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Murder by Death on Books, Touring, and Their Soundtrack for Finch

The band Murder by Death incorporates a little bit of everything cool into their music: alt-country, post-punk, and alt-rock to create a sound that’s very much “Americana”—sometimes stark and beautiful, sometimes rich and layered with a driving beat. The band members are guitarist and singer Adam Turla, cellist Sarah Balliet, bassist Matt Armstrong, and drummer Dagan Thogerson. You can check out their CDs here.

Recently, they created a rather amazing instrumental soundtrack to my new novel, Finch, which is a noir fantasy featuring a reluctant detective forced to try to solve a bizarre murder case against a backdrop of an failing city state oppressed by occupiers and beset by rebels, spies, and other forces bent on affecting the balance of power. Finch been blurbed by Ken Bruen, Jack O'Connell, and Richard K. Morgan, among others, and I recently wrote a piece about how fantasy and autobiography intersect in the novel for the LA Times. The soundtrack captures the phantasmagorical yet stark and melancholy feel of Finch and I absolutely love it. They also managed to convey the strangeness of the fungal technologies that form the main fantasy element. You can listen to the soundtrack here.

I thought it’d be interesting to interview Murder by Death about their reading tastes, and recording a soundtrack to a novel. They’ve also toured a lot recently, including a U.S. tour with The Gaslight Anthem, and given that I’m embarking on fool-hardy 27-event, 35-day book tour starting tomorrow, I was interested to hear about their experiences. (I will be reporting back to Omnivoracious on my potentially perilous adventures from time to time. I should get a chance to sample all different types of book culture in the U.S. I'm covering the National Book Awards for this blog, and doing a wide variety of venues, from lectures at MIT and the Library of Congress to readings everywhere from bookstores to bars and nightclubs.)

Adam and Dagan answered my questions on the eve of a trip to Greece.

Mbdfinch What do you like the most about touring, and does anything ever surprise you about audience reactions?

Adam: We love to travel—we have a policy that we will play anywhere in the world as long as they can cover our expenses. We happen to be headed to Greece tomorrow for a tour! Audiences have been great—it never feels like a stinker show when you're thousands of miles away from home. In July we did a tour of Italy (including the island of Sardegna) and then headed up to Germany, Switzerland, and Poland. it was short and sweet, only two weeks, but we managed to visit four different seas—the Adriatic, Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian, and Baltic. 

Dagan: The fun part about touring in the States, aside from playing shows of course, for me is staying connected with friends that have spread out across the country. We have some very close pals all over the U.S. European touring is great because it's such a different experience. Europe is old, so there are things like castles everywhere. We're in Greece right now, and the Acropolis is a ten minute walk away. It's kinda surreal. Plus, there's some amazing food over here too. Audience reaction has been very good over here. Especially in Germany and Switzerland. Dagan said you all read books on tour. Did you read anything this last time? Stuff you'd recommend (or not recommend)?
Adam: Yeah we read a lot. Best book I read last year was Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. Recently just got into Sci-Fi. It had a clinical feeling that was somehow really thrilling. Reading John Steinbeck's America and Americans now and also Fatu-Hiva by Thor Heyerdahl, the guy who wrote Kon-Tiki (an incredible true story about a voyage by raft across the ocean to prove a scientific point about human migration).

Dagan: We've all become interested in graphic novels somewhat recently. The Watchmen went around the van and was well received. Also, Y: The Last Man was a huge hit. Great story. I also re-read (for about the fourth time) Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. One of the funniest books ever. Your songs often have a strong storytelling element to them. Are you ever inspired by fiction?

Dagan: I'll let Adam handle this one--he writes the words. I hit stuff.
Adam: Always. More so than by other bands. Some of our albums are complete stories--they all fit into the same world of Murder By Death. I return to the world of MBD whenever I write. How did you decide what scenes from Finch to use as a spark for the songs on the soundtrack?

Dagan: I really enjoyed the story a lot. In fact, I read the entire trilogy in reverse chronological order after I finished Finch. So I chose the scenes to write about, and sort of submitted them for approval to the rest of the band. I picked the scenes that I though had the strongest imagery and/or drama. Then I broke the scenes down in to descriptive words or phrases and we used those to guide our writing.
Adam: We thought of central or particularly vivid scenes we wanted to recreate and went for it. We wanted various styles of music on the soundtrack so we tried to use dark moments, sad moments, brutal moments etc to vary the feeling. The fun part was trying to think how a mushroom sounds. Since we didn't use lyrics, we had to communicate all the ideas through music and the feel of song. We decided a vintage Fender Rhodes had the best overall tone for "mushroom". Was it different creating music for a soundtrack, and if so, how?
Adam: Yes--we do instrumentals occasionally, but not this much material. Having something specific to write the music to made the writing much more interesting and purposeful than just stringing together some riffs and chords. We typically center our songs around the storytelling but this was telling a story with no words.

Dagan: This was different from any previous project we've done. We have songs fully written and rehearsed before we go in to a recording studio, but this time we wrote, rehearsed, and recorded on the spot. Plus, we don't necessarily have to play these songs live, so we were able to get pretty elaborate in the studio. Things like six cellos playing at the same time, and three Dagans and Adams singing underneath it. I thought it was great you decided to use the band in the bar scene in Finch. Did you try to use the same instruments mentioned in the book, or...?
Adam: yes we wrote a kind of drunken party song for a scene in the book that was described as having a cello, accordion, and a drum set made of trash cans. We gathered scraps of metal and garbage and Dagan played drums along with Vincent on Accordion and Sarah on cello. I wrote em a little ditty and they knocked it out while Dagan and I sang.

Dagan: Yeah, we pretty much used exactly the instruments you described. Cello, accordion, and junk. I did use a cowbell though, which is not junk. It is awesome.

This winter Murder by Death will be working on their new CD, tentatively scheduled for release in April 2010.

Finch cover-final


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I was listening to the soundtrack as I read the interview. MBD, you guys really knocked this one down. Your music adds a whole other dimension to the story, which I almost know by heart. I only wish there were a Zamilon tune!

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