Hank Williams traveled the “Lost Highway.” Murder By Death went to the “Lost River.”
“Lost River” is track two on the Bloomington, Ind.-based band’s latest album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. The song contains both the gravitas of a tragic folk song and a late-breaking sunburst.
Adam Turla sings “Lost River” in his deep, old-soul voice. And in “Foxglove,” a song from Murder By Death’s 2010 album, Good Morning, Magpie, Turla comes off as heartland-bred Lou Reed.
As the band’s name suggests, Murder By Death is attracted to darkness.
“We’re all into that sort of stuff,” Turla said. “Musically, we like the minor-key sounds. We didn’t want to write pop music. We didn’t want to write silly, fun music. We want to do stuff that has a more dramatic tone. So that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.”
Turla believes Murder By Death’s seriousness secured a niche for the group.
“We’ve found a style of music that not many people do,” he said. “It’ll never be as popular as something that is going to trend, become super-of-the moment, but it’s allowed us to continue to do this for quite a while. People who are looking for something like what we do, they’re happy to find it.”
Murder By Death is in its 12th year. The group formed in Bloomington when its members were attending Indiana University.
“We were 18, 19 years old,” Turla recalled. “So we have grown up with this band. We’ve been able to figure out what this band is along the way. For us, it’s been a creative experiment the whole time.”
Turla sees Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the band’s sixth album, as a turning point, in part because it’s the first Murder By Death recording with new member Scott Brackett. A multi-instrumentalist and backup singer, Brackett enriches arrangements with piano, trumpet, accordion and more.
Long before Brackett’s arrival, Murder By Death had a claim to unusual arrangements through Sarah Balliet’s cello.
“We figured out early on that we wanted to treat the cello like a lead guitar,” Turla said. “So she’s playing that role and I just lay back and let her handle the heavy work. I focus on singing and grounding the songs with guitar chords here and there.”
Bassist Matt Armstrong, too, plays his instrument in unconventional ways.
“A lot of that stuff that people think is a keyboard or a guitar or the cello is actually Matt making strange sounds with his plethora of pedals,” Turla said. “We often will be like, ‘OK, in this song, the cello will play bass, the bass will play guitar and the guitar will be percussion. We flip who’s handling what role.”
The members of Murder By Death, a band Turla named after the 1976 comedy-mystery movie, Murder by Death, left and then returned to Indiana University. Turla is still a few credits short of his degree in English and religious studies.
“We wrote our third album, In Bocca Al Lupo, while we were back in school,” he said. “This was 2005. A lot of people in the music industry were interested in the band at that point, but there wasn’t any money in it.”
Murder By Death’s members didn’t know whether they should finish their educations and get real jobs or continue with the band.
The group completed its In Bocca Al Lupo album and its subsequent 2006 touring went well.
“But we’ve never had a moment where it was obvious that we were a big success,” Turla said. “It’s always been gradual growth for this group.”
Turla doesn’t know how long Murder By Death ultimately will last but, for now, the albums and tours continue. The band is on a co-headlining tour with Philadelphia’s Man Man. The tour reaches Baton Rouge Thursday, Feb. 14, for a show at the Spanish Moon.
“It’s a great pairing because we’re both strange bands,” Turla said.