There are bands that you gradually grow out of, and there are bands that stick with you for your entire life. Sometimes, the bands that stick with you are the ones that you were only able to appreciate for a few years. For me Morphine is one of those pivotal groups where I can remember the first time I heard every single one of their albums, where I was, what I was doing, who I was with. I remember making mix tapes for friends, and loaning CDs to people that I had to call and hassle to get back. And I remember driving the hour up from Northfield Minnesota to Minneapolis to see them play at First Avenue, betting on which songs they would play. I was hoping for “Sharks,” which was fast on track to become one of my own personal theme songs. As I watched this strange band with their strange instrumentation making their strange music, feeling I was really on the frontier of the future of alternative rock’n roll, I never imagined it would be the only time I saw them live. A few years later, with a moderate amount of buzz and indie cred, the band was gone. If you know the band, you probably already know what happened, but if you don’t, that story and the amazing music created by three sometimes four guys from Boston is ready for you to discover in a fantastic new documentary by Mark Shuman, MORPHINE: JOURNEY OF DREAMS. Making its world premiere this week at the Austin Screenwriting Conference and Film Festival, the film allows the band, their management and touring team, and their closest friends and family to tell their own narrative. Eschewing voice over, Shuman has collected interviews with the entire band, both archived and contemporary, amazing footage of the band live in concert and on foreign television, and journal entries, all with the joy the band was able to create with their dark mysterious sound. I had a chance to sit down with Shuman today to chat about his film and one of the most original bands to ever flirt with rock stardom.
“I owned a club called the Electric Lounge, with a friend of mine Jay Hughey, back in the day in Austin,” relates Shuman, discussing meeting Morphine for the first time; “they were just getting their start … we got their two CDs, started playing them like crazy, starting to spread the word, we were the second time on their tour that they sold out.” Shuman met the band then, and hung out with them every time they came through town after. Many years later, and long after Morphine was no more, a friend sent Shuman a picture of saxophonist Dana Colley playing a gig at SXSW with an Electric Lounge shirt on. He told his friend to get Colley to stay put, he was coming over. “All the time that I had known Dana back in the day when they were playing and I would see them, he was always writing in these journals,” he explains. He asked Colley if he had done that the whole time Morphine was around, “and he said ‘yeah I did, and actually I did it a few months after, and then I quit.’” In Shuman’s film, Colley’s journals become the front line view of a band on the verge of breaking through, offering a counter story to everyone’s reflections looking back. Shuman’s goal was to make a film that centered on the band, the relationships inside it, the creation of the music, and the journey from side project to mega-label almost-hit machine. I say ‘almost’ because a big part of the story of film is lead-singer/bass-guitarist Mark Sandman’s troublesome relationship to the concept of success. This is a man who did actually want to have a hit song, but wanted to do it on his own terms, often to the frustration of his label. “The real reason I did it,” says Shuman about the impetus of the film, “was that I couldn’t think of a band in the world that deserved it more, and I felt like the band didn’t get the attention they deserved, and if you listen to their sound, it’s timeless.” Part of what makes Morphine so unique is their instrumentation. You’ve got a drummer, you’ve got a wailing baritone sax rattling the speakers on the bottom end, and then you got Sandman with a very smooth, almost carnal, baritone voice, and he plays this bizarre 2-string slide bass — “there’s no other band out there like that,” says Shuman. “It’s not over produced,” he continues, “I used a lot of live performances in the film and it plays well because the cuts they did live are very close to what are on the album.” Shuman says he was lucky because so much of the material was archived, often by the band himself – drummer Billy Conway spent many years going through tapes and preserving demos and live performances of Morphine and other songs that Sandman had written with various other projects. “There are a lot of music rights things on bands like these, that were on major labels,” Shuman says, but having the support of the band itself and Mark’s family opened a lot of doors that would have been closed otherwise. There is actually a lot of great music in the film, smart selections that cover the vast varieties of genres that Morphine dabbled in, and track their sound over a number of years. It’s actually rare to see a music doc with this much actual music in it, and yet still tells the whole story of the band.
Having the documentary film screen at a festival known for great story telling, one that emphasizes the writer, is not lost on Shuman. “To me I was very flattered that they took the time to recognize a documentary at a writer’s festival,” he says, “they wanted to do the world premiere, it’s my backyard, my adopted hometown.” Now that the film is done, people have begun asking him what his next project might be, what the next band is he’d like to profile. But the process of making a documentary really taught him how difficult it is to ‘create’ story out of nothing, even when you have something like a historical timeline to follow, especially once you are in the editing room. “It’s not like you have a wide or a close up to choose from,” he says, “there’s a thousand different angles.” With a documentary film, once you hit the editing stage, “you have to write it yourself.” For me, the film really has a three-act structure like a narrative film does, with the band being the protagonist, so that makes it an easy pick for a festival that prides itself on story. Plus, Austin is such a great music town, and the filmmaker’s own connection to the music scene here is vital to this story even being told.
However, Shuman says its not just about the music, “Morphine was a family … the people around it. Mark was very loyal to the people around him and they have all the conflicts that families do, and also all the closeness that families do.” One of the most fascinating revelations from the film is Mark Sandman’s relationship with his two drummers. One drummer, Jerome Deupree, was replaced very early on in the career of the band, but he ended up returning and playing side by side with the drummer (Conway) who had replaced him. I also find it very interesting that though Morphine has ceased to exist as entity for fifteen years now, the former band members themselves have no desire to distance themselves from their ‘legacy,’ if we can call it that. They put together an orchestral ensemble to tour the songs shortly after the last album, they performed Morphine songs as Twineman, a band that took its name from Sandman’s drawings and featured Colley and Conway along with singer Laurie Sargent, and most recently have hit the road as Vapors of Morphine, a semi-cover band of Colley, Deupree and Singer/guitarist Jeremy Lyons who play a mix of Morphine songs and new originals. Despite living full-time in Montana and touring with other acts, Billy Conway also plays occasional shows with Vapors of Morphine. “Right now they’re killing it,” Shuman says, “they were just in South America, where they have a huge following, … playing for thousands of people.” Vapors of Morphine will be playing a show at the Continental Club on Tuesday and the film will screen again at the State Theatre on Wednesday night. Although this is the film’s first stop on the festival circuit, I’m sure it will find its way into several more, and do it’s part to bring this singular noir-rock back to the forefront. “There’s a generation that missed them,” Shuman says, “and I said ‘this can’t happen, this band has to have the attention’ and I’m also a huge fan.” Agreed.