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Not So Scary: Murder by Death is bringing a big sound to small towns 

It's OK if you've never heard of Murder by Death. I hadn't either until a couple of months ago. Since then, however, I haven't been able to get enough of their gothic Western sound.

Not goth as in cloaks, black lipstick and top hats, but goth as in dark and post-punk. Adam Turla, the front man for the Indiana-based Americana band, has a deep voice that could easily be mistaken for Johnny Cash. Many of the band's fast, driving songs provide lyrics that invoke knife fights, showdowns and other rock-infused Western iconography. It's dark stuff, but written more in the classic murder ballad spirit than an attempt at being creepy.


You might think such a band would spend all its time recovering from crippling hangovers, healing just in time to get back to howling and smashing stuff. You'd be wrong. When I talked to Turla last week, he was out on small lake with some friends in his home state of Indiana with a full slate of activities planned.

"Fishing, hiking, water skiing, doing outdoorsy stuff," Turla says of the day's plan.

The brief bit of downtime is much appreciated by the hard touring, five-person band. When not on the road, MBD is likely honing its sound or collaboratively working on a new album. In fact, they hope to begin recording their sixth full-length album this November (Turla has already written 10 of the songs). The band, and Turla in particular, is rarely idle.

"We've been rehearsing like crazy," Turla says, obviously grateful for some time to cook and play in the woods, two of his favorite non-music activities.

Murder by Death is hardly as dark or as heavy as their name might imply. Taken from the goofy 1976 mystery-comedy film of the same name, MBD's ominous title belies the relative lightness of the actual product, much like the whodunnit spoof that provided the inspiration. Their latest album, Good Morning, Magpie, is perhaps their lightest album yet.

"Magpie has a few less dark songs. It's upbeat but with dark content. It's a fun device," says Turla. The lighter sound is evident on tracks like "As Long as There is Whiskey in the World" and "You Don't Miss Twice (When You're Shaving with a Knife)."

Turla, inspired by the rhythm of movement, says most of his best work is done while outside and on the move. He wrote all 11 of the songs on Good Morning, Magpie, released this past April, while on a solo camping trip in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains. Turla took a fishing line, hook, notepad, pen and little else. His days were filled with hiking, writing, fishing and more writing, since the fishing proved largely fruitless.

On another fishing outing, this time with friends, Turla started humming a tune he had been working on and noticed the song coincided with the riffles lapping against their boat.

"It made sense with the rhythm of the water," he says, launching into a story about songs he wrote during 20-minute walks to his college classes. The cadence of some of the songs written during that period matched Turla's walking pace.

"If I'm walking, I think better," he says.

After spending more than 10 years together as a band, MBD has refined its music and, despite their general adherence to the alt-Americana lo-fi sound, has added a degree of complexity unseen in many of the bands typically associated with the genre. MBD enjoyed early success touring with American Analog Set before spending part of 2006 on the road with Celtic folk-punk legends the Pogues and later in 2007, with psychobilly poster-boy the Reverend Horton Heat (who just played Bend last week). What separates the Bloomington, Indiana, band from the bunch is its ability to rock your pants off with fast-paced songs like "Brother," while at the same time scaling it back in sad, cello-heavy tunes like "Good Morning, Magpie," the title track from the album of the same name.

Credit cellist Sara Balliet with adding a haunting, sensual dynamic to the band's tunes. Balliet, who Turla met in college along with bassist Matt Armstrong, has recently begun experimenting with the lap steel guitar - a fresh sound that will be featured on the band's new album. Also new is the permanent addition of Scott Brackett, formerly of Okkervil River, whose duties range from the keys, coronet, accordion and percussion to backup vocals and theremin.

"He adds a lot of stuff we've never been able to do before, like playing the piano underneath [a song]," says Turla.

With a goal of trying to play as many places as possible, no matter how far flung, MBD has included towns like Halifax, Nova Scotia, Santa Cruz, Calif., and Bellingham, Wash., to its upcoming tour.

"We're flying to Portland and renting a RV to go play towns that are often skipped. It's cool 'cause there's not a single big city on the tour," says Turla.

Murder by Death, Pater Familias, Rural Demons

7:30pm Tuesday, September 20. The Horned Hand, 507 NW Colorado Ave. $10. Advance tickets at bendticket.com.

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