The Beat Noir Sound of Morphine


Photo by Pauline St. Davis

Mark Sandman wants the world, but he wants it on his terms

By Seth Mnookin

1. In His Room

Upon walking into the hotel room occupied by Morphine's Mark Sandman, he asks for my list of questions, so he can rip them up. I was prepared for something like this, and don't write out questions in advance anyway. But the message was clear: this was going to be his interview, on his terms.

"A Head With Wings" (45 second excerpt)

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CDs, books, and papers are strewn about the room. Drummer Billy Conway is seated on the bed; bassist/vocalist Sandman paces the room. Neither have any interest in discussing Morphine's "gimmicky" instrumentation, and both make it clear they will be none too happy if I begin my article talking about molls and whiskey and smoky bars. When I broach the subject of other bands playing today, Sandman throws up his hands. "I wish 'em all well." Five minutes later, as Conway and I discuss the state of contemporary bluegrass music, Sandman is still muttering "I wish 'em all the best."

Sandman can get away with this kind of performance because he leads one of the most uniquely sounding bands to come along in some time. Morphine has wowed the media with it's mostly guitarless beat noir sound. The group caught fire with it's second release, Cure For Pain ; with the recent release of Yes , they embarked on a national tour; I caught up with them in the midst of several New York engagements.


Cure for Pain was Morphine's
breakthrough album.

Sandman, who has a voice that sounds like a combination between John Lurie and the narrator to a Philip K. Dick novel, is strictly a lower register type of guy. His smooth-as-glue baritone; the way he stands (erect and very there, but somehow fading into the background); the way his skin stands on his face (gaunt and drawn and sucked in at Sandman's pronounced cheekbones); his lyrical sensibility (a bared down combination of desperation, confusion, and world-weary inevitability). To describe Sandman as dark is like describing the Sex Pistols as frustrated. He doesn't like to talk about his past: when he finds out that we grew up in the same suburb outside of Boston, he answers "Yeah?" He never graduated from high school, drove a cab around Boston, worked around the country, traveled on a fishing boat. All shit he's not really interested in talking about. Questions about his past cause Sandman to whip out a camera and start taking pictures. Or begin talking about Jim Thompson novels.

Sandman, Conway and saxophonist Dana Colley have learned how to deal with the press. Sandman is a relentlessly fidgety person, lighting a cigarette, answering a question with a question, opening a window, closing a window, taking my picture, throwing me a book he's just read, fiddling with my tape recorder. (My entire interview with Sandman and Conway is virtually indecipherable because Sandman not only talks in a low growl, but refuses to stay in one place for more than a second at a time. And I certainly wasn't going to follow him around the room with my tape recorder.) Sandman knows what he wants to talk about, he knows what he can get away with, sets the agenda and doesn't budge.

"Honey White" (45 second excerpt)

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So we talk about Duke Ellington reissues and our favorite mandolin players (Conway and I share a particular preference for David Grisman's '70s work) and books (Denis Johnson, Patricia Highsmith, William Gibson, detective thrillers, and true-life murder stories) and grade-B porn movies (Doris Wishman). Okay, I talked about that last one.

In the end, Sandman remains an enigma. I won't say nothing was revealed, but for now, the sandman mystique remains intact.


Current Morphine line-up (left to right)
includes sax man Dana Colley,
drummer Billy Conway
and leader Mark Sandman.

Photo by Cindy Bortman

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