Interview: Murder by Death

kelly gonsalves gets inside the mind of Adam Turla…

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When attempting to describe himself, Adam Turla considers himself a musician before he considers himself a man. He isn’t alone — this strange facet of the common dilemma of defining oneself is one that only people of the stage experience. Every person grapples with figuring out who he or she really is, but for Turla, the question of identity stems much, much deeper.

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It occurs first when asked about his band’s genre — what kind of music do you play, Adam?

The Murder By Death singer huffs just barely — not rudely, but with the frustration of a man who is faced with a foe he’s encountered on numerous occasions in a battle that consistently leaves him provoked to action but eventually defeated.

“I never actually try to be like, ‘oh, I do this,'” the man explains, and then continues after a beat: “We’re not thinking about a genre and trying to fulfill it. We’re specifically trying to be eclectic. Like if I’m talking to someone’s mom, we just say we play dark rock and roll that’s not heavy. It’s vague, but fitting over a decade full of writing into a phrase is hard for anyone.”

It’s not an uncommon struggle. Lots of bands are reluctant to point to one genre and say that every piece of their music fits neatly under that umbrella when, in reality, that’s hardly ever how it works when it comes to music. I momentarily chock up his indecisiveness to that truth. It’s the next question, however, that breaches the singer-songwriter’s earthy mien and allows a sloshy, more honest stream-of-consciousness to pour onto the table.

Who are you?

Here is the answer I was expecting: Adam Turla is the lead singer and guitarist of Murder By Death, an indie rock five-piece outfit from Bloomington, Indiana that’s proven itself durable and reliably original over the course of its decade-long existence. Started in 2000 as nothing more than a band of post-college students, Murder By Death now boasts an impressive discography of six full-length albums with a number of EPs in between. Their latest work, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, was released last September and hit No. 76 on the Billboard 200. Much of the band’s success, according to Turla, can be attributed to their “cult-like” following, a group of alarmingly dedicated fans who have stuck with them through the years.

Here is the answer I received:

“I have no idea.”

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Turla, in fact, seems utterly blown away by the question, which admittedly might have been a little broadly phrased for any decently introspective individual. After taking a moment to think, he begins to explain his dilemma:

“For the last 12 or so years, I have pretty much put everything into this group. I spend most of my time here writing or here touring or doing things for the band, but I also personally do most of the work that comes with that — the business and the practical things that come with staying in a band. I think for the first few years, it was always about trying to get through it and figure out what we’re doing.”

“Now there’s more rhythm to it,” he says finally. “I have time to figure out who I am outside of those things — like in the last few years, I’ve been rock-climbing more, and camping. I’ve spent a lot of time sort of answering that question instead of just being a musician.”

Some of his other favorite activities, he tells me, include travel, being outdoors, and seeking adventure. He lists these activities in a very animated but tentative manner, as if they are very personal secrets, very intimate parts of him. There is a strange dual nature to the rock star persona, I realize as he speaks. Turla is rehearsed and prepared for certain questions and for being questioned in general. After over twelve years as a musician, the interviews and the media probing for character nuances and classified information all become familiar parts of the career. At the same time, however, there seems to be a clear divide between the standard promotions he spits out about his band and the degree to which he reveals true parts of himself. There is a noticeable divide between the musician and the man.

“It’s so easy to get a big head being on stage all the time,” Turla says. “It’s the kind of thing where you have to constantly readjust and ground yourself. You’re not just this persona for the group. It’s a great thing to have onstage, but you also have to figure out how to be a normal person.”

Turla easily channels this search for discovery and personal understanding into his discussion of Murder By Death’s latest album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. According to the singer, “there’s a lot of Indiana” in this record, a touch of home interlaced within the songs. He explains how little things from his hometown “just snuck in there.” For instance, near Bloomington where the group grew up, a river named the Lost River flows through the town. Fascinated by the name and nature of the river, the group wrote a song about it, which is now the second track on BDBM.

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Another song, “Ghost Fields,” which is the chilling closing track of the album, talks about the complex relationship between Indiana’s residents and its farms. Turla explains that most people in their town grew up on farms, but few have chosen to continue that lifestyle, leaving those fields abandoned.

He calls the band’s songwriting process “cinematic” in nature.

“We definitely approach it like a storyboard. We approach writing some of these songs as if they were movies. Because of the storytelling and the songs, you just have to tell a complete story in three or four minutes,” he says.

The process certainly works, considering the success of BDBM. Turla is exceedingly humble, however, constantly downplaying Murder By Death’s many achievements. Even defining his feelings about his band’s position in its career seems like a task, one not fulfilled with a simple, “I’m happy” or “I’m not.” Instead, Turla offers an explanation that calls to mind his younger self’s ambitions:

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“It’s funny. We started the band when we were about 18 years old, and I think when you’re 18 years old, you have no concept of what success is or what what you want really. It’s funny just thinking about when you’re younger and what your impressions are with what you’re doing.”

The nostalgia is thick in his voice, but the sound is far from regret, far from yearning. There is a sense of content as he compares old goals with new accomplishments. Assessing his own happiness and satisfaction with his life, though not simple, is one thing that does have a sense of concreteness.

“I think I’d be really glad to know I’m still having fun making music. I don’t think any of us expected to be twelve years later still enjoying what we do so much,” he says.

There’s resolution in his voice, and for once, it is that simple.