Cloaked in moody shadows and leavened with subtle humor, the music of Murder by Death approaches country, blues and folk-rock with equal amounts of respect and irreverence.
Combining those styles with seemingly out-of-left-field touches—mariachi horns, Irish and gypsy melodies, Southern Gothic atmospherics and a freewheeling sense of vaudevillian showmanship—the group from Bloomington, Ind., makes what you might call modern roots music.
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Adam Turla says Murder by Death takes seriously its relationship to musical traditions, but not too seriously.
"I listen to a lot of roots music. I am a big fan of simple songwriting, and most roots music comes out of that tradition. Anyway, my philosophy on roots music is this: If you're playing Delta blues, I don't think there's any way of making credible Delta blues anymore unless you are someone from that era. Otherwise, you are just copying someone else who did it better and did it before you did, but in the original place and time," Turla says.
"What really makes roots music interesting today is when you are willing to try putting your own spin on it. Like, if you are writing songs in a folk or soul or country tradition, you have to infuse it with your own style to bring something new to it. Otherwise, you might as well just play covers."
Murder by Death, a frequent visitor to Tucson, will return to headline a gig Tuesday night, Feb. 8, at Plush.
Formed in 2000 when the members were in college, Murder by Death was originally an excuse to party, Turla says.
"We were just a bunch of college students. I used to throw house shows and parties. We had no mission at all. ... It was a matter of, 'We could be a band, so let's do it!'"
Even early on, Turla already had found likeminded players in cellist Sarah Balliet and bassist Matt Armstrong, who are still with the band 10 years later. Drummer Dagan Thogerson has been a member for about four years.
The group was called Little Joe Gould (borrowed from an e.e. cummings poem) when it made its debut EP and the first album, Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing.
"That first album, we wrote when we were, like, 18 years old, and recorded it when we were 19, I think. So we were just kids, messing around and making music for fun," Turla says. "Suddenly, we saw that we had this small-time music career. So it took us a while to figure out what we were going to be doing, and how we were going to go about it. When we made that first album, we really didn't know what we were doing in the studio, and we just tried all kinds of things, whatever came upon us. I'm sure it sounds like it, too."
Soon, because of the dark nature of some of the band's material, its members chose a new name, Murder by Death, a nod to the 1976 comedy-mystery movie with the same title.
"We borrowed it from the movie partly because it's a comedy, but also because it has dark overtones, and we thought that represented us well, even if people didn't know the movie. It's dark, and it also has a sense of humor about it."
The name has been both a blessing and a curse, he says.
"Now we find that if people don't know our music, they think it's a metal band. But we also find that a lot of people who enjoy heavy metal or heavy music end up liking our band, anyway."
Turla is also quick to point out that he and the other band members enjoy a bit of head-banging music themselves.
"A lot of us like listening to metal, me included. If you look at my record collection, you'll see that I like a lot of metal and hard rock, stuff like Iron Maiden and AC/DC, but I also listen to a lot of world music and Latin rhythms, and especially a lot of soul. So I hope that a lot of people who like the band have wide-ranging tastes, too."
Last year, Murder by Death released its fifth album, Good Morning, Magpie, the sound of which is brighter and less heavy than earlier recordings. The songs explore themes of solitude and rural nature, partly because Turla wrote most of them while on an extended solo camping trip in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
"I parked my car and got out and went backpacking. I just sort of went camping wherever for two weeks. I was out in the places where you hang your supplies so the bears don't get to your food. I didn't have a guitar. I brought one and left it in the car, and I never went back and picked it up. So I basically wrote the lyrics and melodies out there, and then when I returned, we started working the songs out with the group."
In addition to its full-length studio albums, Murder by Death has released several EPs and singles, and in 2009, the group recorded an instrumental soundtrack for the novel Finch by Jeff VanderMeer.
"It's this sci-fi/fantasy/futurist novel," Turla says. "We all read the book and chose the themes we wanted to focus on. ... Then we all came back together and wrote the music together, trying to evoke a feeling for the novel. It's really one of the coolest things we've ever done. It sounds very cinematic."
Also in the works is a special, 10th-anniversary box set that will include Murder by Death's five proper albums, three EPs and three bonus albums of demos and rarities. The recordings will be pressed on extra-thick vinyl and packaged in a dramatic branded wooden box.
The members of Murder by Death are handling the whole project themselves, Turla says.
"It's crazy. I had no idea how labor-intensive it was going to be. There are 10,000 wooden boxes that we are putting together ourselves—eight pallets worth, in my living space. And we are branding into the wood and hand-numbering each one. It is going to be pretty cool, though."