It’s impossible not to judge some books by their covers. Take Louisville gothic-folk band Murder by Death, for instance. That ominous moniker conjures up an unshakeable image taut with apocalyptic Southern noir. Singer Adam Turla’s Johnny Cash-like baritone cements the assumptions, as does a listen to the band’s eighth full-length, The Other Shore (2018). On this concept album about end times and a human population in peril, Turla and company combine eerie intrigue, emotional circumspection and haunting insight—all in a cinematic style unmatched by their Americana contemporaries.
Even more unparalleled is the purpose and intention behind Murder by Death’s almost entirely self-managed career; in many ways, that makes their story more compelling than the singular music they play.
Folio Weekly: So how did Murder by Death start doing five-day residencies at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, where Stephen King wrote The Shining?
Adam Turla: I had the idea eight years ago and brought it to the promoter who had done all our Denver shows. I said, “I think it’s a perfect fit—a spooky Western band in a spooky Western hotel.” This was our sixth year, and we sell more tickets in 24 hours than we would in six months of club shows. It’s pretty amazing.
That must allow the band a lot of creative freedom to build the set list.
We can do whatever we want, whenever we want—there’s nobody holding us back. The thing that’s nice about the Stanley shows is that it’s a two-hour set and we’re the only band. We learn about 55 to 60 songs and then play 25 a night. There are about 10 we’ve gotta play every night because they’re favorites, and then there are songs we focus on each year that people have never seen live.
How will you transition from that format into your upcoming co-headlining tour with J. Roddy Walston?
After five nights at the Stanley, we’ll be well-rehearsed. [Laughs.] Since it’s a co-bill, we’ll flip-flop who closes each night. In
St. Augustine, we’ll be closing. But we love
J. Roddy and his band. We actually took them on their first tour 10 years ago. We already had a tour set, and a friend sent me a link to their song and said, “This band’s really great and they’re looking to tour.” I thought, “We don’t need another band.” But I listened to their song and said, “Oh f*ck, they’re on the tour.” They’re just so good. They’ve got their own sound that’s a little weird but still guitar and piano-driven rock ’n’ roll. Also, Jonny Fritz is the opener, and I’m a big fan of his. He is so f*cking funny. I love his style—what he calls “dad country.”
Murder by Death has played St. Augustine before, right?
Once, in 2002. We showed up at Café Eleven and said, “Hey, we’re the band,” and they were like, “What?” They had forgotten to announce the show, so we ended up playing to four people: one friend of a friend, one 13-year-old boy who wandered in off the street, one person I can’t remember, and one magician. We ended up staying with the magician.
The Other Shore came out last year, and it’s Murder by Death’s most coherent concept album yet. Was the process significantly different for that record, and are you already writing new material?
Once I started collecting fragments of songs, I started to see a theme emerge, so once we got together, our writing sessions were effective. Everybody had their head in the game. We had long eight- to nine-hour rehearsals because we were enjoying writing so much. From the band perspective, The Other Shore is definitely a favorite. It’s a great feeling to do something you’re excited about—something you care about—late in your career. It reinvigorated everybody in a way. But I probably won’t start writing again until April or May 2020. We’re busy until then. I try not to think about [new] writing at all until we’ve done justice to the recent work.
That idea is rare in these short-attention-span days.
Newness as a cultural value is something that I don’t particularly respect. As a band, you’re supposed to post on Instagram all the time and make it feel a little more personal, along with doing all the media outlets, blogs, video projects and live radio stuff. We dedicate most of our time to writing the songs, performing the songs, honoring the process and skipping the stuff that feels like ephemera. I feel like more time is put into marketing some acts than they put into writing their material, and that’s not a game we’re playing.
You and Sarah Balliet, your wife and partner in Murder by Death, opened an Italian restaurant in 2017. How did that complement your musical career?
Our restaurant is very much like the band in that it’s something we turned from a hobby into a profession. We got to try to make a living at something we were passionate about. That gave us confidence to move forward. And the restaurant is doing well, but it’s so much more work than we thought. The first two years, we put in 60- to 100-hour weeks. Now we have a really good team who do so much work that we can go back to focusing on the band, which has been our main thing for 19 years.