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.