Chances are that the moment people hear the unique and soulful sound of Murder by Death, most of them will instantly become a fan. The band, made up of Lead singer Adam Turla, cellist Sarah Balliet, drummer Dagan Thogerson, David Fountain on the piano (and pretty much everything else) and Tyler Morse doing backup vocals and the bands bassist, dropped their first studio album, Like the Exorcist, But More Breakdancing, in 2002 but formed their band in 2000. Now, 20 years later, they are going on a 20th anniversary global tour to celebrate their success. Ashley Christiansen had the pleasure of speaking with Adam about what this tour means to him, plans for the future and embarrassed herself by forgetting how many albums the band has made, a mistake he says he’s made before as well:
Thank you for taking some time to talk with me today I really appreciate it!
All right, well I will just dive right in, how does that sound?
Ya, let’s do it.
Awesome, well first I just want to say congratulations man because your career is impressive.
20 years, a 20 year anniversary tour that’s amazing, 7 albums, thousands of shows,
8 Albums actually.
Ugh 8 albums, dang I suck!
No it’s crazy I have to check in on that number every once in a while and be like, wait is that right?
Well that’s even more impressive. 8 albums that’s incredible. You know looking back, how does this tour, your 20th anniversary tour, feel VS your very first tour?
Oh my gosh, I mean it’s such a funny questions because I mean, first of all this tour is arguably the best and biggest tour we’ve ever done. I mean we’ve had this crazy career that’s just like been a lava flow of success where just like every year it’s a little bit better than the year before. Like it’s just really been this like gradual thing where like, we continue to grow and it’s just not a common trajectory for bands to basically not have a moment that suddenly skyrockets them up. The story of most bands is they have a moment like that, they skyrocket up they ride that for a while and then they sink down and they either become unsustainable or they sink into a level that works for them. We’re actually still growing which is so incredible and shocking to me that that’s still possible after 20 years.
So for one I’m incredibly grateful but looking back on the first tour we did. I booked a lot of the shows, I used to book the band back in the day, and we also jumped on some shows with a friends band and I mean it was tons of days off, tons of cancelled shows or shows where we would show up and they would be like “oh we don’t have you listed on the bill” so we would just stay and watch the show. I mean we would drive up to like Seattle and that would happen so we were as far away from home as possible and be like “Oh we don’t have a show”. We were just so poor, like we used to have a $5 per day food budget for the band, not kidding. We had this Coleman 2-burner camping stove and we would go to like Asian markets and stuff and we would get like a bag of pot stickers, fry them up and that would be dinner for everybody, there’s 5 of us and it was just really tight, like Ramen all that. If the venue fed us or like if someone offered us hospitality, you know were crashing on floors for years, about 170 shows a year, just doing that for years. So reflecting on it, I mean just not knowing if people were going to show up for the gigs, and then now on this tour. We’re trying to have a mixture of big cities, smaller cities, you know big theaters and small shows that will all just be like full and were trying to keep up a mixture to like acknowledge our roots. I am very excited there are some really big shows coming up and you know it’s just an interesting reflection.
It kind of brings me to my next question, I would ask you what you contribute your success to but you guys are so die hard about your fans, it’s amazing to hear you speak about them, I mean what do you think they mean to you? From what I have seen I think your fans are some of the best.
Oh Yea, I mean I think what happened is from the get go we had to do so much ourselves, because being from a weirder band with a weird band name, you don’t quite have genre. Then when we started doing this “westerney” sound or Americana for lack of a better term, for some of our material nobody was doing it and no one knew what to do with it. We did not get a lot of help from the press or like big publications or media, so we were just doing it. We would just go open shows for whoever would let us play across genres and we would just try to put on a great show and hope that people would buy the album and listen to the damn thing. When we started to realize that the people who liked us, really liked us, we started doing more like I put the albums on vinyl because I thought it would be cool, and then a few years later, vinyl kind of came back and we were already setup to do it. We were operating our own web store. We were interacting directly with the fans. If someone placed an order, it would come directly to my email and I would then package up the record and mail it. It started with this organic thought that nobody wants to put out vinyl then we’ll put it out. I just started going down this path of like interacting more directly and kind of cutting out the middleman. What ended up happening was that it was all out of necessity. As we put out more and more records that really helped in sustaining the band. Because we were playing house shows and basically anywhere that would have us, it left an openness for interaction with our fans. Like if someone said hello on the streets, I’m not going to be weird about it, it’s not a big deal. Unless they were being a butthead or something. The point is I think everything happened so naturally for us and necessity was certainly more of a factor for us. Things would happen because that’s what HAD to happen if we wanted to be able to do this. It’s just an interesting thing to reflect on and I remember thinking like, Why is this band getting this tour or whatever and remember being frustrated we couldn’t seem to like crack into the business but that’s really what helped us in the end. We learned how to do it all ourselves.
Absolutely. I mean after being in the business so long is that really something you would tell your younger self is to just, cool it your time is coming. Or what’s something that you would say to yourself starting out 20 years ago?
That’s a hard question to answer. I honestly don’t want it to be different because I like how it worked out. I mean I guess part of me would be curious if we were in a position to have had opportunities handed to us a little more, sure maybe I wouldn’t have had to work so hard or take on so much responsibility or put so many hours in. But like, that’s how this came together and I’m proud of the work that we do, I’m proud of the stuff that we achieved because of doing things differently.
Ya absolutely. I think that’s awesome. Would you give the same kind of advice to some of the artists now that are trying to break out?
It’s interesting because things are so different now than they were when we started. Our whole career began at a time when the internet was not a factor and we started wanting to play with these small indie bands from labels that we liked. Our whole thing was we never expected there to be an opportunity for any like real success. We just thought we were making this weird independent artsy fartsy music and, hopefully, get to play with some cool bands. That was the goal. Now with the younger bands there’s this possibility of them getting discovered all the time and more like left to center music is more popular now, there is more opportunity. I mean it doesn’t mean that like they are going to be financially viable, but bands definitely take a different approach now. But one thing I go back to is if you can learn how to do the boring stuff and be willing to do some of the business and logistics and everything, like the more that you can learn what it really takes to being in a band and how to stay on the road all that the better. Finding something your good at and applying it beyond just making music is gonna be a thing that will never hurt any band. It could be as simple as you know how to record stuff so you can record your own music, or you have a niche for number so you do the tour counting or whatever. Just really seeing what it takes to be a modern musician, I think that’s the big thing that can help at any time in a musicians history.
Absolutely, I totally agree I think that’s awesome advice and awesome that you guys learned that. Obviously, the internet is-well it is what it is. Social media has really changed the game for sure.
Oh ya, for better and worse. There’s things that are so much easier than they used to be that I really appreciate, and then I don’t know the biggest thing right now is competition. Just trying to book a tour, like back in the day there wasn’t that many bands out but like now if your trying to play a cool club you have to be so far in advance before the show to pull it together. Then you look at the calendar sometimes and you’re like oh my god there’s 10 other amazing shows just this month at this venue, and that’s just the ones that you know are good. You know what I mean like the ones that you’ve heard of. That’s the biggest challenge that younger bands are facing today is standing out in the sea of musicians that are out there right now.
For sure. What’s the biggest thing like as a band that you think you’ve evolved over the years. I mean obviously you guys have had shifts and changes, like most bands do, but you and Sarah have been there through it all. What do you think is the reason behind that?
Well its kinda crazy because I remember early on like when we were younger we were trying to figure out like how long are we gonna do this. Is this what were gonna do with our life now or? I think for a long time it was no how long are we really gonna want to do this, how long can we live off of an artist’s salary. I mean that was the concern; there is no certainty in being a musician. Really you can be a successful musician and then at like 29 or something and stop being popular or people stop buying your stuff or maybe you just don’t enjoy doing it anymore. It can suddenly just be over and then your “retired” from your profession at 29 and have no job history that a regular job might understand. I feel like that is intimidating and I think for us that was a really big moment where we started to change the way that we looked at it. I remember, we did our first Stanley Hotel show and people loved it so much, this was like right around 8 years ago, and at that point we were like we don’t have any traditions that we do there’s not something that will always be there and we do every single year. So after that first year we decided let’s do that again. We needed something like that that was always there, every January it became like an anchor. We were too small to just go out and book-headlining tours all the time so we were always just waiting to go back on tour and I remember begging booking agents like we are so broke we need something to come together in the next few months, just submit us for everything literally whatever is out there. So we were always just hoping that something would come up so we wouldn’t have to all go get regular jobs which would prevent us from being in the band full time, it’s always a really fine line.
I totally get it like “I don’t want to push paper!”
Well and it turned out the work I was doing for the band, like that administrative stuff which was definitely not the most fun part but there was a point where I realized like really I’m a small business owner. I spend so much more time doing the administrative and logistical work than I do writing songs or performing even. However, that being said, the fact that I have the outlet of creativity and performance, that is worth all the boring stuff.
That’s so awesome I think that is such a good way to look at it.
I remember people like in the industry being like “You have a good head for the other side of the band stuff, if the band doesn’t work out you should come work for us”. I remember being like no I do that stuff so I can do the other side of things and perform.
You work hard so you can play hard.
Ya and like maybe someday that will be more appealing but I remember being in my 20’s like um I’m gonna keep trying to do the creative things.
No, I totally get that. So after this tour, what’s next? Do you guys have any new music you’re thinking about or you know what’s going on?
Basically we have this tour which ends like the end of May, I mean we have April off but were going to be in like Europe and doing festivals and stuff starting in May. Then the plan is for me to go into writing mode like end of May and see how it feels and how things are coming together. I don’t like to rush writing or like create deadlines until I feel like I’m already on my way with it. Deadlines can kind of force your hand a little and make you write a ton of stuff that is not necessarily good. I don’t like to start with them because it makes it feel forced and it’s not good to force creativity. But ya so basically this tour is a celebration and then were going to hunker down and get creative and bring the band into it and see what we come up with.
That’s so awesome I cannot wait, I am a huge fan I love your guys’ stuff. You have such a unique sound, it’s really not like anything I’ve ever heard and I absolutely adore it.
You’re welcome! Something I am just curious about on a personal level, is there another band or artist out there right now that you would love to collaborate or work with.
That is an interesting question because we have oddly not done many collaborations. I think part of that is were so busy with like our tour schedule but I am really interested in that idea. Also living in Kentucky instead of like LA where we are just right there and can just say “Hey let’s go jump in the studio with this person” definitely makes it harder. But that I was even just talking with my manager, the other day and I saw that Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds are doing a tour and it’s just like oh man, just to open one show that would be such a cool moment. Of course, there are tons of incredible artists out there that I would love to collaborate with, like I would love to work with The Cure. Even just, spend a day in the studio with them. It’s kind of like all of my old school idols.
I mean ya I would love to sit in the studio with The Cure and just hangout.
Ya I mean it’s like I would rather see other people’s processes and be a fly on the wall. I think collaborative work can be really cool and really rewarding but I think it would be really cool to see and be a part of someone else’s writing process. Mine is so in my brain like most of the time I write the songs in my head and the present them to the band. For us it’s not a super group oriented thing.
I mean it makes sense that your process is unique just like your band is unique. I guess you’re writing style I wouldn’t expect it to be anything less than unique! I just have one more question for you if that’s alright.
What are you most proud of? You have this obvious success by creating these stories behind your music, which is amazing, performing all over the world boasting your one-of-a-kind sound, but what stands out the most when you look back over the last 20 years?
Obviously, the longevity is what we have really reflected on lately and feeling nostalgic and lucky, like it’s crazy that this thing we started at 18 years old is still of interest to people and how it’s grown and changed over time. That’s an incredible feeling I mean I have seen so many incredible bands come and go over the years. I do get frustrated when I see someone put out some great work and like the media isn’t into it so they don’t push it or it’s not viable or the audience just doesn’t respond to it the way you do so that can be really frustrating. I try to think about that when I think about our success in any form. Thinking Wow were really fortunate not only to reach a viable point but that it’s so consistent and still here. I think about that a lot like how many talented people have given their career a shot; I think it’s what I keep thinking about the most. It’s hard, were lucky and I’m just glad were able to keep doing it. This tour is just a real pleasure and just an incredible experience.
I’m so excited for you guys, I can’t wait to see you guys in Fort Collins and thank you so much for talking with me today! Congratulations again!
Check out Murder By Death on one of their many tour dates! Be sure to check back for a full gallery and review of their performance at Washington’s on March 5th, 2020!
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