Q&A: Murder Murder
Northern Ontario’s Murder Murder are a six-piece string band with suitcase percussion who create a unique blend of bluegrass and outlaw country. Their virtuosic musicianship and evocative songwriting are backed by a wealth of original and traditional murder ballads. We caught up with the band's fiddle player, Geoff McCausland, while Murder Murder was on tour in Europe.
In your bio, you mention that you're actively trying to expand upon the repertoire of traditional murder ballads. What are some tropes of the genre that you find tiresome? And within that, what are aspects of it that you've found appealing enough to explore in a band like Murder Murder?
Traditionally, murder ballads exist within the confines of a heteronormative, somewhat misogynistic cultural landscape: man falls in love with woman, woman is unfaithful or otherwise offends him, man murders woman. The vast majority of Irish/British/American examples of the genre follow this framework. Now, as participants in a particular tradition, this scenario is certainly something that we've explored in our art, albeit within modern contexts. In a world still plagued by domestic violence and gender inequality, this old story trope still resonates powerfully as a relatable tragic possibility. Being a well-explored plot, we have found this storyline to be a little played out. It has been part of our mission statement since the band's inception to project the murder ballad genre's traditions onto a more contemporary social canvas. Though, re-imagined and flipped on its head or in a non-traditional format, the scorned lover scenario still holds near endless possibilities.
Unlike some other music genre signifiers, there's a purposefully darker undercurrent with the folk music you're writing. How do you suppose you've arrived at your mode of expression as a band?
As songwriters, we've always been drawn to music and art that exploits the power of tragedy for emotional means. Townes Van Zandt, as legend goes, once said ‘there are two kinds of songs: sad songs and ‘zippity doo dah.’’ Maybe we're just a bunch of guys who watch too many sad movies and read too many sad, tragic books. Aristotle explained the value of tragedy, as a result of emotional catharsis—by experiencing true loss and pain in art, the audience is effectively purged of emotion, thereby actually producing a pleasant, calm state of mind. Not all of our songs are tragic in the traditional sense of course, but that's certainly something that we keep in mind, as we're creating. Humanity's capacity for violence is also something we explore, as well as our ability, as a species, to make split second mistakes that can ruin our lives.
Have you been personally impacted by local or international political developments and, if so, does it pervade your songwriting at all?
We make an effort to avoid direct political themes in our music. The best art, in our opinion, conveys meaning through abstraction and subtlety.
Is there a single, specific album or artist that everyone in the band agrees is a benchmark? Someone or something that causes you to strive to make something so great, people might put you in the same league?
It's hard to pick one album or artist [but] two do come to mind though. Townes Van Zandt and Gillian Welch. Townes Van Zandt had a unique ability to blend abstract lyrics and simple, plainspoken, everyday activity to create an experience of the profound. That's something any artist should aspire to. Gillian Welch also has this talent and her music, composed with her creative partner Dave Rawlings, is endlessly explorative and seemingly crafted in the absence of preordained limits or rules, something we also believe to be important if you want to produce excellent art.
A recent article wondered if rock music was still relevant. Even by your own standards, you seem to be questioning the relevancy of the tradition you're tapped into. Do you feel guitar-based folk music is as powerful a force as it could be?
When most people speak of musical relevancy, or lack thereof, they seem to gauge it based on commercial relevance. That's an unfair conversation to have when speaking about roots music. Roots music is one of those things that exists in and of itself. It can be heard in nearly every facet of modern music, commercially viable or otherwise. The countless groups and organizations that have committed to the tradition of various musical styles should be praised, but so too should the people who have decided to subvert the traditions. The fact that both of those schools of thought exist and thrive in today's musical landscape proves that folk and roots music is as powerful as it ever was.
What do you most like and dislike about performing at or attending music festivals these days?
We love music festivals. They're the best gigs. It's hard to think of something to complain about, seeing as we spend most nights in small music venues, some of them dirty and malodorous, playing until 2 am. That can be fun too but playing during regular people hours, outside with a nice sound system is hard to beat. And people who go to music festivals are always there to listen to music. It's hard to beat.
What's next for you?
As we answer these questions, we're in the midst of a month long European tour. When we get home, we'll begin recording our third full-length album. Summer festival dates and tours will be announced soon.
See Murder Murder at Hillside Inside!
Friday February 10, 2017
Mitchell Hall, St. George's Church
Doors @ 8pm, Show @ 9pm
$24 plus SC/HST
Buy Tickets Here!