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Murder by Death's "Spring Break 1899"

Adam Turla on change, authenticity and taking voice lessons



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Perhaps the canny title conveys a note of regret at a life too long spent in frivolous pursuit. But the idea of a new day fuels the track itself, opening with frontman Adam Turla suggesting he can feel the sun coming up from the warmth on his face. "That isn't the blood," he sings. The organ pounds out a waltzing rhythm and the guitar simmers low in the mix, as Turla surveys the wreckage of surrounding blood, vomit and piss. An empty bourbon bottle lies near his head, and he wonders, "Did I kill anybody?/ Hell I never fight fair/ What state am I in?/ Am I still on the run?"

This lost sense turns into searching in the chorus. The guilt and shame have bubbled to the surface, overthrowing the instincts that tell him to run. A trilling cello lingers like a haunting spirit, as Turla recounts the last night's escapades at a hotel bar, where he met girls "who all know me by name/ They all drink the same drinks, and they all fuck the same." Ready to follow one out the door, he surveys her for a hint of her true intentions: "The kindness of a stranger/ or a trick of the trade?/ God knows I'm not the first mistake that she's made."

The final verse completes this tale of barrel-bottom redemption. The arrangement grows into a storm, and, amidst the sawing cello and churning drums, Turla promises to start anew: "I'll do all the good that I can." The cello feels weighty and forlorn as it leads the way through the outro, lightly clashing with the jangling drone of low-in-the-mix guitar, like an elegy to a life almost lost.

Appropriately, we spoke to Turla while he was on his way to New Orleans.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: I know there's a story behind the album Red of Tooth and Claw. What's the theme or idea behind it?

ADAM TURLA: It's an album about revenge and sort of travel. The idea is that you have an antihero character who is trying to make it home, and encountering all these obstacles along the way—sort of beset by angry gods, all sorts of weird shit going on. He's basically trying to get home to his wife. The main idea is that the main character is not a good person. He's a real dirtbag and he starts to realize that along the way. It's sort of a story of him figuring out what he is like, and what he wants to be.

How does the final song, "Spring Break 1899," fit in with that?

It's sort of the pivotal moment when in the preceding song he goes home and finds his wife has been unfaithful. He is sort of looming over her bed, ready to kill her, and he decides at the last moment not to. As he's walking out the door, her beau comes in and stabs him. So the last song, "Spring Break 1899," he wakes up, stabbed, shitfaced and hung over. He's just kind of feeling like a sack of shit. Then he basically decides I've had enough of this lifestyle, I'm going to turn it around and do all the good that I can. So it's kind of this pathetic character, and just how sad his life is and how much he wants to turn it around.

Is there any kernel in it for you? Was there ever a point of realization that you needed to make a change?

I think everyone realizes things about themselves, in at least small ways, that they should work on.

There's a wild west feeling to the song. Do you feel our needs and carnal desires have changed that much in 100 years?

No, I don't think that ever changes. It's just a question of how society reacts to those things. It's just what becomes the social norm: Is it more acceptable or is it more forbidden? Those are just things that come and go and change, moreso than people.

What are you thoughts on evil? Can it infect a heart?

I don't think it's an outside force. I in no way think there's a dude sitting behind a desk with the pointy beard who is trying to get you to do evil shit. That's just a symbolic idea. I think that everyone simply has the potential to make choices better than other people, and that's where it begins. When you act selfishly, that's evil.

One of my favorite lines is "Was it kindness of a stranger/ or a trick of the trade?" I guess part of what makes that fascinating for me is the idea that what is inauthentic is kind of hard to tell sometimes. What are your thoughts?

It depends on what we're talking about. In that story, it's more a matter of is this person being nice to me because they want something. But, yeah, authenticity is kind of a fake word. I hear in the music world people always search for something authentic, but you actually hear about where famous people grew up, or they grew up rich, but they sing about being poor. It's rarely true. The songs are really similar to the personality with famous people...

Last night, someone was talking shit about this indie band kind of character that's gotten really successful, and how he claims all the time that he like squatted for several years. But, no, he went to art school, and everything was paid for by his parents apparently. So you hear stories like that all the time where someone sells an idea of authenticity in order to make themselves more successful, but in reality, they're just marketing themselves. But then so many greats have done that just try to create authenticity in order to create their own success.

Is it always a bad thing? Gillian Welch is from California. She knows little about the rustic south in a literal sense and she affects a Southern twang, but it does add to the feel of honesty in the music she plays.

Sure, sometimes people are bored with their own lives, and in order to say something they think is real, have to step outside their lives maybe, and start from there. Because, frankly, I don't want to hear songs about people checking their MySpace page. I don't want to hear songs on the radio about what people are actually doing with their lives. I'm attracted more to people who have an interest in fantasy or people who have an interesting life they write about, or some active imagination, which can be very entertaining. I guess I'm not really interested in hearing what most musicians have to say about their lives. I don't want to hear another break up song, you know, unless it's a really good one.

What is with the song's coda? It ends and there's another 15-20 second musical interlude.

This album is like sort of a prequel to our [2003] album, Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them. When I started writing this album, I realized that there were some similarities in themes and essential character. So I started to write it from the perspective of being about a particular character from the album who will survive. So that intro you can actually sync it up—if you have two CD players —with our album Who Will Survive, and play them and they will play a full little song. It's kind of one of those obscure things. We didn't leave many hints, and we just wanted to see if anyone would find out, and enough people did. If someone asks, we'll tell them. It was kind of fun. It's supposed to be entertaining.

Tell me a little about he recording of the album, and the approach, how did this differ from the last one?

This one we wrote it in a sort of loft of a barn in Bloomington, Ind., where we live. We just set up an air conditioner and a bunch of power with this 100 ft. power extension that we ran from our drummer Dagan's [Thogerson] house. We plugged in all the stuff and just rehearsed every day in the afternoon and wrote the whole album so we were completely prepared.

Then we went into the studio, and we tracked it very quickly. We basically tracked it live in two or three takes for every song. We did bass/guitar and drums all together. Then I would go in and do three passes at the vocals, and cellist Sarah Balliet would do three passes at the cello. We spent a lot of time making sure everything sounded good so that all we had to do was just perform it as well as possible. We rehearsed so much that it ended up coming out really clean and just a good performance. There are very few overdubs, sometimes not any. It's really basically our attempt at making a really clean-cut rock record.

I really like it because we're such a live act. We're on tour all the time. So I like being able to put out a record that sounds a lot like a live performance. That's my preference. I don't know what we're going to do next, but we'll find out. We're not even thinking about the next record yet.

Your voice is deeper and more assured than on earlier albums. How did this come about?

It's as simple as that. I went to take some voice lessons, and [my teacher] told me, "Why do you keep trying to sing high? your voice is low." And I said, "Oh. Shit." So then, I basically just worked on it a bit, and in the end, over the years, it's just improved and improved, which I'm very pleased about. I feel like I have much more control than I ever did, and that I'm a much better singer than I was years ago. That's just been very refreshing and I'm happy with the improvement.

I'm lucky that I have a little bit of range. My favorite singers are those that have that ability, like Eric Burdon is probably my favorite singer. He has this very low baritone singing, it's very low, but he's also able to wail. My favorite song that we've done is on our new album: "Coming Home." I get to sing the lowest I've ever sang on a recording to date, and then I also get to wail by the end of it. It's a riot.

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