Low-End Theory

When it comes to Morphine's noirish, bass-heavy head trips, a little taste will treat you fine

Like the music of saxophonist Dana Colley's jazz-stained, minimalist rock band Morphine, his sentences are stretched out, quiet, even lethargic. Colley doesn't sound like a man who's easily roused, but one prompt sparks his ire: The suggestion that the self-described "low rock" mavens in Morphine built together their bass/drums/baritone sax structure with a market scheme in mind.

"If you're the sort of corporate person who'd tell the Board, 'I've got this idea. We take a guy who plays bass, and we take two strings off the bass, then get rid of the guitarist and give 'em a saxophone player instead. One of the big saxes--I don't know what the hell they're called. Then, whaddya say, let's call them Morphine? Yeah, that'll sell. Right to the top of the charts.' Come on. That guy would be out on his ass."

Colley brings his spiel to a stop with a thud: "We ain't a concept band cooked up to sell records."

Still, Morphine's masterful 1993 release Cure for Pain has sold more than 300,000 copies. And the group's debut Good landed on the Best of 1992 lists of several dozen prominent critics, after it was rejected by almost every major label in the country (Good was released by the minuscule indie Accurate-Distortion; Rykodisc has since picked up the title). The Boston Music Awards even proclaimed the album produced by the hometown boys "Best Indie Album of the Year."

The majors had trouble with Morphine because the band is more about subtraction than production; about taking away things mainstream listeners have come to expect from a rock group. Like guitars. Morphine bassist/vocalist Mark Sandman describes Morphine's wall-of-guitarless sound as "implied grunge," music built on familiar jazz-rock riffing that descends to a place that's more dank and nocturnal.

Sandman plays a homemade, two-string bass, with both strings tuned to the same note and attacked with a slide. Colley says he cut his teeth on Coltrane but spent the latter half of his adolescence getting his sax tone to sound like guitars in ZZ Top. Drummer (and former Yale hockey-team captain) Billy Conway plays a standard kit, but even he had to put a spin on his live act last year after a near-fatal sledding accident required him to wear a specially fitted cast in order to drum while recuperating.

Originally slated for release in October 1996, Morphine's third album was held up because of negotiations with the band's new label, DreamWorks (the record-industry portion of the Geffen/Spielberg conglomerate SKG). The new disc, Like Swimming, is filled with more of the trio's trademark noir rock, the flash and bare of Colley's sax periodically dissolving into still points where the sound eddies into a quiet corner. The band adds organ and acoustic guitar to the new album, and Sandman tries out a grit-spewing hybrid instrument he calls a "tritar"--part bass, part guitar. Played with a slide, of course.

As usual, Sandman's lyrics are lean and sophisticated (sometimes that's a nice way to say pretentious), whether he's spinning a literal, sinister narrative about adultery, or lashing together more surreal images like "Let's take a trip together, headlong into the irresistible orbit, breathing the cold black space with glistening images." Sandman says his thematic obsessions are ". . . zigzagging feelings about people, about dreams come true, about mistakes, misunderstandings, payback, prayer and ecstasy."

As a side project, Sandman and Colley front a band called Hypnosonics, which has a full brass section. "We just played New York's Knitting Factory with some real heavyweights, including Rus Gershaw from the Either/Orchestra," says Colley. "We really enjoy getting up there and being spontaneous, coming up with horn parts over incredible rhythm tracks."

The low-stress attitude associated with the side band is something Colley says he also brings to his bread-and-butter gig.

"Morphine is the most spontaneous outlet any of us has," he explains. "We get together in a room and make sound and record it. That's the genesis. What always interested me about this band is that something spontaneous could give birth to something you can actually hang your hat on."

Colley says playing with the Hypnosonics ensemble is appealing because it forces him to be aware of other horn musicians. With Morphine, however, Colley says he can be more daring, since he assumes the role traditionally assigned to a guitar player. "I still have to think about space," he says, "but I have to cover a lot more ground sonically." In fact, Colley sometimes blows two saxes at once. "[The multiple sax] is just a sound," explains Colley. "Your range is limited. But it works when you can structure a song around it."

When he's not jamming or going over exercise books to hone his chops on the road, Colley serves as Morphine's tour historian, making notes and keeping photo journals of the band's global treks. Thus far, he's amassed four volumes of memoirs. "They're these wire-bound books filled with Polaroids and accounts of the rise of Morphine," says Cooley. "It starts with us playing for 30 people in Queensborough, North Carolina."

Colley reads an entry from Volume I:
11/10/93. New Orleans. White powdered sugar dots the floor like Peruvian flakes on clothes, on chins, on hands. We sit drinking hot chocolate near famed venues. Sugar dust rises into the air. Hearing sounds from the courtyard's fountain gurgle. Endlessly open-air balconies wait patiently for a chance in the sun. Hum of an air conditioner, suck good respectable air through filters, coming out stale into waiting lungs. It's been raining but for now it's still.

The rain and the stillness. That's what Morphine's world is all about.

Morphine is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, March 25, at Gibson's in Tempe, with dEUS. Showtime is 9 p.m. (all ages).

 
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