An Interview with Dana Colley, baritone saxophonist of Morphine (from 2000)

Morphine is an unusually interesting band who have always stood apart from their peers with their distinctive bluesy rock ‘n’ roll sound described variously as low-rock and noir jazz-rock. Comprising of Billy Conway on drums, Dana Colley on tenor and baritone sax, and the enigmatic Mark Sandman on vocals and two-string , Morphine have always strived to forge their own musical path, hence the absence of any guitars in the band and Sandman’s trademark wry and detached vocals. Their third album, the critically lauded Cure For Pain was their breakthrough album and saw them going beyond their cult status and selling an impressive 300,000 copies. They are about to release their fifth studio album The Night on January 31, which is all the more poignant given Mark’s Sandman’s unexpected and sudden death last year in Italy.

Mark was touring with Morphine last year and on July 3 was performing at part of the 3-day festival at the Gardini Del Principe in Palestrina, Italy. Only two songs into the set and Sandman collapsed onstage with a fatal heart attack at the age of 47. Inevitably, his death gives added poignancy to the forthcoming release of Morphine’s new album and it was totally unexpected and a shock to everyone. Dana describes the band’s reaction, “Mark’s death was a massive shock – he had a model constitution – he could keep going and stay up way more then the rest of us. He was constantly thinking, constantly reading, constantly thinking of new things to do. He was a marvel in that way. It was completely out of the blue. You know, what can you say…?”

Indeed, what can you say? Mark’s death was obviously a devastating blow to all those close to him and it is to his credit that he leaves behind an accomplished body of work. Morphine have a distinctly individual sound but there are some noticeable influences in the music. Dana cites PJ Harvey and Nick Cave as two of his favourite artists, and indeed Morphine often come across like a poppier Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart, or an emasculated P J Harvey. Many reviews of Morphine always refer to smoke-filled bars and shots of single-malt scotch, a description which Mark once said he was growing tired of, but his languid, dry delivery and the bassy, bluesy music does lend itself easily to these images. Mark’s songwriting too was markedly different to others in that he was often more similar to a fiction writer than a traditional singer-songwriter. Talking about Mark as a narrator, Dana says, “A lot of Morphine’s lyrics involve great narratives and great characters and like with anything, there are parts of yourself in that story. There are parts of your character that can be discerned from that story.”

Morphine’s fifth album The Night is remarkably more downbeat than previous outings but on the whole sound is also a lot more orchestrated and enhanced with the use of string arrangements, an oud (which I am told is a long-necked mandolin), organ and piano. The result is a warm, melancholic collection of songs and it is by all accounts a classic Morphine album. Standout tracks include The Night and I’m Yours You’re Mine. The album was recorded between 1997 and 1999 at Mark’s home studio and was actually finished at the beginning of 1998 but due to production problems (i.e the first recording not being up to scratch) meant that the album wasn’t completed until a year and a half later, with Mark taking the helm as the main producer. Talking about the recording of the album and the dynamics of the band working together, Dana says, “We sat down with Mark, and he took the lead and ended up producing the album.” Explaining the feel of the album and the fact that the album may not seem as instantly immediate, he adds, “I think that all the best work is not immediately decipherable – it takes a few listens before you can really get into it. Obviously, a lot of the songs are great narratives. Mark was great at storytelling.”Dana’s saxophone playing is as fantastic as ever and as Mark often commented, he plays it like a guitar, like Jimmy Hendrix. Talking about this, Dana says, “I grew up in a rock environment listening to guitar music which is why I approach sax-playing the way I do. I learnt to play the sax but grew up listening to guitar music so maybe played the sax in a rock way.” Did he ever think of becoming a guitar player? “I can play but I stick to the sax. I think the world has been saved from another mediocre guitar player.” Whatever. The guitar-playing rock world’s loss, is our gain. Dana also claims jazz to be “a constant source of inspiration” and it’s these melding of disparate influences which make Morphine such a unique band.

In memory of Mark and in tribute to the diverse and interesting way he led Morphine, band members and friends have set up The Mark Sandman Music Education Fund. Following from the way that Morphine have created their own unique sound and the way that they approach playing music, Dana explains what the fund aims to do, “This is primarily for children in the Cambridge (Massachusetts) area to be able to experiment musically, with workshops and coaching so that they can approach music in a less traditional way. We’ve all undergone formal music training on one way or another, which, although this teaches you the rules of music, it can result in you experiencing music in a set, formalised way. What the fund will enable kids to do is to approach music in a different way and allow them more freedom as we all feel that’s the way we have produced our music. And young children are very gifted in that way and I think that they need to be encouraged to make mistakes and embrace them.” A tribute single entitled Gone Again Gone featuring Dana, Billy and Chris Ballew, formerly of The Presidents of United States of America can be downloaded from the official Morphine site up until February 1, from which all proceeds are going to the Mark Sandman Education Fund.

So what for the future of Morphine, without their unique singer-songwriter? Well, the band will be touring the album as a tribute to Mark with a 9-piece band called Orchestra Morphine. Vocals will be shared by Laurie Sargent who’s played with The Ben Folds Five and Christian McNeill. The tour begins in Boston and then travels round the coast of the US and then onto Europe (the band hope to play some UK festival dates), finishing in Palestrina, the place where Mark died. With respect to the future of Morphine after the tour, things are as yet undecided, whilst the band put all their energy into organising the tour. Dana says, “We see the album as a fitting tribute to Mark as he left behind a great musical legacy. We just don’t know yet about after that time.” Whatever Morphine decide, Mark has undoubtedly left behind a fantastic musical legacy. Morphine’s distinct skewed take on bluesy rock and their guitarless wall of sound is incredibly special and will be around for a long time to come.

Donations to The Mark Sandman Music Education Fund can be sent to: The Mark Sandman Music Education Fund Po Box 382085 Cambridge, MA 02238 9998 USA

Suzannah Brown Audiostreet Magazine

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