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.