Photo by Tall James Photography
We’re just a few short months away from the 20th anniversary of Murder by Death‘s formation and to celebrate, band founders (and husband and wife) Adam Turla (vocals/guitar) and Sarah Balliet (violin) will hit the road in early 2020 with Tyler Morse (bass), David Fountain (multi-instrumentalist) and Dagan Thogerson (drums) to thank fans by playing a retrospective set covering the course of their career.
The band’s maintained an old-time, gothic-folk sound throughout eight full lengths, the latest of which, The Other Shore, was released by Bloodshot Records in 2018 and as a way to kick the tires on some old songs that might find their way into the 20th anniversary tour set, Murder by Death booked a couple of dates through the end of the year including Friday night’s show at Ace of Cups. At last check, there were a small handful of tickets left so if you don’t already have one, don’t delay as this will sell out.
Adam was kind enough to take some time out of his day to chat about the upcoming Columbus show, the special things being put together for the 20th anniversary tour, the clubs they’ve played and the bands they’ve played with over the years and much more.
Murder by Death is a go-to fall band for me. Do you have any go-to bands for any of the seasons?
Summer, I listen to OS Mutantes for the last 20 years, every summer. I love them.
I was looking at your tour schedule and it doesn’t look like you’re actually on tour, it looks like Columbus is just one of a few dates?
We have a festival on Saturday (Southern Gothic Campout) and I realized that it’s been so long since we’ve been to Columbus so we should just do it. I reached out to our friend’s band, Saintseneca, and I asked, “Where’s the coolest place to play in Columbus these days?” and they recommended we play Ace of Cups. I keep a list of places that I feel like we’ve accidentally not been to in a while and Columbus was on the list. It’s a cool opportunity to get out there. Sometimes when you’re on tour, it’s just day after day after day. This will be a really fun weekend because our friends O’Death are playing both the shows.
You’ve never played Ace of Cups?
No. Columbus is one of those cities that I feel like we used to play more often when we were opening shows, just come through and do The Newport. Back in the day, we would go play The Basement. It’s just been a few years, I’m excited to be back.
This is not part of the 20th Anniversary tour you’re doing?
That starts up this winter. This was kind of a fun little weekend for us. Every show we’re playing before that tour starts, we’re going through and have added a few songs that we haven’t played in a long time into the set so it’s almost like we’ll be doing a trial run for a couple songs that it’s been like 8 years since we’ve played or something like that. We have two shows this month and then 3 in December and then we have our Stanley Hotel shows, it’ll be fun to try out a few of them that we haven’t played live in a while.
I saw that you’re soliciting fan stories for a podcast, which I think is a really cool idea.
Yeah, 20 years just seems like an achievement for us. We’re excited and proud of that. I think we want to take the moment and try to acknowledge it in as many ways as possible. So, I’ve been collecting all these old photos and information and stories and we’re making up a little ‘zine that everybody who comes to the shows in February and March will get a copy. It’s just sort of history, a look back.
Our friend is helping me organize a podcast. We’re going to start with just one long episode with the idea being that’s it’s going to be Murder by Death as told through the fans’ eyes. We have this hotline that we made and people are calling in and telling stories. We’re going to edit down some of those stories and talk about – there’s just been so many crazy stories and interesting things that have happened. When you create music and put yourself out on stage, you can tell people your stories through music and then people tell you their stories. You’re just interacting with people and we wanted to acknowledge other people in the little circle that we’ve made over the years. It’s just a way of engaging. Instead of just being nostalgic and reflecting on just us, there’s more to it than that. We used to crash on people’s floors for the first 500 shows or more and we met a lot of people that way. It’s an opportunity to reflect.
Have you ever done any album anniversary shows or tours?
We did a tour in 2009 where we played Who Will Survive, and What Will Become of Them? and Red of Tooth and Claw back to back. This tour, we considered doing album stuff but I think the idea, unlike most bands, we just don’t have a signature album that is the one that is unanimously the favorite. Leading up to this tour, we did a couple social media posts that were trying to confirm, from a fan perspective, “What’s your favorite album?” and we got like 800 responses. It was incredibly varied. We have 8 full lengths and I’m not saying it was equal among all them but there was no 100% clear winner by any means.
We decided for the anniversary tour to do a real variety of stuff, pull out deep cuts and fans can weigh in on what they want to hear. The set is designed to say, “Thank you for supporting us for 20 years”, not “Thank you for supporting us for one album”.
I think that’s really tough on a band when they have a breakout record, it’s great that one album can propel a group to a new height but it can be really rough when everything you do after that record isn’t that record. I’ve watched so many groups have that great moment where they put out a really cool album but then people are disappointed in the future. That’s the way it goes. It’s tough to be creative but we’ve been pretty fortunate to have people supporting our musical exploration a bit.
Any creative person, you’re happy to be celebrated any way you can be. As long as people notice it at all, even if you put out one album that everybody loves and that’s it. That’s still great that anybody cares is the good news. But, it’s just part of the process of when you put yourself out there, you’re both hoping to be celebrated but also you have to have a lot of humility to accept things on the terms of how other people react. That can be really hard for certain artists.
In the 20 years, did you ever share a bill with a band that was just starting out and not playing to a bunch of people and then years later that band wound up becoming a household name?
Oh sure, yeah. When we started, we started this band in 2000, so indie rock … it doesn’t really exist any more. The internet kind of eliminated indie rock because the culture of indie rock was centered around these labels and however many people were interested in a certain kind of music in each town would go see those acts. And then the internet just completely changed the scene. You could discover a band immediately instead of having to follow a culture, subscribe to their newsletter, it’s just so much more immediate now.
Bands back in the day that blew up … the first one that comes to mind is, we played a show, we met the band Thursday. They had some DIY show in Indianapolis that got canceled. We were a brand new band, we had played like 4 or 5 shows, we were playing an anarchist bookstore and we threw them on the bill. We gave them our cut … the $40 or whatever we were going to get … so they could stay on the road. We had never heard of them. A year later, they came back to town and they were enormous and they had us open the show. They were on the cover of every magazine a year or two later.
I just remembered, because I was going through all the photos and all the old tour history, playing with bands like The Gossip. I forgot we played with them and then they got really big for a minute. There are way more than that, back in the day we opened so many shows for random bands – we’d go over and play a show in London, in 2006, and find out later that the open band had signed a 2 milllion pound record deal and they’d get enormous over there. The biggest one I can think of right now is Frank Turner, who was the first of four on a tour that we did in 2009 and he would ride in our van with us and he would play shows that we would headline on the days off.
Gaslight Anthem was supposed to be the first of three on a tour we did. We got a call that their manager was saying, “They are kind of blowing up, can they be the second of three on the bill?” We had already confirmed a band, we didn’t want to kick them off, we’ll just put them as direct support for the next tour. Six months later, they offered for us to open in big rooms for them, and we did. There are so many stories like that, it’s an industry where some bands grow slowly, some bands blow up, I can’t believe Gaslight Anthem isn’t even a band any more. That was in 2008 that that tour happened and we toured with them in 2009 and they’ve been broken up for a while. It comes and goes.
Frank Turner puts on such an amazing, almost spiritual, show.
I think he has the ability to just command an audience that is extremely rare. I’ve been playing live music for more than 20 years and I’ve seen only a few acts command an audience in that way and just get everybody in the room involved. I think you could show up to one of his gigs and not be a fan, specifically not like him, and then leave saying, “Damn, that was good.” He knows how to work a crowd in a way that very, very few musicians do.
You’ve played hundreds, likely thousands, of venues. Outside of the ones that everybody knows in New York, LA, Chicago, what clubs have you played that you think are really great that maybe people haven’t heard of or been to?
There are staples that we always go back to because they are great. I’m picking Ohio … I just love the Grog Shop in Cleveland. They just have a great culture. It’s a 400 cap venue, it’s not fancy by any means, they only recently got a door on the stage from the dressing room. But they work hard, they do a great job, they’ve created a culture of shows in that area that has supported national bands for a long time. And you’ll get bands that typically play larger venues who will play there because people like it.
Ace of Cups is a very musician friendly venue so I’m hoping you love it.
That’s what Saintseneca said. I think it’s just about sold out. Whenever I go to a club for the first time and it sells out, I don’t complain. I have a feeling it’s going to be a really fun night and I’m glad we’re getting there.
When we were picking all the venues for the 20th anniversary tour, we were like, “We have to do the Grog Shop because we have so much history there.” We were trying to do a mixture of new venues and also places that we’ve been playing a long time and we want to go back, maybe it’s been a while. We’re going to aim high and try to play a big room in this city or try a new room just for fun. We’re playing Thalia Hall in Chicago for the first time just because we’ve never done it. That show’s going to be awesome.
There are so many cool venues out there. I’ll say the show that I think is the coolest venue we’ve ever played. We started doing these shows in the Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee. We did two last year and two this summer and we’re going to make a tradition out of it. It is the most extraordinary show we’ve ever participated in. You’re 333 feet below ground, you hike a quarter mile down in this massive cave. It’s a big show with a big turnout, it’s not a tiny little cave. It’s the best sounding space I’ve ever experienced. Once you reveal the actual venue, I love seeing people’s reactions when they walk in for the first time. It’s just so stunning.
I’m a big fan of Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines.
It’s got a cool vibe, it’s like you’re playing an old cabaret. I like that place. We’re playing a different venue, Wooly’s, it’s a good sounding room and a good venue. I like old architecture a lot and that turn of the century stuff like Vaudeville Mews, it’s really cool.
The big thing I would reflect on – as I think about our whole career – is there are just so many more venues than there used to be. When we started, there weren’t a lot of 300 to 800 capacity venues. There’s so many bands playing and so much more business with bands on the smaller scale. I think that’s a huge cultural shift we’ve seen. It’s interesting because the audience for smaller groups has increased a lot but there’s also a hundred times more bands than there were when we were touring in 2006. That’s a huge factor in our work. I don’t see any of that as a negative, it just is what it is.
I get asked about how I feel about pirating and streaming for years and it’s like, “It doesn’t matter. It exists. It’s just part of the changing business.” You can make a big stink like Metallica and Taylor Swift, if you think you can effect change, but for us working, smaller groups, we just have to fuck it and figure out the alternative when the industry changes or adjusts. It’s almost like every time we put out a new record, it’s a new business. The press is always changing, what they want to cover is always changing. You never know if you’re going to be covered a lot for an album or not covered very much. A band can be a press darling but they get ignored for their third release.
Did you save things consciously throughout the years?
Oh yeah, from the get-go. We did a poster art book about 5 years ago that was basically me just going through every show that we have a show flier, I saved a copy if I could get my hands on it. That’s been a big thing, I was like “What am I going to do with this?” and then I ended up making an art book out of it. This ‘zine, it’s all the other little doo dads and collectibles, so that’s fun. I’m just trying to figure out how do we engage all the material. I am saving it for a reason, but figuring out what for later.
Do you regret not having a video camera rolling throughout your career so you could have captured video?
No. We were coming from a point of such a punk and indie world where we did not want to be celebrities. That’s not what we’re doing. We were just trying to make a different kind of project. A documentary where it was just following us around, that just sounded terrible and it would be embarrassing or too much attention. We decided to never do that. Reflecting on it now, I don’t think it would have been a big deal but that’s not really our style. It’s like, every tour we do, the venue asks if we’re going to do meet-and-greets because everybody makes money after that. Our policy has always been, if somebody wants to meet us, if we are free after the show, we’ll come out and say hi. I don’t want there to be this thing where you pay to say hello. If we have the time to go out and greet people, we’ll just go out.
Do you use Spotify and, if so, would you be willing to share what song you have queued up?
I do. “Simply the Best” by Tina Turner. It was on an episode of Schitt’s Creek and I have not been able to get it out of my head, I’ve been waking up and it’s the first thing I’ve been listening to the last few days. It’s such a great song, and it’s so big and very, very ’80s. And I love Tina Turner.
I love the Kickstarter thing you’ve done where people can pay to have Murder by Death cover the song of their choice. I’m curious if you ever get requests that you’re not wild about?
Oh hell yeah.
Does “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips fall into that category?
I fucking love that song. The ones that are the most fun are the ones that are out of left field that are a little tongue in cheek. I keep thinking there’s a missed opportunity for us to have a little humility. Like, make me do Salt n Pepa. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a goofy project but there’s so many ways to interpret it. There are a ton of songs we’ve done that I didn’t like at all. I don’t have to like every song. For me, it’s not only about the songs but it’s about somebody wanting to hear our version of something. We assume the person is a fan of us because they’ve spent this money so we’re trying to think how can we honestly make this as much as a Murder by Death song as we can while it still being a cover. It’s a great exercise and challenge for the band. The last batch was particularly cool because there was some really stylistically different types of songs. Having to do Megadeth and then, the next day, do ’80s Fleetwood Mac is really different. What makes the song a Murder by Death song and how am I going to sing this song that I would never sing this type of vocal style.
Speaking of covers, do you ever watch people covering Murder by Death on YouTube?
I never look. I don’t listen to our music unless I’m at rehearsal and we’re working on something and I forgot and have to listen to remember how something goes. I appreciate the people want to cover the songs but that’s just not what I do.
I can’t rap up without asking you about the Pizza Lupo, the restaurant you opened in Louisville. People can check out the site and Google other stories where you explain why you opened it. I’m more interested in hearing what you would recommend I order if I make it to Louisville?
Our menu is seasonal so it’s changing a lot. We’re a Neapolitan pizza and handmade pasta restaurant so we focus on those two elements and then have sides and salads. The best way to eat there is to go with a group of people and just order a ton of different stuff and mix and match. It’s the kind of place where everything is good on the menu, it’s not that big of a menu so we make sure that everything you’re going to get is going to be good. It’s designed to go together.
Nathaniel Ratliff and the Night Sweats, who we know, they had this huge crew and band, there was like 20 of them, so they came in and our band came in and we all ate together. You just get a table and order however many pizzas you need. And you get pasta and wood-fired oysters. It’s a congenial way of eating, just passing around and eating stuff. I find that anybody who experiences the restaurant that way leaves happy and enjoys it.