I remember playing a gig with Murder by Death somewhere in rural Indiana. It was a small, daylong festival in a barn that stood between corn and soybean fields, with a mixture of twenty-something hipsters and families in attendance. Little kids ran around screaming, half of them playing corn hole, and the other half willfully disrupting the games of corn hole. The offspring of my posse, a band called Gentleman Caller, were decidedly in the faction of disrupters.
There was no food anywhere and I chain-smoked to curb my hunger. Most of us had a hard time finding the place. When I pressed Kenny Childers, Gentleman Caller’s lead singer, for details about the day, he recalled that “we got lost and almost ran out of gas in the middle of some dark cornfield.” It was the kind of gig that burns a little brighter in the memory banks than the standard bar show. But I’m guessing it was a fairly typical day in the life of the relentlessly touring Murder by Death. This band has played everywhere.
Expect, as it turns out, my memory was wrong: Murder by Death were not on the bill that day. “Did some research,” wrote Kenny, a couple of days later, “it was harder than finding Christian porn.” It was a different band. But for some reason, my memory of Murder by Death in that Indiana barn has only grown more vivid after repeated listens to their latest release, Big Dark Love. The record beautifully juxtaposes groovy synth pop with gothic country music, and I can see them there, both completely at home and a little out of place amongst the children of the corn, filling the barn and surrounding expanse of farmland with lush Midwestern sadness.
Paste chatted via email with Murder by Death’s lead singer/guitarist Adam Turla and cellist Sarah Balliet about eating on tour and cooking back home in Bloomington, Indiana, where they have briefly paused before resuming a string of spring tour dates in North America and Europe, and where they will soon hold their annual “Hey Winter, Fuck You BBQ.” Murder by Death are—in Turla’s words—“always down to eat.” If they had been on the bill at the Indiana festival like I remembered they were, at least there would have been some food out there.
You’re at a truck stop, you’re starving, and you have five minutes to assemble a meal. Please describe that meal.
Sarah Balliet: My nightmare. However, if you’re at a proper truck stop you should always be able to find these things: string cheese, mixed nuts, fruit, and chocolate. And if you NEED something hot and can handle the sodium, Cup Noodles is an option.
Unfortunately, the bitter tears you will inevitably cry into your soup will only increase the already blistering sodium levels. Have a banana handy.
What restaurant in the world do you most look forward to visiting when you’re on tour?
Adam Turla: There’s funny little places we always find ourselves. There’s a taco stand powered by a generator hooked up to a minivan in Salt Lake City. We recently ate three times in two days at Pok Pok in Portland. I am just always down to eat.
SB: Adam and I love to eat together, and there are places we’ve been going to for more than ten years now, all over the world. Certain restaurants can make a place feel like home. We have a Thai place in Orlando, a tiny Alice Waters-esque joint in Santa Cruz, our favorite pho spot in Austin, and the list goes on.
What’s your worst on-the-road food story?
AT: Sarah’s shrimp salad story/haiku. I’ll let her tell it.
SB: So many terrible food moments. I have to give you two. The first one actually inspired a poem. We were at some east coast diner and I wanted something light. It was clearly the kind of place where you were supposed to get some huge sandwich and fries and shut up about it, but I wanted a salad, dammit. I ordered the Greek salad with shrimp. Here’s the poem:
The second story involves crying and a Subway sandwich, but who doesn’t have a story like that of their own?
What’s the best meal you’ve had lately?
SB: I’m a California baby, so this is partially sentimental. We had time on this last tour to drive down Highway One and stop at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero. The cozy effect of Duarte’s was heightened by the crummy, rainy weather, and they serve the best warm sourdough bread in the world, with cold, sweet butter. We had cioppino and a fried abalone sandwich. I felt high leaving there.
What’s the first thing you’ll cook for yourself when you get home from a tour?
AT: I will order Indian food or pizza and watch all the TV. When I’m ready to cook, it will be a lot of vegetables, as that’s what’s lacking on tour.
SB: Salad. Comfort food is king on tour, and by the time I get home all I crave is salad. I do a big mixed vegetable salad with dark greens, walnuts, blueberries, aromatics like cilantro and basil, carrots, beets…most colors wins.
What’s your favorite thing to cook this time of year?
AT: It’s time for our “Hey Winter, Fuck You BBQ”. It’s a spontaneous day that happens whether it’s just a couple people or a big group. It’s usually something like burgers. It’s not about following an orderly tradition, but more about a civil disobedience approach to weather. Sometimes there’s snow, but it happens because you just officially decide that winter is over whether it is or not.
SB: I make my mom’s lentil soup every winter.
How do you make your mom’s lentil soup?
SB: Rinse one pound of lentils in a fine colander under running water. Rake your fingers through the lentils and remove any small rocks that may be hiding. Bring two-and-a-half quarts of water to a boil, add the lentils and cook for one hour at a low boil. Meanwhile use your sharpest knife to dice two onions, two green peppers, four carrots, and two tomatoes. You want a very fine dice on all the vegetables; each piece should be roughly the size of a lentil.
Fry four strips of finely diced bacon in a large skillet and then remove it, leaving the fat in the pan. If it looks like less than four tablespoons, add butter to supplement. When it looks hot, add the onions. When they are translucent add the rest of the vegetables and as my mom says, “subdue them”. I think she just likes that better than “sweat them,” which is what we’re doing here. They should cook but not brown, and they’ll lose size in the pan.
When the lentils are tender, add the bacon and the vegetables and bring this mixture to a slow simmer. In the same skillet you cooked your veggies, melt six tablespoons of butter. Add six tablespoons of flour and stir until it’s bubbly and the flour is not raw. Add two cans of good chicken broth and whisk until smooth and thick. Add this roux to the soup along with salt to taste and two to four tablespoons of red wine vinegar. I always use four.
And hopefully you have some excellent crusty bread at the ready.
Freda Love Smith is a drummer and writer whose food memoir, Red Velvet Underground, is forthcoming on Agate. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter: @fredalovesmith