Rev. Horton Heat, Iron Maiden, and More Slayed Murder by Death’s Adam Turla
The psychobilly music and madness of the Reverend Horton Heat had a profound effect on Murder by Death’s Adam Turla.
“Touring with the Rev. Horton Heat was inspiring and humbling,” says Turla, Murder by Death’s vocalist and guitarist, about their joint 2007 tour. “He is such a great player, and I have always considered myself more of a singer-songwriter that happens to play the guitar. I started warming up on guitar more after having to go on before him every night.”
Turla, whose vocals have been compared to Nick Cave and Johnny Cash, says Heat reminded him that “some people are technically amazing, and those folks can really inspire you.”
Heat was the most influential performer Turla has seen, but he considers two other concerts as the best he ever attended.
“Iron Maiden in 2009 at the arena (the United Center) where the Chicago Bulls play was awesome,” he says. “I didn’t realize I knew all the words. We managed to get guest-listed and were close enough to feel the pyrotechnic flames. Teehee.
“A couple years later we played with Gogol Bordello at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, and they just knocked my socks off. Man, they were just so on point. If you went downstairs to the dressing room, you could see the ceiling moving up and down from people stomping their feet.”
The Gogol Bordello and Iron Maiden shows “were both such spectacles, and I don’t usually respond to that kind of performance. But both groups are always firing on all cylinders. They’ve got it all.”
Critics said Murder by Death’s most recent albums, 2014’s Big Dark Love and 2012’s Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, fired on all cylinders. Both albums by the band, which was formed in Bloomington, Indiana, were released on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records.
“Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon has a lot of Indiana in it — farmlands and creeks, local stories,” Turla says. The band started there and lived there for many years. Now we are far flung, spread across Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and Oregon, with our crew hailing from Colorado and California.”
With a name like Murder by Death, it’s quite a contrast when Turla mentions the musical and lyrical statements he was attempting to convey when recording Big Dark Love.
“I wanted it to be a simpler, more subtle album, and there’s a thread of nontraditional love songs that runs through it.”
What makes the album a special work?
“Some of the songs are more personal than much of what we do, which is often more fantastical,” Turla says.
Turla has in the past described Murder by Death’s music as “dark rock and roll with a little country.”
Now, he says: “Our whole thing is to be eclectic. Depending on the album, we lean different directions, but the goal is to experiment with what fits into the Murder by Death sound. We think of it as a world where the songs fit in as features of a backdrop or pieces of a story. I’ve heard every possible description at this point. Maybe my favorite is Spooky Americana or Southern Gothic.”
Murder by Death — which also includes cellist Sarah Balliet, bassist Matt Armstrong, drummer Dagan Thogerson, and multi-instrumentalist David Fountain — took its name from a 1976 mystery-comedy film of the same name. It was written by Neil Simon, and its cast included Truman Capote, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Maggie Smith.
A frightening Stephen King novel, The Shining, has also crept into the band’s DNA. The novel was set at The Stanley Hotel, a mysterious supposedly haunted lodging in Estes Park, Colorado, and the site of multi-night concerts by Murder by Death the past two years. The band plans to return there next year.
“It’s got the perfect vibe for Murder By Death,” Turla says. “There’s an old, spooky vibe to our music, and the history, decor, and ghostly elements of the Stanley fit our event so perfectly. It’s basically a 1920s concert gala slumber party where we are the house band.”
Last week, Murder by Death headlined the second annual Elston Avenue Sausage & Music Fest outside The Abbey Pub in Chicago. The two-day festival, which proclaimed that “encased meats will again be in the spotlight,” featured an eclectic lineup of indie acts. Murder by Death followed HoneyHoney and was the closing act on the fest’s final night.
The next festival on tap for Murder by Death will be Denver’s huge Riot Fest and Rodeo Sept. 2-4. More than 50 acts, including Jake Bugg, Yo La Tengo, Death Cab for Cutie, The Hold Steady, the Misfits, and Jane’s Addiction, are on the bill.
“It sounds like a fun festival,” Turla says. “I’ve had it on my radar for a long time. We are really excited to see the Misfits. I know Sarah grew up loving them, so it’ll be a blast from the past. I think we will stay for the weekend and just catch the shows once we are done playing.”
Balliet will head this month to Kentucky as a volunteer for the nonprofit organization Girls Rock Louisville. The organization says it “aims to empower girls and gender non-conforming youth from all backgrounds by exploring music creation in a supportive, inclusive environment.” During a one-week camp, girls aged 10-18 learn an instrument, form a band, write a song, and perform “while learning about self-confidence, self expression, social justice, and community building.”
Are any new songs being written for a future Murder by Death album?
“Right now, I’m just enjoying the summer,” Turla says. “I will start writing at the end of the year, and who knows? An album will be ready when it is good and ready I suppose.”
If you are only allowed to live with two albums, which two would they be?
“Hmmm,” Turla says. “Because I would have to presumably listen so many times to the same albums, I might go with some stuff that isn’t so aggressive and is somewhat versatile. I would probably pick Ray Charles’ Greatest Hits (1962 RCA release) and a recording of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.”
Notes From Recent “Best” Shows:
I’ve always like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but after the recent Mudcrutch show at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., I am greedily hoping that Petty and Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell will forever stay in Mudcrutch. The band — joined by the great Herb Pedersen — rocked the roof off the Capitol, and its powerful cover of the Byrds’ “Lover of the Bayou” will never be forgotten.
I saw Judy Collins perform once in New York in the 1970s, and I’ve always said she has the best female voice I have heard live. I recently saw her at Connecticut’s Ridgefield Playhouse, and I will stand behind my original statement. She’s still quite a wonder at age 77. Joined by Ari Hest for part of the concert, whom she collaborated with on a new album, Collins beautifully sang songs of Sondheim, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, CSN, Ian Tyson, and others. Besides her music, her between-song talks to the audience provided historical snapshots. She said she awakened at 3 a.m. on a bed in Woodstock, N.Y. — after too much partying — to the sound of Dylan singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the first time in the early 1960s. She said she then got up and watched Dylan finish creating the masterful song.
Two bands that don’t get enough ink are the Louisiana-based Revelers and the Chicago-based Birds of Chicago. Both bands delivered solid shows at Ridgefield’s Ballard Park. The Revelers have Cajun roots but they know how to rock and roll. The Birds of Chicago, starring former Po’ Girl Allison Russell and her husband, J.T. Nero, put together an enticing stew of gospel, soul, country and rock. Their latest album was produced by Joe Henry.