In this, their third SPB interview, Murder By Death vocalist Adam Turla and cellist Sarah Balliet talk to us about touring pizza parlours, the perks of being on Tarantino's soundtracks, "old-time" compact discs and concept albums. You can read our earlier interviews with the band here and here.
Scene Point Blank: This last tour has seen you play smaller venues than the band has normally done. Can you tell me how that differentiates from being in larger ones?
Adam: This is interesting because it's the Canadian Music Week. You can go in and do, sort of, a warm up for next time you come back. Our new record is coming out this summer and I'd like to come back and play the Horseshoe. This is like playing Toronto, but not quite playing Toronto. It's nice to be able to play different venues. I've gotten drunk at this bar before. I was just wondering around and thought it looked cool, so it's nice to get to play it. You get to play some places you might not have played otherwise. Right now when we're waiting for an album to come out, we're not really doing that much, so we get to hit some places that we wouldn't go as often: Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge. We're playing what is basically a pizza parlour in Lethbridge.
Sarah: It is a pizza parlour.
Adam: Once the record comes out we'll be doing all the big cities. We're going to Europe. We're going to Australia. We're not going to have time to go to all the places we would like to go. So right now, we're looking at the places we've missed in the last year or two, and saying let's go to Missoula, Montana. Let's go to Fargo.
Sarah: And the small town shows are fun. They typically don't get a lot of shows. It can be rowdier and more exciting because they aren't as used to it. They can be really good experiences.
Scene Point Blank: With the small town shows is the audience generally made up of a group of hardcore fans and a group who is seeing the band because it's something to do on a Saturday night?
Adam: It doesn't work out like that as much as you'd think. We don't get a lot of randoms out, which is sort of a bummer, but it ends up being that usually the people who come to see us are really into it. We did a small town tour last fall where we didn't play LA or San Francisco. We did Santa Cruz. The people there were surprised to see us, because they're used to having to drive to the big city. You bring yourself to them and do a little of the work and they really seem to appreciate it. When you play the big cities a lot of people aren't from the cities.
Scene Point Blank: There's always the mythos that once a band gets a song in a commercial, or a trailer [Murder by Death’s song “Coming Home” was featured in the trailer for Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards), that there would be a number of people out to specifically hear that song.
Adam: It's funny because “Coming Home” has been used in quite a few publishing uses, it was on Sons of Anarchy, it was in the Inglorious Bastards trailer, it's in a video game that's just about to come out. But if you listen to Murder by Death, you just kind of listen to Murder by Death. We've never been single-oriented.
Scene Point Blank: Which is pretty rare nowadays.
Sarah: I think it's good.
Adam: When we start playing the song everyone is like "cool," but it's not the only reason they're there. It doesn't feel like that at least.
Sarah: It's not like you play that song and then everyone leaves!
Scene Point Blank: Have you been able to work with any of the multimedia on this tour?
Adam: This tour the clubs are so small that we can't do it. We can barely fit on the stages. We're playing basically two hundred capacity venues, so it's a little tough to do. When we get home from this tour we're building stage sets for the album release tour. There is going to be a bunch of old TVs set up on stage. One is projecting weird Japanese movies and the other one is using some of the older projections. There is going to be walls in the background to make it look like we're playing inside this cabin I built in my yard.
Scene Point Blank: Is that just for an aesthetic value?
Sarah: It's to bring your own flavour to where ever you play. It's to let people feel like they're with you in your world as opposed to the club that they always go to. We want to visually draw people in to where they might have a better perspective on where we're coming from.
Adam: For a band that is so occupied in the world of Murder by Death it's nice to be able to draw people in whatever way possible.
Scene Point Blank: You've said in previous interviews how you'd like every Murder by Death show to feel like a rock and roll show. How do you get the crowds worked up?
Adam: It's such a give and take. The more the audience gives the more the band gives and vice versa. We try and give some energy to the audience. I think the set arc is really important. It's got to be a roller coaster of slow songs and fast songs. Tonight will be interesting because it's just a forty minute set, and we haven't played a forty minute set….I don't remember the last time we played a forty minute set. Probably four hundred shows ago.
Sarah: As far as creating a rocking atmosphere, we do have quieter songs, but I think that Adam spent a lot of time building the set list so that there is dynamic. What makes rock and roll different from punk rock or even metal is that you can have that dynamic.
Adam: It's a fine line. Sometimes we want to be a rock band, sometimes we want to be artsier, or darker, or more beautiful. We want to do everything. We're very eclectic in our tastes and we want to do a lot of different things. When I see a band or I listen to a record, even if I like the vibe, I can't do forty-five minutes of the same thing. I want big shifts. I want mood changes.
Sarah: It can't be static. Even if an audience loves it, you need more than one thing. An album or a live show should have its peaks and valleys.
Adam: We're old-fashioned with the way we listen to music. We like to put a CD in and listen to it the whole way through.
Sarah: I love how you said we're old-fashioned and then said we listened to CDs.
Adam: CDs are old-fashioned!
Sarah: We're old timey. We put the compact discs on!
Scene Point Blank: There is a certain vibe to Murder By Death. I think part of that is the storytelling you do as a band. Is that something you try and cultivate?
Adam: You're constantly learning about yourself and the music you're making, unless you're doing something that's trendy. I guess you could decide to start an indie rock band and try and sound exactly like Spoon, and a million people do that, but if that's not your approach then you're going to learn about your own music with every song you write. Even with every review you read. I learn stuff about us that I didn't even know based on what other people say. I remember when someone called us southern gothic like Edgar Allen Poe. I can kind of see that, but the idea of gothic being applied to us…the first time I read that it seemed hilarious.
Scene Point Blank: Well there was that photo shoot with all of the Victorian-style clothes.
Adam: It was just a concept shoot.
Scene Point Blank: It was a nice shoot.
Sarah: I think in some ways it was very good that we did it. It showed one side of what do. If it works, it works.
Scene Point Blank: Up until Magpie, your band was writing concept albums. Was it a conscious choice to avoid writing another concept album?
Adam: Those records were just always happening organically, anyways. We never set out to do a concept record. When we wrote Who Will Survive we had some songs and we realized that they just all kind of fit together. We kept writing and found decided that they were telling a story. That kept happening. With In Bocco I wanted to do vignettes. I wanted to tell twelve stories about these characters in hell. It was a point of inspiration to write some songs. Sometimes it's good to have a guideline.
Sarah: When you decide to make it a concept, when you've got a couple of songs and decide that they could form a story, it becomes a writing aide. We'd have conversations about what part of the story was missing or where the links were. With Magpie we got away from that for the sake of doing something new and not relying on something that could be considered a crutch. We wanted to exercise our songwriting abilities. We didn't want to beat anything into the ground.
Adam: With our new record that's coming out later this year, I could have tied it all together, but I didn't want to force the issue. I just write the best songs I can and if they're better for tying them into a narrative theme, then great. When you're writing a bunch of songs you start to see a trend anyways. You start to see a connection between the songs.
Sarah: People always put their own spin on the lyrics always. We'll have people tell us what an awesome concept record it was even if we never put that out there. I think that's great.
Scene Point Blank: It says something about your band that people listen to the entirety of the record.
Sarah: They know the lyrics. They know what the words are and they're thinking about it. It doesn't really matter what they think it means.