Happier homicide

Whiskey, shaving accidents, snake eggs—a lot went into Murder by Death’s latest release

Left to right: Murder by Death bandmates Matt Armstrong, Dagan Thogerson, Adam Turla and Sarah Balliet don’t dress the metalhead part. Which is because, you know, they’re not a metal band.

Left to right: Murder by Death bandmates Matt Armstrong, Dagan Thogerson, Adam Turla and Sarah Balliet don’t dress the metalhead part. Which is because, you know, they’re not a metal band.

Photo By Greg Whitaker

Murder by Death plays with the Builders and the Butchers and Damion Suomi & the Minor Prophets next Sunday, February 13, 8 p.m., $12. Harlow’s, 2708 J Street; www.murderbydeath.com.


2708 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 441-4693

If there’s one thing that Murder by Death’s vocalist Adam Turla wants you to know, it’s this: They’re not a metal band. The name suggests otherwise, but Murder by Death spent the past decade forging a dark, country, rock ’n’ roll sound.

Older records dealt with stories of jailbreaks, zombies and the devil waging a war in Mexico. Their latest album, Good Morning, Magpie, references the devil’s bird and how to greet it without garnering bad luck. Though it doesn’t abandon the central themes from previous releases, it approaches them from a sadder, but even beautiful angle.

Turla, who chatted with SN&R over the phone in advance of their February 13 show in Midtown, shared stories from a backwoods camping trip that inspired the band’s latest, building a cabin for writing in his yard in Southern Indiana, and why shaving with a hunting knife is a bad idea.

I heard that once on a tour, you ate snake eggs after you lost a bet with a Gypsy.

Man, no one’s brought that up for like two years. Yeah, I got all sick—that was a dare that I regret.

How did the solitude of your backwoods camping impact the new album?

Well, I spent two weeks in the backcountry just camping by myself, and the idea was that I just wanted to spend some time reflecting on writing. I ended up being much lonelier than I expected to be. So I think that really characterized some of the lyrics that came out: the loneliness of not speaking to other people for two weeks, and the weather. It rained almost the whole time I was there. It was pretty dramatic at times, and there’s definitely sort of a fear of the elements that kind of crept into the songs.

Yeah, compared to earlier albums, where you describe things like miners getting trapped underground and men hanging from a tree, this one seems a lot more beautiful.

We wanted to make an album that was more upbeat. Murder by Death hasn’t really done “happy” before, and it’s not that this is a happy album by any standard, but it has more of that sad, beautiful thing to it. Instead of the other stuff we’ve done, which is really doom-oriented and scary. “Tough times” has been a theme of Murder by Death for a long time. I find that to be better writing subject material than weepy love songs—that stuff just doesn’t really interest me.

Will you try to write the next album out in the cabin you’re building in your yard?

Who knows? Part of the idea is to have a little place to retreat to where I don’t have, you know, the phone ringing or the call of Netflix or whatever bullshit. I feel like in the modern world we have so many opportunities to just sort of shut down and relax and do entertainment stuff. When you have less options, you’re more creative.

That’s what that trip was all about—if I have nothing else to do, then I will write—if for no other reason to entertain myself. Like the song, “Shaving With a Knife,” which is one of my favorites—probably one of my favorites that we’ve ever done—came out of just a desire to entertain myself while I was out there.

I went to the show at Slim’s in San Francisco last spring and, during the set, you said that song was inspired by a real event.

Well, I tried to use my hunting knife to give it a whirl, because I didn’t bring a razor or anything, so I was in the river, trying to shave with a knife and I didn’t do a very good job, so I said, “That’s enough!” It’s kind of silly. I ended up just singing that song because it was funny to me that I hurt myself. Good thing nobody saw that! And then I immortalized it in song, of course.

You guys sing about whiskey a lot. Did you bring any whiskey out there with you?

I had one bottle, and I kept saving it because I kept thinking, “I’m really gonna need it some night,” and I didn’t end up using it—not much of it anyway. I felt like I had enough to think about and do while I was out there. I mean, for two weeks, if I was really just going out and getting drunk in the woods, I would need, like, a wagon full of booze. At least a bottle a night. And I’m not gonna bring like 14 bottles of whiskey, you know?

Why do you write about stuff like booze and the devil?

What we were trying to do was to create this world of Murder by Death. And it is, sort of in a certain way, older. I mean there’s something about this world that is specifically not modern. I wanted to have an element of fantasy in the lyrics.

Do some fans take things too far?

For some people, it became a really big deal, where they get really into the subject matter. I always try to keep it right on the edge, where if you want to look deeper in, there’s links between songs and stories, but if you’re a casual listener, or you’re not a lyrics person, I wanted the songs to be able to stand alone so that you could get people who don’t care.

When are you going to start writing the next album?

I’m going to try to do a little bit of writing on the tour, but I tend to try to shy away from that because, it’s like, how many Bob Seger night-on-the-road songs do you want to write, you know? Plus, we don’t have a saxophone player to do the, you know, [wails saxophone part from “Turn the Page”].