“How do you describe Murder By Death?” is a question I have been answering for honestly now, the better part of two decades. It was a question I once asked myself; when my brother let me borrow a pitch black slipcovered CD graced with a small spider and the question: “Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left Of Them?” That cd, dropped right before Halloween in 2003, told a dark and epic tale across nine songs (and an intermission!) about the struggles of a small Mexican town that the devil is waging war upon. And while the band name and subject matter were right at home in the metal realm, this saga was delivered via sweeping cello, vaudeville piano, vocals that swapped seamlessly between desperate and desolate, as if the singer had literally lived through this ordeal and had ridden for days to detail the horrors to anyone that could send help. Naturally, I was hooked.
As their rock and roll resume swelled, so did their scope and confidence. Led by Adam Turla on vocals and guitar and the talents of Sarah Balliet on cello, the cast of Murder By Death sometimes changed (though drummer Dagan Thogerson’s tenure makes him more of a fixture at this point) but the atmosphere was always there. I often find myself having to describe an artist I love in vague but connectable terms to someone that has no idea what picture I’m trying to paint so I reach for common ground where I can: “Like…a more rock and roll Johnny Cash?” I used to offer, especially on the back of “Comin’ Home” a live staple and outlaw anthem, that found Turla’s voice hitting rumbling depths. “Like, if the Avett Brothers really embraced a drinking problem” came later, during the band’s excellent run from Good Morning, Magpie and Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. Eventually though, the crudely devised comparisons just stopped. I would just look them in the eye when asked and say, “They are just fucking good.“
So, that brings us up to speed at least. The night has been pouring down rain- but at least not freezing rain- and I’m at Saturn again for like the fourth time this month but this isn’t a new discovery. I’ve seen MBD a dozen times or so over the years, their live show attracting a dedicated contingent of followers even tonight when they aren’t exactly headlining (they would share the bill with J Roddy Walston and the Business). Tonight’s lineup is Adam, Sarah and Dagan right there in the middle, and flanked by multi-instrumentalist David Fountain and bassist Tyler Morse. I say “aren’t exactly headlining” because even though they aren’t the last band on the bill tonight, try telling the crowd of concert goers singing virtually every verse along with Turla as he pulls songs out of a twenty year catalogue…no one is telling these folks who the main attraction is.
The band uses it’s extensive reserves of songs like ammo as they mix in new material from 2018’s The Other Shore. The building, lush “Alas” and the stomping “True Dark” are right at home with “Brother”, “’52 Ford”, “Until Morale Improves, The Beatings Will Continue”, as well as the newer “Strange Eyes” and “Big Dark Love”. Another bonus? An Iron Maiden cover, teasing the third volume of their hugely popular Kickstarter Covers project (I won’t spoil which song- keep an eye out for its release). Credit here goes to the two newest murder by death’ers- Tyler brings a driving bass and comfort to material that spans nine albums; David fills out the sound with piano, slide guitar, trumpet and generally whatever else is needed. What else can i really say? Murder By Death has been one of the best energy live shows to see for years, just not everyone knows about it.
The guardian’s light
As me and my good company for the evening/sometimes concert photographer Jessica lounge around over drinks and Bear Burgers from outside, I do get a chance to sit down and talk with Tyler after the show. We cover a lot of ground- like how MBD’s fanbase has almost literally grown up with them. Morse talks about how he met up and joined onto the tenured band two years ago. We discuss the somewhat odd stature of Murder By Death in the climate of modern indie rock, and a scene that has watched artists emerge over the years, like The Avett Bros, or Sturgill Simpson- artists that could easily be categorized in the same alt country/rock vein. Yet while MBD is rarely found on festival lineups or XMU Download 15’s or Pitchfork End of Year lists, they are prolific in other venues. Like a string of sold out shows at the infamous Overlook Hotel, or shows in caves, or setting Kickstarter backer records for reissue campaigns and new album promotion. Tyler laughs along with this and acknowledges it: “Yeah..it’s like, there is a crowd that likes to discover that great new band. But Murder By Death isn’t new, so maybe that part of the fun is lost for those people”. But appealing to the blog crawlers isn’t everything; “One thing i really love and appreciate is our fanbase” he continues. “We do have an older crowd sometimes, people that have been coming to shows for years. I think that everyone’s musical maturity grows and grows as we get older, and a lot of times we have a crowd that knows what they want to hear musically. ” We talk about the band’s vision and drive, because there is an extraordinary amount of detail spent crafting a new album that is a space western about a devastated planet- “Oh yeah , haha.., [Adam and Sarah] know what they want, and to keep what they do as a pure technique. Even with in ear monitors- Adam doesn’t use them onstage. He wants there to be a punk-like ethos in place for a live setting.”
“So, I’ve got to ask you about Destiny” i finally mention. as Tyler’s eyes light up. Last summer, video game developer Bungie revealed its trailer to the expansion of its massively poplular DESTINY 2 game entitled FORSAKEN, in which the fanbase was given a teaser that one of its most beloved characters would meet his end, and the song setting the stage was a slower tempo version of “Go To The Light”from MBD’s Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon album. The subject matter caused forums and subreddits to explode in activity, and not far behind was a lot of praise for the song selection. “So, you know that trailer was huge, right? When I say something like..Murder By Death were the ones that closed the curtain on the story of Cayde-6, that really means a lot to hundreds of thousands of people.” Tyler nods as he pulls up his Spotify list on his phone, even knocking over a half cup of beer onto the table in the effort. “Look, check this out- the Destiny version [of Go To the Light] has almost as many plays as the original. And the original came out in like, 2012! It’s been huge.” I ask him about the process, about making the new version for the trailer. “Yeah, remember how I talked about the process? That song wasn’t recorded to a click track back then. It was impossible to grid- we had to go in and record it brand new. It turned out great though.” By this time it is hitting midnight and Tyler gets a call from bandmates waiting in a van for him to head to Louisville. Oh and i mention one more thing in passing about Destiny and the choice of song- in the game, the “light” is the source of the heroes’ power. “Wow, that’s perfect.”
You can hear “The Desert Is On Fire” on the newest episode BUSINESS DRUNK RADIO 41 streaming now
You can check out Murder By Death at https://murderbydeath.com
You can follow them @murderbydeath