Horror has historically been a sorely neglected genre. Luckily, a few people have made it their work to keep the genre not only alive but thriving and growing. Saar Hendelman and Terrance Zdunich have been working together for many years now to create unique and stirring works. Terrance was one of the minds behind Repo: the Genetic Opera, a horror musical set in a world where transplanted organs come with heavy debts and, if left unpaid, legal assassins can claim them for their owners by force. A few years later they met collaborating on the Devil’s Carnival, a Paradise Lost cum Aesop’s Fables tale of a God who demands perfection and rejects the rest (and the Devil who takes them).
American Murder Song is their most recent collaboration, a collection of albums focusing on violence in American history and telling the stories of the frontier with a series of folk-style tunes. Whereas earlier albums took place in 1816, the year without a summer, the last set of songs told the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, whose tale of loss and paranoia is easily one of the greatest tragedies in American history. In all seriousness, they were more than just lost travellers who ate one another. Go read the wikipedia page and try not to cry yourself to sleep.
Coming off a tour of this new album, American Murder Song is releasing the Donner Party Board Game, an adventure set in the frozen hell of frontier California where the survivors must make their way to Sacramento or die trying. I spoke with the team behind it to get some insight into their history, process, and plans for this new game.
GT: How did the two of you meet and begin working together?
Saar: We’ve actually known each other for way longer than we care to admit. We met through a mutual friend and became admirers of each other’s works: running in the same creative circles and seeing each other perform around town. Early on in the development of The Devil’s Carnival, we talked about collaborating. It’s now seven years later and we’re writing murder ballads and making board games.
GT: During your careers, you have independently produced stage musicals, films, comic books, musical albums, and more. I’m sure you have ideas constantly kicking around in your heads, especially now that you know what it takes to make each of these types of content. How do you decide which projects to go through with?
Terrance: We usually decide on a project based on its creative merits, and then worry about the logistics. This cart-before-the-horse approach often leads to a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to practically realize our vision, but it also forces us to push the envelope and step outside our comfort zones. When we decided to take on producing an American Murder Song board game, for example, the idea began as a plot device for a series of videos on The Donner Party, which was the subject of our last concept album. The game board was essentially a really cool on-screen prop. But when we got into the weeds of it, the project quickly morphed into something grander and more elaborate. A year of research, development and game trials followed, and now strangers will be able to play our The Donner Party Board Game. That’s pretty typical of our creative process.
GT: Clearly something like a totally independent film is a more onerous task than an album. How have your decisions on what to work on changed over the years?
Saar: If we were sane people (and clearly we are not), we’d know there are real difference of scope between these types of projects. But we tend to invest ourselves pretty heavily regardless of the charge, so ultimately it’s about how we connect to the subject matter and what perspective we can offer that’s our own.
GT: You have been independent creators long before the crowdfunding movement, and now that it has come around you still haven’t adopted it. It seems like a Kickstarter or Patreon campaign would serve you very well, so what is it that makes you eschew these funding models?
Terrance: We’re not against crowdfunding platforms. In fact, our projects have always relied on audience participation. With American Murder Song we’re inviting folks to support our project by pre-ordering The Donner Party Board Game. It ships in June, but by purchasing a game now, you’ll be helping to fund the recording of a new American Murder Song album, among other things.
GT: What is your history with board games? Given your previous work, this seems like a surprising jump in media and genre.
Saar: We love taking left turns with our work, and this was one of the biggest. Ultimately, we’re storytellers, so we approached the game from that perspective to create an American Murder Song tabletop adventure. It required a lot of nerdy undercover work to get our bearings – infiltrating game stores for research and picking our friends’ brains to gather ideas on what kind of game we’d be making. We learned that smack-talking was a big part of gaming, and that comes so naturally to us. So we spent a year working through the kinks and tested the hell out of this thing, and in the end, the experience we had with people playing it was a blast.
GT: What can you share about the Donner Party game itself, in terms of gameplay and themes?
Terrance: It’s an adventure game with lots of cool visuals that can be played over drinks with friends and doesn’t require a bible of instructions to get started. Players step into the historical snowshoes of America’s favorite cannibals, The Donner Party, and spend and collect “Fingers Of Meat” along the trail. Just know that this game is not some cheap marketing gimmick by a band that simply plops pictures of themselves onto a Monopoly board…. this game’s the real shit.
GT: Apart from the two of you, who was involved in the process of creating this game?
Saar: We have to doff our hats to Oceano Ransford, our fantastic graphic designer and partner-in-crime. He gave the game a really distinct style, manipulated and blood-stained every piece of art, and gave a real cohesion to our ideas. We also had the help of many good friends who were kind enough to play the game while the two of us lurked about in the shadows taking notes and figuring out what was working and what was not. The whole endeavor was a great learning curve and we are so thankful to everyone who helped us through it.
GT: Have your other self-created projects made this an easier process? I can see how something like publishing a comic book could give you some important experience when it comes to creating a board game.
Terrance: Some things do get easier with experience, but there’s no substitution for having the balls to commit to a creative idea, and then putting in the hours to see it through. The Donner Party Board Game took twelve months to develop. We set out to make a game that we would want to play, and now others will be able to play it, too. It’s daunting to reflect on how long everything takes to create, but it’s so worth it in the end.
GT: American Murder Song, and the upcoming board game, focuses on some dark historical ground. How do you go about exploring these stories balancing entertainment with respectfulness of the real people who were involved?
Saar: It’s ultimately a matter of a point of view. These crime stories interest us because there’s something bigger happening in the background. Murder is part of the setting, but the full story is way more complicated and fascinating. That’s the story we tell. And if we do that well, the balance should exist there naturally.
GT: For fans who are paying attention to your music and performances, there seems to be an underlying story about the travelers of the Black Wagon. While I’m sure you don’t want this to overcome the power of the true stories you are telling, are you considering ever presenting their tale directly?
Terrance: In American Murder Song, Messrs. Storm and Tender are our alter egos. They introduce audiences to American Murder Song’s world of murder ballads and history, as well as invite players of The Donner Party Board Game to test their luck on the game’s trail. Messrs. Storm and Tender even pop up as Wild Cards within the game to wreak some mischief, and reveal a little more of their backstories in the process.
GT: Do you ever see the loyalty of your fanbase as a detriment to your own creativity? Everything you put out is completely distinct from the last, and we are better for seeing you experiment more and more with your work. At the same time, I wonder if there will always be people who just want more of Devil’s Carnival or Repo, regardless of whether you can or want to continue working on those.
Saar: The short answer is no. We love pushing boundaries, tackling things that we shouldn’t and making crazy left turns. If we stopped doing that, we’d be miserable and the work would suffer. Though it would sound good on paper, no one would really want to see The Devil’s Carnival 14: Lucifer vs. Predator. The music would be awful.
GT: Question I ask a lot of people who work independently, and I especially want to get your perspective on it because of the loyalty of your fans, and the specialized tastes your work caters to. How do you personally measure success, financially, personally, or otherwise?
Terrance: No reasonable person would put the amount of time, energy and resources that we do into these wacky art projects, so our success barometer is definitely off-kilter. There’s no handbook for being an independent artist who specializes in historical murder ballads and cult musical films, who sometimes moonlight as board games developers. As such, our satisfaction comes from seeing projects through to fruition, and then having strangers enjoy the work. We’re very much looking forward to what folks think of The Donner Party Board Game, and hope they have as much fun playing it as we did creating it.
GT: Similarly, how do you manage criticism, especially with work that is meant for specialized audiences? I remember back when Repo was new, some reviewers tore into it not because of the objective quality of the material but because they clearly didn’t understand the movie on a far more basic level. How do you piece out useful criticism from the rest?
Saar: Nothing is for everybody. We are not immune to the punishment of criticism, but you can’t be too concerned about it as an artist. Everybody has their own taste (and they should). What we’re concerned about is creating badass art and being able to stand behind it. If we misstep or fuck up, we’ll own up, it’s part of the process. We try to keep that to a minimum.
GT: Lastly, where should fans look for more information? We know you have another album on the way as well as this game, but what else should we look into?
Terrance: We definitely have a lot coming down the pike with American Murder Song this year. To be kept in the loop on new music, tours and more, be sure to follow us on all of our social media platforms. In the age of constant internet noise, the hardest part of what we do is trying to get our art in front of those who we know will enjoy it, so please follow us on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Spotify, and help us spread the word to all your spooky friends.
The Donner Party Board Game is replete with a trailer and store page, and I encourage you to check each of these out as well. This is a unique property from a similarly unorthodox group of creators, and I will be interested to track its path through the wilderness of gaming and see how it comes out.