Murder by Death's Adam Turla Has Enough on His Plate

Murder by Death plays Denver and Fort Collins September 20 and 21.
Murder by Death plays Denver and Fort Collins September 20 and 21. Murder by Death
Songwriter Adam Turla, who sings and plays guitar in the gothic-Americana band Murder by Death, has been busy. And not just with music.

Turla just celebrated the one-year anniversary of Pizza Lupo, the Louisville, Kentucky, restaurant that he owns and operates with his wife and bandmate, cellist Sarah Balliet.

“It’s been total insanity,” says the multitasking Turla, speaking by phone just before leaving Kentucky for rehearsals in Denver and the beginning of Murder by Death’s latest cross-country tour, which hits the Ogden Theatre on Thursday and Washington’s in Fort Collins on Friday in support of the group’s new album, The Other Shore.

Turla says running Pizza Lupo “really requires a different set of skills than the band. Everyone you talk to who’s had a restaurant is like, ‘The first year you own a restaurant is the worst year of your life.’ There’s so much negativity that surrounds it.

“With the band,” he says, “obviously you have to write songs. But you just have to show up and perform and be sensitive to people and why they like your band and just deliver the best you can. But the restaurant...people just bring so much of themselves to the restaurant. You never know what you’re gonna get when people walk in the door. They’re not fans when they walk in the door, like at a concert.”

A good number of Murder by Death’s devoted fans have made the pilgrimage to Kentucky to check out Pizza Lupo. Surprisingly, though, Turla says the average customer has no idea that the joint is owned and operated by a world-famous rock band.

“We just did a little listening party at Lupo that was for the new record, and we made like a hundred pizzas and basically kept feeding people and had Murder by Death-themed cocktails. Usually you would never know the restaurant had anything to do with the band, because it’s more ‘what it is,’ which is a Neapolitan pizza place focused on modern Italian versus a red-tablecloth place, but it was fun to do a little Murder by Death event there. It was cool to do it after we’d been open for a year and had a little perspective.”

Along with bringing fine Italian cuisine to Kentucky, Murder by Death — originally from Bloomington, Indiana — almost single-handedly pioneered the idea of rock concerts at the reputedly haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. Five years ago, the act’s very-much-experimental first-annual run of shows at the Stanley led to acts including Los Lobos and the Widow’s Bane playing the hotel in recent years.

This past January saw the wildly popular tradition of Murder by Death at the Stanley expand to a five-gig residency. While no 2019 Stanley run has been announced yet, Turla sees no need for fans to worry.
“At this point, it’d just be crazy to not do it,” he says. “It’s such a fun event. It’s just fun — that’s all there is to it. It’s a really cool, interesting thing that we do, and it’s not a chore. I don’t see any reason why we would stop doing it. We’ve done eighteen shows there now, which is kinda crazy.”

Along with celebrating five years at the Stanley and one at Pizza Lupo, this year also found Murder by Death releasing its eighth LP. Fan-funded on Kickstarter to the tune of a mind-boggling $320,000, The Other Shore is a concept album about two people, one of whom chooses to leave a decaying Earth alone on a spaceship while the other deals with the unfortunate decision to stay behind. According to Turla, the writing process was entwined with the pressure of opening Pizza Lupo.

click to enlarge Murder by Death is enjoying a slice of success. - BRANDON MARSHALL
Murder by Death is enjoying a slice of success.
Brandon Marshall
“When I was writing this record, I was, like, in the shit. The building we were working on is pre-Civil War, and I was in there every day gutting the building, exhausted, and just discovering new problems and managing people. It was a huge undertaking, just very stressful in general, hoping people were gonna like it when it was done, and I felt very in touch with this sort of fantasy escape idea, just the sense of fear and dread. I tried to work the feelings I was having into a more fantastical setting.”

The ambitious work is Murder by Death’s third concept album and traverses dark, grandiose Americana; hopeful, melodic indie rock; and rolling Springsteen-esque anthems that wouldn’t be out of place on an Arcade Fire record. Although the band has a new bassist, Denver’s Tyler Morse, Turla says the nearly twenty-year bond the members of Murder by Death have forged has helped his songwriting process hum like a well-tuned engine.

“We called it ‘dream hammer,’” Turla explains with pride. “I would present multiple songs and basically say, ‘Is this song gonna make the record?’ We had a ton of songs and did not have the time to write twenty fully fleshed-out songs for the band and then pick. So I was like, ‘I have 25 songs I can play you here, and I just want you to tell me if you think these are gonna fit.’ It got easier as it went on, because the story started to emerge, but part of the process was being willing to take criticism and let go.

“There were songs that just weren’t popular enough with the group, and I trusted them on that,” he continues. “I would be like, ‘Oh, God, I thought I had the songs I needed,’ and then the next day I would write a song. Some of the best songs on the record came about because I was panicking and would just sit there all day and rack my brain and keep writing. The criticism was a welcome part of the process.”

Especially after two decades together, that kind of productive openness and honesty — Turla’s bandmates would literally say “You can do better” and then witness him do so — is rare in any relationship.

“I think, honestly, it’s a sign that we’re functioning well right now, and it’s a positive environment. It rings true. We were getting along really well during the writing process, having fun. It was one step at a time and ended up working really well. At some point, this is our job. It’s our workplace. We want to have a positive work environment. It’s really that simple. It’s cool to have that positivity as part of our life. Everybody is just jelling right now; it’s feeling good.”

Turla notes that the Denver area has become a “home away from home,” and it’s no wonder the Midwestern band’s songs so often seem to be set in the untamed West. Along with five consecutive years playing the Stanley, Murder by Death also played Red Rocks earlier this year, and Turla estimates the group has come through the area thirty times since it started touring.

“Something about when I first started writing songs a long time ago, I just wasn’t hearing anybody centering their songs there, and it just clicked in my brain. And it’s funny, because I’ve come to identify more and more as I get older with that area. And we’re practically a local band at this point. We’re there for the Stanley every year, and then we’re also there doing a lot of our rehearsals, because our bass player’s out of there. It’s a great city to have as your second home, because it happens to be one of those places that I could see living in at some point. But I don’t know what’s gonna get me to move again. I’ve got enough on my plate.”

Murder by Death
8 p.m. Thursday, September 20, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $25, 8 p.m.
Friday, September 21, Washington’s, 132 LaPorte Avenue, Fort Collins, $25.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry