Haunted musical magic

Western-gothic stalwart Murder by Death releases ninth full-length album, ‘Spell/Bound’

Murder by Death

Western sounds have filled the iconic Stanley Hotel on frozen January nights for nearly the last decade. Crowds in suits and gowns spill into the ballroom to sway along with ghost stories and howling tales of vengeance. It could be a party during the climax of a Western-horror film, the guests dancing through their terror while the band plays on. 

That band is Murder by Death, or MbD, an indie stalwart that’s been rolling out a unique Western-gothic sound for more than 20 years now. The band has honed its sound across full-length concept albums, fan-selected covers and a willingness to be wholly themselves across every 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 some flavor of metal band, full of crunchy guitar riffs, demonic screams and ear-splitting wails. While those influences are present, the vocals have more in common with David Bowie and Johnny Cash than Scott Ian, though demonic wailing is still a feature of several songs. The lead guitar is swapped out for the moody tones of a cello that build the haunting sound underlying each song.

Adam Turla and Sarah Balliet, vocals/guitar and cello respectively, started the band in 2000 in Bloomington, Indiana. MbD’s first album, Like The Exorcist, But More Breakdancing, was released in 2002, and Turla and Balliet dropped out of college to pursue music full time. It was the days before streaming and social media, Turla explains, and in 2003, even the biggest indie bands were only playing for a couple hundred people each night with a $15 ticket. MbD was touring more than 250 days out of each year, packed in a van shuttling from gig to gig across the country to play smaller venues and dive bars.

MATT MAENPAA Murder by Death plays the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park on Aug. 27, 2021 (photo credit: Matt Maenpaa)

“There just wasn’t money going around for independent 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 rolled around and the band released its third album, In Bocca Al Lupo, Turla wasn’t sure how much longer the group could keep it up. When one of the original band members left to go back to college, the rest of the band followed suit. Already in the process of writing In Bocca Al Lupo, the band decided if that album didn’t work, they’d call it quits.

“The funny thing is (the album) didn’t really work, but it didn’t not work,” Turla says. “So we were just hanging on. It was a time where we were trying to make enough to keep doing it.”

Turla says the change came from “betting on ourselves.” The band never got trashed by the press, he explains, but never got the same coverage as its contemporaries, so the members took matters into their own hands. MbD self-released Bocca with some behind-the-scenes support from Warner Brothers, and the band played on.

Betting on themselves has paid off for MbD, particularly with the launch of its sixth album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, through Kickstarter in 2012. A loyal fanbase lent support, backing the project to the tune of $187,047. The band offered some unique incentives for backers, ranging from covering specific songs, to private shows, to visiting an amusement park with the whole band (for a $4,000 buy-in).

The Kickstarter launch would become tradition, a way for the band to fund the costs of producing an album, releasing special edition vinyl and connecting with fans through unique offerings that go beyond the music. The cover requests would continue, along with a trip to Space Camp and the introduction of shows at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.

“We branched out into doing our own concerts, so we aren’t just playing clubs,” Turla says. “This last decade has been us saying, ‘Well, what else can we do that’s cool?’” 

When the pandemic hit in 2020, MbD had just started its 20-year-anniversary tour with dates across the U.S. and Europe. Then live music came to a screeching halt. Canceling hundreds of dates was a harrowing experience, according to Turla, and the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic left the band in the lurch.

“We lost something like 80 shows (worth of) income right out of the gate, and then two years of work after that,” Turla says.

With a stockpile of merchandise sitting in storage from the abandoned tour, MbD once more turned to its fans. On May 1, 2020, the band 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, putting their faith in the new music and albums that would come as soon as the pandemic allowed.

Turla admits there was some concern that without touring, without a new album, fans might lose interest—but he’s been mildly worried about that since the beginning. 

“I thought: Do I really need to stop being an artist? Is this game over for us?” he says with a laugh.

In late April, the band announced a tour, along with its ninth full-length album, Spell/Bound. MbD launched its fifth Kickstarter on April 27, reaching the initial funding goal of $300,000 by May 11. 

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“This Kickstarter makes me realize how supportive people are still going to be and how interested and excited they still are,” Turla says. “And the process of making this album was the most fun I’ve ever had making a record. Everybody enjoyed this process so much, it was a total joy. We’re in this moment of extreme relief and gratitude.”

To keep things interesting for the band and the fans, the Kickstarter for Spell/Bound has changed up some of the backer extras. Gone are the cover requests and private shows, and in their place are some personal offerings. Turla, along with drummer Dagan Thogerson, offered custom wooden frames with MbD posters. Balliet offered up a yearlong subscription to the ceramic mugs and bowls she makes, in limited quantities. 

MbD is also releasing a comic book as part of the Kickstarter. MbD’s Spooky Tales does double duty as a lyric book for the band’s back catalog, paired with the work of 20 artists who picked the songs they wanted to illustrate. 

Nine albums in, Turla relishes the challenge of pushing his bandmates as artists while still keeping the appeal that garnered fans in the first place. Maintaining a niche status and working as an independent band, MbD hasn’t had labels or executives attempting to influence its sound, he says.

“We’re really just doing this because we want to be creative as long as we’re allowed to do it,” Turla says. “It’s very fulfilling. I think we did a great job on this record of pushing our boundaries.”

Every album has been an exploration, influenced but not constrained by the Spaghetti Western sounds and ghost stories they began with. Whereas MbD’s last album, The Other Shore, was a sci-fi Western concept album about a dying Earth, full of spacy and etheric sounds, Turla calls Spell/Bound “an ode to the sounds of movies and music that 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 the recently deceased composer Vangelis, alongside 80s Cure and Serge Gainsebourg. Spell/Bound won’t release until July 29, though a preview track, “Never Be,” was released a couple weeks ago. The song channels dark 80s pop balanced against Turla’s signature baritone finding the space between a croon and a growl.

At the time this was written, the Kickstarter for Spell/Bound sat close to $375,000, making it the eighth most funded music project on Kickstarter. The album had already finished production before the fundraiser launched, and with the funding goals already met, the project is on track for release at the end of July.

Turla says Colorado is a second home for the band, with a significant chunk of Spell/Bound written while the band was in the state for the Stanley shows.

“It’s been fun to have an exciting place to sneak into,” Turla says. “We spend at least a month every year in Colorado, which is a luxury.” 

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On the bill: Murder by Death & Amigo the Devil. 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Tickets are  $38-$75