Smile Politely

Half of a whole

I asked the higher powers
If they would just spare a drink
Did they answer my cries?
I was a bit preoccupied

— “As Long As There Is Whiskey In the World,” Murder By Death

There’s no telling what will happen next Tuesday night, as the crazy-quilt double-headliner of Man Man and Murder By Death consumes the Highdive. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased here. To paraphrase SP’s own John Steinbacher, if Philadelphia’s Man Man represents the weirder side of Tom Waits, then MBD (of Bloomington, Ind.) carries the torch for Waits’ country leanings.

Either way, when I spoke to MBD frontman/guitarist Adam Turla (center, above) last month, he was excited about the possibilities. “This is going to be musically fascinating between the two groups,” he explained. “They’re different enough that it’s cool. Man Man is known for their live show; we’re known for our live show, so it’s just going to be a great one.”

The tour is also offbeat in the choice of cities, which are mostly smaller markets. “We’re doing a lot of towns where … we’re not doing Chicago, we’re doing Champaign,” Turla noted. “It’s that kind of show; there’s a few big cities — we’re doing Boston and Philly. I think it’ll be cool.”

This will be Murder By Death’s first stop in Champaign-Urbana since the release of 2012’s Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the band’s first album on Bloodshot Records. MBD funded the recording of the album with a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $187,000. Turla said, “It was obviously a lot of money, and it allowed us to press all of our vinyl and have a stock that we’ll be set with probably for a couple of years. It will fund interesting new productions.”

It’s also allowed the band more flexibility with their schedule, and that meant more time hanging around their home base. “Our new album is extremely influenced by Indiana. It’s our first record where we specifically used home as an inspiration. There’s a song, ‘Lost River,’ that we created a story about a river that’s near us that always stirred our imaginations from the name.”

[[mp3 lost_river_by_murder_by_death]]

“We did all sorts of, unconscious at first, influences through just having spent more time at home than we ever had while writing this album. As we’ve gotten older and the band’s been around longer, the last couple of years have been good to us and we’ve had the opportunity to not have to tour as much. When you’re a younger band, you just have to be on the road all the time, just to get your name out there. If you’re playing more shows, and each one is a little bit less effective, and you just keep going back to places. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve had the opportunity to tone down the sheer amount of shows we play, and just make ‘em count. So that allows us to spend more time writing. I think that’s why we have so much more Indiana on this record.”

All that Kickstarter cash didn’t come for free, though. “I think the whole thing was way more work than I expected,” Turla recalled. “I had no fucking clue how just my entire life would be dominated by it. I loosely started working on it about seven months before we launched it. I wrote out everything that I wanted to do with it, and then I created the back-end, ordering the merchandise and stuff, in about April of last year. We launched it in the beginning of July. Basically, from April from last year, I’m still working on it every day. There was a section where I was spending about 100 hours a week working on the Kickstarter, for about a month and a half, maybe two months. I would wake up, I would work on it the whole day, and then go straight to bed. It was insane.

“And we don’t have any label or managers that are doing all the work for us. It’s literally just me, and I have my friend Jay Bush, an Indiana guy that’s helping me out with the mail order, but the band did every component of it. I think that’s something that other groups don’t do — they just let somebody else do all the work. I think that the reason that ours was such a success is that all the… you can see that it’s us when you read that. It’s our sense of humor, it’s our ideas, it’s us doing all the work. People want to get involved because it’s you that’s doing it; it’s a direct help for the band, not just another way of the band making money.”

Another word that sticks tightly to Murder By Death is whiskey, and for good reason. Their back catalog features songs with titles like, “As Long As There Is Whiskey In The World” and “Kentucky Bourbon,” and Turla has co-hosted an annual holiday season party jokingly titled National Whiskey Day for more than a decade.

“It’s just a party I throw every year, and it’s not really a big deal,” Turla said. “The idea is that you bring the nicest bottle [of whiskey] you can afford, you put it on the table, and then it’s like a democracy. Well, more like communism, actually. The second you put it on the table, it’s up for grabs, and anybody can try whatever they want. It’s more just the idea that it’s a sampling party, and sometimes people bring — there are certain years where you’re flush, and certain years where it’s been rough. You bring whatever you can afford. We have had everything from homemade moonshine to $300 bottles of Japanese scotch.”

As you might imagine, things often deteriorate as the evening progresses. “Four years ago, my buddy brought back a bottle from Vietnam that was just like a corn liquor that had three 10-inch geckos in it,” Turla recounted with a shudder. “They were just dead geckos that were floating in the liquor. It’s the worst-tasting thing you’ve ever had. We drank it all that year, and then what’s happened every year since is, my partner for the holiday has filled up the bottle with all the remnants, all the dregs from the bottles, mixed it, and left it set for a year.”

You can probably sense where this is going, but we’ll let Turla finish: “And the last few years, at one in the morning he pulls it out, and to everyone’s abject misery, we drink it again. It’s just getting grosser and grosser, because these things have been dead for years. One year, someone’s going to truly get sick. Most years, people just gag. When somebody gets sick, that’s when you stop. Every year, I’m just like, ‘You fucking asshole, I can’t believe you kept the thing.’ One year, someone should just destroy it. It’s gotta go.”


Murder By Death plays The Highdive on Tuesday, February 19 as part of the Pygmalion Music Festival Spring Show Series. Doors open at 7 p.m., Damion Suomi goes on at 8, followed by Man Man at 9 and MBD at 10:45. Tickets are $15, and you can buy them here.

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