Premier Guitar

Interview: Murder by Death's Adam Turla & Matt Armstrong

July 7, 2010
In their ten years of existence, Bloomington, Indiana's Murder By Death has covered quite a bit of musical ground. Their roots are firmly planted in the world of true-grit Americana, deriving their sound from influences ranging from country and rock to gothic instrumentals. Guitarist Adam Turla's biting, powerful guitar riffing provides a resolute sheen of emotional songwriting over bassist Matt Armstrong and drummer Dagan Thorgerson's versatile rhythm section. The entire package is rounded out with the unorthodox addition of cello accompaniment, provided by Sarah Balliet. The band has been met with critical acclaim, has toured the world over, and recently released their fifth, full-length record, Good Morning, Magpie. I caught up with the persevering musicians in the midst of their current tour to discuss the release of their new record, their extensive touring rig, and what it was like to accidentally burn the finish off of a century-old cello.

You guys have a different setup than most bands out there right now, with guitar, bass, drums and cello. How did that setup come about?

Turla: Basically, it came out of all of us just getting drunk together [laughs]. We'd all hang out at my house, which was kind of the "party house," so to speak. We learned through these drunken evenings that we each played an instrument. Suddenly we realized, "Wow, we've pretty much got a band right here." Sarah [Balliet] played the cello, and we suggested that she just show up to a practice, to see what she could do with what we were working on. As I recall, that very night was when we played our first actual performance. It was only two songs, in kind of a battle of the bands setting. We won it, didn't we? [looks over at Matt]

Armstrong: Yeah, that was an open mic night at the coffee house in the dorm that we all lived in at the time.

Turla: That's right, and it was during this battle of the bands-type thing that they would do with each band performing only a couple of songs. We actually won a little money because of that, and we were like "Oh shit, we've got something here." [laughs] In terms of the instrumentation though, it is a little weird. Dagan's drums sometimes follow a standard rock pattern, but he often does some different stuff. There's a song on the new album where he uses a propane tank as a snare drum, and he's basically playing trash drums. There are some strange cymbals, and a footpad that we recorded some foot stomps with. I'm playing some pretty standard rock guitar as the rhythm, and Matt is playing his bass as if he's playing another guitar part. He's also playing through a ton of pedals at once. Sarah comes in with her cello part, and it's basically taking up the spot reserved for lead guitar. That's actually how we explain to the sound guy wherever we're at about how to mix us, that the cello is a slammin' lead guitar. [laughs]


Cello player Sarah Balliet plays an electric Zeta Cello. Photo: Bill Adams
How does having a cello player in the band affect your songwriting? Do either of you guys usually come in with an idea and Sarah adds her own parts over it, or do you sometimes start with a melody written by her?

Armstrong: Well, when we first got started with the band, we were willing to try just about anything. If anyone had something already written, we would try and write parts that would go with them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. At this point, Adam usually brings in the skeleton of the song and we all kind of figure out how to flesh the entire thing out. Some stuff has changed, because we had a different drummer in the past, along with a keyboard player. We've been doing this together long enough that everybody kind of knows where everybody else would want to go.

Turla: We try to be in the mindset of thinking of what the other players would do. For example, when I start to write a song, I think to myself, "Ok, what would the cello do here? Would it provide a rhythm part or a lead line?" So when you've played together long enough, you develop a better perception of what the other guys are going to do. You at least have some idea before you get to the rehearsal studio.

Armstrong: Yeah, it's cool because there are still plenty of surprises that can happen afterwards. You can be pretty sure of what they're going to do, but hearing what actually happens can be surprising.

Turla: Sometimes they change everything. [laughs]

Your sound is pretty unique. Can you shed some light on your influences?

Armstrong: Oh, there are a lot of answers to that one. There's not a lot of stuff that every person in the band agrees is awesome, but ones we do agree on are The Cure, Iron Maiden and Prince.

Turla: Yeah, I was going to say Maiden, definitely.

Armstrong: The Cure is a big one that most of us are into. I think that we sound more and more less like them as time goes on, but in the beginning there was some serious The Cure-influenced stuff.

Turla: There was certainly some The Cure-esque lead guitar lines that I was playing, thanks to Robert Smith. Not necessarily with all of the effects, such as chorus, but with the style of the solo.

Armstrong: I think that everybody in the band has their own things that they're into, which is kinda what makes it work. Each person learned from the stuff that they listened to, then they bring those influences to the band.

Turla: That's why it stays eclectic, because everyone is doing the best thing that they can for the song, but from a totally different perspective. Everyone is always trying to add his or her own personal style. If I was playing bass on the recording, I never would have written the parts that Matt has written, even though I wrote the chords. He'll do it in a totally different way.

Matt, you have an Epiphone Jack Cassidy bass, and Adam, you have a Gretsch Chet Atkins hollowbody. Does that music that those instruments are normally associated with influence the songwriting at all?

Armstrong: Kind of. The Gretsch probably had a lot to do with being on the road with The Reverend Horton Heat, and those guitars are fucking awesome. Even guys who don't play guitar look at that thing and think, "Wow, that's pretty hot."

Turla: I always thought that they were very pretty—"Now that's a damn fine looking guitar." [laughs] I realized that I have a deal with Fender, so I had them send me one, since they own Gretsch now. I love it. In terms of instrument choice, it was basically what we had heard and liked. At first, it was just whatever we could get at the time, or already had.


Turla plays his Gretsch Chet Atkins to an enthusiastic crowd in Iowa City, IA. Photo: Bill Adams

Armstrong: My Jack Cassidy was originally owned by my friend's dad, and I had a little money to play with after we were signed on to do a record. I always thought it looked really pretty, and he was looking to get rid of it because there was something else that he wanted more. I tried it out, loved it, and bought it. My red Fender P-Bass is great too, it's taken so much abuse and still stands up. And the First Act thing was me calling them up and asking them to build me something.



How did you hear about the First Act Custom Shop? Their line is normally associated with cheaper, entry-level instruments, but they've built some really incredible guitars in their Custom Shop for some famous players.

Armstrong: We were on tour with a band that had some of their stuff. I called them up and they said that they would check out our music, and get back to me. I wasn't sure if they'd call me back, which they eventually did and asked me what I wanted. I kinda panicked, because I've had years to think about, "If I could get anything built for me, what would it be like?" So, it just ended up being a combination of things that I liked in an instrument that ended up looking good too. It has a shape similar to a Gibson Thunderbird, and has the same silverburst finish that the guitars they build for Mastodon have. The pickups are Kent Armstrongs.


Can you guys walk us through your live rig signal chains?

Turla: On this tour, I've got the Gretsch Chet Atkins hollowbody, which is so easy to play and it sounds so good. There's not as much electric guitar on the new record as the last one, but I really like that big sound and I used that guitar exclusively when recording it. I also tour with a black Fender Telecaster with DiMarzio Twang King pickups, and it's just really loud and ballsy, especially on the low strings. I play with really heavy strings, a .014 -.064 set, tuned down two whole steps to C. The combination of the low tuning and the super heavy strings just makes a ballsier sound. I really don't like that bright, thin sound—just a really punchy, powerful clean when there's no distortion. There's a great thing about Telecasters, being that when you hit the strings softly, it's quiet and warm, and when you hit it hard it comes alive. The dynamics are great.

I also brought two Martin acoustics, which have that big, thick sound that I like. I don't really use my pedals that much, but I have my Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster on all of the time with the electrics, which adds some guts to the sound. The rest of the board has a DigiTech Hardwire CM-2 Tube Overdrive, DigiTech Hardwire DL-8 Delay/Looper, Boss TM-2 Tremolo, Boss TU-2 Chromatic Tuner, and Boss '59 Bassman Amp Simulator. I also use a Boss Line Selector to switch between my electric guitars and a Behringer Ultra-DI when I'm playing an acoustic. Really, I have a pretty clean tone for most of the set, with the exception of a few spots where I have a really big, padded distortion sound. My amp is a Fender '65 Deluxe reissue.

Our cello player plays an electric Zeta Cello through an Ampeg SVT-4 Pro through a matching 6x10 bass cab. For the gearheads that read your magazine, this might be pretty interesting. We've tried just about every speaker combination possible with electric cello, and a 6x10 seems to be just right. It doesn't sound that great with an 8x10, and a 4x10 doesn't sound very good either. A 15" sounds good, but 12s where not that great. It was a really weird learning process, because not many people play electric cello in a professional band. Usually they're made for practicing for classical musicians. The reason why we don't use a wooden one on tour is because you just can't get it amplified up loud enough with a band. She also used to tour with a cello from 1880, and it was actually here in Iowa that she played her last show with it. We were playing a farm party down in Keokuk [Iowa], and our old piano player used to breathe fire with Bacardi 151. The spray hit the cello and tore off the finish. So at that point, she got the electric cello as a solution to the volume issues, among other reasons.


Armstrong's Epiphone Jack Cassidy bass is tuned a whole step down. Photo: Bill Adams
Armstrong: On the road, I usually bring three basses out, mainly because of our different tunings. The First Act Custom is my E standard bass, the Jack Cassidy is my whole step down bass, and the Fender is my two steps down bass. I've tried a lot of different amps, and I still like the sound of my Ampeg SVT-4 Pro heads. We finally figured out that Sarah sounds best with a 6x10, but by that time we were fighting for space in the mix with my 8x10. I had a couple of 1x15 cabs made, but when I would play tuned down they would rumble more than I liked. So now, I'm using a Schroeder Cabinets 4x12, which separates us perfectly in the mix. It punches like crazy, but still has plenty of lows and a really grindy midrange. I have a lot of arpeggiated bass parts, so it really helps keep them even and alive sounding.

For pedals, I also use a Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster, which is great for pushing things a little bit more. There's a Boss GE-7 Equalizer on my board too, just to pull out some frequencies here and there. Just like Adam, I'm also using a Digitech CM-2 Tube Overdrive, and a Stigtronics Overdrive, made by a guy in our hometown. It's based on his Overdrive for guitar, but he changed up the circuit a little bit to get some more low end out of it. There's a slightly trebley overdrive thing to it, which is great for playing down in C because it tightens everything up more. I also use a Boss PS-5 Super Shifter for shifting up the pitch an octave, and if I use it with a delay I can get some really cool mandolin-sounding tones. The rest of my pedals are a Boss TR-2 Tremolo, Boss RV-3 Reverb/Delay, Electro-Harmonix POG 2 for organ sounds, and an Electro-Harmonix Cathedral reverb. We got to tour the factory and meet Mike Matthews, who was awesome. Finally, there's a Pigtronix Echolution on there, with an Akai Headrush for noise loops and extra delay.

The band's sound has evolved quite a bit over time. In Bocca Al Lupo was a pretty dark, personal record. The last record, Red of Tooth and Claw, had a straight up rock and roll vibe. Do you think that the new record, Good Morning Magpie, is a step back to the styles that you had before the rock record, or is a step forward musically?

Turla: They way that we like to make records is not make the same one twice in a row. When you put out a record and tour for two years playing it, it gets to the point where you feel like you've really covered that style. So, after doing a rock album, it was cool to write a more diverse record. It has more ups and downs, and is way more of a rollercoaster, which was completely intentional. We respond to our own albums to keep things more interesting to us, and the listener. The cool thing about our fans is that they're very open to us experimenting and writing a wide variety of songs and albums. The fact that we've tried to keep it interesting and that our fans have gone along with it is what has sustained our band for so long.

Armstrong: One of the best things to hear on tour is someone coming up and saying, "I love the new record, and I had no idea what you guys where going to do next." We have to keep it interesting to us, otherwise we can't expect it to be interesting to anyone else. So the question then becomes about what haven't we done, and what we think we could get away with.

Turla: I also think it's important to have recurring themes that go from record to record. At the same time, you don't want to pull a 180 and make a house electronica record after a rock-oriented one. So, I like to use the subjects of the songs as the basis for theme. There's a lot of rebellion, and a lot of drinking. [laughs] There's a real "hard times" element to our songs, where we describe a harder world than most people have. Moreover, it's about the spirit of working against the big bad guy, whoever it may be.

Armstrong: Yeah, there's a lot of bloody knuckles, black eyes and hangovers. [laughs]

Turla: [laughs] I think as long as those themes stay true to the band, you have a cohesive record regardless of if it sounds different than the one before it. You know, I just love the character of the pathetic badass, or the anti-hero. It's more interesting.

Murder by Death Gearbox

Adam Turla
Guitars
Gretsch Chet Atkins GC120 (left-handed)
Fender Telecaster (w/ Dimarzio Twang King pickups)
Two Martin DCX1EL acoustics
Amp
Fender '65 Deluxe Reverb Reissue
Pedals
Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster
Digitech Hardwire CM-2 Tube Overdrive
Digitech Hardwire DL-8 Delay/Looper
Boss TM-2 Tremolo
Boss '59 Bassman Amp Simulator
Boss LS-2 Line Selector
Behringer Ultra-DI
Matt Armstrong
Basses
First Act Custom Shop 4-String Bass
Epiphone Jack Cassidy Bass
Fender P-Bass
Amps
Ampeg SVT-4 Pro Bass Head
Schroeder Cabinets 4x12
Pedals
Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster
Digitech CM-2 Tube Overdrive
Stigtronics Bass Overdrive
Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer
Boss PS-5 Super Shifter
Boss TR-2 Tremolo
Boss RV-3 Reverb/Delay
Electro-Harmonix POG 2
Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Reverb
Pigtronix Echolution Delay
Akai Headrush Delay/Looper