Frontman ADAM TURLA and cellist/keyboardist SARAH BALLIET tell the stories behind each song on MURDER BY DEATH’s Good Morning, Magpie.
Balliet: I wrote this song as I was cleaning my house one day. I don’t know why I was thinking about whiskey as I was scrubbing the bathtub, but when I sang it for Adam, he thought it was hilarious and said we should use it as an intro for a drinking song. As we gathered tracks together, it became an obvious choice to precede “As Long As There Is Whiskey In The World.” While we were recording “Kentucky Bourbon,” the engineer asked me if this song is just an anti-Jack Daniel’s ballad. I’d like to think it’s just very positive about the good stuff.
As Long As There Is Whiskey In The World
Turla: This is a song that I wrote in 2004. I loved the melody and lyrics but didn’t think it had enough character musically. Finally, right before we went into the studio [for this album], we switched the drum beat and changed to slide guitar and it feels a lot more fun and interesting. The cello part Sarah wrote is absolutely beautiful when it needs to be and appropriately playful when it makes sense. I love playing this song now and can’t wait to play it live with an audience who know the words.
On The Dark Streets Below
Turla: This song is composed of three verses, each about a different character who winds up in the same good-for-nothing town. I wanted to tell three big stories in a tiny space so it took a really long time to get these verses just right. In the end, I’m really happy with the song. It really moves. The bass part by Matt [Armstrong] is very non-typical for him. He attributes the Latin flair to his having gone to see Los Lobos the night before we started working together on this song.
King Of The Gutters, Prince Of The Dogs
Turla: In my opinion, this is sort of the dark horse on the album. I love how it came together, how it starts somber and slow and then gets into this intoxicating motion led by the drums. Whenever we play this song–even at rehearsals–I find myself getting happily lost in the music right around where the cello solo happens. We’ll probably play this one live a lot.
Piece By Piece
Turla: I wanted to do a song from the perspective of someone older. This is our tenth year as a band, and I often think about how different our perspective was when we were kids starting a rock band. I also liked the idea of taking a soul song and basically deconstructing it and twisting it into something else. That’s what this song is–it’s basically an old S.O.B. wishing he was younger, but at the same time having a much better understanding of life than he did when he was younger.
Good Morning, Magpie
Turla: This song is long and complicated. I wanted to use the metaphor of a little bird struggling to maintain carrying a weight much heavier than it should be able to withstand. I also wanted to have it be about a relationship where one character is causing a lot of suffering while the other tries to help them, despite the burden being too much. It was fun trying to work these two ideas into each other. I couldn’t think of a title for the song (and we had already named the album) when Sarah suggested “Good Morning, Magpie.” If the title was a snake, it would have bit me.
You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shavin’ With A Knife)
Turla: I wrote most of these songs while on a two-week solo camping trip in the Smokey Mountains last summer. I didn’t speak to anyone the whole time I was there, so I was pretty lonely. I wrote this song to amuse myself while there and liked it so much–and with the approval of the band–it made it to the album. The idea came from when I cut myself trying to shave in the river one morning. After that, instead of taking the advice of the song and being more careful–or, I guess dying is another possibility–I decided not to shave at all.
Turla: I wrote this song in 2005. I absolutely loved it, but didn’t know how the band would handle it. It makes so much sense now to do this song. Matt plays slide bass in an homage to the band Morphine, and it sounds cool as a cucumber. It’s really fun to sing and Sarah’s cello work is beautiful. This song couldn’t have happened as anything but a solo acoustic song if Dagan [Thogerson, drums] hadn’t taken the reins and written such a great drum part. It really adds a lot of character to the song.
Turla: This is the closest thing to a love song we’ve had. It’s about a ghostly lady visitor in the night. Like I’ve said, I was damn lonely [on my camping trip]. I pined for contact with other people. It’s amazing how after only a few days, the need for social interaction starts scratching at the door. This song is partially a love song and partially about that.
Balliet: This song came together in the practice space and recording studio the fastest out of anything on this album. Adam brought the lyrics–which included several extra verses that we never used–and chords and the rest of the song was written in the same day. It seemed like the parts wrote themselves. It was a very natural song for us all. The end result is my favorite song on the album. When we rehearsed it, I kept seeing images based on some of the lyrics for a great music video. I wrote up a treatment and we got incredibly lucky and found two Australian animators, MaricorMaricar, who were interested in the project. I think this song is the best version of elements we’ve used in songs on previous albums. It has a very persistent beat, using a very tom-heavy drum sound like our song “Raw Deal” [from 2006’s In Bocca Al Lupo]. The bass and the cello work together more than we ever have to create an ominous undercurrent.
Turla: This song is definitely influenced by the fact that the whole time I was in the woods, it poured. One day, I’d been hiking and got stuck 10 miles from camp in a total downpour. The trail flooded and I had to ford new rivers by moving dead trees together to make a little bridge. My 10-mile hike turned into 20 miles plus. This is a doomy-natured song about a god coming to Earth to reclaim it. Maybe it’s an old god of nature, maybe they ruled a long time ago. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of old gods reappearing. It seems amazing how people live their lives worshiping a god and then only centuries later, some other god is more popularized–whether it’s a reinterpretation of the same god or a totally new one. It’s amazing stuff, and great material to write with. alt