In January 2014, the gothic-Americana band Murder by Death played the reputedly haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, but singer-guitarist Adam Turla didn’t have any paranormal experiences. So when the quintet returned for three shows in early January 2015 — just before its seventh album, Big Dark Love, was released — Turla and company met with the Stanley’s resident paranormal experts, and shit got serious.
“We’re sitting in one of the most haunted rooms with them, and they’re telling us about the ghost that sometimes appears in that room, and then the door just slams shut,” recalls Turla. “I watched the door, completely by itself, slam shut. That’s crazy!
“It could have something to do with winds and drafts in an old building,” he admits, “but in that same room, later, our stage manager, after hearing that story, walked into the room and the lightbulb just immediately burned out. So she was alone in the dark in that room. She said, ‘I’m a cool-headed lady, but that scared the shit out of me.’”
When speaking with Turla in advance of Murder by Death’s three January shows at the Stanley, I shared my own brush with the paranormal from the audience perspective: When my partner, Irene, and I attended one of last year’s shows, we heard a strange voice a few steps outside the Stanley. Even stranger, after the group’s set had ended, we realized that bassist Matt Armstrong’s pick was in Irene’s coat pocket. The coat had been lying at her feet during the show.
Beyond the supernatural, Murder by Death’s now-annual residency at the Stanley is a truly distinctive concert event — a chance to hang out with the band in the bar of the hotel that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining, after hearing Turla sing lines like “Spirits are restless/Can’t you hear them yell?” in a place where spirits are believed to reside. Turla says that such site-specific experiences are the reason that the Indiana-bred act has booked destination concerts such as the ones at the Stanley and others in a cave in Kentucky and in a Hollywood ghost-town saloon in the California desert.
“When we started this band, we talked about doing a lot of concept shows and non-traditional concerts, because being a band that’s a little weirder, that doesn’t have an automatic genre to fit into, we wanted to do something a little bit different than be a club band,” he explains. “Our aspirations were not to sell out Madison Square Garden or anything — that stuff’s never entered our minds. We celebrate the weird and the different, so the associations that people make with these shows and these places, it all kind of clicks.”
“You start to realize the opportunity for culture beyond ‘I went to a bar and saw a band,’” Turla continues. “These events link people’s lives. We get people’s imaginations stirred up a little bit. “
Murder by Death’s music is indie rock with a wicked Tim Burton edge and a smidgen of haunted antique Western rumble. Not every underground band with a cello and a macabre, deep-voiced frontman would fit as well at the Stanley, but Turla’s romantic tales of drinking, dreaming and the devil seem to raise the perfect kind of hell, one in which Jack is never a dull boy.
“I think it’s just the nature of what we’re trying to do, which is create this spooky but sing-along angle,” says Turla. “And it’s important, for instance, when you play a haunted hotel, to realize the lyrics that sort of got you to the show. I’ve read about paranormal stuff my whole life as a fun hobby, and here I am at this place that’s known for it, and I’ve created a party there, and how cool is that? Part of it is that it’s just fun for me to be in the song, doing my job, but then suddenly realize where everything came together and got me to this moment.”
Lately, Murder by Death has made an admirable habit of letting fans dictate where they want the band’s career to go. Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the quintet’s 2012 breakthrough album, was funded in part by more than $180,000 raised on Kickstarter, and Big Dark Love had a Kickstarter pre-sale of $278,000. What’s more, last month Murder by Death released As You Wish Vol. 2, the second in a series of diverse cover albums full of songs picked by fans. With such a close connection to its biggest fans, it’s not surprising that Turla initially had some reservations about doing destination concerts.
“There was this worry,” he remembers. “We’re putting all the people who like us the most in one place. Could that be a problem? We didn’t think it would be so easy. There are some nights when you feel more famous than other nights, and I feel like the more famous you get, the worse it is. I don’t want to be a famous person; I want to be able to just hang out. And it turns out that in our case, people are just being cool. These are people who know your music and want to participate. It’s a party, and we’re the house band. I’ve had all sorts of great conversations as a result.”
So far, neither Jack Nicholson nor Stephen King have shown up to any of the Murder by Death gigs at the Stanley Hotel. Not even Shelley Duvall. But the band, notes Turla, probably shows up with more energy and intention at the Stanley than at any other venue.
“It’s a way longer set than you’re normally gonna get. We’re practicing, like, 55 songs to have ready,” he says. “We thought it would be fun to pick some songs that kind of fell by the wayside. There’s gonna be some obscure stuff coming out of the woodwork, and this is the right audience to realize that’s happening. It’ll be fun. The three nights should be distinctly different. There’s not a show that I think about the setlist for more than the Stanley every year.”
Turla says that when Murder by Death played the Stanley two years ago, he drank so much whiskey that not only was he unable to tap into the legendary paranormal activity at the hotel, but “there could have been an earthquake and I wouldn’t have known it.” Now he’s got a new plan.
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“I have more fun if I just really pace myself there, because there are so many people to meet and there’s so much going on. [Last year] I got kind of wrecked the first night, and then I thought, ‘You know what? This is a cool thing. I wanna be awake.’ And this time we’re doing a full-on ghost hunt with the paranormal investigator, with gear and everything. They’re gonna entertain the hell out of us.”
Murder by Death, Friday, January 15, through Sunday, January 17, 7:30 p.m., $50, 21+, Stanley Hotel, 333 East Wonderview Avenue, Estes Park, 970-577-4000.
Murder By Death will return to the Denver area to play the Fox Theatre in Boulder on March 29.