By Tom Lynch
Robert Moore and Neil Simon’s 1976 film “Murder by Death” is a spoof on the traditional whodunit, not unlike “Clue,” which stars Peter Sellers, David Niven, Peter Falk and, oddly, Truman Capote. Bloomington, Indiana band Murder by Death takes its name from that reasonably obscure film and has sculpted four theatrical and conceptual full-length records since its 2000 creation, most recently this month’s “Red of Tooth and Claw,” the most penetrating rock ‘n’ roll record of the group’s catalogue.
As the band blends elements of punk, alt-country, airy instrumental and gypsy, Adam Turla weaves tales of power and adventure, religion and good’s fight against evil. (The band’s second record, “Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them”—yes, that’s the original tagline for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”—was a concept album about Satan’s fight against a small Mexican town.) The secret weapon, the wild card that elevates Murder by Death above a hit-and-miss pseudo-vaudevillian act, is cellist Sarah Balliet, whose contributions to each song devilishly strike the senses, whether or not she’s crafting an eerie background soundtrack or leaping into a no-holds-barred solo.
“Red of Tooth and Claw,” Murder by Death’s first album on Vagrant, in all of its revenge-filled tones and themes, takes time to comprehend. Turla’s baritone is at first assaulting, until it calms, and the matter congeals. It’s a puzzling record, one I won’t forget anytime soon.
“The way I start a new album, I guess, is that I just try to find a mood and try to write songs that give me direction,” Turla says. “The first song I wrote was ‘Coming Home,’ the opening song, and it seemed like [there was] a bigger story in there.” Turla says the band desired to make a louder record this time around. “We try to make each record unique from the other ones,” he says, “but what I like about this record is that we were going for more of a rock record, more upbeat. I feel we’ve done several records of brooding, depressing stuff—this is kind of funny depressing, not as slow and somber. We wanted to have a little more aggressive [record], more rocking album.”
He’s not worried that fans will react adversely to the more aggressive approach. “We’ve been in the band a while,” he says. “We have two EPs and four albums. We’ve covered a lot of ground. Repeating yourself feels a little pathetic, you know? Hopefully in eight years you’ve learned some new tricks, got some new ideas. I look at it like, it’s very natural for something to change—people think [‘Red of Tooth and Claw’] is our best album, some like the older albums. It’s just naturally gonna happen.”
Part of that change over time is the overall improvement as musicians and performers. “I feel like I’m much happier with singing,” Turla says. “I took voice lessons four years ago—I feel so much more comfortable on stage, and it really makes the experience of being a musician better for me. Everybody’s improved as musicians over the years…in terms of music changes, I like every part of the songs we’ve written. I’ve enjoyed performing everything from the first album to the latest. They’re just different. Some of the latest songs are some of my favorites, and I have favorites from the old material as well.”
Turla says that his fictional storytelling approach to writing lyrics came naturally from the beginning. “I guess I just feel like most people are doing the personal, introspective thing,” he says. “I just feel like that kind of style has been beaten into the ground. I just started writing [in this way], it came natural to me, and I never wanted to do the traditional pop song thing…I just got sick of hearing the same old songs. At this point, after sixty years of rock ‘n’ roll, I felt I needed to take a different approach to it. There are plenty of people doing it well, I just didn’t want to be like everybody else.”
He says he takes more inspiration from literature or film than from other music: “Absolutely. My friends will tell you, I just don’t listen to much music.”
For the show at the Abbey Pub, the band’s joined by its old keyboardist, Vincent Edwards, who left the band in 2004, which should excite older Murder by Death fans who miss his imprint on the band’s material. As for the future, Turla’s keeping it open. “I don’t think about the future much anymore. When we were younger, we had certain goals, we were somewhat naïve. But we never had wishes of massive stardom. I take it as it comes, I work as hard as I can. We want more people to hear us, we want to be able to play full clubs every night, whether they’re big or small. No huge game plan for the next ten or fifteen years or anything. I just want to keep making music.”
Murder by Death play March 26 at Abbey Pub, 3420 West Grace, (773)478-4408, at 9pm. $13-$15.