For some musicians, the thought of dying while on stage might sound like a romantic notion. (Or at least it did in the pre-Dimebag Darrell era.) But in the rare case that it actually happens, the words "surreal" and "shocking" seem more appropriate.
That was the way it was on July 3, 1999, when Mark Sandman, vocalist-bassist for Boston-based Morphine, collapsed and died of a heart attack two songs into their set at a music festival near Rome. It signaled a definite end for the critically acclaimed, guitar-less '90s rock/jazz trio, who'd scored on college radio and even to some extent in the mainstream with records like Cure for Pain, Yes and Like Swimming.
For drummer Billy Conway -- who sat on his riser right behind Sandman -- it's a horror film his mind just can't erase. "Well, you know...it's just something you live with. Though the replay does get tamer as time goes by," Conway says today. "It's funny. We did an interview with [late Clash front man] Joe Strummer about Sandman, and he told us that if a guy has got that much passion about his music and he goes on stage, that's actually the best thing that could happen."
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As a tribute to their friend, Conway and saxophonist Dana Colley then headed the nine-piece Orchestra Morphine on a tour. Vocalist-guitarist Laurie Sargent was part of the ensemble, and the two found themselves working on her solo record. The trio jelled so well, they decided to form an entirely new group called Twinemen. They took the name from an autobiographical cartoon character created by Sandman -- literally a ball of twine with three human heads who had rock and roll adventures. That record became 2002's Twinemen.
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Morphine was known for its minimalist approach to instrumentation. Not so Twinemen. The core trio has an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. Besides a wide variety of traditional instruments, including just about every type of keyboard on the recently released sophomore effort, Sideshow, Twinemen use musicmaking objects such as an ashtray, glasses, kalimba, something called a "bass wubbawubba" and even a quarter. What, they didn't like the sound of a nickel?
"Actually, we tried all the different coins -- so it did have some scientific research," Conway laughs. "But the quarter could stay up longer when spinning, and the sound of the wind-down rattle seemed more pleasing."
Sideshow is also much more a band effort. The first record, Conway says, was cut before they were even a real band, while this one reflects the trio's newfound musical telepathy. Conway says the band nurtured its sixth sense over the course of scores of live shows, along with a lot of "eating the same food and seeing the same sights together."
The music on Sideshow is challenging, atmospheric and clearly for adults with a more evolved taste; a melding of genres that you'd ignore at age 20 but appreciate at 35. "There's music that you just don't understand at first. We always used to joke that the people who liked our stuff were music lovers or curiosity seekers. But when you make music that's not easily defined, you are looking for a certain kind of listener," Conway says. "And that often comes with adulthood. I didn't give up on music just because adulthood gets in the way."
Indeed, Sideshow's themes are grown-up in nature, a noirish-jazz/rock journey that demands repeated listening. From the jealous stalkers in the diving "Wishers" and the smoky, sexy sounds of "In My Hand" to the cacophonic, strutting "Saturday" and hypnotic "A Little Strange" (the latter two sung by Colley), it is truly a grab-bag CD. Colley's sax bleats and harp breaks and Sargent's voice and chords blend well, but it's Conway's sharp, no-frills beats that hold it all together. Conway is that rarest of critters: a drummer whose approach serves the song rather than the ego of the skin-thumper.
"You don't try to mold music, you follow it," he says, and adds that he always favored the minimalist grooves of Al Jackson of Booker T. and the MGs over the complex drum histrionics of Rush's Neil Peart. "As a drum teacher once said to me, 'They don't call it a fill for nothing.' [Jackson] did not play a fill the whole song, but he was in the pocket the whole time. He was supporting the song, not playing the drums, and that's what I liked."
And while Twinemen don't consider themselves a political band, two tracks directly address Life with Dubya: the harp-fueled "The Definition of Truth" and a powerful "I Slept Through It." In the latter (which name-checks Baghdad and the Dixie Chicks), the repeated chorus "I'm too scared to say / It's not my flag" packs a stiff punch.
"Mixing politics and music is a little weird. But when we saw people that were afraid to speak their mind or participate, we wanted to do something," Conway says. "And I do support our troops. I support them coming home."
Conway's memories of Houston include gigs at the late, lamented Rockefeller's (with his and Sandman's pre-Morphine band, Treat Her Right) and more recently at the Mucky Duck -- though he can't recall much of the local color. "You come in and play, hope for a good breakfast, and carry on!" he laughs. "Any recommendations for a good breakfast place in Houston?"
After the tour, Twinemen will film some segments to add to an upcoming DVD that will mix concert footage with more experimental filmed pieces. "Naawww, it won't be a straight concert. We want to get arty!" Conway laughs. He's also recorded a record with Santa Cruz, an Americana act with several French members (freedom fries, my ass!).
As for the title of their new record, in addition to the word appearing at the end of the last track, it sums up the band's approach to their music. "It's like standing in a sideshow instead of being at a main attraction you don't want to see," he offers. "The cooler stuff is somewhere else in the circus."
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