Mark Sandman of Morphine
“Our attitude is every tour could be our last tour.”
At the Middle East Restaurant, Cambridge, Massachusetts
February 10, 1997
As much as I (and many others) liked Morphine’s music, it was not a band anyone ever expected to see sign a major label record deal. Too much going against it: the druggy name, the dark sound, the beat poet lyrics, the oddball instrumentation: drums, baritone sax and a two-string bass, whatever the hell a two-string bass was. I mean, really?
But Morphine defied my expectations and likely their own. I sat down for dinner with Morphine’s leader, two-string bass inventor Mark Sandman, at maybe his favorite hangout spot – the Middle East, a restaurant/rock club complex – in maybe his favorite neighborhood – Central Square – one month before the release of “Like Swimming,” the band’s fourth album and its first for a big label, Dreamworks. We ate falafel, drank beer and talked, the 44-year old Sandman exhibiting a dry sense of humor and a laconic demeanor that matched sleepy Robert Mitchum eyes that didn’t miss a thing.
I was as stunned as everyone else when a bit more than two years later -–on July 3, 1999 – Sandman collapsed onstage at Palestrina, Italy, felled by a fatal heart attack.
I suspect that there is a lot of casual chit-chat on the original tape recording of our conversation (made over the course of a leisurely meal) that I didn’t bother to transcribe at the time, given my aim was to write a focused column in the Boston Herald. I hope to re-listen to the tape and transcribe every word of it sometime in the future. Until then, I give you the following, which includes not everything Mark said, but all of the best parts.
What’s the band doing while you’re waiting for the new album to come out?
We’re going to use this place [the Middle East Restaurant & Nightclub] to practice for the tour. We haven’t been gigging much lately. We’ve done the odd show, but we haven’t been playing every night.
So you’ll be going on tour?
Yeah. We’re going to go back to everywhere we were before – Japan, Australia, Europe. The response varies from place to place, but overall it’s pretty good. We’ve had really successful club tours just about everywhere we’ve been. Portugal for some reason has gone crazy for Morphine, I don’t know why. Belgium is good for us. And Australia, we’ve had two sold out tours. And the U.S. is good for us. Some cities we like a little extra, so we try to stay a few extra nights in Chicago, L.A., New York, Austin, New Orleans and Boston of course. We play 500 to 1500 seat places everywhere. England’s not that good for us, but we have been on lots of TV shows and played Glastonbury and Reading. They’re just so into their own music right now, which is great. I’m glad there’s a country where they like their own music.
It seems slightly odd that a sunny California label like Dreamworks would sign a sort of dark, East Coast band like Morphine.
They’re just getting started. I don’t know if they’re so sunny just cause they’re in Southern California. That’s where O.J. lives. We knew [Dreamworks Records] by reputation from Warner Brothers. They’re respected. Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker are the two main people. And they own the company. They’re not going to be leaving and going to another label in six months. They came to us. They came to a show we did in San Francisco and sent a card backstage. They said we were the first band they wanted to sign. We were flattered of course. But we also checked it out and then signed a deal saying we’d come over after our Ryko deal. After this album and one more, then we’ll be on Dreamworks exclusively.
Did you think signing a deal with a bigger label was something that was inevitable?
I don’t know if it was inevitable. When the situation with Dreamworks presented itself, it just seemed like the right move. We like the people, the fact that it’s a new company. And they’re going out and hiring the best people from all the other labels. In a way similar to what they did with us, they’re signing people up before their contracts are over. It wasn’t that we hated Ryko [at that time, a Salem, Massachusetts-based indie label]. It was just that we got a really attractive offer from some good people. It’s not like we want to put out the records ourselves. And who knows, the way things are working these days Ryko could be bought out by someone else. [Indeed. Rykodisc was bought by Warner Music Group in 2006 for $67.5 million.]
So the new album [Like Swimming] is a Ryko/Dreamworks co-release?
Yes, the deal is between Dreamworks and Ryko. It’s a deal they struck and I’m not sure why. But it took a long time. That’s why the album is coming out so late. It was supposed to come out last fall. But we had more time to work on it. it wasn’t really finished last summer when Ryko started sending out promos. [At this point Sandman asked to go off the record. I don’t think he would object if at this late date I tell you what he said to me: Ryko sent out promo copies of the still-unfinished “Like Swimming” as a ploy to convince Dreamworks that Ryko was on the verge of putting out the album. Dreamworks was so eager to release “Like Swimming” that Ryko believed the appearance of the promo albums would pressure Dreamworks to cut a co-release deal with them on favorable terms. It was, in Sandman’s words, “a charade.”] We owe them [Ryko] this album and one more. They were going to get the record one way or the other. [Pause] I hate talking about record companies.
Do you have anything to do with the big shot owners of Dreamworks like Spielberg?
No, he has other things going on. They all have their own areas. I’ve never met any of those guys. I probably will one of these days. But as I understand it, the record division is actually owned by Lenny and Mo and a couple of other guys and that’s who signed us. Which is good. But they won’t fly us business class until we sell a million albums.
Does it surprise you that Morphine, with its odd instrumentation, clicked with the public?
It was something of a surprise when things started going well. It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, we like what we’re doing. There’s a lot of luck involved. Timing and chance. It’s fair to say we’re an unlikely success story. We certainly didn’t, when we started playing, we didn’t go, ‘This is it. We’ve discovered a way to tour the world.’ It was more like, ‘Let’s try one show and see if we can get away with this.’ But, yeah, we’re surprised, but we’re happy. We knew there was some people who liked it right from the beginning. But we had no idea how far it could go. Who does?
Were you surprised yourself to discover how much you could do with just three instruments?
Bass, sax and drums? We didn’t think you could blend so many low sounds together and have any clarity at all. That’s what we started working on right from the beginning, blending the baritone sounds. My voice, the bass and the sax were all in the same range. You could say that was our big discovery. Even Jerome Deupree, our original drummer, used no cymbals and he tuned his drums to the same notes as me and [saxophonist] Dana [Colley]. So he went baritone too. And [drummer] Billy Conway does the same thing now. He tunes to me and Dana. There are just subtle things like that you can do with drums. It’s one of the things I really like about Morphine. You can really hear the drums. You can hear the tone of the drums, what part of the cymbal he’s hitting. You can even hear him grunting. He’s not competing with all the other mid-range instruments, voices and guitars. I don’t know. It just works. Of course it has to be the right drummer. Luckily we have one of the best. It doesn’t really work unless everybody’s paying attention, listening to each other and concentrating. Not that it’s a big serious thing. It’s become second nature.
What was the thinking that went into devising your two string bass?
Most bass players just play the bottom two strings anyway. And you don’t play chords on a bass. And I was using a slide. I was liking the sounds I was getting with the slide, so I just took everything off at first except one string. And that was pretty much what I used on the first album. Then, by the time we recorded “Cure for Pain,” I was up to two. And I’ve basically held it there. There’s a song called “Cherokee Dance” that featured a guy playing something he called the unitar [a 1956 release credited to “Bob Landers with Willie Joe and his Unitar].
It had a pretty cool sound, like a slide, but different. I found some people who claimed he was playing a guitar with a bass string on it with a slide. And then I was thinking, right, basses sound like basses because of the strings, not because of the pickups. So then I was off. I found a box of miscellaneous bass strings and I brought them home and started trying out different things. I kept working on it and came up with this one string creation. I recently found out that Muddy Waters played all his slide parts on a single string, the G string. It made me really happy to hear that. He’s one of my idols. Now I’ve got something I’ve been working on for a while called the tritar. It’s got one bass string and two guitar strings. I play it with a slide. On record you hear bass and guitar sounds at the same time, it’s no big deal. But live, it’s very full sounding. It’s tricky. I don’t recommend that people try it at home, it will be a source of great unhappiness. It doesn’t work right. There are a lot of technical problems I never foresaw, stuff you’d never dream of. But it’s been interesting.
Do you ever miss the other two strings?
Not at all. I keep saying that every string has every note. With two strings I can play much cleaner than I could with four. I think the four-string bass is a great instrument. I wish I’d started playing it earlier. But I don’t really know how. I don’t have the hand strength and technique. It’s a beast. I don’t play bass. It’s not my instrument. I know where the notes are, but that doesn’t mean I can play it. In Treat Her Right [Sandman’s previous band], I played bass lines. I played every song on the bottom two strings of the guitar. So now I’m just getting rid of the strings no one uses.
[Here Sandman talked about his search for new tunings and new techniques, topics I deemed too technical for a general readership and did not transcribe.]
There are one-stringed instruments from all around the world. I jammed with Ali Farka Toure [legendary blues-like guitarist from Mali]. He was playing a one-string violin and I was playing my two-string bass. We were jamming on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” by Sly and the Family Stone. He finished his tour early because he had to go back to plant (crops). I thought that was so great.
Do you get tired of hearing Morphine described as a film noir, pulp fiction kind of group?
[Sandman rolls his eyes] Some songs are definitely inspired by noir kind of ideas, the idea of people giving in to bad ideas. That’s true. But I think there’s an overreliance on words like smokey, moody and dark to describe us. Because we definitely have some semi-humorous songs and some plain stupid and ridiculous songs. But I guess it’s better than some other words I could think of.
The lyrics of the new album seem to have an abundance of images having to do with water and swimming.
Yeah, I know, but I don’t know why exactly. It wasn’t intentional. When I was putting the album together I thought, uh-oh, all the critics are going to ask me about the water references. I knew the album cover would be water-related. I was taking a lot of photos all year of water, looking for an album cover. I guess I had water on the brain.
The song “11 O’Clock” is a one line song [“Every night about 11 o’clock…I go out”].
That was a lyrical breakthrough. I realized that there was no point in any more lyrics because that was all the song was about. It went with the music. It’s funny. You do a song like that, which we played a lot live before we recorded it, and people would say, “Hey, I like that new song ‘11 O’clock’.” No one came and complained, “Hey, you say the same thing over and over.” No one really notices. They just walk away with a feeling for what the song is about. It’s hard for people to understand the words when you play live anyway. We put a lot of focus into letting people hear the words live. There’s a song where I repeat the exact same line about 15 times and people just accept it. I use the analogy, I read this interview with Aaron Spelling and he said one of the keys to his shows is that wherever there’s a plot development I make it incredibly obvious and then I make it incredibly obvious again. It’s not that I’m trying to appeal to dumb people, but what’s the sense of writing if people go home without knowing what you’re singing? It’s like negotiation theory. They say it’s always better to pick your strongest point and stick to it. Don’t mention anything else.
The band’s music has been used in movies [“Spanking the Monkey”] and on TV [“Beavis and Butthead’]. Was that something you went looking for?
Requests just came in for the most part. A couple of movies asked us for original songs. I did a whole score for a movie last winter, but I don’t think it ever came out. It was a pretty good movie too. I believe they’re now calling it “Just Your Luck.’. It all takes place in a diner one night. Virginia Madsen, John Lurie and Flea are in it [also Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau]. It’s in limbo, I guess, or in video stores. But it was a good experience.
Do you think this stuff increases the public’s awareness of you?
I don’t know about that. Music freaks hear a song and go, “Oh yeah, that’s Morphine.” But other people just hear a song. But it depends how they use it. On “Homicide” they used the song “Cure for Pain” during this long montage and they cranked it. You don’t see that that often. They used “Buena” in that show also. But I don’t know. There are lots of bands and lots of songs in movies and TV shows these days. But I’m glad they’re using our music. I’d like to do more film work. We did a song [“Mile High”] for “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” that they made a video for and put on the soundtrack. Then we went to see the movie and it was not in it.
You play with a bunch of side groups…..
Yeah. The Pale Brothers, Hypnosonics, and there was Supergroup, but we haven’t done that for awhile because one of the guys started President of the United States [of America].
You mean Chris Ballew. Did he get the two-string bass thing from you?
Yeah, but he has his own style. He doesn’t use a slide. When I met him I was playing one-string slide bass and he was playing three-string guitar. We were exploring these kind of things independently, and then we started playing around Cambridge. We’d make up our songs on the spot. It was fun. I’m very happy for him. The only thing is he should give me some royalties. For no particular reason.
Is it a firm policy that Morphine will not take the opening slot for another band?
Yeah, we’ve resisted it so far and we’re happier for it. All the people in the business tell you to do it, that you can play for more people that way. Our attitude is every tour could be our last tour. So we’re not going to wait to take care of ourselves somewhere down the road. We’re gonna do it now. When you do your own shows, the people are there to see you. You get the dressing room, you have time for a soundcheck, it’s your night and your show. The chances of reaching some kind of communion with the audience are much higher and that’s what it’s all about. You’re playing for that moment when you’re pushing a song really hard and you can feel the people with you. And then you pull way back and you can hear the people get real quiet. It’s difficult to have those moments when you’re an opening act and people didn’t come to see you. I really don’t think a lot of people even remember an opening act, let alone pay attention to them.
[If you’re ever in Cambridge and venture to Central Square – perhaps to have a meal or a drink or to catch a show at the Middle East – notice the sign on the corner of Mass Ave and Brookline Street.]