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    Don’t be fooled by the ominous name. Murder By Death only threatens to be the next greatest Louisville band. Two of its members, married 30-somethings Sarah Balliet (cello, keys) and Adam Turla (lead singer, guitar), recently moved to Balliet’s hometown of Louisville from Bloomington, Indiana. If you, like me, took the name to mean that they sound something like Cannibal Corpse, then take a further listen.

    Murder by Death got its start 14 years ago in Bloomington, where its members were students at Indiana University. Balliet was furthering her cello training that began with instruction from former Louisville Orchestra members and the Youth Performing Arts School. She stumbled upon the rock music world of self-taught guitarist and singer Turla, and they ended up forming Murder by Death. (The name comes from a 1976 murder-mystery-spoof film written by Neil Simon.) Though some of the original band members left to pursue other interests, current members include Matt Armstrong (bass), who lives in Bloomington; Dagan Thogerson (drums, percussion) in Portland, Oregon; and David Fountain (piano, percussion, mandolin, banjo) in Atlanta.

    Murder by Death’s songs combine Turla’s Johnny Cash-like vocals and Balliet’s minor-keyed cello melodies that are more wicked-sounding than, say, local favorite Ben Sollee. Kind of like the Misfits, minus the heavy metal, plus some classical and a touch of country. (A recent Facebook post by the band: “Listening to Sade while cleaning the house.”) That it’s difficult to identify Murder by Death’s sound is, in part, because Turla, who grew up in Detroit, has an appreciation for almost every genre, from R&B to glam rock. “That’s the fun part about writing,” Turla says when I meet with him and Balliet at Gralehaus. “Everyone’s improving and becoming more versatile as musicians. Our band’s constantly learning new tricks and getting more comfortable doing new things. When you’re traveling the world for a decade, it all kind of melts into one.”

    Turla recently told Sean Cannon on WFPK’s After Dark, “If I wanted to be a celebrity, I’d make pop music.” His distaste for the accessible genre has him exploring deeper, darker lyrical themes. In the song “Lost River,” from Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, Turla sings: “Though my days are over/You know where I’ll be/Swim that lost river to me.” On the 2003 album Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?, one track is titled “Until Morale Improves, the Beatings Will Continue.”

    Murder By Death has recorded six albums and gone on tour with bands such as Interpol, Against Me! and Lucero. Since 2012, the group has performed an annual sold-out three-night concert series at the Stanley Hotel (yes, the one from The Shining) in Estes Park, Colorado. (The next set of already-sold-out shows there will be in January.) For the most recent album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, Explosions in the Sky), the band started a Kickstarter campaign to be able to continue making vinyl recordings, greatly surpassing the $100,000 goal by garnering $187,000 in one month — an achievement that remains one of the top music projects in Kickstarter history.

    Now Balliet and Turla are living in Louisville in the house they’ve just renovated in the Highlands, near Balliet’s parents. They’re jazzed about recording with Louisville producer Kevin Ratterman at his Lexington Road studio La La Land, through which Balliet and Turla have already met some local greats. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James recently loaned them a Wurlitzer electric piano. The rest of the band comes to town one week a month to work on the seventh album, with an expected release of early 2015.

    “Louisville just keeps getting cooler and cooler,” Balliet says. “I don’t know if I could have imagined coming back here 14 years ago when I left, but so many things have changed. It’s exciting to see a town that’s growing.”

    “We always had Louisville on our radar,” Turla says. “The band has put us in a position where we don’t have to spend 150 days (a year) on the road anymore. Just seemed like a good place to spend those free days.”

    Images courtesy of Gail Kamenish

    This article appears in the September issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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