In conversation with Ben Morrison: how we find a balance between music and technology

(Raffaella Messanzanica)

The Brothers Comatose is a local San Francisco Americana/bluegrass/roots music group comprised of brothers Ben Morrison (guitar, vocals) and Alex Morrison (banjo, vocals), Scott Padden (bass, vocals), Philip Brezina (violin), and Greg Fleischut (mandolin).

They have recently published a new single, “Steel Driver”, the first extract from a new album they are currently working on.

I interviewed Ben Morrison, singer and guitar player and we talked about their new album, the origins of the band and even about how San Francisco has changed during the past few years. He also explained how the pandemic has helped him and the band to find a balance between bluegrass and technology.

Hi Ben,

first of all I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I know it’s very early in the morning in California and you and your wife had just had a baby. Congratulations!

Q.: Are you in Oakland, right?

B.M.:Yes, I’m in Oakland.

Me.:When I talked to Casey (The Brothers Comatose manager), he told me that you live there. I was a student at UC Berkeley a long time ago. It was 1998/1999. I really miss those places: Berkeley, San Francisco…Amoeba Records…

B.M.: My brother, who plays the banjo in The Brothers Comatose, and I used to live in Haight-Ashbury, actually a block away from Amoeba Records. Actually, I moved in that house in Haight-Ashbury in 2001 when I was going to school, because I went to school at USF. It’s up the hill from there.

Q.: In an interview with NoteWorthy Music in July 2020 you said: The quarantine, for me, has actually been pretty great” and I understood that it was mainly because you could do things that you had no time to do before. This is also what other artists told me. Now that, at least in the US, things are going back on track, what are your plans? And your dreams?

B.M.: It’s a good question, because it has been great for me. I know that it’s been bad for a lot of people and, of course, it’s been hard but, first of all, the good fortune was that we had a baby. Generally speaking, I’m not trying to complain but, you know, being a touring musician is one of the best jobs in the world and I love it so much. When the quarantine hit, you had to step back from that and enjoy normal life for a little bit. And I learned to cook a lot better. I was cooking every night. That was amazing because it’s something I don’t usually do. I got to spend time with my wife, enjoying time at home. Musically speaking, I’ve written more songs in the last year than I’ve ever written before. It was really good to take a step back. Touring for a living is just a crazy life. You’re just not home at all. You’re not sleeping at all, drinking, playing music which is super fun, but it’s hard at the same time. This was a sort of nice step back from all of that. As far as the future goes, it’s a good question because it’s an interesting time. We had the chance to step back from all of that and to adapt a little bit to alternate versions of what a music life can look like. For example, I was live-streaming a lot. I have streamed every Friday for over a year. That was a lot! Of course, it’s not the same relationship as in a show where I play and I can see people reacting to that. At the same time, when I push “live” on my camera, I can see people popping up from all over the world. I’ve seen people in Tasmania, Australia, Brazil, Spain. That’s a special experience that you couldn’t get otherwise. Moving forward, we’re going to keep all that in mind. We’ll continue some touring because it’s fun and it connects us with people in a live setting. And that’s how we make our money also. However, we will also try to integrate what we learned last year, like making videos or trying to live stream more often and try to connect with people in the digital environment. And this is fun, because our music is so “old school”. It’s fun to bring this music with technology.

Q.: Regarding the present, Steel Driver” is a new song you guys have recently released. Can you give me a little bit of background on it?

B.M.: Our fiddle player wrote the song a little while back. It’s basically like a “working song”. It’s about a person who works really hard during the week and then celebrates the weekend. We don’t have an entire album recorded yet, because of the pandemic. We recorded six songs with plans to record more and we haven’t been able to line it up. In July, we will go back to record the rest of the album. We have the songs written, we have a bunch of other stuff to work on. Our producer is not available until July. I think we’re gonna press the “reset” button. We’ve been really enjoying making videos, redoing some old songs of ours, doing some cover songs and then, filming some official videos for our new songs. We’re gonna put out a new song like every month. And I think we can keep it up releasing a new song every month for the rest of our time. Talking about an album, well, you write it for a year, then you book a studio and you record there for two weeks, you mix it for three or four months and then you go to master it and it takes a while. Then, you go to your label and they say they’re gonna release it next year. So, you release the songs to the public two years after you wrote them. Then, people listen to it for a little while and then move to the next one. On top of this, there’s also an emotional connection to the songs you write, and after two years you might not be emotionally connected to them anymore. You kind of think: “That’s not me anymore”. When the pandemic hit, I started thinking that I could do anything using my camera and my computer. If I record a song like this, I know it’s not gonna sound like if it was recorded in a fancy studio but it would sound like pretty good. Maybe, a lot of people won’t be able to tell the difference or maybe they like the fact that doesn’t sound “super good”. And I know that I can release that song tomorrow if I want. Of course, it’s a little bit harder with a band, because you have to get everyone together, doing rehearsals, come up with cool arrangement parts. But I think we’re gonna try to do in a fast paced way. We’re gonna record other songs quickly and release the album fast and just keep doing it. That’s what we are as a band, in our emotional state, putting out stuff that’s exactly what we are feeling in that moment.

Q.: And, of course, theres also a new album on the horizon. Is there anything you can tell about it?

B.M.: The album is coming along really well. We’re kind of new to having a producer. You’re like a little bit vulnerable when you bring an outside person into the situation. We did our first three albums all by ourselves and then, eventually, we decided to bring in a producer because he could help you with the songs, giving some advice on how to make it sound better or to change some lyrics. But also, producers can help you to change the sonic landscape, because each producer is a little bit different. We have this guy, Greg Holden. We met him at a songwriting camp in Mexico and we really liked his aesthetic. We thought to bringing him on to help us producing this record. He is a songwriter first, so it was cool to send him ideas and work together with him to shape the songs before we actually started recording. It’s been fun and helpful. If I do a song with my recording set at home, I don’t have any time constraints. I can do a song a hundredth times if I want. It’s nice to have somebody there while you’re recording telling you: “That was it. The magic was there. The energy was there. Don’t touch that”. You don’t want perfection. You wanted something that sounds good but that could also be connectable. Pop music is so easy to record. It’s full of auto-tune which makes your voice perfect because the computer makes it perfect. And you won’t be able to replicate that live. It really seems like some people want to hear that perfection. But some people don’t want that. They want the raw, emotion and power whether or not the notes are perfect.

Q.: Lets talk about the origins of The Brothers Comatose. How and when did you guys meet? Who chose the name of the band?

B.M.: My brother is the banjo player in the band. We started the band a long time ago. I think it was probably 2007 or 2008. We are the only siblings in our family and our mom is a musician. Then, we brought on some other friends that played different instruments. Our friend Joe who played the mandolin and another friend who played bass. And then, we were looking for a fiddle player. There’s “craiglist” where you can put ads online if you’re looking for an apartment, a job or anything. I’ve always had a hard time finding a musician on there. Therefore, I decided doing it old school and writing on a piece of paper: “We’re looking for a fiddle player”, describing what we were looking for as well as giving some information about the band and pulled tabs at the bottom with my phone number. I posted them up all over San Francisco. One of them was outside the Conservatory of Music. After that, this guy Phil showed up. He’s like the country boy but he wanted to have his classical violin degree at the Conservatory. Then, the mandolin player and the bass player left the band and we brought on some new guys. This is the first album we’re making with them. It’s been fun because they’re bringing a whole new set of different tools. Our new mandolin player can play everything, like lap steel, guitar, piano, and he’s also a great singer. All of sudden we have all this new sonic options and this opens up new doors.

Talking about the name of the band. As I said my brother plays the banjo. He’s always done this funny, goofy thing of rolling eyes in the back of his head when he really gets into it. He looks like he’s in a coma or something like that. So, the name just popped up in my head thinking about the fact that we’re brothers and thinking about the way he plays the banjo. And maybe, it was subconsciously influenced by “Brothers Karamazov”, the way it’s worded and the fact that it sounds really cool.

Q.: When did you start playing? And how did you get into folk/bluegrass music?

B.M.: The folk thing started when we were really young because my mom was in a folk band with a bunch of her friends. They were doing four part vocal harmonies. My brother and I were just sitting there and watched them practicing. The folk thing was always there because of that. When I wanted to learn a guitar, they told me to start with an acoustic guitar while the only thing I wanted was to play loud rock music. I started on acoustic and then I got an electric guitar. In high school, I started rock bands. And then I thought that we could take the energy of rock ’n’ roll but with acoustic instruments. I don’t know if you heard about the “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival”. It’s a huge festival and it’s free. There are over a half million people going there over the weekend. I used to work at it. I used to work in a music club, “Slim’s”, and the people who run the club where the same who run the festival. Therefore, they asked me if I wanted to work there. I wasn’t really into bluegrass at that time. I was into the folk stuff and rock ’n’ roll. When I started working at this festival I did backstage hospitality. I got to see such amazing music which just opened my eyes to this whole other world out there. The music was energetic, there are cool harmonies and a lot of families. There’s this thing of having the same vocal blend if you belong to the same family, because you have the same DNA. It’s so much easier to harmonize. I had already started playing music with my brother years before and we’ve decided to switch to that kind of music, playing it like it really hard, like it was rock ’n’ roll. We found a lot of inspiration at “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass” in those early days.

Q.: You grew up in Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco which is a place full of music memories from the past and San Francisco is often present in your songs/videos. How was growing up there and how much has this city changed? Im curious because the last time I was there was 1999.

B.M.: When the “dot com” bubble exploded, housing was so cheap. When I first moved there my rent was so cheap. It was like 400 dollars for a beautiful room in this big Victorian house. That was such a great time in SF because houses were cheap, rents were cheap. A lot of musicians just came to SF. I think it continues to fluctuate but it was such a great time because people could afford it. There was a lot of stuff going on. A lot of indie rock, folk music. There has always been the psychedelic kind of thread going on. It was such a magical time. You were just playing music all the time and it was so fun. And then, as times went on, rents started to get more expensive and then, six years ago, we got kicked out of our house because rents were just skyrocketing. It was time. I’m not complaining about it. I moved in with my girlfriend at the time (now she’s my wife). Our lives were changing a little bit. We moved to Oakland as a lot of other musicians. It sucks because all of sudden San Francisco is not a music town anymore. Now it’s a “tech town” and it’s really hard for musicians to survive because they cannot afford the rent. And if there’s not that community, even if you can afford the rent, you feel like kind of dumb, because there’s no one to connect with. The music scene isn’t there anymore. There are still musicians in SF but it doesn’t have the bustling scene that it once had. I hope that it can come back a little bit. With Covid and people starting to realize that they can work from home, rents have started to get cheaper again. However, I don’t know if it’s cheaper enough to bring a lot of musicians back. I hope it can flourish again as a music hub. It’s such a beautiful city. There’s also so much history here.

Q.: I would like to talk about live shows”. The Brothers Comatose is a band on the road”. You have been playing all around the US, in Canada, Australia. You even hosted Comatopia, your own festival. How important is for you to play live and how much have you missed this during this lockdown period?

B.M.: Yes, Comatopia. We tried to bring it back last year but then we had to cancel it. We were talking about doing it this year but it’s still hard to try to plan anything. But we’re definitely gonna bring it back. It’s such a fun festival. I’m looking forward to being back out there and touring. There’s so much to see. There are so many cool people out there. I’m a social person. I like connecting with people. We have a first show back in a month. It’s amazing to see how things can be all around the world.

Q.: How was playing your music in elevators?

B.M.: I watched the videos again and I was thinking that it was all so crazy. That was a blast. We had so much fun doing it. The elevator doors opened and people were kind of shocked, asking themselves: “Is there a band in this elevator?” Some people were really excited and some other people were like: “I’m gonna wait for the next elevator”. I hope we can do that again someday.

Me: And you also packed the Fillmore. You can say that you have really played almost everywhere!

B.M.: Yeah. We sold out the Fillmore and we sold out the elevator!

Q.: In May 2012 you published an album called Respect the Van” which included a song, Morning Time”, featuring a female artist I love so much, Nicki Bluhm. How was collaborating with her?

B.M.: She’s the best! We met a long time ago. It was great. I wrote that song and I had the idea it would have been cool to have a duet with a female. However, I wasn’t sure who was going to sing it. And then we played this festival- I heard this voice and I just thought she would be perfect for the song. Some mutual friends introduced us. She agreed to do it. She recorded the song and then, all of sudden, she published a video and she became pretty famous. She and her band took us out on tour with them, opening for them. We’ve collaborated all over the years. We started a cool relationship. We’ve had a friendship and a long lasting collaboration.

Q.: I came across The Brothers Comatose when I found out one of your covers (Backstreet Boys song “I Want It That Way”).Then, I found out that you’ve covered many different artists and many different songs: Amy Winehouse, Depeche Mode, Hank Williams, Temple of the Dog, Janis Joplin etc. How do you choose the songs to cover and who in the band chooses them?

B.M.: It’s a good question. It comes down to whoever’s going to sing the song. Covers are fun. Some artists won’t do covers but we have fun. I want to sing something that I love. It will usually me or my brother picking up the songs because we do the singing. The other guys will suggest some stuff sometimes and if we think that it works for the band we just go for it.

Q.: In August 2019, you released a solo album Old Technology”. The songs are also very different from the style of The Brothers Comatose. What was your main intent? Do you plan to go on with your solo career?

B.M.: I don’t know. I have fun playing music and I want to do it as much as I possibly can. At that time, the reason was that the kind of music that we play is very specific. I write a lot of songs and not all of them work for the band. I always have a handful of songs that I keep. At that time, we were going through some changes within the band. We had been touring a lot and then two guys left the band because they were kind of burned out. I just needed to step back for a minute and focusing on something different. The Brothers Comatose was everything to me for a long, long time. It was my entire world. When I was in high school I started a rock band. That has always been a part of my thing, too. I just wanted to do something different, playing with a drummer, the guitar and record something that no one really cared if there was banjo on it. That was really fun. I had some shows planned last year and then, all of a sudden, I was back playing acoustic guitar in my bedroom. I’ve also been playing music with my wife. We’ve just recorded some stuff. She’s in band called T Sisters with two of her sisters. We collaborated a lot over the last year. We are going to put out a record with our band which is called “Terrier”. I just want to play music as much as I can. I will always love The Brothers Comatose and I won’t stop doing that, but there’s always going to be some other stuff on the side, just to have different flavors.

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