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June 27, 2006

Preview - Murder By Death spins on Southern Gothic tendencies

Alex Shrodt is going to the tattoo shop in Temecula, 1st Amendment Tattoos, along with a couple others in the Murder By Death touring party. He doesn’t plan to get a tattoo — he says he’s too indecisive to get one on the spot. He’ll just watch. There’s another group heading for Tijuana, Mexico, to connect with some new friends who came to the show the night before in San Diego. The band has the day off and, having just awoken in the early California afternoon, plan to try and make the best of the break.     Murder By Death — a Bloomington, Ind.-based quartet (though Shrodt is from Louisville) — has been working awfully hard of late, with an ambitious new full-length having just hit shelves and a busy tour schedule on the horizon. “We definitely plan on being on the road for a couple of years,” Shrodt says, with optimism clear in his timbre. Imagine this bizarre musical concoction, if you will, like how children will fill a random container with any number of indiscriminate liquid and solid ingredients and call it a potion: Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Cursive, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. This is dark music, menacing and ominous with very little to proffer hopefulness. The comparison to Southern Gothic literature, for instance, is fairly effortless. “I’d say we’re probably more influenced by film and things rather than other music,” Shrodt says. “Ideally, we would be able to just sit back and write soundtracks to movies for a long time.” He adds that the four rarely share tastes in music. The tension wrought by such a thing, it would seem, accounts — at least in some part — for the angled dynamics and pleasantly disparate instrumental musings all over the new record, In Bocca Al Lupo, which translates to “in the mouth of the wolf” from the Italian. In fact, it’s a popular saying for Italian students before taking a test, to which they respond, “Kill the wolf.” “If anything, we definitely don’t want to become bored with the music we’re making. None of us agree on all that many other musicians and things. We just have to find some happy point in the middle.” While the Southern Gothic influence, in terms of vibe, relies entirely on the guitar-bass-drums-cello interplay (with occasional piano, brass and various other string flourishes), singer-guitarist Adam Turla’s lyrics (delivered in a stretched, enchantingly Cash-ish baritone) are a series of unconnected short stories with moods reflected in a rather profound way by the instrumentation. The clearest example is “The Big Sleep,” a haunting rumination on remorse from the point of view of a murderer approaching execution.     “I’ve always loved the lyrics that Adam writes, just because they’re more storytelling rather than personal statements,” Shrodt says. “It’s telling the story of somebody else rather than trying to convince people that your heart really was broken. It can be more interesting then.”     The legendary J. Robbins produced In Bocca Al Lupo. Robbins, best known musically for his old bands Jawbox and Burning Airlines, brought his unique ability to isolate and present warm, up-front tones to the album, which was recorded in 28 days.     Shrodt says it took quick listens through a mere two Robbins-produced records to make the decision, which he calls the best the band has ever made. “I’ve been trying to think of the best descriptive words for it — he was definitely amazing, really brought out sounds we wanted, made it nice and big,” he says.     He’s right: It sounds huge, loud and just polished enough to be professional but not slick. It’s pretty close to the band’s live show, though Shrodt says as they become more comfortable in the studio, the distance between the two modes of performance grows. “Any band, really, it’s a big test how they present themselves live. For us, we tend to be a little louder than our records, and maybe that’s just due to the fact that bands grow over time and learn to record better and things like that. Recently, we’ve had some old film clips like ‘Night of the Hunter’ and ‘Nosferatu’ and things playing behind us, kinda going along with the sets. It’s the whole American Southern Gothic thing. It’s pretty fun. But at the same time, it’s definitely tongue-in-cheek. We’re definitely not very macabre people. Like, I’m watching everybody throwing a baseball around a parking lot right now.” Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com