Friday, April 30, 2010

Murder by Death

Adam Turla has a voice like the lowest notes of an old piano. It’s deep and dense and, like the low A on some ancient Steinway, can be somehow curt and smooth, percussive and melodic at the same time. And, with it, Turla sings songs that seem to fit his pleasant tenor perfectly, songs where the bad guys are good guys and the good guys are bad guys.

Turla tells his tales of the "despicable" expertly, but part of his success lies in the mood created by his band Murder by Death. In “The Devil in Mexico”, for example (from the 2003 record Who Will Survive and What Will be Left of Them?), Turla’s voice curls above the persistent whinny of an old Hammond organ, the throbbing plinks of a piano, and a cello’s low moan. His lyrics paint the picture of the devil bleeding crude oil through his hospital bed—an image that not only sets the scene for a larger narrative to follow, but also leaves the listener feeling sort of sorry for embodiment of evil. Similarly, “Sometimes the Line Walks You” (from the 2006 record In Bocca al Lupo) is sung from the perspective of a prisoner who admits his wrongdoings with disillusioned modesty; still, by the time the song shuffles towards its rowdy climax—with Turla’s desperate holler and bright horn blasts rising from the buzz of Matt Armstrong’s swaggering bass—the listener may find himself rooting for this inmate who, as he runs for the fence and from the prison’s guard dogs, will escape because he’s “hungrier than they have ever been.”

Recently, Murder by Death released Good Morning, Magpie, the band’s fifth full-length. On it, Turla presents a new cast of characters—prostitutes, drunks, vagrants, and other souls that have decided to live life unconventionally. An optimist might call them rebels, but most people would call them failures, losers, those with whom the “moral” might avoid eye contact.

But it’s these characters that fascinate Turla. “I like anti-heroes a lot,” he says. “A lot of the characters in my songs are people that might be decent, but do bad things, or bad people who do decent things. I like the idea of a three-dimensional character.”

One character of which Turla is especially proud is introduced in “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs”, one of Good Morning, Magpie’s slower, more stirring songs. A gentle acoustic is plucked, propelled by drummer Dagan Thogerson’s steady, skipping rhythm. Sarah Balliet’s bows slow, doleful notes on her cello. These instruments create a mood that feels weary, but not weak, and lays a firm foundation for Turla’s trademark croon; he sings in the voice of a man whose long, grey beard and wiry frame tell much of his story. “I’ve been hunted, maligned / since before your time,” he sings, “I’ve been stoned / I’ve been thrown / to the wolves / to the wolves / I’ve been starved down / to skin and bones.”

“I think it’s a really unique song,” Turla says, “and it really moves me live. When I wrote it, I wanted a sort of beautifully sad, moving song.”

Despite these lyrics and this desolate, drunken protagonist, “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs” doesn’t seem sad. Maybe it’s because Turla’s voice captures this character in such a convincing manner, or maybe it’s because, about halfway through the song, the slow, slogging instruments begin to gallop a little. Suddenly, Thogerson’s snare drum whips the song like a whisk, Armstrong’s bass thumps to the beat, and Balliet begins to slice thick chunks from her cello. When Turla growls, “Nothing can touch me, / nothing can touch me, / no force, / no sound”, the listener can maybe imagine this meager old man, with rain battering his slender body and lightning splitting the sky behind him, laughing and screaming, feeling somehow victorious over the world that has held him down.

Maybe. Murder by Death’s songs tend to sometimes feel like more than mere music, like there’s something more beneath their notes.

“'King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs' was the last song we wrote for the record and came together sort of accidentally,” Turla confesses. “I always get stressed out at the end of the writing process, right before we go into the studio. We’ll have like nine songs written and need one more, but I’ll usually write about four songs before I’ve found it because I’m trying so hard to make the album complete.” “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs” emerged more naturally, Turla says, and was almost easy to write. “That song, to me, not only came out great on the recording, but is really exciting live. It has such a positive energy to it while also being a song about an anti-hero.”

There’s a reason why Turla seems so fascinated with the idea of the anti-hero—that character that intentionally breaks the rules, but always for the right reasons. It’s because, as a band, Murder by Death are a sort of anti-hero to the music industry.

This sensibility is evident not only in the yarns that their songs and records spin, but also in the band’s approach to songwriting. This is especially true in the case of Good Morning, Magpie, an album that Turla wrote in an unconventional way. “Basically, I talked to the band and told them that I had all of these ideas for songs,” he explains, “but I need to work them out by myself.” So Turla drove himself to Tennessee and spent two weeks isolated in the Smokey Mountains. He packed light, bringing only clothes, a tent, and a fishing pole. “I didn’t even have a guitar,” he laughs, “but I had the notepad that I keep all my lyrics in. I wrote and wrote and wrote. At night, I sang to myself. It was very lonely, but very exciting.”

More importantly, though, this sensibility is evident in the manner in which they present themselves. “Defining ourselves is my least favorite things to do,” Turla insists. “We just have never thought about it. We have no mission statement; we have never fit in any scenes. We’ve played with indie bands, Americana bands, punk, metal, stoner rock, rock ‘n’ roll, wussy stuff, tough stuff—we’ve played with everything. I have no interested in genres in general. My favorite books mix genres; my favorite movies mix genres.

“If we want to thrown in a Spanish melody,” he continues, “or a Middle-Eastern harmonic minor and it fits the song without sacrificing the continuity of the song or the album, then that’s what we do because it’s more interesting to us. I like the mish-mash approach to writing rather than just trying to pretend you’re one thing”

Maybe Turla’s old piano voice sings the rebel’s song because, not-so-deep-down, he his one. Or maybe it’s because he realizes that no one--no good guy, no bad guy--can ever be just one thing.

Turla recorded these songs on a Sunday afternoon in the spring at the Texas home of Armstrong's parents, where the band stayed during a day off from touring. The plan was to record using the landline at that residence, but the connection was too fuzzy to get a clear recording. Instead, Turla recorded the songs though his cell phone.

"Yes" appears on Murder by Death's 2010 record titled Good Morning, Magpie. "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" is a cover of the Cher song written by Sonny Bono for her 1966 album titled The Sonny Side of Cher. The song was later made famous by Nancy Sinatra on her 1966 album titled How Does That Grab You? A live version of the song appears on Murder by Death's digital EP titled Fuego!, which was released in 2008.

Visit the band's MySpace for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.