Mark, Dana, Billy- photo by B.C. Kagan
Dana Colley interview
by Peter Crigler
Bass, sax and drums; that's all you needed to stand out as a rock band in the '90's. Boston's Morphine were one of the most dynamic and amazing groups borne out of the era. The late, great frontman Mark Sandman used only two strings on his bass and had one of the huskiest voices ever heard on record. The band never really broke through to the mainstream but that's just fine; we were always able to keep them underground so they could be ours, not everyone else's.
Q: How did you get started playing sax?
DC: Well, like a lot of kids in my generation, we were exposed to the opportunity to learn an instrument through our public schools. And I picked up a clarinet in the fourth grade, and then migrated to the saxophone in the seventh grade after getting a sense of what the high school jazz band was up to and realizing that the clarinet was sort of a gateway to the saxophone, which had a lot more emotion to it. So, in seventh grade, I switched from clarinet to saxophone.
Q: How did you start with being able to play two at once?
DC: Well, that's more of an homage to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who played three at once. I don't know if you're familiar with him, but he was blind, and quite a visionary for his lack of optical sight. And was able to envision this idea in his dreams, apparently, that he was driven to produce this sound that culminated in the use of these hybrid saxophones that he played three at a time.
Q: Tell me about some of your earlier bands and projects.
DC: Well, I guess, the first band I was sort of in was a band called Riding High, which was a black funk band that rehearsed at the United Furniture building in Brockton, Massachusetts. I was looking to get into a group, and I would show up at this rehearsal studio with my saxophone and put my ear to the... walk to the door of whatever was happening in whatever room, and trying to determine what band might possibly, potentially, might need my services. And I came across this amazing funk band that was rehearsing, and waited until their break outside in the hallway.
A friend of mine had a rehearsal space and I would go hang out there and just an attempt to immerse myself in whatever was happening. And the door opened up a crack and I had my saxophone and then I sort of invited myself in, and they were welcoming and became a part of their band and I sort of, kind of, forced myself onto them. They were kind enough to take me in. That was my first introduction to working in a band.
And then after that, I went to Boston after graduating from high school. Went to Mass College of Art during the '80's, and met Chris Harford, who was head of a band called Three Colors. We were both going to Mass Art together and Chris was doing a party at Mass Art, and he invited me to come and sit in with the band. And I didn't really have any idea what their songs were- I had no idea where I would fit in. So when he called me up, I basically just did this sort of incredibly Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler saxophone, and then receded after that. And it was weeks later that I sort of hounded them, much like the way I hounded Riding High, to see if they would be interested in rehearsing more. And, eventually, they gave into me and allowed me to rehearse with them. And then I became part of the band and we toured a lot in Boston and went to England and spent six months in London trying to make a go of it there.
And when that ultimately came to an end, I went back to Boston and sort of just connected up with Mark Sandman just at, sort of, the tail end of Treat Her Right and became good friends and started jamming together and that was sort of the beginning of Morphine.
Q: How did Jerome Deupree (drums) come into the project and when did the band officially form?
DC: Jerome was originally involved due to his amazing virtuosic abilities that was pretty well known at that time. He was in a band called Sex Exec, which was being played all over the local radio at the time. Jerome is, as I said. a virtuoso drummer and amazing musician. And Mark, obviously, knew Jerome and brought him into the project after Mark and I sort of jammed a bit and honestly had something there. We brought a drummer in and started rehearsing and then, the long of it, we took what we had in terms of songs into the studio and made the first record called Good.
Q: How long did it take for the band to develop its sound?
DC: I mean it was pretty instantaneous, I think. I mean, it was kind of a feeling that I remember being at Mark's apartment with my saxophone as he was working on the one string bass and just sitting across from each other in his room and just jamming a little bit on whatever came up and it was very much a eureka moment. You realize the sound was very compatible between the baritone and Mark. So it was kind of a pretty immediate sense that we had something that was of interest and worth pursuing as far as we were concerned. It piqued our interest.
Q: What was the initial impression like when it came to recording Good?
DC: Well, I think we went to a couple different studios and besides the rehearsal rooms, we went into to Q-Division we went to the Outpost in Stoughton, I think Fort Apache earlier on and we were fortunate enough to be in Boston at that time. There was a lot of burgeoning recording studios that were catering to very much youths or independents bands at the time so a lot of us were cutting our teeth, the engineers and producers as well. So, kind of the as we were developing, so were the studios around us and engineers around us, so you sort of had a mutual admiration society. They were looking for content and we were looking for ways to get our material recorded and so there was kind of a lot of cohesiveness between the technical world of recording and the bands at that time.
Q: How did the band come to hook up with Rykodisc?
DC: The details are a little bit sketchy. I think somebody must've heard us or got aware of us or... I know that, initially, Rykodisc formulated as a kind of reissue label from the ashes of the Caroline Records and they were taking a lot of what had been on the catalog and with the advent of the CD technology, reissuing a lot of old catalogs which they had the rights to. So we were kind of the first live band that was actually still out there working.
I'm not quite sure how it all came to be and how they discovered us but they were in Salem at the time and we were certainly close enough so that they could learn about us so, maybe I know Terry Swindon was one of the earliest proponents of Morphine and I think she was working at Brilert at the time.
Q: What were the inspirations for songs like "Honey White," "In Spite of Me," "Speak My Language," "Super Sex," stuff like that? Did those mostly come from Mark?
DC: Well, inspiration is... I think Mark was the writer. His method was to kind of take an idea or wordplay and kind of distill it over time and try it with different groups and different configurations. So any one of those songs has probably been tried with different groups, different configurations over time. And the fact that they ended up resonating with our instrumentation I guess in some ways can be considered fortunate but I think... any one of those songs could be picked apart in terms of what the original inspiration is for each one. I think "Honey White" was someone that we knew who Mark may have grown an affinity for but then he decided to immortalize.
Q: What was success like and how did everyone react to it?
DC: Well, I guess it's one of those things that for us it was... we were just working a lot. We kept getting more and more offers and more opportunities and it was pretty much all we had to work or deal with in our lives was being in the band so we took all opportunities and we toured pretty much nine months of the year.
And success wasn't something that you ever really sort of acknowledge in a way. It's just sort of like, 'okay great we're working and we've got more gigs and people are coming and people like it and we're selling out shows' and but it just seemed to be like so much of it was day to day kind of a thing that... I mean, you didn't really have a chance to reflect so much on the so-called 'success.' It wasn't lost on us that we were fortunate enough to be making a living doing what we loved to do and to me that's what success really was. It's just to be able to finally do something you loved and get paid to do it.
Q: What was it like recording Cure for Pain and Yes?
DC: How do I sum that up? It's like any kind of records that you make is kind of a process that you're going through. But, anyway, so much of what that is just being in the moment. So we have these songs, we just toured them and record them and see if we can adapt them into the best of our abilities and then move onto the next one. It's just kind of living, breathing day to day aspect of being in a band that's working. You don't go, 'oh this was what that was like.' It was kind of this process that we would follow.
Cure for Pain was done at Fort Apache and it was recorded on 2-inch tape and that was pretty much ready to go in and had songs that were pretty well arranged and we could do what we wanted to do and it was very much a process that was very streamlined and we got the best dates. And because when you record on tape, you have to be very economical about the time and it's pretty expensive. And so as things went on, we would put more of our money into buying equipment so at least we could record at home at Hi-n-Dry from our studio. As time went on, we decided more of the stuff we were doing in the studio became viable possibilities as to what would be on record and we started to take more stock in our ability to record and that's when you have more luxury of time became when we probably became more relaxed.
Q: What was the revolving drummer situation with Jerome and Billy Conway?
DC: Well, Jerome and Billy are best of friends so... Jerome decided that he was no longer going to be capable of playing. I suggested Billy. The stuff he was dealing with was his health and he didn't have control at the time and there was no hard feelings between the two of them. I think Jerome probably felt a little bit of sadness around not being able to totally... take stock in what he was capable of creating. I know that I've talked to him.
Q: What prompted the signing to DreamWorks? Do you feel it was a good idea?
DC: Well, it's like a shark- you have to kind of keep moving or else you die, so it was an opportunity that was presented to us and we really couldn't turn it down, an offer we couldn't refuse. It was a challenge to kind of jump up to the next echelon and hard to turn it down. What happens of course after that is so frustrating and difficult for anyone involved and very stressful. Mark was put in a position at times to do something that was on a level that was working in the majors which is a problem coming up from the minor league to the majors. So, kind of looking to create something that was going to reflect that. And so it became really pretty frustrating for Mark. Because the pressure from that label now, they put a lot of investment in the band and they wanted a return again which was kind of like the first time we had to experience that where we kind of had really kind of oversight from the label. So that took some getting used to and wasn't always easy.
Q: What was it like doing the H.O.R.D.E. tour?
DC: That was incredible. It was like summer camp. They have these things where you show up wherever the tour was and they have the A and the B stages but they have this sort of C afternoons on stage which was kind of open to whoever happened to be hanging around and was cool enough to come down and wanted to play and some nights. Some days, it was the guys from Primus or Beck or one day it could be Neil Young or completely unknowns. Or Medeski could pop up there. It was one of these kind of beautiful, magic moments where you had all these people hanging out and the whole afternoon with nothing to do and so the C stage became a place where musicians just want to play and if you're going to be hanging out all day, why not jump over there? So, it was a great kind of informal way for people to just have a good time and jam. And it was so under the radar because it was never promoted or anything like that.
Q: Was there any talk of moving forward as the band after Mark died?
DC: Well, we've done nothing but move forward after Mark died in various incarnations. Initially, it was the Orchestra Morphine which was an overseas band that toured the US and then culminated with performing back at the Nel Nome Del Rock on the rock- that's the one literally where Mark passed away. And then the following year, we formed Twinemen with Billy Conway and myself and Laurie Sargent and we toured on the numerous records that we made out of Hi-n-Dry. And after that, there was AKACOD with Monique Ortiz and Larry Dersch. I would say now we've had members of Morphine and now Vapors of Morphine and we're continuing to this day to perform and record so I mean we've never stopped. Although it may seemed as if the band Morphine continued, I don't think it was ever Morphine as a band. It's... The Allman Brothers moving forward after Duane Allman died or something or whether it's Skynyrd going forward after Ronnie Van Zant died. I don't think we could've ever called it Morphine because without Mark, obviously, it couldn't exist. But those players that were involved and those players that were invested have continued to go on and make music.
Q: What has the fan reaction been like since Vapors started?
DC: Well, we've had a really amazing response. We did a tour in November of Europe and Russia, sold out shows in London, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, Pisa, Italy. And then we've toured all over Europe, all over South America with Vapors of Morphine to full houses and large festivals and the response has been enormous and astronomical. That's a credit to Mark and his songwriting. We play a lot of the same songs but of course we're bringing something else to it but the sound is very much part of the what the original intent was and I think people have been very responsive to be able to hear it.
Q: What are you currently up to outside of performing?
DC: Well, we're working on a new record. We're going into the studio on Wednesday to try to finish up, so we can finish our new Vapors record. We have a live recording in Moscow that we want to put out on vinyl hopefully. We're working with Chris Harford, from my old band, Three Colors, on a dub record. I do a lot of side stuff, I have a band called the Delta Horse, which is comprised of myself, a composer, and producer who lives in Berlin and a singer who lives in Belfast. And we've never been together, we've never been in the same room together, but we've put out one record and are working on the second.
Q: What are your favorite memories of Mark?
DC: My favorite memories of Mark, I guess, would have to be making him laugh, telling a joke that got him cracking up. His answering machine messages that would go on for so long and he'd have these long pauses between his syllables that would sometimes be so long that it would... sometimes there'd be so much space between syllables that it would cause the answering machine to absolutely shut off,
Q: What do you think of the impact of alternative music in the '90/s?
DC: In the '90's? I guess it was quite a golden age sometimes. Yeah. I'm not sure we were entirely aware of it at the time. I think that there was a lot of things working in conjunction with things that were allowing bands to form and bands to play and to be heard and do videos. A lot of things that coalesced to allow for a lot of independent music to be created and have a chance at actually succeeding. Auite a lot of sounds came out of that era.
Q: What do you hope Morphine's legacy will be?
DC: Well, I don't know. I think the proudest I am about our band was that we had our own sound. Of all the hundreds of guitar bands in the world, which I love and admire, not to throw shade on any of that, but I think that we came through and we've had our own sound that I think is of our time but is also in some ways timeless.
Also see a tribute to Morphine drummer Billy Conway
And see Peter Crigler's blog
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