Murder By Death: Staying Alive

Posted April 30th, 2008 by eric

Dwindling record sales of artists big and small doesn’t elicit a lot of sympathy from consumers these days. In an age when typing in your favorite artist into your favorite Bit Torrent engine is the de facto response to having to pay actual money for music, being in a band is more of a gamble than ever, particularly if you want to make any money at it. The most common complaint I hear from touring bands is that people don’t buy CD’s anymore. Bands make their money off t-shirts and specialty hoodies as opposed to the actual art form their trying to promote.

Bloomington, Indiana’s Murder By Death has certainly felt the brunt of that generational shift in both moral centeredness and music consumption. Eight years ago when the band began, burning CD’s was barely more than a novelty. Records still sold then. With countless treks across the country every which way under their collective belts, Murder By Death has watched and experienced how the art of the album has morphed into an anachronistic token of the past. Music is consumed in small doses, short attention spans, and flavors of the minute. The days when crowds knew every word to every song on your album has turned into a day when crowds only know the words to the songs you’ve posted on MySpace.

Murder By Death’s Adam Turla laments the drastic change, saying, “It’s frustrating the way iPods have changed people’s listening habits. You listen to more bands but each one a little less. And we’re not about the singles.” So, how does a band that makes very deliberately cohesive, thematic records survive in today’s market? “We tour as much as possible. It’s how we make our money. File sharing is a huge problem; the records don’t sell like they used to.” Such a quandary is doubly frustrating when making records is still very expensive. “We don’t want to put out a record that sounds like crap just to do it cheap.” So, the band hired Queens of the Stone Age engineer Trina Shoemaker to record them in the backwoods of Tennessee.

The result is Red of Tooth and Claw, the band’s fourth record and easily its most aggressive to date. It may not have the grandiose linear storyline that Murder By Death fans have come to expect after records like Who will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them? And In Bocca Al Lupo built their reputation, but it still resonates on a thematic level, digging into the seedy underbelly of life on the road. Turla explains, “Every song counts. We’re still trying to make an old-fashioned album.” The production is noticeably bigger and Turla’s voice sounds deeper and creepier than ever, the ghost of Johnny Cash lingering above every song. And the music just crackles the way you’d expect from a band that’s been in constant motion for the better part of a decade.

And since touring is the only way to stay afloat in today’s market, Murder By Death continues its seemingly endless life on the road. I asked Turla if working so hard for so long has paid off. “We appreciate every small success as it comes. The rewards aren’t obvious, but people definitely recognize our name now. And the shows are more crowded.” So, even though the band has signed to Vagrant Records- a label known for its pop punk roster, Turla still doesn’t expect the promotional machine to do all the work. “It’s so hard to tell who’s doing a good job. Our records have always sold on word of mouth. A lot of bands get promoted to death but are then forgotten immediately.”

It’s not that Murder By Death is bitter about all of its hard work. In a market that’s over-saturated, where everyone you meet seems to be in a band, you just have to work that much harder to stand out. And looking at Murder By Death’s tour schedule, it’s obvious the band is up for the challenge.

Tags: feature · interview