by Cynthia Hawkins
Murder by Death lend their cinematic rugged-trail mastery to Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch
At some point during their rapid fire five day stint in their hometown studio, Indiana-based band Murder by Death wandered outside in search of trash can lids. To drum on. And this, sometime after contemplating the best musical expression of a mushroom. Murder by Death’s singer and guitarist Adam Turla indicates in his thoughtful, plodding rumble of a voice that this wasn’t the typical course of events for the band in session, and after a pause he adds, “it was kind of fun.” The fun began when author Jeff VanderMeer approached Murder by Death (Turla, Sarah Balliet, Dagan Thogerson, and Matt Armstrong) to compose a soundtrack for his new novel, Finch – a scrape of a match to the five o’clock shadow kind of slow burn through a hardboiled detective story set in the fantastical, fungi-controlled city of Ambergris.
“We get approached all the time by people for small projects,” Turla explains, “but usually those projects aren’t bringing something to the table necessarily. So this idea was really cool because it’s the third book in the series. [VanderMeer] already had his own thing going.”
VanderMeer has explored Ambergris in two previous novels, the mosaic-structured City of Saints and Madmen and then the more expansive Shriek: An Afterward. Each has its own vibe and, as it happens, its own musical score. VanderMeer regularly writes with his iPod at the ready, stored with select mood-setting songs, so when musician Robert Devereaux contacted VanderMeer to let him know he was constructing tracks around the images in City of Saints and Madmen the marriage of music and prose made sense. Because both were experimental in nature, VanderMeer says, “it fit the book perfectly.” Sparked by Devereaux’s efforts, VanderMeer sought out the Church for the job of giving Shriek its sonic presence. Then Finch led VanderMeer into the grittier, sparser territory of noir. As he penned the murder investigation dividing the loyalties of John Finch, while Finch scrambled after the elusive moral high ground somewhere in between, Murder by Death’s music made VanderMeer’s playlist.
Like VanderMeer’s genre-bending works, Murder by Death’s evolving sound is hard to peg. Americana, indie rock, spaghetti western, rockabilly. Sometimes raucous, sometimes dark and sprawling. When asked how Turla categorizes the band, he takes some pride in the fact that he can’t. “It’s a matter of just trying to keep things fun for us,” he says. “The way that we do that is just by changing the sound when we feel like it, trying to do something different with each record so that we’re not constantly repeating ourselves. Luckily, those people who listen to our band are people who like that.” You might not always know what to call it, but you always know where it takes you when you secure your headphones and then dust the dirt off your pant legs and turn a curious circle in a broad, desolate landscape on the verge of trouble.
“Murder by Death’s music is a lot about desperate people and desperate situations,” VanderMeer says as he contemplates the draw of listening to their music while creating Ambergris’ futuristic dystopia. “It definitely has a wild-west element to it and the Americana and the country and all that. I thought mood-wise it would fit the novel very well because of that.” After VanderMeer wrapped the novel, contacting the band about the project seemed the obvious next step.
The band went “above and beyond the call of duty,” according to VanderMeer, by reading all three novels and then carefully plumbing scenes from Finch that would become the impetus for seven impeccably crafted tracks. “We took scenes we thought were the most visual scenes,” Turla says, “and we composed music as if it was for a video of the images.” Turla references a scene in which Finch’s partner is peppered with spore-laden bullets that utterly transform him, resulting in the track “Shoot Out,” a song dipping into as many twists and turns as the scene itself, rhythms unraveling, dissolving, and gathering again for a race to the finish.
“One of the characters turns into this hulking monstrosity,” Turla elaborates, “and we were trying to capture the music that would happen during a scene like that if it were a film. We tried to take those scenes that seemed appropriate for music and then thought, okay, how do you communicate this idea, how do you communicate a mushroom person, you know … what do mushrooms sound like. It was kind of fun in that way, because we’ve never had to write like that before.”
VanderMeer remains in awe of how pitch-perfect the band was in adding “another dimension” to Finch. “It was like they’d just translated something from my brain,” he marvels. “There’s one scene,” VanderMeer elaborates, “in which there’s a band that just has an accordion and a couple of trash cans for drums, or trash can lids to bang on as drums, and some other instrument, I think it’s a violin. [Murder by Death] actually recreated that. They went out and got a couple of trash can lids for their drummer and had the accordion and the cello …. They just spontaneously did this little minute and a half song to totally recreate what they thought this band would sound like. I thought that was really cool.”
Over the course of several albums, Turla’s voice has almost seamlessly sidestepped from rocker rasp to a Johnny Cash-like baritone. “Yeah, I’m finally learning how to sing,” he jokes. It’s a quality that has helped solidify Murder by Death’s particular vibe even as the music strays into different territories, but it’s also a quality that won’t be found on the soundtrack to Finch. For the project, the band decided to compose only instrumental tracks. “The whole idea was to try things we’ve never tried before,” Turla explains.
The decision reflects the stripped-down writing style VanderMeer honed in Finch to fully capture the clipped, fast-paced essence of noir. VanderMeer, also author of Booklife, a sort of artist’s handbook, is a strong advocate of nudging oneself out of the norm for the sake of a work. “I try not to get into habits,” VanderMeer says, “and when I get into habits I try to break them because sometimes by breaking a habit you get more inspired.”
As Murder by Death heads back to the studio to complete their next album due out in April, they take with them lessons learned from composing the Finch soundtrack. For one, Turla says, “this project really helped us tighten up with our use of time.” For VanderMeer, now on the road promoting Finch, it’s an even greater appreciation for what he calls the “cross-pollination of media.” Murder by Death’s soundtrack, he says, brought Finch to life in ways that have gotten him thinking cinematically.
“The music did make me begin to think about what people would look like, what actors and everything would be used for different parts,” VanderMeer says. “The one with the band, where they actually did the music, they made me actually think of the room they were in at that time in a different way. It’s almost as if I could see it better.” VanderMeer expressed an interest in seeing Finch adapted, with the right artist on board, into graphic novel form and using the graphic novel as “a way to pitch towards a movie.”
Murder by Death wouldn’t mind if Finch became their calling card for a big screen gig either. “We’d been interested in trying to work in different mediums for awhile,” Turla says, “and mostly we’ve been trying to work on movie scores.” They’ve come close at least twice. Their richly emotional “Coming Home” was recently showcased in the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and, as Turla explains, “someone in his camp … had initially wanted to use us for a song in Grindhouse.” To the band’s disappointment, the latter didn’t quite work out. “We’re huge fans of his work,” Turla says.
As is, Finch deftly manages to be a richly imaginative fast-paced work, lean where it needs to be and lyrical where you least expect it. VanderMeer creates in John Finch a character, raw and resonant, squaring his feet across an impossibly fine tightrope we breathlessly watch him wobble along for roughly 300 pages. You find yourself so invested in his challenged moral core that the fantastical elements of the novel quickly fade into a new kind reality. You begin to forget mushroom villains don’t actually exist. Then there’s the Murder by Death score so well-rooted in this world it plays like an echo of the pages long after you’ve closed the book over them again. “It’s been a really great process,” Turla says, no matter where the process leads them next.
Murder by Death: Though they’ve had eight years to refine their sound and vision, Murder By Death rolled out of the gates fully realized in 2000, playing a blend of rocking Americana noir and dramatic post-punk that erased old style and audience boundaries as much as it tested the limits of new ones.
Jeff VanderMeer: Award-winning writer Jeff VanderMeer’s final novel in his Ambergris Cycle, Finch, has just been published in the US, and will appear in the UK from Atlantic’s Corvus imprint. You can read an excerpt of Finch here.