Murder By Death’s Adam Turla on the one year anniversary of concert cancellations
We’re running a limited series of articles here at The Pitch called “One Year Out.” A few of us spoke to the last bands that we saw play live… on the one-year anniversary of that concert. Your friendly neighborhood editor Brock Wilbur saw Murder By Death in Lawrence. And then the world shutdown. Now, a year out, I sat down with Adam Turla—lead singer and guitarist of MDB—to talk about that final show, watching 2020 slowly slip away, his band’s pivot into the new world, and when we’ll get to see them next.
The Pitch: Whenever you’re in Lawrence, you always deliver the most sincere Lawrence talk imaginable. It seems like you guys really, truly love the city. There was something particular about this one, where you were playing Liberty Hall and you detailed how, over the course of twenty years you’ve sort of graduated venues in the city of Lawrence, from somebody’s basement up until now. Why does Lawrence mean so much to you?
Adam Turla: Ok, so it’s one of those places that was one of the earlier cities that we started feeling like we weren’t just playing but befriending people. I’ve been going back and writing a ton of our history and the first cities that we ever played out of town were Iowa City and Champagne Urbana. Lawrence was one of those ones that followed soon after, and I think that it spoke to us because we were coming from Bloomington, Indiana, another college town. There was this sort of kindred spirit thing, like here’s all these young people who are centered. It’s the [pause] whatever, I don’t know, it’s the blue circle in the giant red—not even to politicize it, just—it’s the place where anybody who wants to do anything interesting more often finds themselves—it’s the place for a big impact, you know? We saw this thing in Lawrence and were like, “Oh, okay!” We knew about these Lawrence bands from people that are just a little bit older than us. We saw The Anniversary and The Get-Up Kids, there were all those bands coming out of there at the time, so it was familiar to us.
Do you have any recollections of this 2020 show in Lawrence?
Adam Turla: Oh yeah. The big feeling that I had attached to it was that we were excited to see Liberty Hall because there’s something about that main strip, like Mass Ave. I do the walk every time, I just walk the strip. That show will definitely be connected in my brain as the last show from that tour that felt normal at all. All of the COVID reporting was coming out and we were wary. We were definitely like, “Eh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just on the west coast.” On that date, we had just played the night before and we drove through the night to play Denver, which was the biggest club show we had ever made. We were just reeling with excitement, but we were also starting to become concerned that the tour was not going to finish normally. At that point we were thinking that maybe they’d have to reduce the capacities or something, because there was no talk of just all of civilization shutting down yet. We were on the road monitoring it every way we could, but we were seeing venue capacities being reduced to seventy-five percent or whatever. We were like, “Okay, nothing yet in Kansas, so we’re okay. Where are we at tomorrow?” We were in Columbia the next day and we had two days off, and after that two days off it was like, “Oh, some shit is going down.” Then we started to see—I think in Iowa we had only sold 500 tickets, but only 400 people showed up, we were like, “There’s something happening.”
They’re making the decision for us at this point, yeah. [Laughter]
Adam Turla: Yeah, people were starting to react and we’re like, “Okay, so this is getting around and making people concerned.” A couple of days after the Lawrence show was the day when—like, ten minutes before we went onstage at Minneapolis, basically I got the last bit of information I needed from our agent and manager. They’re like, “Yeah, the tour is over. You can go home now.” We were like, “Okay, so I guess we can play this show for two hours,” which is so depressing. The difference between the Lawrence show, which was really fun with a little worry and a lot of joy and then a few shows later, it was really hard to play.
Was that a night of multiple encores? Like, “Ah fuck it, it’s the end of the tour, let’s—”?
Adam Turla: No, I mean a typical two songs, which is pretty standard. Then we were just like, “Alright, goodnight.” We didn’t want to talk about it because we were just bummed. There was a chance that it might not all be cancelled, but we knew that the next day’s show would be cancelled, but the morning of Friday, March 13th…[Pause] it was bizarre. Everything shifted that morning in the touring world. We were getting bombarded with emails from promoters, everything was cancelled or postponed. Our thing was that we lived up in Minneapolis, and we were all over the country, so it became, “How do we get home?” Sarah and I drove from Minneapolis to Louisville, Kentucky. Had to pick up two thousand pounds of merchandise in Chicago that we had mailed for the shows there, and we had to rent a vehicle because we had so much stuff, we were selling so much merch. It was this crazy logistical nightmare cancelling flights, cancelling Europe, cancelling hotels, trying to get refunds for like, a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of expenses. I mean, it was insane. Then we have our restaurant, and it was like, “Oh, now the restaurant is going to get in trouble.” It was wild.
It feels particularly funny and/or bad that, in the process of trying to stay safe in the middle of a pandemic, you’re also having to criss-cross the country for merch.
Adam Turla: It was on the way but in our minds, it was like, “Oh, they’ll probably be back to having show in a couple of weeks.” It was filling up their building; we were just trying to be polite! I’m glad I got it because we had been selling that merch on our webstore for a year now. It was already paid for, you know? I was straight-up depressed. I was depressed because I had put so much personal work into this tour, into bookings and logistics and marketing the ticket sales and getting all the artists together for the art. I had put so much work in, and going and playing the shows was like the last five percent, you know? It was just… gone. But I got over it pretty fast; we were going to be done with the tour in a matter of weeks so I was looking forward to the break that would mean, and I never even got that break, you know? I went straight into pivoting.
And I imagine that this period is depressing to you in the way that it was to fans because there was this “It’s the hope that kills you” sort of thing where everyone kept being like, “So, this festival’s still on for two months,” or, “It’s postponed ‘til August” and you were like, “I just don’t’ think it’s happening but maybe I’m still keeping the plane tickets for that one?”
Adam Turla: Yeah. They underplayed how long shit was going to be shut down so that people wouldn’t panic. I’m not blaming anybody because I have no idea what I would’ve done if I was in the position of trying to explain this to people. We immediately re-booked the tour for July thinking, “That’s four or five months from now.” Nothing like this has ever happened before, we had never had a tour cancelled.
You’ve been together for twenty plus years and you never had a skip year in that time. Why would anyone be ready for this? [Laughter]
Adam Turla: We never had anything happen that would create a problem, yeah. If we booked a show, we played a show almost, two thousand times. Suddenly, it was like, “Oh, are we never going back to work ever?” [Laughter] It’s kind of crazy because, without exaggerating, I think there are people that, by the time a show is going to happen again, they’ve just got to move on and find something else. I’ve definitely spoken to people who are taking on new career paths, people who are just like, “Yeah, I think I might be done with music.” I don’t blame anybody for doing that, it’s not lie we’re getting any help from the government. I’m not getting unemployment from them; we’re seen as non-traditionally employed people so they don’t take care of people like that. It’s just one of those weird American things.
Which comes to the big thrust here: you as a band pivoted really hard into being able to do this sort of Patreon-supported “There’s still content coming from us, we’re still making music for you” and you’re also essentially writing a history of the band that comes out in email form that I hope someday is just—put it in a book, I’m definitely going to buy that book and ask you to sign it someday.
Adam Turla: That’s what our manager is saying. “Dude, you’re writing our memoirs.” I had no idea what I was going to do when I started, and he was like, “Oh, you’re writing our memoirs, this is the first draft.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s not a bad idea.” [Laughter]
When you guys were like, “Okay, this is the thing we’re doing,” how long did you spend talking about it? How did you settle on what you were doing? Is it working at all?
Adam Turla: I basically spent last year doing a ton of things. Basically, for our restaurant, I was handling aid because it’s a traditional business and there’s aid available. So, I was applying for grants and doing tons of bank-related stuff, and making sure that the restaurant was okay. We wanted to make sure that all the employees are taken care of and then eventually when we’d re-open, it would be safe for them. Because I was so in that mode, when we got home from tour I was like, “Oh, we owe all this money,” because we had bought tons of merch, we had to pay my crew, I had to pay my bandmates for the shows that they had played, but the specific timing of the tour, having to go home for a minute was very bad. You basically had to spend all this money to go on tour and then you’re just counting on it, and eventually the tour starts to generate money and you make all your money at the end, kind of. So, that’s what you get paid out of. I couldn’t pay anyone, so we ended up doing a Kickstarter in May and people just fucking showed up for that. It was insane.
So, I got my bills paid, I paid my crew, I paid my band, eventually, I paid myself for the shows that we had paid—we didn’t have enough for the cancelled ones. Well, they weren’t cancelled, postponed. That was May and it got everybody comfortable, but then it was like, “This tour is not going to happen in July. It’s just not.” So, we created another backup plan and pushed to March, the March we’re about to have. That’s not happening. We are working on finishing yet another postponement and all we can do is ask everyone we know in the industry, “What do you think is the next postponement?” You try to figure out who’s got any kind of input. So, around September, I started to feel like the tour wasn’t happening in March and it was just all these dominoes. I didn’t get depressed about it anymore because it was so far away from happening, it just felt like we needed to come up with something. I started to feel bad because different band members when they weren’t on tour, they’d be servers; one of them serves at an oyster bar. Another one is a bartender, just a pick-up gig that musicians have for when they’re home. I don’t want them to do that all the time; if they can take less shift and I can supplement it somehow, I wanted to try to figure that out. So, Sarah and our manager Drew had been pitching me on Patreon for a while. I really didn’t want to; I would never sign up for a Patreon because that’s just not how I consume stuff. But then I started writing it, and then I was like, “Oh, this is fun!” I at least like the writing. It’s just storytelling; we have little features where we’ll do a lesson on our bass player showing how to do bass for our songs, or why I wrote this song or what this is about, or stuff like that.
The overarching concept of this Patreon is to do a multimedia sort of memoir starting from the very first show and following our list of shows and just saying, “What do I fucking remember from this?” What are some interesting stories, why is this show important, what else is happening at this time? I’m going through all of our albums, too; when I’m done with this call, I’m currently writing about the recording process for our first album. I did one for our EP already, but this is for our first album. It’s so wild digging in there and trying to find out what you remember. [Laughter] It would be nineteen years ago in March when we recorded that record and we were nineteen years old, so it’s just a long time ago to try to pull stories out of it. But you just start writing and it comes out.
A band that has two thousand plus road gigs and who enjoys having whiskeys onstage, how does that impact memory twenty years on? How many of the early stories are really coming through for you now?
Adam Turla: You know, to answer that question honestly, I remember the shows; with some exceptions early on, we have tried to not be just fucking wasted onstage. We knew that that was a slippery slope and we really tried to avoid that if possible. Even when we were young, we were somewhat conscious of that. The other thing is that when we were young, we couldn’t afford to buy alcohol. It was definitely a get-it-when-you-can kind of thing and we were just so broke all the time. As far as partying, it was like, “Oh, is there a party?” Cool. Then we’d go get messed up. That’s the story I remember. I remember the show, I maybe remember that there was a party, but back then we were just raging.
I do have to say that we’ve always appreciated that in the band because the last show up at the Stanley in Denver, we saw Cursive play because your boy likes a good cello band. Tim (Kasher) was so drunk onstage from the opening that it was just—I’ve never seen him that bad and the banter was just really exceptional. It was my wife’s first time seeing them and she’s like, “Why do you like them?” and I’m like, “It isn’t usually like this, but sometimes it is.” [Laughter]
Adam Turla: He’s super talented, puts out so much music, and he’s a heck of a writer. I don’t know Tim; I’ve met him once or twice, but I’ve been in a town when they were playing a show and I was walking into a bar and he was passed out on the stage, just lying there while everybody else partied after the show. We had just gone to an afterparty and he was just passed out onstage while everyone was loading out. I worried about that guy. Let me put it this way: I think he’s a couple of years older than me and you see that stuff, and you say, “Right, right, right.” That scares me. When I would see artists that I respected play a show like that or after the show, I definitely was taking mental notes and thinking, okay yeah, I’ve got to find my comfortable area. I have no shade on anybody who does that; I don’t like telling people what to do. I’m not a shamer or a judge-y person at all, but I reflect on what I could need for my experience. It was like, “I like to get fucked up; I should probably be careful.”
How long have you guys been wanting to do a Christmas album, and do you think it’ll remain—I can’t think of a more appropriate band to do a Christmas album when everybody was in lockdown. It was just on constant play in the house and I was like, “I can’t tell if this is making my mental health better or worse but I’m enjoying it.”
Adam Turla: So we did three major pivots: Patreon, the Kickstarter, and the Christmas album. You know, that is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and here’s why: Sarah and her brother have this Christmas playlist that we listen to every year, and it’s awesome. There’s so much good Christmas music out there that people don’t know about, and there are some hits that are good ones, too. We did, “Baby, Please Come Home,” that’s indisputably good. It’s just fucking great. Darlene Love is amazing. We looked at it like, “Okay, how do we make a Christmas album?” It ended up changing so much from the original version. I had kept a list in my phone for about eight, nine years of songs I wanted to do when we had time to do a Christmas album. We never had time to do it; we recorded a couple in 2014, and I was going to use those and add—we just didn’t get around to it. We’ve just been busy and focused on other stuff. Then this opportunity came up and we realized that we don’t want to get together and rehearse in a traditional way, so we decided to do that record. Dagan, the drummer, recorded from home in Oregon, and then we basically told him these are the songs, these are the tempos, (to) just put some drums down ad we’ll try to figure it out. He did a great job because he’s the most reliable guy. [Laughter].
We went into the studio; we had one person fly in but it was a direct flight; we were trying to be so conscious of all this stuff. We wore masks in the studio and tried to record with no more than three people in the building at any time but it’s this huge building. We had isolation booths that we were practicing in. We spent twenty, thirty minutes working out specifics and then we just knocked it out in just a few days.
It was really fun to pick up our instruments again because I had not played my instrument since we got back from tour. It had been five months before—I just didn’t feel like it. I had never had a break and I was like, “Eh, I don’t want to.” So, it was fun to put it out and people really like it, it sold really well. I think the thing that’s interesting about it is that it’s seasonal, you know? People will listen to it every year. We have Christmas stuff that we listen to every year, and realizing that twenty years from now, people will be putting that on during the holiday, that was something that I connected with in a way that was like—in a way, it could be a more enduring album than a typical one because it has a place, you know? I thought that was kind of wild. There’s never been something that’s just like, “Oh, here’s our little thing to repeat every year.”
Have you been working on a new album, is there any way to try to do that with the band digitally, or are you just like, “We’ll get to that when we can get back in a place together”?
Adam Turla: So, I just started writing two days ago. I give myself these huge breaks where I’ll jot down ideas and make huge lists. Ideas are germinating at any point. But then I have to focus and really create some direction and complete songs. I can sit there and play them and sing them and finish the lyrics, then I go through this elaborate process of presenting them to the band, and they’ll basically pass or fail the song. We call it, “Dream Hammer.” I basically make them say pass, fail, or go back to work on it. It’s just how we cut through it because if my bandmates don’t respond to it, how good is it? I need them to go, “Whoa, that’s cool. That’s interesting.” Sometimes a solid song will end up cut, and that’s fine. Usually what will end up happening is we’ll cut a song and then I’ll panic that a song that I thought was a surefire album track is gone, so I’m like, “Fuck! I have to write a song,” and then I’ll write two more, and then I’ll realize both of those two songs are better than the one that I was so sure about. It ends up being a good exercise to just criticize yourself and allow criticism from people you trust. Just yesterday I was playing this riff, and I recorded it and sent it to our bass player like, “I think it would be cool if you did something like this over it,” and he actually recorded him playing bass over my little riff and sent it back to me, and we’ve never done that. The idea is to basically start early and this summer once we all get vaccinated, we hope to all get into a rehearsal situation. We had originally planned an album out like at the end of summer this year, but it’s just going to be another year from now. There’s no way, it doesn’t make sense. We have time; we’ll probably record in a year. Everything’s just pushed back.
I know that this a concern in the stand-up world, I wonder if it’s a concern in the music world, as well. We’ve all just spent a year where, if you’re going to talk about your emotions or experiences it’s all exactly the same for everyone, so is there any concern that when we get out of this, we have a couple of years of albums that are all just about the frustration of being stuck inside?
Adam Turla: Yeah, and so I’m very conscious of that. Writing lyrics is going to be the hardest part of making this album, for sure. I was just talking about this with Sarah last night, where we were watching the new Twilight Zone, and people don’t seem to like it that much. As somebody who has seen every episode of the old Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it’s consistent. Those shows were hit-and-miss; I like it. It’s a very topical show— have you seen it at all, or no?
Yes, very much so.
Adam Turla: I think the real difference is that in the 1950s, the speed of information traveling is just so much more different than it is now. There’s an episode with John Cho that’s about a kid who gets elected president. It’s a satire on Donald Trump, obviously. People didn’t like the episode and it’s not that they did a bad job, it’s that they don’t want to fucking hear about it. People are sick of hearing about it and sick of seeing a representation of our fucked-up country and world. It’s the same reason why I’m not writing an album about the pandemic. It’s like, I know there’s a fucking pandemic. As a creative person or an artist, you have to find ways to connect with people, that aren’t the most obvious. I think that’s the greatest challenge of trying to be creative today; you’re trying to be relevant or topical or reach people. The stuff that would’ve been accessible in the past just by people not being inundated with information at the time—you used to write about current events or politics in a really subtle way, but now everyone’s sensitive to it. You’re either wearing current events on your sleeve like, “Yeah, I’m a social artist,” or you’re burying it really deep and hiding in there in a way that is more obscure and probably more creative. Everybody gets so much information now; how many times do you see weird COVID news on your phone in one day? It’s like, I don’t want to hear a song about it. I don’t want to watch a movie about it.
Adam, what’s the first song you’re playing at the first live show when you get back?
Adam Turla: That’s a great question, and I need to think about what… [Pause] it’s going to be hard to think about what that show’s going to be because we keep rescheduling everything. We’ll probably do something around here in Kentucky, I imagine. We had a benefit for Girls Rock! set up and I really like the idea of our first show back being a benefit, that would be cool. Girls Rock! is a really cool program. We have a history with it, if possible, we’ll do that. It’s going to be crazy playing live after that long. Some people are like, “Oh, I can’t wait!” I am nervous as fuck. I’m going to hate it, I promise you. I will be smiling, but I will be a nervous wreck. I’m going to be freaked out about remembering stuff, I’ve never had a break like this! But the first song… [Pause] there’s got to be an obvious choice. I don’t know. Terrible answer. [Laughter] Do you have an idea?
Yeah, I’m not telling you what to play.
Adam Turla: Yeah. The one that’s jumping out in my mind right now just to be funny is—we have a song on the latest regular full-length (album), “Only Time,” which is basically about drifting in space alone for years and years. [Laughter] It’s basically a shut-in song so it would be funny to start with something that’s leaning into the reflective, “I’ve been shut-in” thing, and then get into the fun stuff. Fake ‘em out with some depressing shit.
That’s a good band-aid to pull off.