On the Beat

Sam Madison, the Bleeding Heart drug researcher who rocks at night

Work and play: Sam Madison of Raleigh is a clinical researcher for GlaxoSmithKline as well as a guitarist/singer for two bands.
Work and play: Sam Madison of Raleigh is a clinical researcher for GlaxoSmithKline as well as a guitarist/singer for two bands. tlong@newsobserver.com

At least several nights a month, you’ll find Raleigh resident Sam Madison onstage at some nightspot making a whole lot of noise as guitarist/singer in one of his bands: punk-leaning garage band Bleeding Hearts or rocked-up alternative-country band Hank Sinatra. But his main source of income for the past 17 years has been his job at GlaxoSmithKline in Research Triangle Park.

Clinical researcher for a drug company by day, rock star by night. Now there’s a double life.

His story

Madison grew up in Statesville, playing in bands and frequently trundling down to Charlotte “to open for every punk band there ever was,” he said. After a couple of years at East Carolina University, he dropped out of school to pursue music full-time with a band called The Usuals.

“That was a great experience,” he said. “We made three albums, played all over America. But by 1991, it was apparent we had missed our chance at getting famous and that was not going to happen.”

Madison returned to ECU and earned an undergraduate degree in biology, then a master’s degree in molecular biology. He was working on his Ph.D. when GSK hired him.

What pays the bills

Madison started off in GSK’s virology lab doing research on human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS. It was grueling, dangerous work with live viruses under highly controlled conditions.

“But it was fun and exciting work, even though it was basically manual labor with the gowns and gloves and respirators,” Madison said. “It would get really tiring.”

After five years in the lab, Madison went into clinical research, designing trials and programs for drugs. Most of his work nowadays is in the area of oncology, his specialty for the past eight years. And Bleeding Hearts have been at it for more than a decade.

“Glaxo’s been very good to me,” Madison said. “Not a lot of other people here do what I do and have that kind of hobby. Like any kind of job, you’re around some people who think it’s a lot of foolishness. But most everyone is very accepting and gets a kick out of it. The director of my department still comes out to see us every time we play in Chapel Hill.”

What feeds the soul

Bleeding Hearts have released three albums of pop-smart high-volume garage rock, most recently last year’s “Divorcing New York.” They hit a peak of visibility with their second album, 2008’s “Nothin’ on But the Radio,” thanks to an assist from “Little Steven” Van Zandt.

Van Zandt, who has been Bruce Springsteen’s right-hand man for nearly 40 years, featured the “Radio” track “Rehab Girl” on his “Underground Garage” syndicated radio show in 2008. He also dubbed it “Coolest Song in the World” for one landmark week that summer.

Nowadays, Madison actually keeps a busier schedule with Hank Sinatra, which played the big South By Southwest music festival in Texas last month. But both bands are still active and will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future.

“The best thing about it is free beer, and the worst thing is too much free beer,” he said with a laugh, describing band life. “No, the worst thing now is the traveling. In my 20s, I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. I basically toured for six years straight during the ’80s and it didn’t even faze me. But it takes a balancing act now. You prioritize. Work and family has to come first, then music, then whatever else there’s time for.”