Murder by Death: exploring isolation and possible solace

by Patty Templeton

Everything is overwhelming and the world feels like a gloombucket of doomflowers. But hope dies last. Murder by Death is hollering into the void that though the road is hard, at least we’re not wandering the weeds. Their melancholy Western roots is filled with the yearning for better times and the conviction that they’ll come.

DGO chatted with lead singer Adam Turla about isolation, outer space, and Murder by Death’s new album, “The Other Shore.”

“The Other Shore” has been described as a space Western. What sorta sci-fi runs through it? Probably my favorite sci-fi book, the one that influenced this album the most, is “Solaris,” by Stanislaw Lem. I’ll read any kind of good book, but I tend toward reading on human experience. That thread is in the new album.

The main idea is that, for whatever reason, Earth is done. People are trying to survive. Of two people, one stays behind and one takes a chance and pushes forward to whatever place is next. Essentially, the person who stays behind realizes, “Oh god, I made a huge mistake,” and they chase the other through space on a very long journey. They’re sitting in this tiny pod because they woke up early and are left with their thoughts. The record is mostly about that internal journey of reflection and finding clarity. It’s human experience caged in a space Western.

How does this album connect to Murder by Death’s previous work? We’ve had Western elements in our music for almost 20 years – because I like the idea of the vastness of the desert and isolation. I realized while I was writing these songs that space was like a giant, unexplored desert.

What questions did you ask yourself while writing “The Other Shore?” When I first started writing the record, I had some songs that suggested this kind of space story, but I wasn’t 100% sold on the idea that I wanted to do a concept record. As I presented all the various songs to my bandmates, they kept being like, “I really like the spacey stuff,” and got really excited about it. What could I do? When you have four people, your entire audience pushing you in one direction with, “I think you got something here,” I kept doing that. Then I could set the story.

I asked, do we have a complete story? What’s missing? What am I not saying? What am I not explaining? What needs to happen? What do I want to purposefully withhold and what do I want to make clear? After I had half the songs that we knew were going to make the record, I asked, what’s missing? What’s the story? What’s the arc? What needs to happen? Honestly, it’s the best part of being a musician for me – trying to figure out what it is you’re doing. Asking, what am I trying to say? What am I trying to do? What’s my message? How heavy handed am I going to be? How heavy handed do I want to be about the sci-fi element?

Did you worry that a space Western would be too concept album to fit within your sound? It’s a huge challenge – how do you convey the idea of space, but also make it a Murder by Death record. This is a record that needs to function song to song as an album, an album within our catalog. I didn’t want to go too far on a limb to where it didn’t fit. We’re trying to do something we haven’t done before, but also still sound like us.

What happens to those dead songs that didn’t make the album? Right now, they’re just dead. But you never know.

MBD, we have a thing that we do – we talk about “bridge songs.” We think of Murder by Death as the universe and all the songs that happen have to be able to find their way in the universe. There needs to be a bridge for any song that is really outside the box – a song that it can relate to what already exists in the universe.

For example, the song “Yes” off of “Good Morning, Magpie,” it’s Americana and in 2005, not many people were doing that. We were dabbling with it. We had songs that were attempting it. I didn’t want it to sound like us copying an old song. Then, in 2010, we had more songs that teased that style so that “Yes” could exist in the universe.

A lot of Murder by Death’s work seems to have a balance between quiet desperation and hope.That’s the number one theme of our group. If I have a method, or a message that I’m trying to say, it’s that I believe in fables and morals of stories – I like the didactics of that because I have always felt like a moral life is important.

I would say that in many of the songs and over the arcs of albums, I want to start really low. It’s usually the narrator’s fault. Then I want the narrator to learn something. That’s the arc of a lot of our work. The album “Red of Tooth and Claw” is told from an untrustworthy, anti-hero narrator who is a shitty dude. The goal is that by the end of the record he finally acknowledges it and hopes to change. It’s an intentional device to give people hope.

What would you bring to space to make it feel like home? I’d bring my dog. [Laughs]

Or, I don’t know. Maybe I would bring anything that would be useful in the circumstances, like whatever the futuristic Kindle is that has an endless supply of books.

Say you got to sit down with an experienced astronaut. What would you discuss? For the purpose of comparison, I’d think of it as someone like Mark Kelly. One of those astronauts that spent a lot of time in space. I would want to hear them talk about the things we don’t think about that happen during the experience of being alone. Even though they can communicate via sat-com or message people in a variety of ways – what is the experience like to spend that much time so definitively alone? How do you prevent the feeling of dread that things will never be “normal” again?

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