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"We don't have tattoos on our necks. We don't write songs about feelings and stuff. And we certainly don't scream enough. We're probably going to get eaten alive."
Such were the recollections of Matt Armstrong, the scared-shitless bassist for the Bloomington, Indiana, quintet Murder by Death. That was two years ago, when his band was in the midst of its first tour of the hardcore stronghold known as the East Coast. "We played these shows that were just hardcore band, hardcore band, us, and then six more hardcore bands," he remembers. "We were kind of the odd duck of the batch. It made me nervous as hell. I was thinking, 'Dude, people are going to kill us with knives. '"
Murder by Death is not quite what you'd call hardcore. Although the majority of today's more pugnacious punk-metal-emo acts invariably have the words blood, bleed, bled, die, dying, or death in their names, that's not enough to push Murder by Death into the same category. Piano, cello, and spooky crooning don't help either. In fact, Murder by Death is more Black Heart Procession than Black Flag, more Pleasure Forever than Victim in Pain. The outfit's new album, Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?, is a dark rock opera, a spidery song cycle detailing an infernal cataclysm that has fallen over a small Western town. Stylistically, it's dizzying: Lynchings, whiskey, and the devil are all stars of the story, a sour mash of magical realism and near-vaudevillian theatricality. The music sounds like Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" swinging neck and neck with Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song." Not exactly anyone's first choice for a mosh-pit soundtrack.
"Most of the touring we've done has been in these kinds of hardcore circuits, but we've never dealt with a really hostile audience," drummer Alex Schrodt says. "We've been lucky that way. A few months ago, we did a short tour with this Italian goth-metal band called Lacuna Coil, which was ridiculously fun. I was the only drummer that week without a drum cage. Since we don't specifically fit into any sort of genre, we can be flexible with the shows we play. We feel lucky that we can bounce around like that."
Almost every young band nowadays brags about how its music transcends scenes and genres. Most are totally full of shit. Murder by Death, however, might just have the brains -- not to mention the songs -- to back up such a statement. Formed in 2000 by Schrodt, Armstrong, cellist Sarah Balliet, keyboardist Vincent Edwards, and singer-guitarist Adam Turla, the group coalesced in Bloomington's eclectic college-music scene.
After a few initial practices, Murder by Death -- then called Little Joe Gould, after the crackpot Greenwich Village bohemian immortalized by e.e. cummings -- settled on a sound that would inhabit the small patch of land where all five members' tastes overlapped. "Honestly, there's only a few bands we all agree on," Schrodt admits. "Let me see if I can remember them: Prince, Iron Maiden, Tom Waits, the Cure, David Bowie. Oh, and I guess the new band we all agree on is the Darkness."
As disparate as these influences are, there's one artery that runs through all of them and straight into the heart of Murder by Death: an almost thespian flair for the dramatic. Who Will Surviveplays like a stage production, with a piano-driven prelude, an eerie intermission, and a heart-palpitating climax. As Schrodt explains, "The story line is about the Apocalypse. At its base, the entire record is about people trying to deal with the end, the impending end that they know is there. It's not something you can write from personal experience, but you can imagine what someone would do, walking around in a town seeing their loved ones dead or holed up in a house or cradling their dead children and that sort of thing." He then stops to laugh at his own morbidity. "It's dark, but it can be a powerful sort of thing."
Powerful enough, apparently, to get them signed to Eyeball Records, an indie imprint owned in part by singer Geoff Rickly of Thursday. After playing a show with the New Jersey heavy-hitters in 2001, Murder by Death was offered a record deal and a tour-support slot by Rickly, who also contributes backing vocals on Who Will Survive (along with My Chemical Romance front man Gerard Way and rustic balladeer William Elliot Whitmore). It seems like a weird pairing -- especially considering Thursday's over-the-top emoting and Warped Tour-friendly façade. The quality the two bands have in common, though -- a propensity for sternum-cracking catharsis -- is as subtle as it is profound.
Along with the palpable predilection for the stage, the whole flickering, phantasmagoric aura of cinema pervades Murder by Death -- right down to the band's moniker, swiped from Neil Simon's 1976 spoof of Agatha Christie. Murder's first CD, released in 2002, is riddled with film references, from its name, Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing, to song titles such as "You Are the Last Dragon (You Possess the Power of the Glow)" and "I'm Afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."
"Everybody in the band likes movies a lot," explains Armstrong, who holds a bachelor's degree in film. "I think it's a pretty strong thing for all of us. We kind of talk about our music in terms of images and try to create a mood from that. When we started playing together, we knew that we wanted everything to be all airy and atmospheric."
When pressed for a dream list of directors that his band would kill to work with, Armstrong doesn't hesitate for a second. "David Fincher is one of my favorite directors," he enthuses. "Se7en, Fight Club... he does such a great, dark, creepy thing. Dario Argento. Terry Gilliam. Tim Burton, especially, would be really fun for us to do a soundtrack for -- as long as it wasn't that cute Tim Burton stuff. We'd probably work better with something that wasn't so lovey-dovey. Not that we're not down with love. Love is cool. We just don't write love very well."