Mark Sandman's Morphine are reborn
Cellars by Starlight by Matt Ashare
It's late October, and I'm sitting across from drummer Billy Conway and
saxophonist Dana Colley at what used to be Mark Sandman's kitchen table,
picking self-consciously at a piece of to-go vegetarian lasagna from the City
Girl Café and trying in vain to recall how one usually goes about
initiating the kind of casual conversation that puts everyone at ease. At a
loss, I turn my head to survey the surroundings -- the spacious SoHo-style
Cambridge loft where, less than four months earlier, Sandman had been living
happily with his girlfriend, Sabine, and rehearsing and recording with his band
Morphine. What to do with the loft and its music-related contents? Like the
Morphine album Sandman had finished mixing just weeks before his death and the
issue of whether Colley and Conway would ever have a chance to perform that
material live, the loft had become a looming question mark hanging over the
wreckage of Morphine. "It feels really strange to be here," I hear myself blurt
out before I have a chance to stop. "It's just that I haven't really been here
since, ah, well, since, ah . . . since, ah, you
know . . . " So much for casual conversation.
It was the Fourth of July weekend when Boston got the news that 47-year-old
Mark Sandman had suffered a fatal heart attack while performing with Morphine
in front of a festival crowd in Italy. Aside from being one of
Boston/Cambridge's more valued musical ambassadors to the world, Sandman had
been the prime musical mover behind a vital local network of players whom he
drew to a place where avant intersected with pop, rock with jazz and blues, old
with young -- "the central nervous system of our scene," is how
Either/Orchestra saxophonist Russ Gershon remembered Mark in a eulogy he
delivered at the funeral. In the weeks following Sandman's death, various
members of that scene came together in various configurations to play music --
Mark's music -- at Conway's farm, Sandman's loft, the Lizard Lounge, and, on a
violently rainy July 25, a memorial concert in Central Square.
In February, following the release this Tuesday of the new Morphine album
The Night (DreamWorks), a more formalized ensemble will convene and
attempt to pick up where Morphine left off, or at least to carry Sandman's
music forward in his absence. The nine-member Orchestra Morphine features
Colley on tenor, baritone, and bass saxophone; Conway on drums and percussion;
Gershon on tenor saxophone; original Morphine drummer Jerome Deupree; trumpeter
Tom Halter; keyboardist Evan Harriman; bassist Mike Rivard; and singers Laurie
Sargent and Christian McNeill. The group have four area shows scheduled in
February: the 4th at Pearl Street in Northampton, the 6th at the Somerville
Theatre, the 11th at the Higher Ground outside Burlington, Vermont, and the
12th at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence. They also have a few shows
booked for March, in Washington (DC) and Philadelphia and at the Bowery
Ballroom in New York City. And come May, they'll be embarking on a full
national tour, which will be followed by a summer tour of Europe that, if all
goes according to plan, will bring them back to the site of Sandman's last
stand, the Nel Nome del Rock festival in Palestrina, Italy.
In a way, it's fitting that Colley and Conway have enlisted a group so much
larger than the Morphine trio -- "Morphine times three," as Colley jokingly
referred to Orchestra Morphine -- to tour behind The Night. Because
The Night was the first time Sandman felt comfortable reaching beyond
the two-string-slide-bass/baritone-saxophone/drums trio format to incorporate a
range of other instruments and a number of different players on a Morphine
album. For starters, along with his usual two-string slide bass and
part-guitar/part-bass-tritar inventions, he's credited with everything from
traditional four-string bass, acoustic guitar, and trombone to the distorted
electric guitar that howls in the background on the tempestuous and vaguely
discordant "So Many Ways" and the gorgeous skeletal grand-piano chords that lay
the foundation for the disc's soulful title track. And, according to Conway,
nearly all the songs feature him and Jerome Deupree playing in tandem. "There
were a bunch of tracks for the album where Jerome and I had no idea we were
recording a song. You know, because we wouldn't always have the headphones on.
We'd hear his bass in the room and there'd be a microphone and Mark would be
singing. And he just motioned for us to keep going. That's how loose it was. I
think `Like a Mirror' was like that."
Elsewhere, for two of the disc's more musically challenging tracks, the
Eastern/Arabic-tinged "Rope on Fire" and the bluesy "Take Me with You," Sandman
wrote string-trio arrangements that were executed by violinist Joseph Kessler,
cellist Jane Scarpantino, and, in keeping with Morphine's low-rock tradition,
double-bassist Mike Rivard. Sandman's pal John Medeski of Medeski Martin and
Wood was tapped for some of his virtuoso organ playing on another couple of
tracks, the grooving party-time tune "Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer" and the
moodier, mysterious "I'm Yours, You're Mine," in which deep sax tones mesh with
Medeski's Hammond chords to create a dense dark drone that hovers like an
impenetrable fog around Sandman's distant vocals. And Sandman also brought in a
few friends from the local music scene to record some background vocals,
including Margaret Garrett and Tara MacManus of the blues-punk duo Mr.
Airplane Man (whose first demos Mark had produced) and Linda Viens and
Carolyn Kaylor of Crown Electric Company.
"I think Mark really had designs on the this record to do something not
necessarily more hi-fi but that was more produced," Conway recounts. "It sort
of became the vernacular that there were old Morphine songs and new Morphine
songs. And Mark was constantly pushing toward what he thought of as the new
Morphine songs. He was after something that was beyond where we were at. So it
was a struggle for him to get us to that point. I don't think he could have
articulated what it was he was after. He just sort of knew what he didn't want.
It was like, the first four records were one aspect of the band and then this
record was going to be the beginning of the next phase. It wasn't a conscious
thing -- it wasn't like we said, `Let's go and make a record with strings.' It
was just a very natural thing."
Colley adds, "I also think Mark was a little disappointed after like
swimming that people were saying, `How long can they continue to do this
thing with just bass, drums, and sax?' "
"He kept on saying that most bands don't have to reinvent their sound for every
album," Conway continues.
"But the whole bass/drums/sax thing was based on a misconception to begin
with," reveals Colley, "because it really was never as simple as we had been
True enough. Sandman wisely used the concept of low rock, of the guitar-less
trio, of the bass with only two strings as a hook, to draw media attention and
create a mystique around the band. In other words, he had some P.T. Barnum in
him. Yet a number of Morphine songs broke with the low-rock formula -- "In
Spite of Me," from the Cure for Pain album, featured Jimmy Ryan on
mandolin, and then there was the blatantly Prince-ly synth on like
swimming's "Early to Bed." Besides, though Morphine were a discrete
unit -- the Sandman/Conway/Colley trio -- Sandman was always working on his
songs, Morphine songs, in other ensembles, like the funkier
guitar-and-horn-section-driven Hypnosonics (whom Orchestra Morphine most
resemble) and the folkier Pale Brothers (with mandolinist Jimmy Ryan). So with
Morphine, you were really getting only part of the picture. But what made
The Night so different is that for the first time Sandman recorded and
produced more or less the entire album himself at High-n-dry, the home studio
at his Cambridge loft, instead of simply demoing the songs there and then
heading into a commercial studio with a professional producer to do the real
thing. And that gave him the freedom to experiment more with arrangements and
instrumentation, and the flexibility to allow some of what he'd been doing in
his other projects to seep onto a Morphine album.
"We were always recording ourselves at the loft," Conway recalls. "And we
always liked the sound of our own lo-fi gear. But during the period that we
were working on this album, Mark was upgrading the studio equipment and it was
getting more hi-fi. And it's always been so much more comfortable for us to
record here at the loft than at a regular studio. I mean, it was a musician's
dream, full of great microphones and instruments. And yet we were at home, so
it was really casual. Some days you'd come over to record and you would not
even play. You'd just end up listening to music all day. But it was a beehive
five days a week, for us anyway. There were people coming and going all the
As Colley sees it, "Every song Mark ever wrote got put through different
structures, different arrangements, different tunings, different band formats.
It would never be the same twice, ever. It was always evolving right up until
the last second before it got put on tape."
"For example, the song `I'm Yours, You're Mine' goes back to the Treat Her
Right days," Conway explains, referring to the band he and Mark were in before
Morphine. "It had been kicking around for a long time. We recorded it with a
traditional drum track, but we ended up with a track where it just had hi-hat.
I think we went off in that direction with it because Mark didn't want to treat
it like an old Morphine song."
It is a shame that Sandman isn't around to help take the songs from The
Night to the next level in a live setting. Or to enjoy the fruits of the
album that stands as a major artistic breakthrough for him and the band.
Morphine had been in something of a holding pattern for the couple of years
following their initial national successes. And Sandman had struggled with the
difficult decision of where next to take the band. It is, however, a relief not
only that the people Sandman brought together to make music at his loft are
continuing to play together, but that they are giving his music a chance for a
"We learned at the memorial concerts and in the rehearsals leading up to it
that Mark's songs are really good songs that somebody else can sing,"
Colley says. "And we also realized that there is a lot of life left in these
new songs, because we didn't get to tour behind this album with Mark. So the
way I see it, we can either close up shop or we can figure out a way to go out
there and play these songs for people. I mean, I can imagine feeling different
about it if, for example, we'd been out on the road touring behind this record
when it happened. And I have to admit for myself it's important to make sure
that it doesn't turn into an elongated funeral. But for me it's actually easier
to play the songs with people who are giving something to the songs than it is
to listen to them."