“We never dreamed that this would be a lifetime career,” Murder by Death singer-songwriter Adam Turla says, reflecting on the gothic-Americana band’s twentieth anniversary. "We just thought we were little artists doing our weird counterculture."
Turla formed Murder by Death as a teenager in Indiana and now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he and Murder by Death cellist Sarah Balliet, who is also his wife, own and operate an Italian restaurant called Lupo, named after one of the group’s albums. To call Murder by Death “indie” would be a gigantic understatement, as the cult success never even booked a hotel room until it had played almost 500 shows, sleeping on floors and in a tour van for years.
“Our whole thing was, ‘Get in front of people, make them notice you, and hopefully they’ll come out next time,’” Turla told me recently, while Murder by Death was in Colorado for its annual Stanley Hotel residency. “When we played our first Colorado shows in 2002, maybe one or two people knew who we were. That’s the old-school way of touring…in the back of a record shop, or in a tattoo shop where they cleared away all the tables, or in a pizza shop, or you show up and they say, ‘We don’t have you listed on the bill,’ and you’re like, ‘Fuck!’”
On its first tours, Murder by Death played anywhere an audience would show up, including a park shelter and even a boxing ring. In recent years, the band has returned to Colorado — where its earliest shows were at tiny venues like Club 156 in Boulder and the now-defunct DIY space Monkey Mania in Denver — to play Red Rocks, Riot Fest, its annual Stanley Hotel gigs. This week, Murder by Death will play Thursday at Washington’s in Fort Collins and on Friday at the Ogden Theatre in Denver.
For this tour, a cross-country celebration of Murder by Death’s twentieth year together, Turla and company created a fan-sourced magazine of photos and stories and rehearsed over seventy songs, including material from its raw, wild and punky 2002 debut, Like the Exorcist, But More Breakdancing. Turla admits that Murder by Death has come a long way with its songwriting and musicianship — and the production quality of its records — since the early days, but he still loves the old material, warts and all.
“It was what it was, and those first two albums made us who we are, and we won all our fans with those albums. It’s interesting to go back and say, ‘Wow, the approach to writing this was so modest and un-ambitious.’ We were only thinking about the music, which is really cool. Being sort of an outsider band, we’ve just never had motivation other than let’s just try to write something special.”
At the first of its five Stanley Hotel shows in January, Murder by Death began the night with “Those Who Stayed,” the first song from its first album. With several bandmembers who joined the group well after Like the Exorcist was released and two decades of playing music under its belt, the band made the early material come alive, which prompts the question: Is re-recording some of the old Murder by Death songs a possibility?
“I’ve had some people say that,” Turla explains, “but I don’t think doing some sort of revisionist thing is necessary, because the way that people can get familiar with those songs now is exactly on tours like this. There’s stuff that I think, ‘With more knowledge, we could’ve done this better,’ but I am proud of it, and I always think of it as, ‘That’s how we got where we are, that bunch of teenagers writing all this weird stuff.’”
By the time Turla was 25, Murder by Death had already released three albums and a couple of EPs. The bandmembers were at the age when most musicians start touring, and the band itself was at the age when many break up.
“We had played something like 700 shows with Murder by Death [by then]," Turla says. “We were honing our skills as young people, just in basements and DIY spaces, and it was hugely formative — and I don’t think I would’ve been able to be that poor for that long, and work that hard, and be on the road for three-quarters of the year for years in a row as an adult. I can’t imagine starting this band later, unless we blew up right off the bat. I don’t know what would’ve happened if we weren’t so young.”
One of Murder by Death’s most beloved and recognizable songs, “Brother,” was released fourteen years ago, and the opening line Turla sings is, “Fourteen years have passed since that day.”
“It’s funny to me that 2020, which we’re already celebrating in a sort of nostalgic way, is actually fourteen years since that song was introduced to the world,” Turla says. “So it’s funny to think that when I’m singing that song on stage, I’m actually within a meta timeline of the album, reflecting back on the song. Suddenly it all falls into place, and it actually lines up.”
It took a long time for the group's vision and talent to line up with the quality of its records, like 2012’s renowned Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the band’s biggest commercial hit. Glancing at the massive list of concerts that Murder by Death has played in the past twenty years, it’s incredible to see how many bands and venues the group has outlived. Still, Turla says he enjoys the odd old-school Murder by Death gig — like the raucous, sweaty August 2019 show at a basement bar in LoDo where bassist Tyler Morse used to work — even if it entails reliving the days when fans were literally breathing down Turla's neck.
“Yeah, it’s like the experience is all in there,” Turla says. “We’re playing the Ogden, and that’s the sort of stuff that keeps you going as a band and pays the bills, creates your profile and gets you in front of new people, but we also play markets we don’t do all that well in. We just played Australia, and there were only fifty to seventy people for some of those shows. It felt like it was back in the day, when we earned our fans from getting in front of other people’s fans and just being like, ‘Let’s fucking blow them away; let’s show them some cool shit.’ That’s something that I kind of miss.”
Because of Murder by Death’s seven years of playing its darkly cinematic and captivating music at the Stanley Hotel, Turla is a star of sorts in Estes Park, recognizable and honored not just because of the notoriously good annual shows, but also because of the growth that the band — which was the first to ever stage a rock concert at the 110-year-old, reputedly haunted Stanley — has brought to the hotel and the community in general.
“I’ve met people from the [Estes Park] city council and just locals, people walking around town who recognize me, and they’ll just talk to me about the shows. It’s kinda interesting, because I’m just some dude, and it’s kinda funny to walk around and be a part of something. Obviously, you hope that when you become a musician and you do creative work, you hope that you have a positive influence on people, but I never in a million years thought that it would have such a positive effect on that little city. It’s great.”
The fact that concerts at the Stanley are now a regular thing is good news to Turla, who is known to hang out with fans in the Stanley’s bar after every Murder by Death show there.
“We try to quantify, like, what is it about this event that’s just so perfect for our band? We’re still putting our finger on it, but it just feels right, and that’s the thing: I know other bands do shows there, and it’s probably fun, but I’d be interested to find the band that fits as well as we do. It’s just very natural for us, and the fans being so interested and wanting to come back every year makes a good case for that.”
Hanging out with fans until the Stanley’s whiskey bar closes is something Turla certainly doesn’t have to do and most other well-known artists would not do, but he says Murder by Death’s upbringing in DIY scenes all over the country made it natural.
“It’s always just been part of our experience with music to not elevate ourselves,” Turla says. "I think that as we become more successful and more known, I think it’s a good thing, because you remove any fetishization of yourself. It’s just, like, ‘I’m right here; you can talk to me; I’m standing here all night.’ It removes an element of elevation that some artists actually thrive off of but I think is nuts.
“I also think that we just don’t want to be that person; we don’t want to be an icon or something," he adds. "That sounds really hard. That doesn’t sound very fun. We try to let the art be the content and let that do the talking. I get at least one message a day from somebody who tells me how the music changed their life, and that’s the greatest validation you can have — that there’s meaning to it.”
Murder by Death plays with Slim Cessna's Auto Club at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at Washington's, 132 Laporte Avenue in Fort Collins. Tickets are $25 to $30 and available at washingtonsfoco.com.
The band also plays with Amigo the Devil at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 6, at the Ogden Theatre, 835 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $25.75 to $30 and available at ogdentheatre.com.