Adam Turla, Murder By Death (2010)

We'll get the obvious out of the way.  Murder by Death is not a metal band. Not even close. In the words of songwriter/singer/guitarist Adam Turla, it's "a rock and roll band with a little bit of country.  There’s a cello, a guy with a low voice, and some piano.  It’s music that can exist at any time. And we tell great stories.”

There you have it.  Murder By Death—named after the 1976 Neil Simon movie—is a rock n’ roll band.  And a damn good one. Turla and his bandmates met at Indiana University.  A religious studies and English major, Turla has been obsessed with the craft of writing since his college days, when he started writing poetry.  A self-professed lover of the classics, Turla can dish about everyone from Hemingway to Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the best of ‘em.

I interviewed Turla backstage in the band’s dressing room before their recent show at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall.  For 45 minutes he spoke with an enviable awareness of his writing process and with an unabashed interest in great works of literature.  And he told me all this while lying flat on his back across a red couch, the victim of a pinched nerve in his back. The band was at the tail end of the US leg of their tour in support of their new album Good Morning Magpie available on Vagrant Records, before heading off to Europe. 

Some facts about Turla:

  • He hates what iPods do to the storytelling aspect of full-length album
  • William Wordsworth would approve of Turla's writing process: to write the latest album, he camped in the Smoky Mountains by himself for two weeks with little more than a tent, sleeping bag, a lantern, and his chapbook.He wrote many of the songs on the latest album while hiking, and how the tempo in many of these songs mirrors the tempo of the hike when each song was written.

You majored in religious studies and English at Indiana University.  How much writing did you do in college?

I took a fiction writing class, which I really liked and wanted to be a good at, but I found it difficult to be organized in a longer form.  I took two poetry classes, which I also really liked because of the similarities to songwriting and because of the brevity.  For me that format was much simpler because I don't get a ton of content.  A lot of people sit down and write and write and write, and they get tons of stuff that they are able to pare down.  But for me its all or nothing.  That’s the whole idea of songwriting: to tell a story in three minutes.  So I definitely responded because of my natural inclination to poetry writing and songwriting.  Like I said, I don't have a lot of material: if I have an idea, I'm usually able to get a poem or song about it, but I couldn't stretch it into a whole story. I'd like to be able to work on that part of my writing, though.

Do you still write poetry?

A lot of my songs start as poems, and they would be poems, but we just set them to music. There's a song on the new album called "White Noise," which was originally a poem that was three times as long, and I just pared it down and made it work as a song.  I wasn't sure if it ever was going to be a song because it started out as a poem. So some of my songs start as poems but end up becoming songs, even though that may not have been my intention in the first place.

Do you write poetry now that is never designed to see a MBD album?

I do, it’s just that I spend so much time writing for Murder By Death that my poetry writing has taken a distant second place. 

Who are your literary inspirations?

I have a strange policy of only reading the classics. Now, if there is a new book, where the subject is so perfect for me and everybody I know loved it, I'll probably read it.  But I also know that there is so much great, insightful stuff out there that has stood the test of time where I'll learn something from the text.  And I'd rather devote my limited time to something I know will be good.  It's the same reason I don't watch TV—I don't think I'd gain anything. I'd rather watch a movie and watch a full story arc develop.

My favorite author is Gabriela Garcia Marquez.  I love magical realism. It's the style I most identify with; I love the idea of twisting the truth or viewing the truth a little differently so it has a little incredible reality. 

I also just read House of the Spirits by Isabel Allenda, which is just, whew, really good.

I love Steinbeck for the humor, and I love Hemingway for the brevity.  With Hemingway, I love the simple construction of the sentences and the stories that don't have an obvious plot.  I love Hemingway's stories because they are like snapshots: “Here’s three years in the Spanish Civil War or two years in World War II or the backdrop of an island and the family that grew up there."  I love that there is no “it starts here and ends here" idea to his stories.

Did you always want to major in English?

I added English as a major my junior year since I was taking English classes for pleasure and at some point I was like, “Man I have a lot of credits.” My English professors were pushing me to major.  My favorite English classes were ones where we deconstructed texts, and I loved critiquing sessions and workshopping everything.  That was where I really stood out because I have opinions on writing and an interest in getting comments on my work and giving input to other people.

You remind me, in the themes of the stories you write, of Sam Shepard.  What topics inspire you?

I do a mixture of fiction and personal experience.  If I had to classify my style, again I would say it's magical realism. I take true stories about people I know or about a feeling I had at the time, and I try to expand that feeling into a story without saying, “I feel this way or I feel that way.”  I prefer to have a story about someone else that tells the way I feel. 

For example, our song "Shiola" is about a feeling I was having at the time that I wanted to express in some way.  It’s a story about a man who appears to have lost his family.  I get people asking me all the time, did he kill his family, did they die, is he in jail?  The song is just a way I felt at the time when I was in a bad place, and shiola was just a word I was humming as filler in my head for the melody.  I just figured I would fill it in with a real word later. I got to the point where I kept on singing it and couldn't come up with anything good, and I realized that the whole point of the song was to express a feeling that you can't really understand, so why couldn't I just make up a word?

That’s how I approach songwriting.  I take a feeling and work on developing a story that can mean a lot of things.  Sometimes I write a personal experience or a relationship into a fictionalized account, sort of like Hemingway does. Twisting the reality just a little bit, like Marquez does, where you take reality and you take something that moves you or that has poetic value and you move it 90 degrees so that its just a little weirder, a little bigger. I think that’s important.  Our song "Brother" is a more poetic version of a true relationship with a friend.  It's important to take elements from my life and turn them into song instead of just a gripe.

Speaking of Hemingway, what is your favorite book?

I have two: The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast.  I also like the first two-thirds of Island in the Stream. True at First Light came out about ten years ago.  I have tried to read that book three times and just can't finish it.  I took a class about the literary scene in Paris in the 1920.  That was one of my favorite classes.  I loved all the literature from that era.

What are the recurring themes in your writing? 

Well, some ideas are compatible with rock and roll, and there are only certain subjects that a rock and roll song should be about. One of those ideas is the theme of rebellion, and rock and roll is about anger and energy.  There's some celebration in there as well, but it's just big feelings.  I like rebellion as a subject because I like it in reality.  But I like having songs where good people do rebellious things.  Three dimensional characters are the main thing with my fictional songs.  A lot of anti-hero stuff: I like the idea of the SOB who turns it around or the good person who does something shitty. 

Talk about your writing process.

What I usually do is have my phone and just write down a line in the memo pad when one comes to me, wherever I am.  I never sit down actively and say I am going to write. I do melody and lyrics at the same time, so I always write the songs with the melody in mind. Like I said, sometimes they start as poems.  I never write with a guitar.  I need the melody and lyrics to work before I proceed with the song. 

I scrap songs and poems extremely quickly—if I am not feeling it, I get rid of it.  Now, I don't throw it away—I've got it logged away, and every now and then I'll steal a line from something I wrote a long time ago. For example, our new album has two songs I wrote six years ago that I totally revamped.

photo by Greg Whitaker

photo by Greg Whitaker

For your latest album Good Morning, Magpie, you went camping to write the lyrics.

When I wrote the lyrics for the new album, I had a moleskin journal.  I went out for two weeks solo camping in the Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg.  I hiked and fished all day.  I'd be singing a song in my head and trying to weave together the lines. I did a lot of shuffling of the lines. 

Usually I was hiking, which was interesting because I noticed that a lot of the songs on this new album have a walking cadence.  You can walk and sing them exactly in the same time.  I think that's really interesting.  I didn't notice that until later, but it makes sense because I was hiking so much.  Like the song "Dark Streets Below"—I was walking fast one day and that’s when that song came about, and it has a fast tempo.

I was very lonely out there. I didn't see anyone for two weeks. I had a lantern that I would set down on a stump so that I could write. One night I wrote for seven hours.  I was changing things, revising all the time.  I also did a lot of journaling.

What about your revision process?

I am really into editing.  One way I like to write, especially with my poetry, is to cut out as many articles and non-essential words as possible.  I am really careful not to repeat words.

I can follow the melody in my head, so the first time I hear a song with music is when I play it for the band. The song that's the perfect example of constant revision is, again, "Dark Streets Below."  I wanted to do a song about three girls who end up in this shitty town, but they have promise.  The question is will they ever get out. That’s another theme I return to: hard times, people in tough situations. Tough people, tough spots. 

I really liked working on that song because there were three verses, and each verse is maybe 20 seconds long and has to tell an entire story.  So I have 20 seconds to introduce the character, tell something about them that shows their promise, and then show how they basically got screwed over by winding up in this place.  Trying to do that in a couple of lines—I can't believe how hard it was.  I must have written 20 versions.  Finally, in the end every word counted. Every word had to be a part of the story. I couldn't have an extra and or the.  The first words to go were the articles.  It took so much time to reduce it, but to also try and get it so that it made sense.  I wrote that one on a long hike.  I kept on thinking how am I going to finish this thought.  I finished the first verse--it took so long, and thought how am I going to write another one.

How do you know when a song is done?

When it's at a point where I can almost look at my song as a movie, with a complete narrative arc. I have introductions, tensions, climax, denouement, everything.  That’s my general method. 

When you are having trouble getting words out, what do you do? Do you walk away?

I don't like to sit down at a desk.  I like to walk—that makes me creative. I have to be moving to get my thoughts going.  I walked 15 miles a day in the mountains.  I normally walk a lot when I write.

How has your writing changed over the past ten years?

When I was first in college, I was doing weird experimental stuff.  It was crappy but developmental.   One of the cool things I did was dictate my poetry and the poetry of other people into the computer, and the program would then spit out the words on the screen.  These programs were in the beginning stages, and what came out was awful.  Hardly any of the words were right.  But it would send out this amazing list of madness, totally different words.  I was fascinated by the some really interesting choices the program made.  I actually wrote a lot of poetry by taking those words and rearranging them, just picking them apart and creating this abstract poem.  But I certainly have gotten more traditional as I have gotten older. 

You've written a couple of albums that tell one story. Isn't it harder to do that now with so many people downloading singles instead of entire albums?  How does that affect your process?

It doesn't affect my process at all.  I like albums, and I hate iPods.  I have one but I hate it.  I hate that it reduces the band to the single. I am aware that in the 50s, when a lot of my favorite music was made, music was single driven.  But I like popping something in for 45 minutes and rolling with it, like this is my mood for now.  What is the purpose of writing one song at a time unless it's to get the popular single?  An album is about creating something where the whole thing is good. 

But are you fighting a losing battle?

In a way, yes. but there will always be people with a response who say,  "Fuck this single driven dance music or indie pop."  There will always be people who like us for making albums.  We won't have the same kind of success as a band with a hit radio single.  A group like that will blow up and have a lot if immediate success, but if they don't write a hit for the next album, they are done.  And for us, everyone lets us do what we want.  We are doing fine.  I haven't had a job in 8 years!