Stream Murder by Death’s Anachronistic New Album ‘Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon’

Photo: Greg Whitaker

“We thought more people would have seen the movie,” says Murder by Death frontman Adam Turla, bemoaning the misunderstandings his band’s name has brought about. The Bloomington, Ind. outfit took its moniker from a 1976 all-star mystery spoof featuring everyone from Peter Sellers to Truman Capote, but the tongue-in-cheek tinge to the name didn’t always come through. “We were looking for something dark that wasn’t heavy,” Turla wryly explains. “I can think of times when it’s hurt us to have that as our band name … a sponsor at a show drops off … it was hard to get NPR on board … we were like, ‘There’s Godspeed You Black Emperor, the Black Heart Procession, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, there’s a lot of heavy names out there, this’ll be fine.’ But it’s a weird name, it’s pretty memorable, and once people are on board they just kind of go with it.”

To be fair, Murder by Death’s music isn’t exactly light-hearted fare. On their sixth album and first for Bloodshot Records, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the band comes off a bit like Tindersticks having a back-porch jam with the Pogues, bringing a sort of folk-rock noir feel to Turla’s dark, evocative, Edgar Allen Poe-goes-West lyricism. A key element in this process, and one that set the band apart from the pack from the beginning, is the cello of Sarah Balliett. “The thing that we have approached differently,” says Turla, “is to use it more as a lead than a layer. She plays much more aggressively than many string players that end up in a rock band. We’ll create leads based around the cello or she’ll do solos, just more rock and roll approaches to using a classical instrument. It gave us the opportunity to write songs that let the cello shine. It has a huge range, it’s the closest range to that of the human voice, so you can pair it with the vocals for a song or you can almost mimic a human quality by using the cello, there’s a lot of flexibility.”

As becomes quickly apparent upon hearing Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, Murder by Death’s music revolves around a combination of dark moods (Balliet’s mournful cello and Turla’s preternaturally deep vocals don’t hurt), highly literate storytelling sensibilities, and an anachronistic feel that stops short of steampunk but evokes everything from hymns to sea chanteys. “I’m not a very modern dude,” he admits. “I’m not very savvy with technology and whatnot. I’m into camping and rock climbing and outdoorsy stuff, and I think that just comes out in the lyrics. When I hear lyrics for pop music, I’m usually like, ‘I don’t get this.’ A lot of the [MBD] lyrics are very story-oriented. I like songs that are for deadbeats and the downtrodden, songs for people who have less but fight to get more. It’s not like summer jams,” he says in the understatement of the year, “it’s definitely songs for people who are going through hard times.”

Like any lit-rocker worth his library card, Turla is not without his bibliography, and he enthusiastically lays out “The three guys that have been really doing it for me in the last five years and influenced the writing the most. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because I love the dark magic quality of his stuff — I’ve always been attracted to impossible things that are written as true. I’ve always tried to do that in the group and when I discovered him I was like ‘Wow, this guy’s the master of that.’ And then I love Ernest Hemingway just for his celebration of food and drink and bad-assery, and John Steinbeck just has a great balance of humor with heavy content, and that’s something I try to put in a few of the songs.”

While Murder by Death’s last two albums were on big-dog indie Vagrant Records, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon found a home at roots-rock/Americana haven Bloodshot Records, known more for nurturing cult heroes like Justin Townes Earle and the Waco Brothers than targeting the Top 40, but the path less traveled is exactly where MBD is most comfortable. “Six albums in,” assesses Turla, “at this point we’re happy with the success we have, and we always say ‘As long as it doesn’t get worse, we’re thrilled.’ Every year has been better for us, though,” he adds, “and we feel really lucky about that.”

Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon is out September 25 on Bloodshot. Stream it below:

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