Pain Killer

Mark Sandman can't help it. He knows he should be moody. He appreciates how he'd make a more lasting impression as a Gloomy Gus spinning torturous tales of woe. Fans expect that kind of thing. Journalists, too. After all, the guy leads a band called Morphine.

But Sandman can't find anything to gripe about. He's just a happy fella who seems to feel no pain.

"Who wants to hear about someone who's happy doing what he's doing?" Sandman surmises during a cross-country phone conversation. "I know people would rather hear of my personal disintegration, but things aren't that bad."

Sandman is speaking from a Boston-area studio where he and his Morphine mates--drummer Billy Conway and saxophonist Dana Colley--are recording their latest album, their sixth in as many years. Sandman may be content with his music and the direction of his band, but he really does sound like someone who should be headed for a personal meltdown. His speech is slow to the point of distraction, his words sacrificed in a kind of smoky, jazzy timbre. It's an impression that goes along with Sandman's stage presence. The Morphine leader has the stiff, gaunt features of a lonely soul straight out of an Edward Hopper print. He looks--and mumbles--like the former cab-driving high school dropout he is.

And his songs are like that, too. Morphine, based in Massachusetts, makes one of the more distinctive sounds in the CD bins. The trio separates from the pop 'n' rock masses with an approach that avoids familiar guitar chords and cliched guitar solos by avoiding traditional guitars altogether.

Sandman is the closest thing Morphine has to an ax hero, and he plays what he calls a "two-string slide bass," a concoction he designed as a struggling bassist.

"At first I liked it because it was just easier to play," he says. "I've been playing it for so long now, I've really gotten used to it." Such a blatant shortcut to big bottom sounds would seem to set up Sandman for ridicule from other bassists. "It's just the opposite," he says. "I've had a lot of bass players tell me they've often thought of taking off a couple of strings. They appreciate it. They know how they usually only play a couple of strings anyway."

Sandman also pooh-poohs any notions that his slide bass sounds strange compared to more traditional instruments.

"It doesn't necessarily sound strange," he says, his voice rising to a mumble. "Bass notes are bass notes wherever you find 'em, right?"

Sandman's bass-blazing efforts began years ago when he got interested in single-stringed African instruments. He experimented with alternative strings and tunings on his fretless bass and wound up keeping only two strings, the lower E and A. Sandman's early fiddling around with basses wound up converting his then-roommate to the less-is-more power of the two-stringer. That kindred soul was Chris Ballew, who went on to slap around his own version of a half-stringed bass for the Presidents of the United States of America.

"I had quite a collection of these two- and three-stringed instruments, and Chris saw 'em and got interested," Sandman recalls. "He was playing a pared-down guitar anyway, so he was already there."

That alternative bass alliance led to an informal Boston band that still kicks to life every so often: "We had a thing around town called Supergroup, before any of us did much with our current bands," Sandman says. He goes on to describe Supergroup shows as extremely improvisational affairs. "We made up every song we played while we were playing. We'd write up imaginary song titles before the show and then go onstage and plow through the set list."

Sandman says snippets from Supergroup's creative songwriting technique wound up on future Morphine and Presidents of the United States of America albums. Supergroup still plays on occasion, but Sandman's focus is on Morphine's more calculated, near-noir atmospherics. Morphine songs are mood pieces. They're the audio equivalent of a backlighted, black-and-white street scene. It's a sound so distinctive that writers have struggled mightily for appropriate terms, halfheartedly dubbing the trio's lonely subgenre "low rock," for its predominant bass.

The band's earlier work, best represented on 1993's Cure for Pain, features toe-tapping tempos with melodies anchored by Sandman's sly vocals and Colley's baritone sax. Songs like "All Wrong" and the acoustic "Buena" make for a nice mix of Sandman's morose verbiage and the accompanying cool almost-jazz. Even better is the CD's title cut, which finds Sandman's vocals oddly reminiscent of fellow Bostoner Evan Dando. The mood again is edgy and melancholy, but there's enough melody and energy to keep excess ennui at bay.

Morphine's most recent collection of new material, last year's Like Swimming, has the band moving to the dark nether regions beyond angst. The CD's 12 cuts are a collective ode to an ominous mindset, with a sense of foreboding embedded in songs like "Hanging on a Curtain," "Empty Box" and "I Know You."

Even when Sandman punches up the tempo, as on "Wishing Well" and "Early to Bed" ("Early to bed and early to rise/Makes a man or woman miss out on the nightlife"), it's obvious that these are less party songs than beatnik hymns to obsession. By the end of the CD, Sandman's given up on background instrumentation altogether, turning "Swing It Low" into a spoken-word piece of menacing repetition.

"I like to write stream of consciousness," Sandman says when asked how he comes up with his songs. "I'll just sit down and start on my typewriter and then check it out in the morning to see if any rhymes or if interesting word patterns show up. I like it when the lyrics turn out to be like an Altman film. Everything seems to be overheard, but nothing's incidental."

Thus a compelling, elliptical line like "If I am guilty so are you--it was March 4, 1982," one of the many cocktail-napkin sentiments on the band's 1995 CD, Yes. Because Morphine's sinister soundtracks make for a unique sound amid modern music's aimless clutter--and considering the painfully static state of most alternative music--you'd think a new style that blends alt-rock with zoot-suit noir would find an inside lane in the race for the next big thing. But Sandman doesn't see it.

"Commercial radio play for us is scattered here and there, but we're not in heavy rotation," he says with a verbal shrug. "But we're all right. College radio plays us a lot, and that's good. Those people are more music junkies, the kind of people who are looking for something new."

Sandman adds that hearing his songs on the radio or selling CDs is secondary to Morphine's mission statement.

"We're musicians," he says. "Playing live is the big thing. The CDs attract enough of an audience to let us keep playing live. It's not a bad life at all. We've been all over the world, 20 countries and counting. We may not be filling football stadiums in Malaysia, but we're filling good-sized clubs in Norway and Japan. To us, that's five stars, the best. It's all just a matter of degree."

Morphine's road trips include a number of stops here in the Valley the past few years. Sandman remembers a previous show at Gibson's in Tempe--"Yeah, there was that high stage, and they opened the doors so people outside could hear. That was a good show"--as well as a Desert Sky Pavilion stop on the HORDE tour. Sandman has visceral memories of that summer event.

"It was hot," he says. "Really hot. Everybody kept saying, 'It's a dry heat,' but it was so dry you could taste it. Yeah, I remember that one."

Morphine is scheduled to perform on Sunday, July 19, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m.


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