Obituaries: Mark Sandman

MORPHINE, WHOSE charismatic frontman Mark Sandman died while performing in Italy, were a contrary, alternative Boston trio who took the minimalist route and attracted a cult following in the United States and continental Europe.

Along the way, Sandman's unique experimental approach influenced the cartoon grunge of Presidents of the United States of America, while some of Morphine's finer atmospheric moments helped define such films as Spanking the Monkey (1994), Postcards from America (1994), Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995), Get Shorty (1995), and Beautiful Girls (1996).

Born in 1952, Mark Sandman played in a succession of Boston groups before forming Treat Her Right with the guitarist David Champagne, the drummer Billy Conway and the harmonica-player Jim Fitting (later in The The). They played in friends' lofts and developed their own style away from the mainstream. Their unusual, swampy takes on songs by Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker and the Rolling Stones and their limited instrumentation got them noticed.

"In Treat Her Right," stated Sandman, "the drummer mostly used one drum and I played a two-string guitar which effectively became a bass instrument. It wasn't a gimmick, I just felt we didn't need all the clutter of 50 different chord changes to make interesting music. I'd already cleared the ground and made way for what Morphine did later."

Signing to RCA Records in 1987, Treat Her Right released three albums but became frustrated with the company's lack of interest in them. Sandman also began jamming in the ironically-named Supergroup with his flatmate Chris Ballew, who eventually formed the goofy Presidents of the United States of America (famous for the mid-Nineties novelty hit singles "Peaches" and "Lump"). Sandman told interviewers:

In Supergroup, we used to spontaneously compose pop songs based on titles suggested by the audience and do all kinds of crazy, improvisational stuff. Chris is a master at making up lyrics, an absolute genius. We used to tape shows and we got a lot of ideas that eventually became real songs for both Morphine and the Presidents. Their song "Kitty" is named after the cat that lived in my house. Morphine's song "Sheila" is about its owner.

While Ballew went on the road with Beck before moving to Seattle and the grunge formula of the Presidents, Sandman recruited the saxophonist Dana Colley and the drummer Jerome Deupree (soon replaced by his old cohort Billy Conway) to launch Morphine and further refine his "minimalist concept". "It's all about simplicity and playing with dynamics," claimed Sandman. "It's about subtraction more than production. On the first album, I played a one-string bass, which meant everything was in the same key. At that time we were big into the key of D. We've opened it out a bit since then."

Sandman remarked:

People miss the humour in Morphine. They don't want to read between the lines. All they see is the archetypal soundtrack for dark and smoky night- clubs. Morphine is a drug that is used routinely in hospitals for relieving pain. There is nothing sinister about that. It's just a name that stuck.

In 1993, the Rykodisc label signed the trio and rereleased Good, their independently produced debut album, while promoting the follow-up Cure for Pain to great critical acclaim, especially in France and Italy. Two years later, Yes and the subsequent Super Sex EP seemed to mark time but Like Swimming, the album issued in 1997, hinted at greater things to come, especially as, following the B-Sides & Otherwise collection, the group signed a new deal with the prestigious label Dreamworks. Soundtrack compilers had taken a greater interest in Morphine, much to Sandman's delight, as he recently proved by collaborating with Chris Ballew for a track included in the film version of The Mod Squad television series.

"Our music has been used in television shows and movies and as background music for sport shows and during the links in the MTV awards and to me that means it's an accessible sound," reflected the charismactic frontman, whose trademark deep, dark and low vocals and two-string slide bass were the perfect match for the baritone saxophone of jazz-loving Dana Colley and the metronomic drumming of Conway:

The three-piece band harks back to mystical times, the Holy Trinity. The triangle was probably there at the dawn of time. It became a mathematical and an architectural principle as well as a philosophical one. In a trio, there is no room for passengers, everyone has got to be on top of their playing. Look at the

Police or U2 who are a fantastic three-piece band with a great singer. It opens up a world of spontaneity. I try and make sure our music is open to mistakes and accidents. Then, instead of running away from them, I exploit them and bring them into the creative process.

Only a couple of steps away from mainstream success, Morphine remained in great demand on the European festival circuit. They recently undertook a tour which was to have included a London date next week, with a live album due in the autumn. Appearing in front of 2,000 fans at the Giardini del Principe festival in Palestrina, near Rome, Sandman col-lapsed at the end of the second song and couldn't be revived by the paramedics. He died en route to hospital.

Morphine blew a cool, moody breeze through an increasingly bland US music scene. Led by the gifted Mark Sandman, they proved time and time again that less is indeed more.

Pierre Perrone

Mark Sandman, singer, bass- player and songwriter: born Boston 24 September 1952; died Palestrina, Italy 3 July 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Arts and Entertainment
Nicki Minaj's lyric video for 'Only' features Drake as the Pope, Minaj as a dictator and Chris Brown as an army leader

music 'It was inspired by Cartoon Network'

Arts and Entertainment
James Nesbit in The Missing on BBC 1

TV review

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

    What are Jaden and Willow on about?

    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
    Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

    Cold war

    How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
    Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert