Words by Tommy Johnson
A dark, brooding mystique overlooks the Indiana-based troupe Murder by Death. Having been around nearly two decades and released countless albums, the soft aura lingers upon the devoted following that has gradually increased over the years and those who have been there since the beginning. At this point, the mystique that surrounds Murder by Death can almost be looked at as its own folklore.
Murder by Death’s latest album Spell/Bound, released at the end of July, unearths yet a different imprint within the already sterling library. This time, the band took a giant leap forward into lavish, spaced-out territory only hinted at on previous records. Case in point: Spell/Bound‘s opener “Get Up”; murky synth lingers until a harmonious cavalcade comes along. “Everything Must Rest” can be viewed as one of their poppier efforts with new wave guitars and strings. “When” is one song that shines a light on new member Emma Tiemann’s violin work.
Off Shelf: Having been around a little over two decades, do you ever think back to the days when Murder by Death was formed?
Adam Turla: Often! It feels like a lifetime ago. We started as college kids just trying to make some art, and then it became our lives. When we started, in some ways, it was a lot harder to make it as a band and we really fought for those $100 gigs – our first 500 shows or so! It was lovely to be part of scenes I had been so into as a teenager though, and I loved getting to play with bands I was a fan of. It really exceeded all my hopes.
OS: With each album the band has released, there has been the signature sound but also expanding into unknown terrain. Would you say that without the expansive elements that Murder By Death wouldn’t be around after all these years?
AT: Yes, I wouldn’t be making art if it didn’t feel like I was pushing the creative side. I have a short attention span and stuff that isn’t exploratory or exciting just doesn’t do anything for me, especially if it’s my own work. I just want to continue to be as creative as possible while I have the chance!
OS: I have spoken with many bands and artists about the time being on lockdown allowed them to focus more on their writing. Did the same happen to you?
AT: I specifically chose not to write for at least a year because I have been working so much for long that I saw it as a chance to resist burnout. Then when I felt ready, the songs emerged easily and were a joy to work on with the band. It was the right choice! I needed a rest.
OS: What was the driving force behind feeling that Spell/Bound would be the album that would be more unrestrained from the previous efforts?
AT: Confidence in our audience that they would “get” it – total abandonment of confidence in or care of what the broader music media world would say. I knew there were songs that would help listeners feel something real in a time where it is easy to lose hope, and that was more important than anything else I could endeavor to do. I felt totally free making this record, and the band worked together so effortlessly and joyfully to create something in a time when it felt like everything is falling apart.
OS: Massive Attack and Portishead were two musical acts mentioned as influences when recording Spell/Bound. What was about these two acts that spoke to you?
AT: I’ve made homages to Portishead on records in the past, but I wanted to lean harder into those two groups for this release. The doomy darkness evoked so well by those artists just encapsulated my feelings from the last decade or so, and I found that songs emerging from those influences were the ones I was writing that felt the realest.
OS: How vital was the addition of Emma in completing the instrumentals within Spell/Bound?
AT: It was huge. Between the bass, the cello, and my low voice, we have a lot of low end in our band so adding some treble was really helpful. She’s a great writer who knows when to stand out, when to lay back, and when to blend in. Our arranging of this record was so fun because everyone was willing to do what was best for the song.
OS: Lyrically the songs from all of the albums have always felt sincere and, more importantly, honest. With Spell/Bound, what was the source of inspiration you tapped into?
AT: Real life! It’s by far my most honest album, lyrically, leaning less on fantasy and more exploratory of my own feelings.
OS: In the effort to get Spell/Bound together, the band had another successful Kickstarter campaign. Having been on the positive side of a couple of drives, what are some of your takeaways from the experiences?
AT: They’re exhausting but inspiring. Knowing that you have an excited audience ready to process your albums and give them a good shot is a huge confidence booster. It also makes you want to make them happy, so we really strive to put out great records instead of fussing over if we have a marketable single or whatever. I think it’s really important to think about stuff like that at a time like this where everything is about commercialization and content. I see the Kickstarter as getting the bullshit – the sales – out of the way and making sure that the art exists to be the best it can be so that the choices we make aren’t based on a confusion of music versus marketing.
OS: A devoted following has emerged, especially for your shows at Stanley Hotel, the infamous backdrop for the acclaimed film The Shining. What have been some of the most unusual experiences that the band has come across from these sets?
AT: Weird experiences like being alone in a room and the lightbulb flickering out. Slamming doors. Spooky feelings. Ghostly touches. It’s been surprising how many of those experiences happened; I thought there wouldn’t be anything!
OS: Murder By Death is one of the few bands that seemingly zig when others zag. Releasing a trio of cover albums and a Christmas album is far from most bands’ efforts. What are some other ideas that you look to explore in hopes of continuing to continue surprising your hardcore fans?
AT: Great observation and question, but I don’t know right now! Right now, it’s about getting through the tour. I do make an effort to stand out and do things differently than is typical in the industry. Often when I’m writing, I am reactive to the current trends. I’ll think, “what do I dislike about what is currently popular?” and then I will do the opposite of that. It’s not to be contrarian but more to get another glimpse at why we like or don’t like things and to trick the brain into making things I can feel 100% good about. I’m such a weirdo do-gooder I don’t think I could ever sell an album that I wasn’t sure I felt very good about, so it’s a battle I constantly have with myself to make sure I feel the stuff we are putting out is good enough.