OEastern sounds have filled the iconic Stanley Hotel on freezing January nights for nearly the past decade. Crowds in suits and robes pour into the ballroom to sway with ghost stories and screaming tales of revenge. It could be a party during the climax of a western horror movie, with guests dancing through their terror as the band plays.
This group is called Murder by Death, or MbD, a stalwart indie that has been rolling out a unique western-gothic sound for over 20 years now. The band honed their sound through full-length concept albums, fan-selected covers, and a drive to be entirely themselves through each album. Fans show rabid loyalty as they flock to shows in Colorado hotels and caverns deep underground.
If you’ve never heard Murder by Death, the name may conjure up a certain metal band flavor, full of crunchy guitar riffs, demonic screams and deafening moans. Although these influences are present, the vocals have more in common with David Bowie and Johnny Cash than with Scott Ian, although demonic moans are still a feature of several songs. The lead guitar is replaced by the moody tones of a cello that create the haunting sound underlying each song.
Adam Turla and Sarah Balliet, vocals/guitar and cello respectively, founded the group in 2000 in Bloomington, Indiana. MbD’s first album, Like The Exorcist, but more breakdance, was released in 2002, and Turla and Balliet dropped out of college to pursue music full-time. Those were the days before streaming and social media, Turla explains, and by 2003 even the biggest indie bands were only playing for a few hundred people every night on a $15 ticket. MbD toured over 250 days a year, packed into a van commuting from gig to gig across the country to play smaller venues and dive bars.
“There just wasn’t money for indie music, so you were doing it for the love,” Turla says. “So we were out there and enjoying it, but we had resigned ourselves to being starving artists.”
When 2006 came around and the band released their third album, In Bocca Al Lupo, Turla didn’t know how long the group could hold out. When one of the original band members left to go back to college, the rest of the band followed suit. Already being written In Bocca Al Lupothe band decided that if this album didn’t work out, they would shut it down.
“The funny thing is that (the album) didn’t really work out, but it didn’t not work,” says Turla. “So we hung on. It was a time when we were trying to earn enough to keep doing it.
Turla says the change came from “betting on ourselves”. The group was never trashed by the press, he explains, but never got the same coverage as its contemporaries, so the members took matters into their own hands. Self-published MbD Bocca with backstage support from Warner Brothers, and the band kept playing.
The bet on themselves paid off for MbD, especially with the launch of their sixth album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, via Kickstarter in 2012. A loyal fan base lent their support, backing the project to the tune of $187,047. The band offered unique incentives to backers, ranging from specific song covers to private shows, to visiting an amusement park with the whole band (for a buy-in of $4,000 ).
The Kickstarter launch would become a tradition, a way for the band to fund the production costs of an album, release special-edition vinyl, and connect with fans through unique offers that go beyond the music. Coverage requests would continue, along with a trip to Space Camp and the introduction of shows at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.
“We’ve branched out into doing our own gigs, so we’re not just playing clubs,” Turla says. “For the past decade, we’ve been like, ‘Well, what else can we do that’s cool? “”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, MbD had just begun their 20th anniversary tour with dates across the United States and Europe. Then the live music abruptly stopped. Canceling hundreds of dates has been a heartbreaking experience, according to Turla, and the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic has left the band stranded.
“We lost something like 80 shows (worth) revenue upfront and then two years of work after that,” Turla says.
With a stock of merchandise in stock from the abandoned tour, MbD once again turned to their fans. On May 1, 2020, the group launched the “Limited Merch & Post Apocalypse Rummage Sale” to try and recoup losses from the pandemic. Fans raised $296,450 in the month that followed, trusting new music and albums would come as soon as the pandemic allowed.
Turla admits there was some concern that without a tour, without a new album, fans might lose interest, but he’s been mildly concerned about that from the start.
“I said to myself: do I really have to stop being an artist? Is this game over for us? he said laughing.
At the end of April, the group announced a tour, as well as their ninth album, Spell/Bound. MbD launched its fifth Kickstarter on April 27, reaching the initial funding goal of $300,000 by May 11.
“This Kickstarter makes me realize how people are always going to support me and how interested and excited they are always,” says Turla. “And the process of creating this album was the most fun I’ve ever had to make a record. Everyone enjoyed this process so much, it was total joy. We are in this moment of extreme relief and gratitude.
To keep things interesting for the band and the fans, the Kickstarter for Spell/Bound changed some of the backer extras. Gone are cover requests and private shows, and in their place are personal offers. Turla, along with drummer Dagan Thogerson, offered custom wooden frames with MbD posters. Balliet offered a one-year subscription to the ceramic mugs and bowls it makes, in limited quantities.
MbD is also releasing a comic as part of the Kickstarter. MbD’s Spooky Tales also acts as a lyric book for the band’s back catalogue, combined with the work of 20 artists who chose the songs they wanted to illustrate.
Nine albums, Turla relishes the challenge of pushing her bandmates as artists while maintaining the allure that drew fans in the first place. Retaining a niche status and working as an independent band, MbD has had no labels or executives trying to influence its sound, he says.
“We really do this because we want to be creative as long as we’re allowed to,” Turla says. ” It is very enriching. I think we did a great job on this record pushing our limits.
Each album has been an exploration, influenced but not constrained by the spaghetti western sounds and ghost stories they began with. While MbD’s latest album, The other shorewas a sci-fi Western concept album about a dying Earth, full of spatial and etheric sounds, Turla calls Spell/Bound “an ode to the sounds of the movies and music we grew up with and a celebration of the dark, the weird and the lovely.”
The Kickstarter page name drops Massive Attack and Portishead as influences in the same sentence as recently deceased composer Vangelis, alongside 80s Cure and Serge Gainsebourg. Spell/Bound won’t be released until July 29, although a preview track, “Never Be”, was released a few weeks ago. The song channels dark ’80s pop offset by Turla’s signature baritone, finding the space between a croon and a growl.
At the time this was written, the Kickstarter for Spell/Bound sitting close to $375,000, making it the eighth most funded music project on Kickstarter. Production on the album was already complete before the fundraiser kicked off, and with fundraising goals already met, the project is on track for a late July release.
Turla says Colorado is a second home for the group, with a significant portion of Spell/Bound written while the band was in state for the Stanley shows.
“It was fun to have an exciting place to sneak around,” Turla says. “We spend at least a month every year in Colorado, which is a luxury.”
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