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LITERATURE» Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]
MUSIC» The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]
MUSIC» Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]
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May 15, 2002Murder By Death used to be called Little Joe Gould. In fact, they'd been known as Little Joe Gould from their inception right up through the release of their new album, and even beyond. But then, riding the crest of momentum created by the album's reception, the band changed their name in an attempt to clarify themselves and, you know- keep it interesting.
Murder By Death's album, Like the Exorcist, But More Break Dancing, is a distinctive piece of work. Blending influences from more bands than it is really worth listing, yet still somehow making a sound uniquely their own, the album, both ominously dark and intrinsically witty and humorous, is sure to delight many a music fan this year. That I should find the people behind such an album any less unique, not only when compared to other bands, but also when compared to each other, should have come as no surprise. Still, when I caught up with the band at home a few days before embarking on yet another tour, I had no idea what I was in for. Their tag-team interview assault had my head spinning by conversations ends, but I left our phone chat with a sense of light-hearted admiration for a band that can win people over with personalities that are as engaging as their music. But you don't have to take my word for it. Presented for your consideration is Murder By Death, in their own words.
If I remember what I read right, you guys aren't all from Bloomington are you?
Adam: None of us are. We all live there now.
So how did everyone get together?
Adam: We go to college at IU, Indiana University. We're from all over the U.S. Sarah is originally from California, but she lived in Louisville, Kentucky for a while. Alex is also from Louisville. Matt is from Dallas. Vincent is from Connecticut. I'm from Detroit. So, we all just came here for college and decided to start a band.
Was there a previous incarnation of the band?
Alex: I guess the first incarnation of Murder By Death, originally called Little Joe Gould, was Adam and I with our keyboardist Vincent just playing in dorm rooms with a girl named Jamison playing violin, but that kind of broke up when we lost her to music school. We came back and I had been playing with our bassist, Matt, in another band, so we just invited him to play and we met Sarah a couple of weeks later and things started rolling pretty quickly.
So the strings were always present from the beginning.
Adam: We like having different instruments. It just gives you a lot more possibilities. Sarah has actually been picking up the saw recently, and Vincent does a lot of things on the keyboard, which gives us a lot more room to work with.
What is the writing process like for you guys?
Adam: Usually Matt, or I, will have a part or a several parts that are either strung together in a somewhat coherent order or not at all, or that are just fully written and we usually present them - Vincent sometimes does too actually - to the group and everyone writes their part around it, and eventually a song comes together. It really depends on each song. Some of them were almost 'jammed' to a completed version, but for the most part we just present a rough sketch of a song and everybody layers it. We are trying to be more intricate lately with songwriting. We have been taking a long time with each song lately to make sure space is used properly.
I was going to say it seems like you have a good understanding of everyone knowing when to play and when to hold off and what instruments should drive each song.
Adam: Really? [laughs, proceeds to tell the rest of the band members in the room.] That is kind of our joke; that that is our big problem, that we all play all the time. We have really been trying to work on how to back down for a little bit for each song. There are some songs that definitely - like the first song on the album "Those Who Stayed" - is one of the songs that we finally were able to just have people sit out and have everyone else come back in, or go off in pairs were it's just piano and cello playing, and that's what we are trying to do more [of]. Just because sometimes - with as many instruments as we have in different songs - stuff just gets lost in the mix. We're working on that, it's nice to hear you say that.
Tell me about the recording sessions?
Alex: We recorded in Chicago with Tim Iseler who works with John McEntire at Soma Studios. Soma was booked so we ended up recording, through the graces of Jeremy Lamos, at Acme Studios and Semaphore studios. We did the whole thing in six days, just over our spring break because we were all still in school.
You guys seem to already be into some experimentation. There is the drum loop on the second track ["I'm Afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe"].
Alex: Yeah. Actually, just earlier today we were working on some more sampler uses. I don't know, all of us, it seems, come from pretty different musical backgrounds, so when we get together and play what makes everybody happy it ends up being somewhat interesting. There are often very different songs. We all have different tastes, so sometimes we will have more poppy songs, or instrumentals, or songs with vocals.
So you're not against the use of samplers or computers then?
Alex: I wouldn't say so, no. We did our whole recording on analog just because we wanted to get a 'live' sound. We did very few overdubs, there is nothing on [the record] that we don't play live. We did a couple overdubs that were just, uh - a naked girl just walked into the room [everyone laughs] - but, uh, anyway we did a few overdubs just to make the recording process easier or to make it sound a little better. But in terms of using it in the set, I think it's fun to try and integrate different sounds.
How much musical training do you guys have?
Alex: Let me pass the phone, let's switch, Matt and Sarah can talk for a while.
Sarah: I know Adam does Jazz and Blues guitar. He learned that way at first, and then got into rock guitar a little later. I was trained classically on cello. I started at about fifth or, no sixth grade. I've been in orchestras and I've taken private lessons. I was actually planning on going to the music school here at IU. That's why I got interested in the school, and then I realized that everyone I know who is a professional musician is absolutely crazy.
Matt: And miserable.
Sarah: And miserable, and I saw a pattern in that and I decided to just do it for fun.
Matt: One interesting little tidbit about the 'learning how to play' thing was that we suckered Alex into learning how to play drums for the other band that he and I are in like three years ago. [Talking to Alex] You had been playing, what, guitar and bass and stuff in Kentucky. We were like, "We need a drummer," and he was like, "Well, I think drums are cool, so I'll learn how to play the drums." And he did. And Vincent, our pianist, he plays a lot of saxophone and stuff like that.
Sarah: Yeah, he was in band in high school. He is like a jazz saxophone player, and flute and…
Matt: A schmuk.
So he didn't start on piano?
Sarah: I don't know if he started on piano. He may have started on it, but it definitely wasn't his main focus in high school. Yeah, he's at work right now. He's not here.
Matt: We actually all secretly hate Vincent because he is really good at whatever he tries to do. [everyone laughs] He's just like, "Hey, I think I'll try the Djijerdoo," and it's great, you know, whatever, automatic.
You've got to appreciate having someone that versatile in the band.
Matt: Yeah, he's versatile
Sarah: We are going to try to get him to play some horn on some of these tracks coming up. We are just trying to diversify in general.
You've all been talking so much about writing. What is your touring schedule like? Have you done a national tour?
Sarah: Yeah, we did a west coast tour not to long ago. [To everyone else] When was that? In July.
Matt: West and south.
Sarah: West and south. We went all the way up to California. We have been doing about - well - we all took this year off of school. We are trying to be 50% out on the road, so we have pretty much stuck to that. We are going out in four days for another tour.
Matt: We did two weeks on the east coast after that one in July.
Sarah: Right. We have been touring a lot.
Matt: A lot, A lot.
Are there plans to record again yet? Are there a lot of songs written?
Sarah: Not really plans. We have been thinking about recording. I think we want to do a second album. I mean, we're writing songs for it. There aren't any definite plans yet.
Matt: Right now we are just bouncing ideas off each other when we have time to be home and not in the van. We are kind of taking it as it comes, I guess.
Sarah: Yeah, we certainly don't have enough yet.
Matt: We just started trying to write stuff again. After a while we were like, "You know, we know these songs pretty good. Maybe we should work on some other ones."
Are there songs you get tired of hearing or playing so much?
Sarah: Not really. I know that we all got really, really sick of the songs when we recorded them…
Matt: Yeah, that's just the studio though.
Sarah: I didn't want to hear us ever, ever again after that week.
Matt: No one ever does really but…
Sarah: Not really. I mean, playing, I kind of just block it out. [Everyone laughs] I have fun playing. I just don't…no, I really do…I just don't…like some people, they are just like, "Ah, I can't get your damn song out of my head," and I'm just like, "Really?" I never, ever think about our songs when we aren't playing them.
Matt: There are things that sometimes we aren't in the mood to do on a particular night, but we have been having fun playing the same songs, it's just times to add some more stuff. [Talking in the background] Yeah, we have to be spooky a lot and sometimes we feel like puppy dogs and ice cream, and not like little boys tearing heads off teddy bears and counting backwards in Latin.
How seriously do you take your music? There seems to be a good sense of humor about everything you do.
Sarah: Yeah. That's kind of our purpose. We're not very serious people…
Matt: Not so much…
Sarah: But the music that we write tends to be… some of it's pretty… dramatic, and I mean if you just listen to the album you might think that we are kind of pretentious. We have been called pretentious by… well, really randomly actually, but we have been called pretentious. I don't know, we try to…
Matt: You notice how only pretentious people use the word pretentious though?
Matt: I find that's the great irony about the word pretentious. I don't know.
Sarah: But anyway…
I may be guilty of that.
Sarah: But I don't think we're… I think we try to lighten it up with the song titles. We're not that kind of people at all.
Matt: We're the kind of band that will turn on every distortion pedal we have and scream and jump around and stuff, but we're also laughing at our stupid smoke machine with the skull on the front.
Matt and Sarah [in union]: And glowing red eyes!
Sarah: And yeah it blows fog. We have a bubble machine too! My little brother gave me a bubble machine for my birthday and we are going to start using it for some of our songs. It's awesome.
Matt: Yeah, we're very amped about that.
Sarah: It makes the floor really wet though, and so people kind of back away from it. We're trying to work out the bugs in that. [Laughing] They're afraid of our bubble.
Matt: Seriously, I would say that we are kind of a messy band. We're not serious, but we do like to make messes. Which is good.
Sarah: And fire.
Matt: [ominously whispering] FIRE!
So it sounds like you guys put a lot of thought into your live show then.
Sarah: Thought? I…sort of. We try to keep it interesting, so that even if people don't like our music they walk away being like, "Wow, at least they set shit on fire!"
Matt: I don't know that it's the most well thought out thing in the world, but we try to at least put heart into every show and have fun doing it. The studio and making a record is all great and everything, but, I mean, playing live is the really cool part about doing this whole thing.
Who brings in all the dark overtones to the humor?
Sarah: I think we are all into that.
Sarah: I know that Adam and I are horror movie fanatics, and…
Matt: Vincent is like the mad scientist one. I think we are all together on this one.
[Sounds of agreement in the background]
Matt: He's the evil genius who... evil in like the circus music kind of sense…
[Adam takes the phone back]
Adam: I have got to tell you this because this sums him up perfectly. He sits in his room and just plays incredibly dark piano, and whatever you are doing, whether you are petting kittens or feeding birds out of your hand or whatever, suddenly there is this dark, eerie sound coming from upstairs. It just makes every situation seem very creepy. So we are just sitting in our house… [Talking in the background] yeah. He is like the Phantom of the Opera. He's always playing really dark circus music; He's always practicing…
Sarah: …Either that, or like listening to Oingo Boingo.
[Mutual agreement from everyone]
Sarah: That's Vincent. But anyway, we all enjoy the dark humor. We appreciate the macabre.
Adam: We actually just did a music video. We filmed a music video that is a horror movie…
You're steeling my question right out from under me. I was going to ask about the music video, but go ahead roll with it.
Adam: Here, you can ask it.
Oh, ok. So tell me about the music video you just shot.
Adam: Let me tell you about that music video…
Sarah: We just recorded a music video…
Sarah: We still haven't seen it.
Adam: It was supposed to be here ten days ago, but it got lost in the mail or something. We are waiting on it any day now. Basically, for a first video that cost practically nothing, we didn't want to be sitting there playing our instruments. We did it for the song "I'm Afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe" and it's just a horror movie where basically Alex is dressed up like Jack the Ripper and he chases around Sarah, who's wearing a tiara and this flowery dress, and he chases her around with a knife…
Sarah: And four-inch heels…
Adam: Yeah and four-inch heels. And she is running around falling and screaming and Alex is killing the rest of us in the band. [Talking in the background] Yeah, and we all wore fake mustaches - well, mine was real - it was really funny. We had such a good time. Our friend, Mark, from Eyeball Records - he does all the art for them - he filmed it and Steve from Thursday edited it. Everyone tells it looks great. Everyone else has seen it; everyone in Jersey, but we're waiting for it in the mail.
Where did you film it?
Sarah: In New Jersey. There is this old warehouse type place that is really creepy and awful - and actually we found out someone got murdered there awhile back, it was on America's Most Wanted - but anyway, it's a practice space for a tons of bands in Jersey. They just rent out practice spaces. A lot of the bands on our record label practice there, and we just used that room and a bunch of empty, old yucky looking rooms…
Adam: Scary looking type places…
Sarah: …in the warehouse.
Adam: There is all sorts of fun stuff…there is a scene where Sarah runs into an elevator and is getting killed, or the guys is trying to kill her and she's ok. Then all of a sudden you see the arms shoot down from the ceiling and try to strangle her. We tried to use all these classic horror movie things. [Talking in the background] Yeah and Matt gets killed in the bathroom; I get killed while falling asleep; Vincent is playing the piano; He gets killed and his body is dragged around. It's pretty fun. Really, I think…
Sarah: We haven't seen it yet, but we think it's going to be good.
Adam: We tried to make it like both horror movie and like - you know horror movies are pretty stupid, usually. At least the bad ones - and we kind of tried to go for that in a sense. I just wonder how people will take it. Anyone who has seen a lot or horror movies will be like, "Oh man, they're doing all the classic stuff," and will probably like it, but we'll see what the few music critics say.
So what are everyone's favorite horror movies?
Sarah and Adam [in union]: Dawn of the Dead.
[Adam asks the rest of the guys in the background. Someone asks whether I mean good ones or bad ones.]
One of both.
Adam: One of both he says…
Sarah: Dawn of the Dead and probably Evil Dead 2 for me.
Adam: Matt likes The Exorcist a lot. Alex does too. [someone in the background says Event Horizon]
Adam: Event Horizon… that was a fun movie.
Sarah: Oh, God yeah, that was scary.
What was that, Event Horizon?
Sarah: Yeah, have you seen that?
Adam: …From Dusk 'Til Dawn is...
No, I never did see that.
Sarah: Event Horizon is so scary.
[all kinds of talking in the background]
Sarah: Well have you seen Fear?
Sarah: 'Cuz that's the same movie, but Even Horizon is better.
Adam: And it has got…what's his name. Same Neil. Hell yeah, Sam Neil. We're movie dorks, like Sarah…
Sarah: [To the guys in the background] Well Event Horizon and Fear are like the same…
Adam: Sarah and I go and get five movies and watch them over three days. We have a TV and a VCR in our van. We're watching movies on the road.
Sarah: You watch a lot of Jean Claude Van-Damme movies.
Adam: Yeah, I've seen every Van-Damme movie ever made.
Oh, Good Lord!
Sarah: Except for The Order where he plays a Hasidic Jew.
Adam: Yeah, that's one… that's his newest movie.
Sarah: We still haven't seen that one…
I didn't know that existed.
Adam: It came out on video…
Sarah: Oh, but it does! [laughs]
Straight to video?
Adam: Yeah, I think so.
That's probably why I missed that one.
Sarah: You're probably ok.
Adam: What did we watch…oh, we watched The Blob today…
Sarah: We watched Child's Play…
Adam: …Before you called. We watched Child's Play yesterday. I don't know. For some reason that stuff just strikes a chord in us [chuckles at his pun].
Sarah: [talking to the background then returning to the conversation] That was dumb.
[More talking in the background]
Adam: Yeah, Tim Burton is an adjective.
What was that? I couldn't hear any of that.
Adam: Matt said that you should mention that we use Tim Burton as an adjective. As in, "that is so Tim Burton."
You don't even add the -esque on the end? It's just…
Sarah and Adam [in union]: No.
Sarah: Not quite. It's not quite at that level. It's just Tim Burton.
I just found out - I don't know how publicized it is - that Tim Burton is filming his next movie here, just outside of my hometown. I can't wait to go down there and hang out.
Sarah: Yeah, that sweet.
[More talking in the background]
Adam: Do you live in Champaign?
No. I live in Birmingham.
Adam: Oh, really?
Sarah: Wow, I wonder what he would be filming outside of Birmingham. Do you know what it is?
No, not exactly. I don't know anything about the story, and right now the name is completely escaping me. [Looking it up afterwards would reveal that the title is Big Fish.]
Sarah: Ah, that's alright.
It's not scheduled to start shooting for a few more months I think, but you got to love Tim Burton movies.
Adam: Yeah, Yeah.
So now that we have talked about movies, what are your musical influences? You mentioned Oingo Boingo earlier.
Sarah: Yeah, that's Vincent.
Adam: Vincent. I can give you his pretty easily. Well, I know what he is really into…
Sarah: Talking Heads…
Adam: He really loves Talking Heads…
Sarah: And everything David Byrne…
Adam: and Boingo. David Byrne. He's into the really weird…
Adam: …neurotic sort of rock.
Sarah: He really like Cornelius.
Adam: Yeah, there is a new…
Yeah, that last Cornelius record was cool.
Sarah: Yeah, he really is cool, but Vincent loves it.
Adam: Yeah, he loves it.
[talking in the background]
Sarah: …someone White.
Adam: Oh, Jim White. He likes the weird, dark - Screamin' Jay Hawkins, that's a huge one for him. That guy is awesome. As a band, we don't really agree on many bands that we like.
Sarah: I think everyone likes Radiohead except Matt.
[talking in the background]
Adam: Well, everybody likes a different era of Radiohead…
Adam: I like Pablo Honey/Bends Radiohead. Matt likes O.K. Computer Radiohead. It's really weird. That is one of the few bands that we all like something of, but we don't seem to like the same stuff.
Sarah: There aren't many that reflect all of our tastes.
You all seem to get along so well; do you get along as well when you are out touring?
Alex: Yeah, definitely. Well, all of us, except for Matt, live together. We just know each other…we know each other well enough to know each other's quirks and to know how much space everybody needs. We can appreciate each other like that. We get along; I'd say almost ridiculously well.
Matt: There has never been an actual fight. All of our friend's bands that we run into on the road are like, "how many fights have you had," and we are like, "none," on this tour or ever.
Alex: We just say things very sarcastically towards each other. That's how we vent.
Matt: It does occasionally break, but we patch it up pretty quickly. Sooner or later you actually do get out of the van and set your stuff up and get a couple of beers in you and everything's fine again.
Matt: We endorse the drinking of alcoholic beverages. [Talking in the background] Yeah, we've made shot glasses for merchandise.
Oh, cool. Have any of you had that new Sam Adams light beer?
Alex: No, I haven't had it yet.
Matt: Actually, I have, and I did throw a dart into a guy's ass in a bar because I was screaming.
[talking & laughing in the background]
You were screaming from drinking the beer?
Matt: Have you not seen the commercial…
I've only seen the very end of it.
Matt: He's drinking at the bar, and the guy is all geared up to win the dart match. Then the guy screams because he tastes the light beer that is so great that he throws the dart into a guy's ass that's playing pool.
Ah. It seems like it would be pretty hideous. So it's not that bad?
Matt: I've actually never had it. I just like the commercial because it's silly and it involves dart's flying into people's asses. We like stuff like that.
Matt: Yeah, we like pointy things.
Alex: …and fire.
Matt: …and fire.
Fire is always good. So describe everyone in the band's personality in a couple of words.
Alex: Vincent gets the mad scientist.
Matt: I guess I'm crazy uncle Matt. The parents are like, "I don't know if you should hang out with your crazy uncle Matt," but they're like, "but he's got pedals!" And then it's okay.
Alex: Uh…I don't know. [To everyone else] What are you guys like?
Matt: Alex is tall.
Alex: Yeah, I'm tall, I guess. We're all just kind of staring at each other blankly. Uh…[everyone laughs]
[talking amongst themselves]
Matt: I don't know that I want to practice later. Usually it's like, you stand over here, you sit back there, and you have brown hair. I don't know. You'd just have to be there. SEE ALSO: www.murderbydeath.com
SEE ALSO: www.eyeballrecords.com
SEE ALSO: www.team-av.com
Mark Skipper currently resides in Nashville, TN where he can be found skipping shows, drinking Guinness, making bad home recordings, and complaining about how much music sucks these days.
See other articles by Mark Skipper.
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