very excited. We’ve been trying to come for a long time, and are glad to finally make it. We had a planned tour about seven years ago where the promoter disappeared and cancelled the tour. That was a real soul crusher.
Are you guys fans of any Australian bands?
Sure, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dead Can Dance, of course AC/DC.
So how do you tour an album like The Other Shore that is structured around a narrative thread? Do you have to play it start to finish or do the songs stand up out of the context of the album?
The idea is that the songs stand on their own but when put together they make something bigger and deeper. I think it’s a cool way to approach a writing and for the listeners who want to seek out more, they can dig in. Occasionally we will do an entire album type show. but because we’ve been around for a long time we find that fans come from different eras of our band and it’s better to do a mix at most shows.
There’s also a stylistic instrumental flow to the album, gradually getting more adventurous which would be a kind of cool way to structure a show as well…
Yeah, I really believe in arc of an album, and trying to musically convey the idea of a journey. I really work on the arc of the set list so it takes the crowd on a trip.
I really liked how you managed to go intergalactic without straying too far from traditional instrumentation – without resorting to programming and to synthesizers.
Thank you! Yeah we didn’t want to be too obvious, instead exploring spacier elements of our band in a more natural way rather than forcing it with trope sounds or melodies.
Do you have to rethink your setlist heading to a country you’ve never been to before?
Absolutely. I made a few posts asking people what they wanted to hear because I had no context for what albums had resonated with Australians. It was fun to see the requests come in and we’re going to try to do as many as we can.
How do you feel about listeners discovering the band for the first time through The Other Shore? Do you think it’s a good introduction?
I’ve heard a lot of people say that when they share this record with friends who had not heard us before they react really well. I think it’s a really good sounding record and that helps with getting new listeners in. I think it’s a great introduction but with our catalogue there is a lot of variety and a lot of people also have their preferences from on they first got into us.
Was the way you conceived and developed The Other Shore very different to how you’ve worked for past albums?
Not really because I always just start writing songs once I have time to work on the album, and if I see a narrative thread I try to push and pull and get it to reveal its story to me. Sometimes a narrative comes out and sometimes it doesn’t. I just keep working and editing and revising and making lists and eventually, by the time I present the songs to the band I have a sense of where the album is headed.
I’m guessing there were a couple of key songs like ‘I Have Arrived’ which provided a launching pad?
Yes, that actually was the first song I wrote and I worked on it for a very long time, constantly revising it because it is so energetic and overly optimistic. It’s such a weird feeling to try to communicate in four minutes and it tells so much of a story that I wanted to make sure we did it right.
You’ve obviously covered a lot of ground as a group musically, you’re not afraid to roam stylistically even on the one album…
No, we’re trying to enjoy what we do, and nurture our creative sides rather than just do the thing that might be the most successful. We’re trying to keep it fresh for ourselves as well as the audience.
I’d imagine writing to a concept and narrative would involve a lot of trial and error more so than normal album. Do you guys have your own space where you can spend endless hours experimenting and demoing stuff?
I do most of my writing when I’m alone without an instrument… a lot of the time when I’m driving in the car by myself and bored. Usually just starts with a line and a melody.
So how did you go about the assembly, did you have close to a final track list when you went to record at the La La Land studio? You had charts and maps and a vision?
Yeah we had a bunch of songs that we thought were going to make the record but in the end we found songs that revealed more of the story or filled in the gaps better and we cut a few at the last minute. Then I scrambled to write more just in case we needed some element of the story to be covered. It’s such a strange process because eventually you have to say that you’re done.
How close to or far from that vision was the final album?
I think it did pretty damn well!
Murder By Death tour Australia through June with Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers and Emmy Hour.
June 14 – Crowbar – Brisbane
June 15 – Crowbar – Sydney
June 16 – Hamilton Station – Newcastle
June 18 – The Basement – Canberra
June 20 – The Boston – Perth
June 21 – Enigma – Adelaide
June 22 – Northcote Social Club – Melbourne (Sold Out)
June 23 – Northcote Social Club – Melbourne