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As disparate as these influences are, there's one artery that runs through all of them and straight into the heart of Murder By Death: an almost thespian flair for the dramatic. Who Will Surviveplays like a stage production, with a piano-driven prelude, an eerie intermission and a frisson-inducing climax. As Schrodt explains, "The story line is about the apocalypse. At its base, the entire record is about people trying to deal with the end, the impending end that they know is there. It's not something you can write from personal experience; but you can imagine what someone would do walking around in a town seeing their loved ones dead or holed up in a house or cradling their dead children and that sort of thing." He then stops to laugh at his own morbidity. "It's dark, but it can be a powerful sort of thing."
Powerful enough, apparently, to get them signed to Eyeball Records, an indie imprint owned in part by singer Geoff Rickly of Thursday. After playing a show with the New Jersey heavy-hitters in 2001, Murder By Death was offered a record deal and a tour-support slot by Rickly, who also contributes backing vocals on Who Will Survive (along with My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and rustic balladeer William Elliot Whitmore). It seems like a weird pairing -- especially considering Thursday's over-the-top emoting and Warped Tour-friendly facade. The quality the two bands have in common, though -- a propensity for sternum-cracking catharsis -- is as subtle as it is profound.
"I think one of the most powerful aspects of music is providing a release, an escape," explains Schrodt. "I think it's a pretty beautiful thing that music can do that. We think it's important to understand that the people at our shows are going and working, like, shitty nine-to-five jobs, day in and day out, making a little bit of money, and in their free time they're taking their little bit of money to come see our dumb asses play on stage. In that sense, we owe them something as far as entertainment goes. We can say whatever we want to about who we are, but at the base of it we are entertainers. Theatrics help that, too. We're probably influenced more by film than music; ideally we would just write soundtracks for the rest of our lives."
Along with the palpable predilection for the stage, the whole flickering, phantasmagoric aura of the cinema pervades Murder By Death -- right down to the band's moniker, swiped from a brooding 1976 mystery flick by Robert Moore. Murder's first CD, released in 2002, is riddled with film references, from its name, Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing, to song titles such as "You Are the Last Dragon (You Possess the Power of the Glow)" and "I'm Afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."
"Everybody in the band likes movies a lot," explains Armstrong, who holds a bachelor's degree in film. "I think it's a pretty strong thing for all of us. We kind of talk about our music in terms of images and try to create a mood from that. When we started playing together, we knew that we wanted everything to be all airy and atmospheric."
"It's like the suspension of disbelief in movies, when things are just taken as they are," Schrodt adds. "Music can be all the more powerful when you can envelop yourself in it."
When pressed for a dream list of directors that his band would kill to work with, Armstrong doesn't hesitate for a second. "David Fincher is one of my favorite directors," he enthuses. "Seven, Fight Club He does such a great, dark, creepy thing. Dario Argento. Terry Gilliam. Tim Burton, especially, would be really fun for us to do a soundtrack for -- as long as it wasn't that cute Tim Burton stuff. We'd probably work better with something that wasn't so lovey-dovey.
"Not that we're not down with love," he backpedals. "Love is cool. We just don't write love very well."
Gotcha. After all, as spectral and intricate as its music may be, the band is still called Murder By Death, and they don't give out names like that for being all mushy and kissy-face. Not to mention, the group is currently on the road with the lacerating hardcore act Poison the Well, whose fans might not quite get Murder By Death's kaleidoscope of gloom. Still, as Schrodt points out, the dour demeanor is all part of the show.
"We play really dark, epic music," he says, "but honestly, we're anything but dark, gloomy people. It's just kind of a fun sort of release. In a lot of circumstances, pretension can work its way into things, but I think music -- and any art or anything, really -- should try to avoid pretension. We wouldn't want anyone listening to our music to say, 'Oh, these guys think they're some genius artists' or whatever. We're just some kids playing music together and having fun with it and sharing it with people."