Adam Turla, Murder By Death (2011)

If you go back to the first interview on this site back in June 2010, it was with Adam Turla of Murder By Death.  We talked backstage at Lincoln Hall in Chicago as he lay on a couch in the green room, the victim of a pinched nerve in his back (though you never would have known it a couple hours later watching him play).

I am an unabashed Murder By Death fan.  Turla writes some of the best lyrics around, and the band's music sounds like no one else (Turla describes them as "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.”).  I have enormous respect for the reverence with which he treats his creative process. Here's a look into that process after the video as he talks about writing for the upcoming album.

I follow the band on Twitter and Facebook, and you seem to have a very deliberate writing process.  You make a point of announcing when you're going to write, so you seem to be disciplined.

Part of the reason I've been more public about it is that it's the way communication is with fans.  Facebook has become a part of everyone's life. I took over running our site about a year ago because I saw how many people were on it all the time.  That's the public angle.  As for the writing, I collect ideas, phrases, and melodies all the time, but I started writing independently about six or seven months ago.  After that, we started rehearsing as a band in May and knocked out a couple of songs and did some demos. We spent part of July and all of August as a group in my basement, just taking all the ideas I had and turning them into songs.  We have ten songs so far, so it's a great start.

Do you find that telling people you're going write makes writing easier since people expect it's going to happen?

Absolutely.  It's a validation.  When you tell people, you're in it.  You have to do it.

It seems that many songwriters I talk to would rather just write when the inspiration strikes instead of making it a part of their day.

Yeah, writers like novelists have a schedule where they write for a certain period of time every day. They just sit there.  Some days, nothing happens, but they stick to that routine. I am not that disciplined by any means.  I'm on vacation now on a lake in Indiana. My first day out, I went fishing for six hours, and by the end of it I had a complete song.  I had my rod under my leg and my notepad out, scribbling down lyrics.  You always have opportunities during the day to write, and when they arise, you have to take them and go with it. 

So for me it's a combination of discipline and waiting.  Right now, the band is just getting together and working out parts over and over, the tedious part of doing things. But maybe by singing the same part over and over, I'll determine which parts I don't like because I feel stupid singing them.  There's the creative quality of just being inspired and coming up with something and trying to convey an idea, but there's also the gruntwork of constant editing.  I mean, there's a song where we changed the chorus four times, and I still don't have all the words for it.  There's too many words in the song, so we need the chorus to be really basic, just a simple melody.  The verses are the story, and the chorus needs to be just a simple idea.  I feel like I'm being too verbose. We constantly reexamine things. Our songs go through so many edits.

This is the hardest we've ever worked on a record.  We have enough songs for an album now.  We could make a record now in a week, and it would be a good record.  But I've been working extra hard and been more prolific than usual.  I'm trying to get 15 songs, then scrap five and use them later.

How are you doing things differently this time around?

Time is the most important.  The time we spent has been effective.  In the past, there have been times where we've made a record and just sat around.  There would be days of nothing happening.  But now, every day we've made major progress.  I'm coming to the group more prepared than I've ever been and spending more time every day on it.  In the past if we've spent 30 days turning my ideas into songs, we've already put in 50 now, and we aren't done yet.  It's probably two or three times as much writing as we've done in the past.  Part of it is because we've done better financially with each successive year, so we don't have to tour as much.  We can play fewer gigs and keep ourselves afloat.  We can emphasize the creative element of the band, not just the performance.

When it comes to editing, though, can you edit a song too much and change the meaning?

When I have an idea for a song in my head, I can hear all the instruments.  I have a concept in my mind for how it's supposed to sound.  Sometimes I can communicate that to the band and it comes out that way; other times it comes out completely different from what I thought it would be. Is that editing? I don't know, because it's difficult to know whether what is floating in my brain is really what the band is going to play as a sonic achievement. 

I do agree that you can obsess over something too much.  I don't have an obsessive quality, so I don't have to worry about it.  I don't stare at a piece of paper for ages and pick the lyrics apart.  Every time something comes to me, I think about it and respond to my emotional reaction to the song as I'm playing it at rehearsal.  Am I really excited about every part? Is there one phrase I don't like saying or one part musically I don't like playing? I make mental note of the parts that are weak, then adjust them.  We do a of talking about what we want to achieve with a song and what our goal is. Who is the character in the song, and what is the emotion we want to convey?  What is the narrator trying to say?  Should the part be upbeat and happy just for a moment since the music took a quick turn, then should it sink back into a dark vibe? We talk a lot about a tension of a song.

Is it hard to tell a story in three minutes?

It's funny, because I always wanted to be a novelist but I didn't have the discipline or the ability to stretch out an idea for that long.  I'm probably a musician because it's easier for me.  The brevity is what helps me to realize that we only have a few minutes to tell a story.  So you have to make every word count.  With this album, I've been overwriting the lyrics; every song has leftovers.  But that's cool because I throw those in my grab bag, a file of all the lyrics I like but didn't use in a song.  When I finish writing  a song, often ends up being different than what it was in the beginning, so I have to throw a line out.  And often that line will inspire me to write a new song, so it becomes prominent somewhere else. 

photo by Greg Whitaker

photo by Greg Whitaker

Think about the time when you wrote that song out on the boat.  Why was that moment so creative?

I handle all the administrative stuff for the band.  I'm constantly working on something, whether it's tour planning or balancing the books.  So whenever I have a moment to myself, my brain goes immediately to writing, which is really a form of entertainment for me.  When we talked last time, I had gone out in the woods to write the last record.  The second I get away from day to day stuff, I find myself writing for pleasure.  We've been working so hard writing and rehearsing for this album that as soon as we were done, I drove the next day up here to the lake.  We got up the next day, and I decided just to fish all day.  The second I got in the boat, I started jotting down ideas. And by the end of  the day, the song was there, because I found myself for the first time in two months just sitting down with nothing to do and staring at beautiful scenery. Since I didn't have to do anything, my mind said, "Oh well, just entertain yourself."

So it wasn't necessarily the environment, but the fact that you had a clear mind.

Yeah, that's part of it, but for me the environment plays a large part. I don't like being in cities when it comes to having those moments.  I need the pastoral setting to create, where just being outside is an activity in itself.  My mind loosens up.

What about the idea that boredom breeds creativity?

Absolutely.  That's where it all begins.  I spent months before I even brought these new songs to the band, just letting these basic ideas for the start of songs to germinate.  That's the hardest part, the part that requires isolation and complete boredom.  I've always said that creativity comes from boredom.  I figured that out long ago.  I've written most of our songs just sitting around bored or driving by myself. 

How active are you when it comes to seeking out inspiration?

You have to do both. Writing an album means writing a lot of songs.  You're writing probably 30 fragments of songs that you're making into 10 or 15.  You need ideas to come from anywhere you can. I've probably written about 100 songs for this band, and I have to come up with ideas that are interesting to both the listeners and to me, while sticking to what the band is trying to say. 

Sarah (Balliet, MBD's cellist) and I had a long walk where we talked about the themes of our band.  We never set out to have themes, but we talked about the core ideas that make up our best songs.  One of the themes is a rebellious spirit.  There's an "I'll fight this, I won't lie down" attitude.  Then there's the raucous drinking world; the two go hand in hand.  And there's the hard luck and downtrodden people we write about, and the resilience they possess.   Then there's doom and foreboding, with forces of nature and religion against man.  The ideas come from all over.  

Does motion play a role in your creative process?

Absolutely.  Taking a walk is really effective for that.  When we wrote In Bocca al Lupo in 2005, I went to college for a semester and walked about 20 minutes to class each day.  I noticed that a lot of the songs had the tempo of my walking speed.  I was writing a lot of my songs on the way to class, so that sense of motion contributes to how a song sounds for me. And every summer I do a house project.  A couple of years ago I built a cabin in my yard, and last summer I worked on the interior.  This summer, Scott, our new guy, has been living in it, so I built a woodshed outside and a wood burning stove inside so that he can be there in the fall.  I found myself thinking a lot about the songs as I was building.

I'm reminded of what Chris Difford of Squeeze told me, how he wrote "Tempted" in about 2 1/2 minutes in the back of a cab.

Wow.  My record is about 13 minutes while someone was heating up dinner.

Do you work well under deadlines?

I work really well under deadlines.  When I was in college and had to write a paper based on a reading, I would read the material and highlight the important stuff.  When it was time to start framing the paper, I'd pick out the, say, five major themes and number them. I'd group the numbers by typing out all the quotes that fell under each number.  With all the quotes typed, I'd wait until the day the paper was due, assemble it, and write the paper in two hours.  It worked great. The first time you read something, if you are aware of what the author is trying to convey and why you are reading it, it makes writing the paper a lot easier.

Last time we talked, you mentioned your love of all things Steinbeck.  Who have you been reading lately?

This is kind of funny.  I've been reading comic books lately, people like Alan Moore, who is just amazing.  I really like the short form comic books, which are almost like a novel. And I just read a book by Carlos Fuentes called The Years With Laura Diaz.  It's a history of Mexico through the eyes of a not-famous person as she encounters famous people. 

Do you read any poetry?

I used to read a lot more, but lately I've been reading Elizabeth Bishop.

Do you think poetry is a valuable resource for songwriters?

Absolutely. I took two or three poetry writing classes in college.  My strength is in workshopping poetry, so I really like editing.  And that's something I spend a lot of time on with my lyrics: just cutting words.  But you can get away with things in songs that you never could with poetry by shoving in a few words that just sound cool, even though they wouldn't be cool if you read them on the page.

When you were writing the new material, did you ever look back on the process of Good Morning, Magpie and reflect on what did and did not work?

Always.  You have to do that.  Some records we have more time to write than others. There's a pattern to how we make albums: we seem to make an eclectic album, then a really concise one. We're always interested in doing the things that we didn't do most recently. Good Morning, Magpie is one of our eclectic records.  I really like it, and there are some really standout tracks, but it doesn't have the start-to-finish flow that Red of Tooth and Claw has. Since we aren't writing pop songs, we can do whatever we want. Good Morning, Magpie allowed us to get our creative urges out by doing some across-the-board writing. So when I started to write this new one, I wanted a more unified sound.  There will still be peaks and valleys and songs that sound different from each other, but I really wanted to write a start-to-finish barnburner, where you listen to the whole thing every time.

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