The Boston Phoenix
May 27, 1994

Mark Sandman

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Dream rock

Morphine's addictive music is seducing a phalanx of fans

by Matt Ashare

Morphine Two years ago Morphine were scrapping, pounding the streets to find a record label willing to take a chance on their first album. Now, after the release of 1993's Cure for Pain CD, they're media darlings with stacks of rave reviews, MTV exposure, and international tours to their credit.

What changed?

Nothing. Certainly not the band, whom most record companies found as hard to handle as a prickly pear. The problem was that Morphine didn't fit in a box and they still don't. They're not grunge, they're not punk, they're not folk, and they're sure as hell not techno. But they're not Frankenstein, either. In fact, once you get over the idea that singer Mark Sandman plays a two-string bass, Dana Colley honks on one and occasionally two saxophones (at the same time), and Billy Conway's drums can beat out a melody, it's obvious that they're a damn good rock band, as meat-and-potatoes as Chuck Berry, with the same side helpings of blues, jazz, and R&B. Not a neck bolt in sight.

But Cure for Pain is by no means a standard rock creation. For starters, there's the minimalist, low-end bias that's a natural outgrowth of the band's unusual instrumentation and Sandman's deep, laid-back croon. Then there's the conspicuous absence of rock's most common vehicle, the electric guitar. Dig a little deeper and you'll notice a seasoned, swinging groove that Charlie Watts would be proud to call his own and that most straight-rock drummers couldn't even fake. And to top it off, Sandman's lyrics, which touch on sexy adult themes like pacts with the Devil ("Buena") and illicit affairs ("Thursday"), have more in common with the blues than with any of Seattle's twentysomething angst.

Morphine's untraditional formula may look daunting and difficult on paper, but after a few listens it goes down as smooth and easy as perfectly aged Kentucky bourbon. Conway's soulful, propulsive backbeats mesh seamlessly with Sandman's melodic, driving bass lines, leaving Colley free to use his baritone sax like a guitar, harmonizing with the vocals, repeating hooky motifs, and building up to artful, cathartic leads. On stage, Sandman every so often takes to introducing Colley as the band's lead guitarist.

"My major influence when I was growing up was guitar players," offers Colley when we convene over lunch at the Plough and Stars. "I've tried to use the saxophone in that role, or at least with the same approach as guitarists like Billy Gibbons and Frank Zappa. That kind of guitar tone, that fat sound where one note has such a dynamic range, is what I wanted from the sax."

Colley's sax -- more specifically his occasional use of baritone and tenor at once -- and Sandman's two-string bass provided MTV Music News with an irresistible hook for a Morphine segment a few months ago. It was the kind of coverage bands kill for, but it was hard not to notice how little attention the segment paid to their songs and music.

"The double-sax thing is just another aspect of creating a sound that has its own limitations, the way any other single instrument does," comments Colley, taking on a serious, almost professorial tone. "It just happens to be photogenic so people enjoy looking at it. It's part of the vaudeville approach to selling things -- `Look here, we have a man with three heads' -- or a man with two saxes. It basically amounts to the same thing."

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, Dana will attempt to play two lead guitars," Sandman interjects pointedly. Even when he's serious, Sandman's voice carries traces of his wry smirk that let you interpret him any way you'd like. In addition to being the band's frontman, lyricist, and main songwriter, he's the one who's taken the most responsibility for the business and promotion end of things. When I talked to him last fall, prior to the release of Cure for Pain, he was still managing the band -- a baseball-style player/manager was how he characterized it. In fact, he was in the middle of going over proofs of the artwork for Cure for Pain, which he had spread out on the coffee table of his apartment. Local lawyer Deb Klein has since been hired on as manager, but Sandman still keeps his finger on the pulse of the band's affairs, and he likes to set the agenda in interviews.

"You know, every article about us starts out with stuff about the two-string bass, baritone saxophone, and no guitar," he laments. "Personally, I'd like to see reviews that say we're a good band with good songs and good playing first, and then mention that we have real different instrumentation. There are plenty of bands that are a lot stranger than us. Basically, we write pretty standard three-minute rock songs with verses, choruses, and hooks."

Sandman and Conway have already been through the travails of almost making it once. As bandmates in Treat Her Right, they put out two albums on RCA in the late '80s before the label, which was clearly unprepared to market an unconventional bluesy band, dropped them. Past history isn't the band's favorite topic, but it's had a big influence on how they're conquering the music industry this time around.

"I don't want to talk about Treat Her Right or the history of pop music and the music business," explains Sandman. "I don't want people asking me what it used to be like. I want to look forward. Billy and I were in Treat Her Right for a few years and, sure, we learned a lot of things about the business the hard way."

According to Morphine's label, Rykodisc, Cure for Pain has sold close to 200,000 units worldwide, and it hasn't been released in Japan or Brazil yet. The band's debut, Good, which originally came out on the tiny Cambridge-based Accurate/Distortion label and was eventually picked up by Rykodisc, has sold 50,000.

What the numbers don't say is that Morphine have adopted an approach to the music industry that's as unique as their sound and, so far, every bit as convincing. Rather than hiring a big-name management company, they turned to a friend with a degree in entertainment law and experience working for Boston's Taang! label, even though she'd never managed a band. For tours, they chose the same booking agency used by fiercely independent bands like DC's Fugazi and Jawbox. And rather than cashing in on their current buzz by hitching themselves to a big tour opening for a well-known headliner or accepting the string of gigs they were offered on the Lollapalooza second stage, they've opted to work their way up in the national club circuit.

"That's really the only way to develop a real relationship with the promoters and club owners in each town," explains Sandman. "Opening on a big tour means no soundcheck, no dressing room, very little money, and, unless you're lucky, nobody's there to see you. Sure you get to play in front of a few thousand people, but that doesn't matter if they're not paying attention. Basically what we've tried to do is these residency tours where we play in a city for three or four nights in a row so that we can actually get to know the place."

Conway, who acts as the band's good-natured spiritual center, offers a different line of reasoning. "I think there's a point where it's no longer a musical event and it's really something else. I saw Springsteen at the Garden and it was a spectacle, but it wasn't really musical. There were moments, but they weren't musical moments, they were moments of his raw power. I felt like I wanted some popcorn to watch this thing, this performance.

"I prefer a venue that allows for musical moments, and once it goes beyond that it's no longer in the realm of what I want to do, because I'm just looking for music. The show is the hour and a half in the day that I look forward to. One of the things I've learned is that the rest of the stuff, the interviews and the moving from gig to gig, is just preparation for that hour and a half. My job is to make sure that amid all that other stuff, I have all my faculties and inspiration ready to go for that hour and a half because I'll be damned if I'm going to let anybody ruin my favorite part of the day."

Conway's "favorite part of the day" has brightened a lot of clubgoers' evenings since September, when Morphine began an incessant round of touring that's scheduled to continue through the end of the summer. A five-week jaunt through Europe that included a slot at one of those mind-boggling festivals we always hear about in the States (in Bourges, France) brought capacity crowds to all but three of their club dates. A January gig at LA's Troubadour began with a line stretching around the block and ended with a lot of industry people raving.

Sandman slept through the big earthquake that rocked LA while Morphine were there -- "My bed was resting on a particularly solid part of the hotel's foundation" -- but the band were up for doing some small club rockin' themselves the following night. As it turned out, they were the only band to brave the curfew and play, and they were rewarded with a blurb in Rolling Stone. A week later, the accidental media barrage continued with a triumphant little gig on Conan O'Brien's ailing TV show, and Cure for Pain's been selling a steady 3000 copies a week in the US ever since.

More important, for a band hell-bent on proving themselves in clubland, Morphine have been learning how to adapt the low-key charm that came so naturally in small rooms like the Plough and the Middle East to larger venues. In Austin this spring they commanded the stage in front of 2500 at the Terrace and played a set that was easily one of the highlights of the annual South by Southwest Music Conference -- a point that was emphasized by Entertainment Weekly's coverage of the industry event, which included a prominent photo of the band.

"You can't play as much as we do and not get better," comments Conway.

"We've been playing a lot and that helps," continues Sandman. "I feel that I've put more energy into involving the audience and reaching out a little by introducing ourselves. You know, you introduce the band and then say something really sincere like `God, what a great-looking audience.' In Europe I even learned all the show-biz clichés as soon as we got to each country. It's just self-defense, or a way of putting ourselves at ease. But you can also tell that the audience appreciates little things like knowing our names.

"One thing that I used to like about playing here at the Plough is that there's no stage. It's just a bar with a band. When you're playing a big room and you're standing up higher than everyone else with all these lights pointed at you, it's almost a little too much. So I think we also try and break down that barrier a little bit."

So as not to leave the wrong impression, Conway clarifies Sandman's point. "It's not like we come out with smoke, lights, and flashpots. We come out and it's not going to be a big rock show, it's going to be us doing our thing. For me to play my best and to squeeze the most out of the songs that I can, I need to feel relaxed and I need to feel that we're all in synch. If we race out there and try and put on a big rock show, then it's not going to be me doing what I do best."

When we met for lunch, Morphine had been off the road for two weeks. They spent two days in the studio and had just finished a five-day marathon of 45 interviews in preparation for shows in Holland (where they'll play the two-day, sold-out, 70,000-capacity Pink Pop Festival with the Breeders, Soul Asylum, and Rage Against the Machine), Australia, and the US. They'll be back in Boston on June 1 for a show at Avalon, with openers Letters to Cleo and Smackmelon, after which they'll head back to Europe, Canada, and across the US. On August 6, they'll be headlining a little venue in New York City called Central Park -- a big step for a band who miss the down-to-earth atmosphere of the Plough. But none of that's changed their attitude about music -- or anything else.

"I have to admit that I miss having the chance to really let loose and not worry so much about the paying customer," says Colley. "It frees you up to do a lot of things, and that's really the environment in which Morphine developed."

Sandman, who's always kept two or three side projects going around Boston, agrees. "I'm looking forward to having some time off the road so I can try some new combos out. It's a good way for me to come up with songs . . . just get a groove started, lay some words over it, and sometimes it just all falls together like magic."

Sandman's also looking into branching out with Morphine. "We've had a lot of interest from filmmakers and directors about writing and recording soundtrack music. I think that's something that would be good for us. I would also like to have our own variety show. We'd just have all these talented people that we know come on and read from the book they're writing, paint a painting, play a song, or show a short film. It would be a network television show, like The Dean Martin Show. I think anything can reach mass popularity if it's fed into the major media. At least I think this band is a perfect example of the fact that people are much more open to new and different things than they're given credit for."

It's going to be at least a few months before Morphine have time to settle back into their old habits, record a new album, or venture into new territory. Beavis and Butt-head have already accepted the "Cure for Pain" video for their show, 120 Minutes just started giving the band some attention, and commercial radio is finally finding a place for their low-rock, so it's a fair bet that Morphine are far from reaching their peak.

Are the touring and the media attention wearing the band out? Well, as Sandman puts it, "There are some weary moments, but there are weary moments around your house, too."

[Music Footer]

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