Singer/guitarist Jeremy Lyons' path through the blues landed him in a beloved alternative rock band with a cult following.
The journey begins to make more sense when you learn the band he joined is Morphine, known for its idiosyncratic instrumentation of drums, saxophone, and singer Mark Sandman's two-stringed slide bass guitar, which, when coupled with Sadnman's dark vocals, often gave their songs a strong, bluesy undercurrent.
Sandman died on-stage in 1999, performing with Morphine, with Lyons joining the remaining members to form Vapors of Morphine, which features the same instrumentation, as well as the same blues foundation.
Lyons is uniquely equipped for the job, which he proves on Fear and Fantasy, Vapors' album of new songs, including a hard-to-find Sandman original.
Lyons, now based in Massachusetts, had a long blues-oriented musical career in New Orleans. Upon heading north, he connected with saxophonist Dana Colley and drummers Jerome Deupree and Billy Conway (who died in December 2021), the remains of Morphine. Their blues jamming eventually became a formal invitation to join the band, which meant learning Sandman's two-string slide bass. Lyons was also especially qualified for that job, with a bachelor's in ethnomusicology that included a focus on handmade instruments.
It's an intellectual pursuit, but also a musical one. "In order to keep rock music vital, it has to have to bring in other influences," he says. "Whether it's more women, which has been a nice thing that we've seen lately, or going into the deep roots of rock and roll, like African music and reinterpreting it and stuff. So, to me, it's all kind of like the big circle. You listen to something like Skip James' blues recordings from the Delta in the 1930s and listen to Ali Farka Touré playing acoustic guitar in the 1980s, there [are] some gross similarities."
While Vapors keeps Lyons busy, he also makes time for Busted Jug Band, his tribute to early 20th century street band music. It's an outgrowth of The Big Mess Blues Band, an acoustic street band he had in New Orleans in the 1990s. Busted Jug Band began as a weekly residency learning songs in a Somerville bar and eventually became a theatrical production. "We did this steampunk festival, where we had to dress up, and we realized that was the ticket for us," he says. "We always wear mismatched three-piece suits and hats and stuff like bow ties, bowlers or top hats. We're not trying to be authentically of a certain era. We're just kind of take aesthetic ideas from the period in which jug bands were popular, in the '20s and '30s, and carry them into today. I absolutely love jug band music, semi-obscure American roots music types."
Busted Jug Band is different from Vapors of Morphine, which has a sleek, futuristic sound, even though the two bands are rooted in many of the same influences. Fear and Fantasy includes traditional instruments like banjo, guitar, and even bouzouki. Ultimately that's what's so compelling about the album. It's not a blues collection, but the sounds and textures are familiar. Sandman, and now Lyons, created something different out of a beloved fabric, not completely altering the blues, but subtly shifting its orientation. Or to be more precise, they didn't change the blues so much as they brought the spirit of the blues to alternative rock.
In this interview, Lyons discusses the logistics of joining a new band, that while not particularly popular in the mainstream, has a passionate fan base. He also gets into how the Vapors wrote and how they're trying to write now. Fear and Fantasy isn't classic blues, but it's simple, direct slide riffs recall some of the Delta greats. Lyons is a true blues artist.
Writing Fear and Fantasy
Working Mojo: What was your songwriting process for Fear and Fantasy?
Jeremy Lyons: Some of the songs were recycled. Like a couple of older songs of mine and one older song of Dana, the sax player. And then there were covers. And then there was a few originals—new originals—of mine. [The] songs were "Blue Dream," "No Sleep," and "Irene."
That was actually an interesting process. I think I wrote them all around the same time, a few years ago. I was deliberately trying to write for the band and with a bass, either a regular four-string or a two-string slide bass, that Mark Sandman invented. That's a neat way to write because I'm used to writing on guitar, trying to record changes and stuff, but starting with the bass line, or even playing a melody on the bass, it kind of gives you a limitation, which is always good to have in the songwriting process, you know, having strict parameters. And I knew that I was writing this for this combo, so saxophone and drums. That gave me some nice parameters to work within.
And [the songs are] all kind of themed around dreams, or sleep, or lack thereof. So that was kind of a theme that I was going for. Partly because I was trying to embrace some of the mystique that Mark Sandman created with Morphine originally in the '90s, using his real name, Sandman, which, in European folklore, the sandman was the guy who would come, like sort of a spirit who would come at night and put the sand in your eye and make you sleep or something. You know, how we wake up in the morning with a little bit of sand in front of your eye?
Also, the name Morphine was actually supposedly derivative of Morpheus, who was a Greek god of dreams. And so I was kind of going with that theme. I had one song basically about insomnia. Another one was about daydreaming or basically neglecting your reality because you're stuck in your dreams. And then there's another one which is more like just living like a waking dream, living in a dream.
Two-String Slide Bass
WM: So are you sitting with the two string slide bass, kind of messing around? Or do you have lyrical ideas that you're trying to create music for?
Lyons: Yeah, I have both. I'll have a notebook or looseleaf with a bunch of different ideas that I've jotted down, or like a Moleskine or something. And I'll sit with my phone and use the voice memo app, and often I'll just be playing around with the bass and be trying different things out. I'll think of a good idea, musically. I'll put that down. And then I'll keep playing. If I come up with something else that's a variant, then I'll put that down, [and] also record it.
And then at some point, I'll start trying to pair this up with lyrical ideas that I have, often in the notes in my phone as well, if not [in] a notebook. So it's something that's really tricky, because if you start with the music, and then try to pair lyrics that you already have, you can feel sort of stilted at first, because you feel like you're trying to fit something together that doesn't necessarily fit together; [it] wasn't created together.
But sometimes you have happy accidents and it works really well. I'm trying to think about these tunes. It's been a little while, so it's hard for me to remember exactly the process. I think mostly it was the music first and then I kind of get a lyrical seed and go from there.
WM: Had you played two-string slide bass before Vapors?
Lyons: I started playing with these guys in 2009. So it's been a while now. I never played the instrument before that. And I hadn't even heard of Morphine before I moved up to Massachusetts in 2005.
I made friends with the guys in the band and eventually got recruited to do a tribute show honoring the Mark Sandman passing. He died in '99 on stage in Italy, and so we went back to the same place and did a gig there. And that's when I started picking up the two-string bass and learning some of the Morphine tunes. But I've been playing it long enough that it's a natural instrument. It's fun, because with just the two strings, you can never have a full triad while you're playing it. And you could focus on the melody, or the bassline, or even power chords, so it's pretty versatile.
WM: Has it changed how you write songs? Have you noticed a difference?
Lyons: Yeah, I mean, I haven't written a whole lot, honestly. Over that period of time, I have written some stuff on guitar. And I remember there was one particular period, probably around 2007, or '08, [that] was kind of fertile. I had a lot of ideas. I was teaching guitar a fair amount. And that always helps because like, for instance, if I'm showing someone some blues patterns, or maybe a pentatonic scale, or that kind of thing, some licks, you kind of have to dissect what you do. And you look at it a different way when you're trying to explain it to somebody, especially stuff that you take for granted. So sometimes I find myself writing something right after a lesson because it kind of got things stirred up in my head.
Or, there was another song that I wrote. It was on guitar, but it was for Vapors of Morphine. This was quite a while ago, a very early song of ours. I had learned a new guitar tuning, which Richard Thompson had used for some songs, including " Vincent Black Lightning." And it was a pretty cool tune with the low E string tuned down to C, and the A string tune down to a G, and then the rest are the same, just normal. And then I just came up with a riff playing with that, and I was like, 'No, that sounds kind of like Morphine.' And so I honestly made up a song in about 10 minutes, the first one I did for that band.
The thing that's nice about writing with this band is [that] for the most part, the lyrical template is quite sparse. Sandman wrote stuff that was kind of impressionistic, usually. He wrote a few, like linear, sort of narrative tunes, but most of the songs were sort of just impressions. Just very small details here and there or something somebody says. Something very, very sparse. So it's a kind of a good template to work with, because you figure less is more.
With playing, I came from a place where I was mostly playing more traditional stuff, like blues and rockabilly and early country music. And that stuff is fairly formulaic. And so, getting away from the guitar was helpful for me to get away from the traditional chord changes, whether it's a a 12-bar blues, or a I-vi-ii-V swing change, or something like that. So that's kind of nice. I'm not really used to writing in more of a rock idiom.
The basis of Morphine is it's definitely a rock band, but it's an unusual rock band, so we can kind of do anything and because of our sound, it makes it sound like us, whatever we're doing.
WM: How much of your joining the band was your friendship with them and how much was it an analytical decision for them to intentionally bring in someone more rooted in the blues?
Lyons: Well partly just being in the room. A lot it was timing. I had become pretty close friends with Dana and Jerome. I didn't know Billy as well, but I did know him, and played gigs with all of them. Dana had actually been in another band, [A.K.A.C.O.D.], with a woman named Monique Ortiz, who was playing mostly fretless bass, but also some two-string bass and it was kind of a band that sounded sort of like Morphine; Morphine meets Black Sabbath. Sort of darker but a similar instrumentation. And they had just broken up, I think, not that long before Dana got the call that the people in Palestrina, Italy wanted to do a tribute show and were inviting him to bring a band.
The obvious choice was Monique, but because I guess they had kind of a sticky breakup or whatever, it wasn't what Dana thought was the right thing to do. And I think he spoke to [Primus'] Les Claypool first. Because Les had done thing shortly before that, in studio with them, doing a cover of "Honey White." Les was a huge Morphine fan and a friend of Mark's. The three surviving members, Jerome and Billy both playing drums, and Dana playing sax and Claypool playing bass and singing. But he wasn't available. Fortunately for me.
There were a couple [of] other names that were thrown around. I think [Queens of the Stone Age] Josh Homme was mentioned. I don't know if he was ever approached—I don't think so—because he had a connection with the band because Queens of the Stone Age played the next day, after Mark died at the same festival. They had actually been wanting to see the band. They showed up a day earlier but were stuck at the airport. They didn't know why but it was when Mark had died on stage and Queens of Stone Age were stuck at the airport hoping to come in to see Morphine play. The next day they spoke to Dana and Billy and Billy and Dana were urging them to go ahead and play the gig, to have music, to keep the music going.
I just was in the room really, in Hi-N-Dry , the new studio that they had moved from the original loft that Sandman had. It was just the Armory building in Somerville. Dana was just like, 'Do you want to go to Italy?' I had been playing some gigs informally with Jerome and Dana, here and there since 2007, mostly doing trance blues stuff, like slide guitar in open D tuning and Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside and that kind of stuff. A lot of one chord stuff, some regular blues and everything. So we had a bit of a rapport and had messed around with some stuff and so I guess I was kind of the obvious backup after A.K.A.C.O.D. broke up and everything.
So initially, they would just guest me. I play guitar, and do stuff however I wanted, but I was keen to try out the two-string bass. For the first rehearsal we had, [it] was at the Hi-N-Dry studio, the Armory building, and I showed up and Billy was there, and he was in the office. And he's like, 'The bass is over there if you want to try it out.' Mark's bass was always hanging on a post somewhere, or on the wall, and so I took it down and was plugging in, and was playing, and almost immediately broke a string. And I gasped. And so I went to Billy, [and] sheepishly told him, and he was like 'Ahhh. Those strings must have been on there forever. Here.' And he handed me a box of strings. And I figured out which one it was. And I replaced it. And then I started playing again. And then I broke the other string. So I replaced that one.
It was a little intimidating at first, the three guys assembled. But we started going over some stuff and learned it. I think it's good thing we went under the radar for the first few years because it took me a long time to get the groove and the singing down and everything. I see some of the earliest videos and I'm pretty aghast. But it's been a fun process.
WM: I wanted to ask about "Doreen," the Sandman song that you do on Fear. Was it demoed or anything? What did you have from it?
Lyons: Yeah, actually, it's not available online at the moment, you might be able to find that on YouTube, a bootleg somewhere. It was recorded with [Sandman's pre-Morphine band] Treat Her Right on an album that was never released. They actually had a label record deal for a little while and eventually got dropped.
The song was released on Sandbox, which is the compilation album that came out in 2004. The Hi-N-Dry guys put [it] together, from all of Mark's different projects. It even included some Morphine stuff that was never handed over to the record company. It was a big lawsuit and everything but Sandbox is not actually available online. And Dana said he has to do a couple of accounting things to get it back up there, but "Doreen" is on there, so we had a recording of it. And it's Mark playing the low guitar, which is basically playing a bassline with the bass guitar going through an octave pedal. And Dave Champagne playing playing slide guitar, and Jimmy Fitting playing harmonica, and Billy Conway playing the cocktail drum kit. So that was our template.
WM: Your version is very bluesy. But it sounds like his version also was.
Lyons: Yeah, Treat Her Right was sometimes called a punk blues band. They were definitely a blues-rooted band for sure. So that's kind of where Mark was coming from when he put Morphine together, although he had other projects as well. But yeah, it's definitely bluesier than the Morphine material.
Champagne's original guitar solo was pretty out. There were actually some fun trade-offs between the harmonica and the slide guitar on the original. We didn't have the harmonica so we just did trade-offs between two guitar parts on mine. I honestly wish I had spent a little bit more time on that section because there are a couple of things that kind of make me cringe a little bit. That's just me.
WM: Are you critical when you go back in and review your older work? Because you mentioned before, when you go back and listen to some of the old Vapors stuff, that you're glad that you were flying under the radar.
Lyons: Sure. Yeah. Definitely. I think that Vapors has put out some fairly quality stuff. And there's only a couple of things on the new album that rankle me a little bit. It's just those little details but no, I mean, I go back over the stuff, the albums I recorded and released when I lived in New Orleans, and a number of them, they seem like they were rushed, in a sense. Which they were.
Making CDs at the time was a very practical way to make some extra money on the bandstand. And since people were buying them and you could make it inexpensively, which we usually could, then it was worth it. So there's some tunes, I'm just like, 'Ooh.' There are some CDs I wish I had given it to another person to listen to and critique before 'Dang, it was finished' kind of thing. I've never had really a co-producer on most of my stuff.
That's the tricky bit about the DIY process. Nowadays, most musicians are recording their own albums and releasing them themselves. And there [are] so many more musicians doing that than there were 20, 30 years ago. But there were still plenty of DIY people in the '90s making their own CDs. If you wanted to make money on a CD, and you weren't on a label, that was kind of the only way to do it. But, yeah, without having the gatekeeper process, the product doesn't necessarily come out as good as you want. Somebody there to say, 'Well... maybe just finish this up and tweak that.'
WM: When you're working with Vapors, is there a lot of feedback and conversation about what's working and what isn't working, as you're putting things down?
Lyons: Yeah. The album is two different drummers. So the band went through a transition between, basically, the first side and the second side. There's one Jerome tune on the second side, but by and large, they're divided up by the drummers. But Jerome's on the first side and Tom [Arey]'s on the second. They're very different drummers and very different people; both fantastic and great to work with. Jerome is very spontaneous, and likes to try different things out a lot. And Tom is more meticulous and builds a part sometimes playing one piece of percussion first and then another and then adding the drums or something like that.
So I think with Tom, we had to rehearse him up. He had played with us a few times, subbing, and he was always really good about making charts and everything for himself, so he had a lot of homework he'd already done, but we had to rehearse up the band pretty quickly. Start gigging again after Jerome left. So we got much more organized with set lists and deciding what songs to play, and that kind of thing. And, as we've gone along, before each gig, we do a soundcheck and we'll tweak a couple of things, 'Hey why don't we work on that tune a little bit?,' or 'What about this part of that?' So it's very much collaborative. There's no one dictating anything.
Sometimes in the studio, especially the first half of it when we were recording, we went up away to Vermont for a few days, to a studio that was run by Pete Weiss, who is a good friend and a great engineer and producer. [We] stayed up there for a few days and did the basic tracks, and went back and did mixing and overdubs and stuff. And it got kind of tense at times. Dana and I sometimes will have different ideas and can be kind of stubborn. In the studio there's a little bit more at stake, because you're trying to finish something, put out the way you want it. Whereas on stage, the idea [is] always trying something a little bit different.
But I feel like we've really kind of come into a new era for us. Now that we just finished the last date of , finished a run of about a dozen gigs to support the album, we're planning on going and practicing, recording our practices, trying out some new stuff, and [trying] to write stuff together.
WM: Do you often write together like that, in practice? Or is that a new wrinkle?
Lyons: That's a pretty new thing. In the past, when we were playing with Jerome, first we had a weekly residency, and then we had every other week, and so we were playing really often, and we really didn't rehearse very often. So we would try different stuff out on the gigs. But now it's become a little bit more formal, where we're trying to just go out and play good shows and not overplay our market here in Boston. So we haven't done a lot of writing together, up to this point.
We do arranging together, but we're really hoping that we can just try jamming over some different grooves and see if we come up with constructing a song from the music up. It might be instrumental tunes or might be stuff we add lyrics to later. This will be a new process.
WM: Do you go back after rehearsal and sit and listen together? Or do you all take home the demos? I'm always curious how that works.
Lyons: Dana is really good about that. I've gotten much better. I used to hate listening back. But yeah, usually Dana will make sure to have something to burn to make a simple recording, wherever we are, and then yeah, we'll send it out. That's kind of what we'd have to do to write stuff. Let's jam on something for a while, and then go back and listen and see what parts to keep.
WM: You also play in the Busted Jug Band, which is a little bit more throwback. So does that feel like a different set of muscles where you're you're not breaking the rules as much as with Vapors?
Lyons: Vapors pushed me. First playing with those guys, I really didn't know how to, like, solo over rock music too much. Trying to experiment and try different things out, those guys really pushed me to expand. But I also really value the idea of humor in music peformance. And also, I'd rather play old, obscure music that people haven't heard before then to make up some flat, mediocre song. There [are] good songs out there, so if I can write something that's just as good, that's fine, but if I can't, I'll sing somebody else's song. Some of my favorite artists were these kind of musical clowns; absolutely hilarious novelty music but usually brilliant, brilliant musicians.
Some examples would be Fats Waller, Slim Gaillard, Louis Jordan, Frank Zappa. Oh and Spike Jones and His City Slickers. And Hoosier Hot Shots. These are all novelty acts, but brilliant musically, and that's what makes it work. So we try to present a band that is really tight, musically, and very entertaining, no matter what kind of music you like.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.