Darkness, whiskey and the devil

Murder by Death visit Southgate House Revival

By Zach Rogers

Photo: Murder By Death will perfom at the Southgate House Revival Feb. 21; photo credit: Greg Whitaker

After more than a decade together, it can be difficult for any band to still function as an operational unit. Some succeed while many fail, and for Murder by Death failing has never been an option. With their roots in Bloomington, Ind., Murder by Death have come a long way while still managing to keep their feet close to the ground. With a new album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, released last September, the band proved they still had much more ground to cover in their own dark, folky, alt-country kind of way. And now, with a slew of tour dates lined up throughout February and March, Murder by Death is back out on the road again. I recently caught up with MBD bassist Matt Armstrong, who gave me more insight into the working order of this veteran band.

First, tell me about the formation of the band. How did you all meet?

We’ve been a band since 2000. In college, Adam Turla (lead vocalist/guitarist) and I lived in the same dorm with two other guys, Vincent Edwards and Alex Schrodt, who aren’t with us anymore. We ended up going to the same parties and realized we had a few common interests, so we decided to start a band. We wanted strings to be a big part of the band’s sound, so a friend introduced us to Sarah Balliet (cellist/keyboardist). We hit it off and from there the band was born. Ultimately, I think we wanted to play music that we would listen to. The whole pop-punk thing was dominating the market around that time, and we didn’t have much interest in playing any of that. Nothing against it, mind you. We just had a different vision for what we wanted to do and set out to create that vision. – Matt Armstrong

How would you describe the band’s sound?

We like to think of it as dark and dramatic but with a sense of humor. For me, it’s hard to nail down because we’re always trying out new sounds and experimenting in different ways. – MA

Who are some influences that creep into the band’s music?

It’s different for everyone in the band, and I think the overlap is what gives us our sound. We all agree on stuff like The Cure, Prince, Iron Maiden, Tom Waits … stuff everyone should like! Personally, I like Mogwai, The Jesus Lizard, Nick Cave/Grinderman, Swans, Queens of the Stone Age, just to name a few. We don’t really sound like any of those bands, but I love them all. In a perfect world, I would like to think of us as “The Bad Seeds of the Stone Age” because those two bands are so unique and have that “anything goes” kind of attitude which we definitely draw from. – MA

The band’s latest album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, was released last September. What was the experience like recording the LP?

It was a blast. We recorded it with John Congleton in Dallas and it took about three to four weeks to complete. John is a trip. He’s really smart and talented, and helped guide us along the way. For this one, I did a bunch of drone/noise loops for texture. We wanted to make this album sound really moody and some of the songs are super-dense and some are really sparse. Our friend Samantha Crain came and did backup vocals on a few tracks, and Thor Harris from the band Swans came in and added some dulcimers, noise boxes, bells and all kinds of weird clacks and clangs. It was awesome! – MA

The band is currently out on tour. Does it ever get tiring, especially after doing it for so long?

I love touring. Sometimes it can get tiring, but once you take a step back and remember that your job is to rock out and drink for free with your best friends, it’s really not so bad. – MA

What does the band do for fun while on the road in between gigs? 

We try to plan our days off so that we can relax and not get too burned out. If there’s a cool natural wonder nearby we always try to hit those up. We’ve been lucky enough to see the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Niagara Falls – all kinds of cool stuff. Sometimes, fans will contact us and invite us to go check out different places in their city, so we’ll go to restaurants, bars, tattoo shops, anything out and about on the town. This summer we even had some fans get us into Disneyland. We’re always up for weird adventures! – MA

Which album are you most proud of as a band? 

They’ve all been fun and unique experiences, and it’s hard to really look back and compare them to one another. A friend once told me that making albums is like getting tattoos. Your newest one should be your favorite, and if it’s not then you’re just wasting your time. I like that. – MA

Murder by Death will perform on Thursday, Feb. 21 at the Southgate House Revival – Sanctuary, 111 E. Sixth St., in Newport, Ky. Also on the bill are Man Man and Damion Suomi. Tickets are $15 in advance and $17 at the door for all ages. Doors open at 8 p.m. For more information visit murderbydeath.com. 

ReachDCP freelance writer Zach Rogers at ZachRogers@daytoncitypaper.com

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