“Ghosts Of Heatrbreak City” is such a good sleaze rock’n’roll album! We had to ask SISTER MORPHINE a few questions about their past, present and future. Singer Gaz answered.
How did you get the idea to give a new life to SISTER MORPHINE?
I found myself nursing a serious knee injury which had me laid-up and looking for something to occupy my time when I couldn’t really move about. I had an MRI scan the evening before my fiftieth birthday and when they put the headphones on me to drown out the sound of the machine ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ was playing – that makes you feel old, I can tell you! So, to fill the time without getting up I decided to convert a load of old tapes to digital with a view to sharing them with my music nerd friends. I was thinking live bootleg tapes which I still have a load of – Hanoi Rocks, Zodiac Mindwarp & the Love Reaction, Quireboys, The Dogs D’Amour, Manic Street Preachers, KISS, to name but a few. However, I found a stack of old Sister Morphine rehearsal tapes from 1989, 1990, and 1991. These C90s contained rough, sometimes incomplete versions of songs that I had completely forgotten about, so I converted them and sent them to my old band mates – guitarists Jamesy and Jonesy, drummer Denley Slade, and bassist “Hollywood” Mike DeSouza. This started a file sharing frenzy with other songs that had seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet resurfacing. I was on codeine for pain relief and this, infamously and painfully, gives you constipation. I don’t know if it was the backing-up that got to my brain but I decided that I needed to get my shit out in different ways, so I suggested to the boys that we regroup to make an album including all these great songs that never got the chance to shine.However
Was it easy to convince everyone in the band?
Easier than I ever imagined! Within an hour of me sending the message everyone was in and committed to making the album. We were in regional lockdowns at the time – this was early 2021 – so we had a million group posts and video calls trying to come up with a plan. Those video calls would result in three brand new songs being written. A finished product still seemed so far away, though – that, two years later, we have, in my opinion, a killer album released is quite remarkable.
When was it when you first started?
Jamesy and “Hollywood” Mike were in a band called Self Destruction Blues; the former singing and playing guitar, the latter providing the eye candy. They decided that they wanted a proper frontman with dazzling good looks and a voice to die for, but they couldn’t find one so they asked me to join. This was in 1989. I joined the band the day before my eighteenth birthday. The band name was changed, Denley and, later, Jonesy joined, and it all clicked and we were away.
Was there a big sleaze/glam rock scene in Wales?
At the time the big thing was Glam Vs Thrash! Two camps at odds with each other – us cool kids and those other sweaty oafs! One Tuesday night James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich walked into our local rock club, Metro’s in Newport, and all the thrashers were treating it like the second coming while I was like, “wake me up if someone from Faster Pussycat walks in!” Ha ha. I actually had a piss next to Lars – the sound of his piss hitting the porcelain sounded exactly like the snare drum on ‘St. Anger’. But I digress; the glam thing was big, with bands like City Kidds and Ragdolls riding the Tigertailz coattails. We would eventually get lumped in with the whole glam thing, but we were always on the Hanoi Rocks/New York Dolls side of the subgenre – really we wanted to be the Stones or the Faces, not leather boyz with electric toyz.
How many shows did you play approximately and what do you remember of them?
In that first year, 1989, we were still really finding our sound so we only did two shows – the second of them a pretty high profile one in London with Last Of The Teenage Idols, back when playing in London with a name band was a bit of a dream for kids from places like ours. We went for it in 1990 and played scores of shows, garnering a small yet fevered following of cultured individuals. A lot of the times the show was a local “Rock Night” so you had all types of rock fans in attendance: you would sell T-shirts to some people who loved your performance, yet have others wanting to fight you for not sounding like the Scorpions… on the same night! Every show or every night of a tour is a constant battle between good times and bad decisions – at our age now even the latter are remembered as the former.
You were probably associated to bands like The DOGS D’AMOUR, QUIREBOYS or GUNFIRE DANCE. Did you play with any of them?
We did several shows with Gunfire Dance as part of a package that saw them as headliners, us opening, with Silver Hearts the prime beef sandwiched between us. It was clear from the first time we saw and heard Gunfire Dance that the band should have been huge. Looking back, they were just a few years ahead of the game. When the alternative culture became the norm in the Nineties their edgier, oft-kilter brand of rock ‘n’ roll would have hit several marks but in the years before that every label wanted its “rebels” to have pop metal hits; stage-managed rebellion. Think the Quireboys having to get rid of their best-ever drummer in order to have that polished sound of the first album – they went from the Faces to ‘Atlantic Crossing’ era Rod in one swoop. I was lucky enough to hang out with the Survival Records line-up of the Quireboys when I was seventeen, but we never got to play with them. We did, however, play with Red Dogs who featured current Quireboys guitarist Paul Guerin – well, one of the current Quireboys line-ups! Paul has always been great and whenever I bumped into him when on Uber Rock duties he always smiled in all the right places when I serenaded him with Red Dogs classic, ‘Sweet Little Ruby’, EVERY TIME I SAW HIM! We were actually booked onto a Dogs D’Amour gig after our Teenage Idols gig in 1989 but it never happened. It’s mentioned in a review of the gig that I have somewhere.
What other bands from that scene did you like or hung out with?
We spent some time with the aforementioned Silver Hearts (who later became Last Great Dreamers) and are still friends with Marc Valentine and Slyder Smith. In fact, our drummer, Denley, was in the regrouped Last Great Dreamers for a few years, and now plays in Marc’s solo band. I’m still friends with a load of the City Kidds – they had around ten thousand band members so it’s hard to walk down the street without bumping into one of them, teasing his hair or straightening his spandex. Former Kidd Matt Blakout (now Tigertailz drummer) was my best man! We played a few shows with a band called Roadhouse that, apparently, Jon Bon Jovi had said good things about – they had the JBJ quote on their posters and everything! He was probably on about the Patrick Swayze movie. Anyway, Roadhouse had a prima donna of a frontman who would smash his micstand into the stage and storm off if the band wasn’t going down well, but a lovely guy on drums named Ramon who, like me, loved comic books and pop culture. We used to correspond and he’d send me Punisher stickers and the like. We also played some shows with a band called Who Cares Anyway? and their drummer now plays in The Hip Priests, who we love. In fact, guitarist Austin messaged me on the release day of our album to tell me how much he liked it – little things like that from cool mofos means a lot.
Did you release any official demos in those days?
We recorded a four-track demo tape in a place called Chariot Studios in Cardiff in 1989. Sadly, due to the gentrification of every cool fucking place on the planet, the location no longer exists. The demo was entitled ‘The Agony & the Ecstasy of Sister Morphine’ and none of the songs made the cut when it came to rehashing some old tunes for our ‘Ghosts of Heartbreak City’ album! We also released a tape entitled ‘Singing Songs ‘Bout Yesterday’ that included a song from the demo, ‘For a Girl Like You’, alongside several live songs recorded in venues across the UK that, again, no longer exist.
Why did the band stop playing?
We found ourselves treading water. We’d had a couple of management “agreements” but found ourselves looking for new representation. We did a 250-mile round trip to meet some prospective management but, predictably, they were just another bunch of chancers and crooks. We were still teenagers and couldn’t even rent a van to get us from gig to gig as we weren’t old enough. An opportunity came my way to write about cult movies and pop culture – my other great passion – so I took up the offer and left the band. I went from being threatened for not whistling like Klaus Meine to dealing regularly with underground filmmakers like Jörg Buttgereit. That seemed like the right thing to do at the time. The band carried on for a little while with a different singer, but it was like that time Mick Hucknall replaced Rod Stewart in the Faces – there was a ginger bloke stood in the same place saying the same words, but it wasn’t the same.
How was it when you first started playing together again?
Everything, initially, when we could eventually meet up and rehearse, was about deciding which songs would make the album. It was great fun revisiting all the old songs, resurrecting some yet showing others the proverbial door. Plus we had three, then four new songs to work on so it was an exciting, productive time. Remember, some of the band members hadn’t really played for three decades so hearing them back in the groove and nailing it was spectacular.
Can you tell us about Big Egg Records?
Big Egg Records is a new Welsh record label that I first became aware of when some friends’ bands got included on a compilation album that the label put out. They reached out on social media asking followers to recommend bands that they should be working with. Sister Morphine had just recorded the scratch tracks for our album before recording proper started, so I sent Big Egg a couple of the tunes and they were interested. The last time we released anything was in 1990 – and on cassette! – so we wanted someone to help us with not only the final physical product, but also all that digital releasing shebang which those of us from the jet age are allergic to. The guys at Big Egg Records are just big music nerds like us so have been great to work with – they just want to help bands get product released. They also tell me repeatedly that I am not only the best singer that they have ever worked with, but also the best looking, which is nice.
You seem to be good at Internet promotion. Do you think that being involved in Uber Rock helped you to stay up to date with the way music and the Internet work together nowadays?
Johnny Hayward and myself founded Uber Rock, but previously to that we had written for the Glitzine website – we had experience of both sending content into an editor, and then being the editors. The latter showed us how NOT to do things. It was a steep learning curve and, like every corner of the music industry, littered with rude bastards. I have tried to use the experience and the knowledge of how not to do things to stir up a little interest in Sister Morphine and the album release. The band’s story made it a little easier, but that ease was nullified by choosing a band name thirty-three years ago that social media search results consider related to drug misuse and continually block! I think I’ve done okay, though… and without spending any money!
You say in the I-84 Bar interview that you’re a “member of the cult of Richey.” Did you get to meet him? Did you see the Manics in their very early days?
I live around six miles away from Blackwood, where the Manic Street Preachers come from, so you would often see them around in the early days: Nicky generally in a shopping centre, James in more random places – I remember him once pushing past us to get nearer to the front when The Black Crowes were playing New port Centre. I only ever saw Richey when he was hanging out before Manics gigs, though. I had written to an address that was on the back of one of their 12-inch records looking for info and Richey replied to me, and sent me a white label 7-inch of the original version of ‘You Love Us’. I have the letter framed on my wall. I saw the band many, many times when Richey was still there: awe-inspiring at times. I have also seen them numerous times since he disappeared. The gigs now are full of people who would also pay £15 to see a tribute band and think that a band must be great because they have paid to put an ad in Classic Rock magazine. Not for me.
Do you have any gigs planned so far?
We had an album launch gig booked, but the venue has closed so that went the way of the dodo. We will consider any opportunities to play live again but are conscious that our huge stage set with mechanical dragon and tank drum riser will struggle to fit into smaller venues.
If SISTER MORPHINE could choose a band to open for, who would it be?
I think we have that crossover appeal that means we’d be equally at home supporting bands like The Dogs D’Amour, The Quireboys, or Michael Monroe as we would punkier outfits like The Boys or The Professionals, or even old school US bands like Jetboy or Faster Pussycat. We’ll consider anything that involves potential more good times… and more bad decisions!
Will there be a vinyl version of the album?
We hope so, eventually. Not having the 12-inch EP that we had planned to release in 1991 in our record collections was a major catalyst for us recording ‘Ghosts of Heartbreak City’ as it happens. That quest for bona fide Sister Morphine physical product has resulted in a cool digipak CD, but we’d love a vinyl release, with lyrics and a huge thanks list included. The waiting time for vinyl to be manufactured at the present time is wild, though – by the time we get the chance to do it a different format may already be the new old thing! It could be 8-tracks! If it is I know a Welsh lyric writer who would claim at least part of the credit for that…