End of the Line
Rumors that the Murder City Devils—the Seattle seven-piece long associated with the revival of bombastic, dirgy, hellfire garage rock—are breaking up appear to be true.
"It seems like it's time, it's time to move on," says vocalist Spencer Moody, known for his economy of speech in interviews.
Fans will get one last chance to see the band when they tour the U.S. in October. The band evinced some concern the shows would be seen as a farewell tour; they say they're touring simply to honor commitments. But when all's said and done, a farewell tour seems to be exactly what it is.
The decision to break up follows the recent departure of keyboardist Leslie Hardy, who left because of wrist problems, and the subsequent cancellation of a European tour. Bassist Derek Fudesco has been playing in both MCD and Pretty Girls Make Graves and would like more time to focus on the latter.
These are the official reasons for the breakup. And the unofficial reasons?
"It's kind of like, 'Let's break up while we're all still friends,'" says Moody. "I like everyone in the band and have a lot of respect for everyone. I think there were just too many conflicts—not personal conflicts, but people had different ideas about how much they wanted to tour and being able to commit to a full-time band."
When they return from the October tour, Moody, guitarists Nate Manny and Dann Gallucci, drummer Coady Willis, and roadie Gabe will form a new band. "You'll be able to hear that it's us, but it'll be different," he says.
If Moody sounds emotionless—which, in a sense, he does—it could be that he is and for a couple of reasons. For one, by the time a band announce their breakup, they've no doubt talked it into the ground. For two, the World Trade Center Towers collapsed six days before our conversation and, in truth, most things, including the collapse of a great band, seem pretty small right now.
"I think I might be more bothered by [the terrorist attacks] now than when it first happened," says Moody, acknowledging that maybe the shock is wearing off. "At the time, it seemed so incredible and unbelievable and awful, and given a little more time . . ." His voice trails off. How does he feel about the world right now? "Not very good," he says quietly. "I don't know. Not good."
A bit of life comes back into Moody's voice when he talks about his happiest moments in the band. "It was a really good feeling the first time we got flown somewhere," he recalls. "We got flown to England. That was awesome. And it felt good the first time I ever got wasted in a foreign country."
You laugh because it seems odd that this would be a great memory, but there's actually something quite sweet about the story: Moody and the rest of the band are in a bar in London. He gets drunk and decides he needs to go back to the hotel. He gets lost on his way back, so he wanders around, drunk and lost in a foreign country, feeling incredibly lucky and special and aware that he's doing exactly what he wants to be doing at that point in his life.
"Those are the times when you feel like you're doing what you want to do, and it's everything you thought it could be," he says.
The unhappiest moments are more recent. "When we had to cancel the European tour, and we all had to go home. I just wanted to be in Europe so bad, and I was just sitting around at home with nothing to do, not knowing what was going on with the band, not knowing what was going to happen."
The Murder City Devils started five years ago with a pretty grand program. "We had this idea of taking on the world, you know, and fuck everyone, we're just going to do what we want to do." Moody talks of the idea of a "gusto train," which was "moving and gaining momentum and powered by gusto, and nothing can stop it, and then the gusto train ran out of coal, or you could feel it running out of coal. It didn't seem like it was ever going to be what it was."
It's funny to think a band that sings noirish songs filled with regret, lament, drinking and self-sabotage envisioned themselves aboard something as peppy as a "gusto train."
"I don't know. It just felt like it was really hard to get anything done, and things were moving slowly," says Moody. The irony, for Moody, is that he was never happier with the band's music than he was at the end. "We were enjoying the songs more than ever before. Everyone was really happy with the music we were writing," he says.
Fans are left with the recently released Thelema, an EP Moody says is the best record they've put out. More similar to last year's full-length In Name and Blood than to the band's earlier, more bombastic records Empty Bottles Broken Hearts (1998) and The Murder City Devils (1997), Thelema is rich, ominous and keyboard-driven. Lyrically, it concerns itself with the themes that seem to haunt Moody: self-sabotage, leaving, doomed lives, history. The third song, "Midnight Service at the Mutter Museum," is particularly outstanding.
"The Mutter Museum is the museum of medical oddities [in Philadephia]. It's really old and creepy," says Moody. "It's all deformed skeletons and exhibits about strange diseases and babies in pickle jars. It's very old, and everything is in these glass cases, and the main museum is in this hall with two levels, so when you're in the lower level, everything goes up two floors above you. It's a strange environment, and the song's about sort of finding comfort in strange, dark things and making peace and being a kid who's drawn to things that are outside the normal and finding strength in that instead of letting it hurt you."
One line in the song—"Put on your boots/put on your makeup in the parking lot . . . It's midnight service at the Mutter Museum/and I'm glad, glad that you're here"—is, Moody says, about the kids who find solace in the concerts of people like Marilyn Manson or the Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and how they have to change into their garb in the parking lot because obviously they had to leave their parents' houses looking normal.
But it's easy to draw parallels between freak or sideshow performances and the way a touring band begins to feel after a lot of time on the road. When a rock band starts singing about sideshow-type stuff, it seems a safe bet it's because some part of them identifies.
Elsewhere on Thelema, Moody sings about John Merrick (the Elephant Man) and the Fox sisters, who were known for the spirit-knocking scam. "These sisters had these really sad, crazy lives and they couldn't escape this thing they'd created," says Moody, who admits he was taken with these figures because "a lot of people lead lives that are tragic and every bit as painful but leave no mark, leave no lesson for the rest of us. A person like the Elephant Man, regardless of the reality of his daily life, left something the rest of us can relate to in a certain way. We can see a part of ourselves that otherwise wouldn't have been revealed to us without such an outstanding figure. There's a beauty in that that most of us will never be able to attain."
While talking about the songs, Moody seems relieved and much more forthcoming. At the same time, he knows what to expect from future interviews. "We used to always have to answer 'How did the band start?'" he says. "Now we'll have to answer 'Why is the band ending?'"
Murder City Devils start their last tour ever at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 629-0377. Mon., 7:30 p.m. $11.99. All ages.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.