Odd Band Out
We don't have tattoos on our necks. We don't write songs about feelings and stuff. And we certainly don't scream enough. We're probably going to get eaten alive."
Matt Armstrong, bassist for the Bloomington, Indiana, quintet Murder By Death, is scared shitless. It's two years ago, and his band is in the midst of its first tour of the hardcore stronghold known as the East Coast. "We played these shows that were just hardcore band, hardcore band, us and then six more hardcore bands," he remembers. "We were kind of the odd duck of the batch. It made me nervous as hell. I was thinking, ŒDude, people are going to kill us with knives.'"
Armstrong's group is not quite what you'd call hardcore. Although the majority of today's more pugnacious punk-metal-emo acts invariably have the words "blood," "bleed," "bled," "die," "dying" or "death" in their names, that's not enough to push Murder By Death into the same category. Piano, cello and spooky crooning don't help, either. In fact, Murder By Death is more Black Heart Procession than Black Flag, more Pleasure Forever than Victim in Pain. The outfit's new album, Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?, is a dark rock opera, a spidery song cycle detailing an infernal cataclysm that has fallen over a small Western town. Stylistically, it's dizzying: Lynchings, whiskey and the Devil are all stars of the story, a sour mash of magic realism and near-vaudevillian theatricality; the music sounds like Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" swinging neck and neck with Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song." Not exactly anyone's first choice for a mosh-pit soundtrack.
"Most of the touring we've done has been in these kind of hardcore circuits, but we've never dealt with a really hostile audience. We've been lucky that way," says drummer Alex Schrodt. "A few months ago, we did a short tour with this Italian goth-metal band called Lacuna Coil, which was ridiculously fun. I was the only drummer that week without a drum cage. There were no rock-and-roll kids or anything at these shows; it was just metal dudes with metal hair playing air guitar through your set. We were not really their cup of tea. But they were very receptive people. Since we don't specifically fit into any sort of genre, we can be flexible with the shows we play. We feel lucky that we can bounce around like that."
Almost every young band nowadays brags about how its music transcends scenes and genres. Most are totally full of shit. Murder By Death, however, might just have the brains -- not to mention the songs -- to back up such a statement. Formed in 2000 by Schrodt, Armstrong, cellist Sarah Balliet, keyboardist Vincent Edwards and singer/guitarist Adam Turla, the group coalesced in Bloomington's eclectic college-music scene. The home of Indiana University, whose highly regarded music school draws talented kids from all over the country, Bloomington also houses a bounty of amazing and unique underground rock acts, from John Wilkes Booze and the Panoply Academy to Racebannon and British expatriate Scout Niblett. Something about Bloomington just seems to breed originality. Original, that is, except for the suspicious fact that both Racebannon and Murder By Death recently released concept albums with Lucifer himself as the protagonist.
"Best album title, ever," declares Armstrong, referring to Racebannon's new record, Satan's Kicking Yr Dick In. "But it's really just a freaky coincidence. And as far as Satan being a theme in both our albums, where would rock and roll be without the Dark Lord? Why do people throw up the rock horns at a show? They're giving props to the goat. Plus, their story is a little more complicated and out there than ours. Our angle is: There are people hanging from trees. Let's go drink some whiskey."
Regardless of the Mephistophelian intoxicants swimming in Bloomington's water supply, Schrodt insists his hometown scene is a healthy one. "Bloomington is a good scene in the sense that it creates a place where people can just do the kind of music they want to do," he comments. "Really, we're all drastically different bands. Even our musical backgrounds within the band are very different. Sarah, Adam and Vincent have all had some kind of either jazz or classical training, whereas Matt and I are just self-taught rock-and-roll kids.
"The music school apparently sucks the soul out of it for a lot of people," Armstrong continues. "It's almost like a Nazi Germany kind of thing: 'You will practice, and you will not have fun!' A lot of people start punk bands in reaction to that. Also, there's not a whole lot to do in Bloomington except get drunk, so you might as well start a band with your friends and get free beer."
After a few initial practices, Murder By Death -- then called Little Joe Gould after the crackpot Greenwich Village bohemian immortalized by e.e. cummings -- settled on a sound that would inhabit the small patch of land where all five members' tastes overlapped. "Honestly, there's only a few bands we all agree on," admits Schrodt. "Let me see if I can remember them: Prince, Iron Maiden, Tom Waits, the Cure, David Bowie. Oh, and I guess the new band we all agree on is the Darkness."
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 Survive plays 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."
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