From his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, Morphine's Mark Sandman speaks slowly and lazily, his baritone voice rumbling over the telephone wires on a weekday afternoon. The bassist and vocalist sounds a bit worn down, or maybe it's just his overwhelmingly mellow disposition. Either way he has been working on some music this morning, mixing the band's sedated, hypnotic, and self-described "low rock" sounds into new tracks for an album (the first in two years) that is due out this fall. It's a tedious process. Luckily for Sandman his own Hi-N-Dry studio is in his house, so the tools to create a tranquilized finish are only a room or two away.
Mellow or minimalist, Sandman is not going to be the easiest interview. He answers intentionally open-ended questions with few words, usually vague. He speaks cautiously, as though screening his responses as they make their way from his mind to his mouth, and is he careful not to say too much. He seems almost embarrassed at the relative fame of this band that started simply as a side project seven years ago. Most of all he sounds sick of answering questions he's been asked so many times before, mainly queries about the band's unusual instrumental lineup. But when pried out, these answers prove to be the most intriguing.
According to Sandman Morphine's inception was basically an accident. In the early '90s Sandman was a member of the Boston-based, major-label band Treat Her Right, but he spent lots of time experimenting with other musicians in casual side projects. Once while pursuing an interest in one-string African instruments, he began fooling around with alternative ways of stringing up his own electric bass. With just one string on his bass and a guitar slide in his hand, he jammed with saxophonist Dana Colley, and they heard something they liked. So they hooked up with drummer Jerome Deupree and scheduled a show. Somehow the combination worked; there was no need for the chord-driven support of traditional instruments like guitar or piano. Instead the trio forged a unique sound that grooved with the smoothness of cool jazz, pulsed with the aggressive and simplistic power of rock and roll, and murmured darkly with bottom-heavy, drugged-out sonic spaces.
"It sounded good to us, so we played together again and it started taking over our lives," Sandman says. "Of all of our previous projects, somehow this was the one that took off."
Over the next few months, the band played at bars around Cambridge and Boston, with plenty of gigs at after-hour parties at a friend's loft. In 1992 the band released the album Good on Accurate/Distortion records (reissued in 1993 by Rykodisc) and won the Boston Music Awards' Indie Debut Album of the Year for this first effort. Songs such as "You Speak My Language," "Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave," and "Have a Lucky Day" captured the band's trademark sound, sort of like late-night smoky haze for the ears. Morphine's sophomore album Cure For Pain (Rykodisc) was its commercial breakthrough, and the group went international, touring sixteen countries across Europe. Amidst the success Deupree left the band and Treat Her Right's drummer Billy Conway filled the void. Interest rolled in from Hollywood, and a steady offering of soundtrack slots opened for the band. Morphine's songs have set the noirish mood for films such as Get Shorty and Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, and added a wistful touch to Beautiful Girls. A recently recorded song, "You're an Artist," featuring Morphine with drummer Billy Beard and Chris Ballew, the former bassist for the now-defunct Presidents of the United States of America, is slated to appear in this spring's movie The Mod Squad.
Following Cure for Pain, 1995's Yes (Rykodisc) brought the band even more air play with songs like the flashy ass-shaker "Super Sex" and the dirty, rocking "Honey White." And 1997's Like Swimming (DreamWorks/Rykodisc) was an unsurprising though not necessarily disappointing continuation of Yes, as Morphine toyed with its sound, occasionally adding other instruments to augment their sparse style.
"We never really feel [our sound is] limited because Dana can cover a lot of territory on the sax, almost as if he's playing a guitar," Sandman says. "We're much more inclined to take something away than to add."
With that approach Morphine's new album should not stray drastically from the band's past efforts. Sandman explains their latest direction is to expand laterally; that is, to add more of what they already have: more horns, more bass, more drums. A few guest artists should make their way into the mix as well. And the band members may play around with some new sounds; they've been experimenting with a grand piano, a bass saxophone and an instrument mentioned on the band's Website, www.morphine3.com, as an MDX collapsible two-string prototype.
As I speak with Sandman on the phone, he asks me to hold so he can answer the door. When he returns he tells me that a fellow from Morocco has just arrived to work on material that could end up on the recording. This new arrival, Brahim Fribgane, plays a fretless, Middle Eastern predecessor to the guitar called an oud. Sandman is impressed: "He can play anything on it."
Morphine is touring "just to have some fun" and to hit territory they've previously missed -- like Florida. Original drummer Deupree joins the trio on the road this time (and maybe more) to help Conway and double Morphine's rhythmic assault. Sandman sounds more than ready to hit the road.
"Recording is just such a tedious process, and time can fly by without a lot to show for it," he says. "But playing live is great, because you can just go right out there and play."
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Morphine has certainly done its share of touring over the past six or seven years, including playing massive shows for crowds of up to 75,000 people at Britain's Glastonbury and Reading summer festivals. But Sandman prefers smaller venues for more intimate shows. And if you've ever seen Morphine, it's easy to understand why. A darkened room is the perfect environment for this band. Sandman hovers tall onstage, his cheeks gaunt in a chiseled, near-expressionless face, and his gaze roving across the crowd with a mixture of Humphrey Bogart's cool and the Addams Family's Lurch's ominous stare. Colley blows air through one, maybe two saxophones at a time, then stands motionless as Sandman sings of Day-Glo orange life preservers with the straight-faced humor of comedian Steven Wright. At the back of the stage, Conway settles in at the drums, popping and rolling his sticks off his snares, pinging his shimmering ride cymbals, which break through the deep, dark music as his arms and legs move in a graceful, trancelike dance.
"At first we thought a band with a name like Morphine would be destined to stay local forever. But for some reason, it worked out," Sandman says. "No one minded the name; I guess it just really fits the music."
Morphine performs 8:00 p.m. Friday, March 19 at the Carefree Theater, 2000 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach. Tickets are $17 in advance, $19 day of the show. Call 561-833-7305 for details.