Dana Colley is widely considered to be one of the most original saxophonists of his generation. With his signature 1930s Conn baritone, Dana reclaimed rock and roll for the big horn. (Sandman used to point out that Little Richard had two baris in his band.) Even before ground-breaking electronic effects became a mainstay of his live sound (post-Morphine), Dana’s playing was often compared to guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, who were in fact a huge influence. (Dana also played great tenor on the odd tune, and sometimes bari and tenor simultaneously.”)
Dana was born in Portland, Maine and raised in Hanson, Massachusetts, where he took up the clarinet in the 4th grade, switching to tenor sax in 7th. He picked up baritone in 1984, and joined the band Three Colors in 1985. Dana is also a talented visual artist, and attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 1989, a casual jam session with Mark Sandman – leader of the Hypnosonics, of which Dana was a member – led to the creation of Morphine and “Low Rock.” Mark recruited drummer Jerome Deupree and the band was formed.
Mark invited Dana to be “guitar tech” for an upcoming tour with his band Treat Her Right (including future 2nd Morphine drummer Billy Conway), opening for Los Lobos. Mark shared a Morphine demo with the headliners; Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin asked who was playing bari on the recording. Mark pointed out “that kid winding cables.” Steve, who also played baritone, ended up inviting Dana to sit in, and became something of a mentor to the younger player.
It was not long before Treat Her Right ended a good run, and Morphine became Mark’s primary focus; the band was signed to Ryko and then Dreamworks. They toured the world, right up until Mark’s tragic death in 1999.
After Morphine ended, Dana, Billy and Jerome formed Orchestra Morphine with members of the Hypnosonics, plus Laurie Sargent of Face To Face and Christian McNeal on vocals, to support the release of Morphine’s posthumously released fifth studio record The Night. Out of OM came Twinemen with Laurie and Billy and Dana, plus bassist du jour (Andrew Mazzone, Stu Kimball or Jeremy Moses Curtis) performing mostly original tunes, plus an occasional Sandman number. It was with Twinemen that Dana introduced his effects-laden electric sound.
Twinemen got their name from a comic strip Sandman drew. They also had a home base at Hi-N-Dry, Mark’s old loft apartment and recording studio in Cambridge. Billy, Dana and Andrew Mazzone formed Hi-N-Dry records (producing dozens of great records by local talent) and the Mark Sandman Music Project, designed to mentor kids with musical interests.
Another post-Morphine band of Dana’s was AKACOD with drummer Larry Dersch (who played on the title track of Morphine’s Like Swimming) and bassist/vocalist/songwriter Monique Ortiz, who was a fan and a Sandman protege. The band’s 2008 CD Happiness was a well-received, darker spin on the Low Rock sound. AKACOD more or less ended in 2009, but the group has played some shows since, most notably in Slovenia and Slovakia.
Apart from his work with Morphine-related projects, Dana is a player in demand on the Boston scene and around the world. He has collaborated and performed with dozens of other artists, including the Alloy Orchestra, Lee Renaldo, Dub Apocalypse, Club D’Elf and Les Claypool. Dana is a member of the “virtual” band Delta Horse.
Dana lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife Kate and their two children, a dog and a cat.
Sax setup and electronic gear:
In an article Andrew Clark wrote in Saxophone Journal July/August 2000, Dana had this to say about the reed prepping process that Steve Berlin of Los Lobos taught him:
“Steve showed me this trick on how to prep reeds that I’ve kind of fallen into,” Dana explained. “And I have forever been cursed as a result because I have to kind of rely on it! I use the paper that comes with the reeds to close all the pores on the facings. Next I use an emery board and take off the rough edges. I try to make all the tables and all the right angles finished. Then I drop them in a bucket of water and leave them until they hit the bottom. I take them out and slowly see what works from there. I’11 use a knife on some of them and carve off the reed and the cane in certain places to get the vibrations to happen in the lower end to get a kind of a warmer and more pianissimo sound. You need a little more vibration so you have to take off where it’s thick and leave where it’s happening. It’s a bit involved, but I was so frustrated with the sounds of reeds that I just figured there has to be something you can do. This is what I’ve relied on. And it still seems like you get one reed out of the box that kicks.”
About his horns (again from Saxophone Journal):
Dana uses a Selmer Mark VI tenor with a Berg Larson mouthpiece. “100 over S, something,” he said. “I’m not sure what numbers, but the tenor and bari mouthpieces I use are Bergs and they’re pretty wide open. The baritone is a Conn with rolled tone holes and the lady on the bell. And my bass sax is a Beuscher that I picked up from Emilio at Rayburn’s. I use a Bari baritone mouthpiece on the bass. I play La Voz medium hards on all three saxes.”
Dana has a full sax collection and plays them all, plus a bass clarinet, which he has electrified like his bari. The Conn bari he played in Morphine is still his main axe (albeit with plastic mouthpiece replacing the metal – read), but you’ll likely hear many different horns in upcomng recordings.
As for the amplifier, Dana prefers vintage Fender tube amps. For many years it was the small Fender Princeton, but he graduated to a silver-face Twin some years ago. For a pickup, Dana uses a Barcus Berry transducer drilled into a Hite hard rubber mouthpiece. The signal goes to a BB pre-amp, two Morley Power Wahs (one for boost, the other for distortion and wah), Digitech Whammy (for the low octave, and other fun stuff), and Line 6 Delay Modeler. In addition to the electronc signal coming from the mouthpiece pickup, Dana always has a live mic going directly into the PA for the clean sound of the bell of his horn. Lately Dana has also been running a second microphone into a JamMan looper and EHX Memory Man, into the PA as well.