American Murder Song
Zdunich and Saar Hendelman of American Murder Song. Photo Credit: © Kristina Wright 2017

On Monday October 10th, 2017 we had the incredible opportunity to sit down and chat with Terrance Zdunich and Saar Hendelman of American Murder Song. The duo is an independent act that travels city to city, singing murder ballads and inviting guests to climb aboard the “black Wagon” and carry on through the trail.
Zdunuch is most known for his roles in “Repo! The Genetic Opera”, and the “Devil’s Carnival”, and the Devil’s Carnival: Alleluia!”. Both Hendelman and Zdunich co-wrote the music and songs for both Devil’s Carnival movies.

How would you describe American Murder Song?

Terrance: “American Murder Song is a collection of original murder ballads set in various aspects of American history. Our debut album and year of the project was focused on 1816, “The Year Without a Summer”. Now we’re back, and we’re doing the Donner Party.”

How did you discover your voices?

Saar: “So, I came out screaming as a child, a baby, so, I think I discovered it then. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a time where I didn’t sing. I’ve had times where I’ve sang not as well. Vocally, I’ve always sang.”

Terrance: “I guess similarly, I fell out of the She-jackal that they call my mother a bass. I hit the ground in a low note ensued. When I was a kid, the low voice was actually a creepy thing. I guess now, it works for the projects. I think for me it actually started with not so much singing, but imitating other people’s stuff. Specifically, like horror monsters from movies, and trying to copy their voices. I think like most baritone singers I imitated Elvis, Jim Morrison and things like that when I was younger. I hope, (I think) I eventually found my own voice in the middle of all of that. Saar and I’s voices probably couldn’t be more different from each other.”

History or horror?

Terrance: “What’s interesting is, I’m happy that our work often times gets put in the horror genre. But I don’t think with any of the projects, that’s what we set out to do. So, yes; we like dark stuff. If you’re going to tackle something like murder ballads, it probably can fit into a horror idiom rather easily. When you really think about it, a lot of the stuff here, it’s horrific perhaps. I think it’s more like dark poetry that’s all based in history. With the Donner Party album in particular, we did lean into things like the style of the tv shows of the 1950-60’s. But even in that, we’re still doing things like counting songs. There’s a child-like quality to some of it. Then there’s also just a raw, ugly American quality to it, which I suppose is horrific sometimes, but not straight up horror.”

Saar: “I think what we do is two different things. We try to be artistic and creative, which I think is where the poetry comes in, and then Trash. Which is the campiness, and the goofiness. Maybe the main thrust of the murder sounds like it’s the horror genre, I think really what we try to do is find the really human parts of it. With songs for example like “Unwed Henry”, which is trying to create something that’s so emotionally kind of harsh, raw, and hopefully devastating in some way. Then you have something like Lavinia, Rosalee, The Devil in Camp, that is just out and out fun. I think what we try to get is we sort of encapsulate the human element of things that are somewhat around horror as a disease; and then spread it.”

Zdunich and Saar Hendelman
Zdunich and Saar Hendelman of American Murder Song. Photo Credit: © Kristina Wright 2017

How did you meet?

Terrance: “Saar and I both are musicians and artists, and we both live in Los Angeles. I think we met through a mutual friend, an ex-girlfriend of mine, who went to school with Saar. She invited me to out to come see him perform at a club in Los Angeles. Actually, this was over 20 years ago. It’s a little scary to think. At the time he was doing sort of solo piano work. I went and saw him play, and I was really blown away. He in turn came and saw me perform at a couple of things I was doing at the time; I don’t know if he was blown away. At some point almost a decade later, we’d worked together in a peripheral way. Like he said, he played piano on several of the Repo! tracks for the movie. We started really heavily collaborating on Devil’s Carnival 1. We co-wrote the music and lyrics together for that film, found a rhythm, found that we liked and hated each other just in the perfect way. We dove into the Devil’s Carnival 2 and co-wrote all that together. Then just decided we wanted to move away from the chaos and all the hands in the kitchen that you get with film making, and start focusing on a project like American Murder Song. Which I think does a lot of the elements that we like, and the fans seem to like from the films; and distills it into something that’s much more of a live and personal experience. The short answer is that we’ve been watching each other perform for decades. We’ve been performing together now for over a decade, and we don’t plan to stop anytime soon.”

How did you pick people for parts for the Devil’s Carnival?

Saar: “On the Devil’s Carnival, we co-wrote the music, or the score. In that project, I had my input or I was a sounding board to some degree, but from a director or casting point of view; that was not my role. This is a very different project since we kind of do everything together. Even though there are some things that I execute, or he executes. If I drew stuff, you would not buy a lunchbox. I mean you might buy a lunchbox, but it would not look like what it looks like. So, on this project it’s just a different thing, we’re much more collaborative in that sense. Devil’s Carnival was just a different project, since there was Darren, who was directing the films. I think that’s an answer Terrance can give better since he had a little more hand in the films.”

Terrance: “I’ll say this: So, we’ve cast some people over the years I’ve worked, and Repo! for example started as a stage play. There’s always been a degree of finding outside talent to perform at least some of the songs that were written for these plays and films. Just to bring it back to (I suppose) how the journey ended up with American Murder Song: the both wonderful and intensely frustrating part of writing music for a film in particular. Sometimes, you actually don’t have a say necessarily in who’s going to be singing a part. Or if you do, sometimes it’s being cast for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the music. It’s like here’s a person that’s a good actor, for example; but maybe not a good singer. Or here’s a person that genre-wise is fucking perfect, but who knows how well they can sing. The interesting thing is: and I’ll take it back to Repo!, and then move it forward. With Repo!, I worked on that for YEARS as a writer, and as a performer on the stage. The graverobber in the movie (which I was fortunate enough to be able to play), was probably actually involved on set filming wise for two weeks. Two weeks, and that’s what lasts forever. Now, the process of writing it, writing the music, writing the songs, finding the funding, putting it all together, is years and years of work. Similarly, with Devil’s Carnival, Saar and I worked together for years, on honing the world, the sound of the world, the music, the voice of the world. Then in many ways you’re handing it off to in some cases strangers who are only going to be involved for a week or two, and now they are redefining all that work. Sometimes it’s for the better, like it’s like ‘Wow! That really just elevated what we’re doing!’. Other times we’re scrambling to try to save our songs, which all this care went into. It may not live up to its full potential based on the limitations of a specific performer. The short answer is that the majority of work in every project, the years and years of work, is never what you’re filming or what you’re recording in the studio. Saar and I had already been spending those years making these worlds that other people were getting to play in, and not just performers but the fans. We’re making these universes that thankfully were cool enough that others said ‘I want to dress up like these characters, I want to sing these songs, I want to run around in that world and BE part of the Devil’s Carnival, or BE part of Repo! The Genetic Opera. Now, wildly and awesomely, American Murder Song. We’ve had people dress up like the characters from these murder ballads. Some that are based on history, actual people like Pretty Lavinia Fisher, America’s first female serial killer, and others are Unwed Henry, which Saar mentioned a minute ago that are completely fictitious; but it’s grounded in a moment in history and a vernacular and a style. I think we like that process, the creation, the long-winded aspect and in many ways, that’s where we excel. So, we said let’s just do this, that’s what we’re doing anyway, and then turn it into something that’s live. It’s not relegated to ‘OK, you have one week to film this scene, and that’s what’s going to last forever.’ Every single night on the road it’s alive. There’s not even a frame on that portrait. It’s moving and oozing and spilling. Some nights are great, some nights are disastrous. Ultimately, it’s kind of like you’re not just finishing the creative project. It just continues to breathe. We’re pretty happy with ironically, a project about murder continues to breathe. We’re pretty excited doing that, and we’ll continue working with other artists. We worked with Voltaire and several other people on the first year of American Murder Song. There’s something very great about putting all that work into it and you’re actually in the driver’s seat for that final, most important step, which is what it is that people are getting to see and hear. What’s the result of all of that work.”

Saar: “I think one of the things that Terrance was mentioning is when you’re working with other people in that sense, it’s amazing. It’s like you can go in and write a song and somebody comes in and they bring a whole different life to that. It’s really cool, actually really exciting. With this where it’s different is actually we end up being the performers. Our process of trying to figure out what’s the song and how that works, how we’re singing it, who’s singing what. All of that becomes interesting, like you’re writing for somebody else, when YOU’RE that somebody else, then you go on stage, and you perform that for the audience which actually changes the experience of what it is. Every night that we go out, we get to recreate it and almost kind of write it again and it always changes, because the audience changes it. It becomes a sort of incredibly alive process, where you’re constantly murdering the audience. As soon as you’re done, you go to the next state, so nobody can arrest you.”

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