Leave Some Mystery; An interview with Murder By Death's Adam Turla

For eight albums, Murder By Death has remained one of the most exciting and dynamic roots-driven rock acts. Their latest album, The Other Shore is a great example of how the band can take their far-reaching ambitions but ground them by never taking an eye off of the songs that tell the story. A space rock opera, the album centers on two lovers facing a ravaged and dying Earth. One chooses to stay and the other chooses to set off into outer space in search of new hopes. The concept may be far far away, but the songs are intimate and familiar.
Ghettoblaster: It’s a longshot, but did you ever see The Onion’s article about Bruce Springsteen’s “Sci-Fi Concept Album About Struggles Of Poor Miners Working On Mars”? I remember reading it and wishing it was real.
Adam Turla: Yes, I saw that! I immediately thought of Schwarzenegger yelling, “Cohagen, give the people air!”

GB: What made you want to do a sci fi concept album? Do you remember when you first considered it?
AT: I actually started writing a Bowie-style glam rock opera when I was 16, and it’s been a bit of a fun thing I have checked in on over the years. When I started writing the songs for The Other Shore, I kept trying with the idea of reviving the old glam project, but then realized Murder By Death was a great vehicle to put a new spin on the world of the opera style. Setting it in theMurder By Death universe opened up some doors and made the style more unique.

GB: Where did you find yourself taking inspiration from? Do you read or watch much sci fi?
AT: As a kid I read a lot of fantasy, then as a college student and adult I got into magical realism. In the last ten years sci fi and also comics have been a new discovery for me, and I think those mediums have been a fun departure that help me think about my writing in a different way.  

GB: I was wondering how you approach making a concept album. You’ve mentioned that the idea for The Other Shore came together when you noticed a thread in some of your early thoughts on songs – once you had those thoughts though, how did you piece them together into a narrative?
AT: This is my favorite part of writing an album that has a theme or a concept. Basically I start to storyboard where we think the narrative of the album is going. I start to see what parts are missing and what parts of the story are being explained thoroughly. Once I’ve got about a third of an album ready, commonalities in the lyrics and threads emerge that and then I can push forward. As I continue to write songs, I try to eliminate redundancies and figure out what’s at the core of the story that is emerging.

By the time I present the songs to the band, I may have my favorite songs, but I really try to figure out what songs the band members respond to and move forward from there. I want to make sure that this whole thing isn’t just in my head but also resonates with the people creating the music with me. We start to discuss the story as a group, then try to figure out how we can make the narrative both fulfilling and subtle. Too much telling the audience what’s happening tends to make a really dumb product, so we try to leave some mystery and interpretation for the listener, who’s basically the final contributor to the story.
GB: Do you think about the differences of how a listener follows a story as opposed to how a reader or viewer might? The advantages and disadvantages you have in a story without the visual elements but with sound.
AT: Yes, as I said above I think it’s a huge part of it. They’re only giving so much information. A lot is left up to them to decide what they think is happening and how they should feel, but the tone of the music should be a clue. Sometimes though I think disorientation really adds to the quality of the art, so we’ll set some really brutal or sad lyrics to a very upbeat or fun melody, and do reversals so as to create confusion or ambiguity. One of my favorite things that can happen with a listener is when they find a subtle reference or discover something that could be happening in the story that I didn’t notice but makes total sense.

GB: Is there any story to the album art that Mara Battiste did?
AT: Mara had sent us these images before we even started writing the album, and the second we saw them we said that’s going to be our next album cover. I think it actually influenced the writing of the album, knowing what the visual vibe would be before I even started writing the songs.

GB: If you given the chance do you have actors or a director that you’d like to see adapt The Other Shore?
AT: Well, I can say that the book that most influenced this album is probably Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, but that has spawned two movies that don’t really make me feel like the book does. I think this story has a bit of a tragicomedy element, so it have to be somebody who can balance both total sadness and isolation with a small sense of humor. I of course don’t expect anybody to adapt it, but somebody like Jeunet would make something incredible with this album as an outline.

GB: You’ve mentioned having written a lot more songs for The Other Shore then you ended up using, do you think there’s any chance you’d do a companion album?
AT: I really don’t know. I think the editing process is one of the most important parts of writing. If this album became really important to a lot of people I might consider it just so they could see the process, but I think sometimes you just need to let something go in order for something else to flourish.

GB: Do you have any big, out there ambitions for the band? Maybe not something that’s not exactly planned but something in the back of your head that you think would be fun to try and tackle?
AT: Yes, I always have ideas that will be cool experiences for band and our fans. It might be fun to do something outside the Murder By Death universe, like when in 2003 I played lead guitar in a weekend production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’d love to do something like that again if I can find the time. I still have the original crazy concept that I thought of when the band first started, for a series of concept shows, that I can’t reveal in case somebody steals the idea! We do have some cool shows planned for this summer though.

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Photo: Tall James Photography