In the wake of lead singer and bassist Mark Sandman's death last summer, Morphine's surviving members -- drummer Billy Conway and saxophonist Dana Colley -- regrouped with a nine-piece lineup of Boston-area musicians to pay tribute to the band and keep Sandman's music alive.
Since February, Orchestra Morphine (as the project has been named) has been crossing the country on its first national tour (see "Surviving Morphine Members Form Orchestra For Memorial Tour"). In the meantime, Orchestra Morphine has put together a live benefit CD, and the group is also planning to revisit the same Italian festival where Sandman suddenly passed away at the age of 46 (see "Morphine Frontman Suffers Fatal Heart Attack"). MTV News recently spoke with drummer Conway about these projects, the group's upcoming plans, and how Orchestra Morphine evolved following Sandman's death.
was really quite organic," Conway said of Orchestra Morphine's beginnings. "The seeds were really planted at the memorial shows, when we decided to do some of the songs from the yet-to-be-released record ['The Night,' Morphine's final record, released in February). Other people could sing those songs, and they could stand up and be good songs, and we could deliver.
"Then we started what we were calling the Moveable Bubble," Conway continued, "which was really just an insiders' term for the emotional overcoat we all wore. We did a few shows around Boston and started to work up a set, and pretty soon we had the whole record covered and kind of felt like we were ready to go.
"For Mark, the idea of writing a song was writing the kind of song that someone could sit at a piano and play. The song would stand up. That's kind of what we learned, and by learning that, it was easier to go ahead. It felt better to play the music than to actually just look at it there on the shelf.
"It kind of all added up," Conway explained. "There was never any doubt that 'The Night' was going to come out, and we thought, 'Well, what better thing to make people hear these songs than to actually go out and play them?'"
The Orchestra Morphine tour has been picking up steam as it heads toward the West Coast, enjoying rave reviews and a unique atmosphere from fans intent upon paying their respects to Sandman while hearing a new twist on the songs he wrote.
"There's a bit of ceremony to this," says Conway. "That's just how it is. Everybody who comes is brave enough to deal with it. Everybody has a little different something in their suitcase. I think the idea is to play the songs and celebrate Mark's legacy, and that's a good thing.
"But usually by the end of the night, people are moving and grooving and got a smile. That's the idea. We're all gonna show signs of life and respect."
The live shows created enough excitement that the band
has now released an Orchestra Morphine tour CD, available only at the gigs.
"After the first few shows, we found that a lot of people were saying, 'Have you guys made a record?'" Conway recalled. "That was never really our intention, but as it turns out, somebody had taped our first show outside of Boston, up in Vermont -- some skilled taper with good microphones -- and it was a pretty solid show. So we just put it out, warts and all.
"This is what it sounded like pretty much on day one," the drummer said of the live disc. "It has songs that aren't on ['The Night']. We thought it would basically be a nice souvenir of what we are doing."
A portion of the disc's proceeds are going to the Mark Sandman Musical Education Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting innovative and creative approaches to music education for children.
"The idea is take music to the schools or to the community centers and maybe we can cull kids out of there that
might be interested in some of the instruments," Conway explained. "And at the same time, beneath it all, to try and use music the way Sandman did.
"Mark's sister is a music teacher, and he would guest lecture every year," Conway continued, "talking to the kids, and by the time he was done, they would have five strings off the guitar, making noise. Basically he was trying to show them that music can be made in so many conditions, and not to restrict themselves to the Suzuki Method. With that spirit in mind, we are trying to do something a little different with music.
"We are going slowly with this," Conway said of the project. "That's the advice we have gotten from everyone about getting involved with a non-profit [organization], if you want to have any longevity."
The longevity of Orchestra Morphine is still up in the air, however.
"Even though we kind of consider ourselves a lesson in nonhierarchical decision-making," Conway said with a laugh, "somewhere
amongst the group consciousness, the idea was to play this thing up to July and go back to Italy to play at the festival that Mark died at [the Nel Nomme De Rock Festival in Palestrina, Italy]. That's kind of the goal for now.
"As far as deciding whether we are a band in the future, I think the more we play, the more clear it will get, for all of us, about what it is we may or may not want to do.
"[Orchestra Morphine] is such a family affair." Conway offered. "I play with half the people in this band on a regular basis anyway. There's no shortage of cross-pollination and ideas, and material.
"I think that the basic consensus is we would be foolish to not go out and get the kind of exercise musically you get from touring and not record. I imagine, come July, once everybody is rested a little bit, we'll record. Because that's what we do."
For information on upcoming Orchestra Morphine activities, consult www.morphine3.com.
The remaining dates on the group's current tour:
- 5/17 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
- 5/18 - Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey
- 5/20 - San Diego, CA @ 4th and B