Revisit Morphine, the 90s Power Trio Who Played the Two-String Bass, Saxophone & Drums

No 90s band flew as low under that radar as Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts three-piece Mor­phine. Too odd for nos­tal­gia radio, not com­mer­cial enough to pop up on a big-time mod­ern sound­track, Mor­phine either means noth­ing to you or, if you were in the right place at the right time, every­thing.

YouTube chan­nel Rock n’ Roll True Sto­ries would like more peo­ple to dis­cov­er Mor­phine and their intro­duc­tion video does an ade­quate job of stitch­ing togeth­er inter­view quotes, band pics, and some daffy stock pho­tog­ra­phy. The only thing miss­ing: actu­al exam­ples of their music. We’ll get to that in just a bit.

Mor­phine were some­where between a rock band and a jazz trio. Led by Mark Sand­man, the group con­sist­ed of drum­mers Jerome Deupree or Bil­ly Con­way, and sax­o­phon­ist Dana Col­ley, with Sandman’s two-string bass front and cen­ter. “In a pop uni­verse where every singer, gui­tarist, and key­boardist instinc­tive­ly goes to a high­er note to attract atten­tion,” wrote the Wash­ing­ton Post at the time, “Mor­phine stays hun­kered down low.”

Live, Sand­man most­ly kept to his bass, but on their five albums, he also includ­ed home­made instru­ments like the “tri­tar,” con­sist­ing of two gui­tar strings and a bass string. He also added piano and key­boards to the mix. Col­ley some­times played two sax­es at once, or he switched out his main bari­tone for sopra­no, tenor, or bass sax­o­phones.

After their first indie release Good in 1992, Rykodisc signed the band. But Mor­phine remained as res­olute­ly anti-com­mer­cial as they could, turn­ing down offers to license their songs for com­mer­cials. (Ryko, how­ev­er, could license their music for TV and movies with­out the band’s approval.) “You Look Like Rain” was a col­lege radio “hit”; “Bue­na” was the sin­gle release. There’s a bit of Tom Waits or Nick Cave in his voice; a bit of be-bop by way of Twin Peaks in the music. It’s a for­mu­la they tweaked, altered, and per­fect­ed. Their crit­i­cal apex came with the album Cure for Pain in 1993, but each suc­ces­sive album sold more units. The label Dream­works took over from Ryko, but Sand­man felt they were push­ing the band to be some­thing they were not, a “new Beck” or a sound beyond the trio of instru­ments. But they didn’t fal­ter and remained true to them­selves.

Instead, the band end­ed when Sand­man suf­fered a heart attack on stage in 1999, pos­si­bly due to stress and the oppres­sive heat of the venue itself. Their fifth and final album The Night was released posthu­mous­ly. The sur­viv­ing mem­bers have formed a few Mor­phine-adja­cent bands since, as well as start­ing a schol­ar­ship in Sandman’s name.

Ryko recent­ly re-released their ear­ly discog­ra­phy on vinyl with bonus tracks, so a new gen­er­a­tion is poised to dis­cov­er Mor­phine, look around and won­der, who else knows about this band? That’s how it starts.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Mas­sive 800-Track Playlist of 90s Indie & Alter­na­tive Music, in Chrono­log­i­cal Order

The Evo­lu­tion of the Rock Gui­tar Solo: 28 Solos, Span­ning 50 Years, Played in 6 Fun Min­utes

Stream a Mas­sive Col­lec­tion of Indie, Noise Indus­tri­al Mix­tapes from the 80s and 90s

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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  • BF says:

    I love open­cul­ture and vis­it it pret­ty much dai­ly to learn new things. It is a rare treat to see an item on a sub­ject I know a lot about — but then when the item is not accu­rate, it makes me ques­tion every­thing I’ve read on the site about sub­jects I did­n’t know much about… were those items equal­ly incor­rect?
    To say Mor­phine was “not com­mer­cial enough to pop up on a mod­ern sound­track” is woe­ful­ly inac­cu­rate. The band pro­vid­ed near­ly the ENTIRE sound­track to “Spank­ing The Mon­key” (1994 dir-David O. Rus­sell) AND had songs includ­ed in the John Tra­vol­ta movie “Get Shorty” sound­track (dir- Bar­ry Son­nen­feld)
    …and just because they had a sax as a lead instru­ment instead of a gui­tar, to describe the band as “some­where between a rock band and a jazz trio” is, frankly, ridicu­lous­ly wrong. Sand­man described the band as “Low Rock” and even dur­ing the wildest sax breaks — the struc­ture under­neath was near­ly always rock/blues based. Any Jazz fan would be equal­ly dis­mis­sive of the descrip­tion, I’m sure.
    I lived in Central/Inman squares in Cam­bridge from the late 80s to the mid-90s. I saw Mor­phine’s ear­li­est gigs (before they were even called ‘Mor­phine’) and con­sid­ered Sand­man a friend. He DOES deserve more atten­tion, as does his band.

  • Joey Carmel says:

    Mor­phine was about as potent as 90’s music was for anyone….yawn.

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