The first thing I noticed while interviewing Ben Morrison was how similar his speaking voice sounded to the singing I’d heard on his two albums. There’s a raspy but warm, pleasant tone that makes it easy to listen to him whether he’s performing or simply discussing his musical life with Americana/folk group, The Brothers Comatose.
Ben grew up along with his younger brother, Alex, in a musical household. Their mother’s band would rehearse regularly in the garage while the young boys attempted to bang away on instruments in the background. Eventually Ben would settle into the acoustic guitar and Alex on the banjo.
Currently, Ben shares the role of songwriter with upright bassist and childhood friend, Gio Benedetti. Although for the most part these two bring the initial song ideas to the table, Ben insists the songwriting process is highly collaborative.
“We come in with ideas or the framework of something we built at rehearsal, but then we all kind of help out on where it should go, what makes it most effective, or the best song,” said Morrison.
There’s something about brothers or sisters performing together that makes them instantly appealing. Whether it be naturally charming stage banter, a special blend of vocal harmonies, or some other intangible quality, there’s something special within the live performances of siblings that makes them especially enjoyable. I asked Ben about his experience creating music with family and what the secret was to getting along with his brother after so much time together.
“Beer?” replied Ben with a laugh. “I dunno man. That’s a good question. There’s definitely musical chemistry because we grew up listening to the same sort of stuff and we work well together like that. Even though we’re not kids anymore we still have some of that butting heads every once and awhile, but never like when you’re kids or anything. When you’re kids, you end up fighting a lot more. Especially boys, but we get along great and I enjoy it.”
Rounding out the band are Ryan Avellone on mandolin and Philip Brezina on the fiddle. Originally from Pennsylvania, Brezina got picked up by the band from an ad they placed at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco where he was studying violin. Brezina is somewhat the ringer of the group and the only one (so far) who supports himself exclusively through performance. The rest of the band still must work day jobs in addition to being professional musicians, but after five years of building up their Bay Area following, Morrison is hopeful for the future.
“We’re trying to get through that period of not making enough money – can’t leave job – can’t leave job long enough to go on tour for all the time that you need to, but we’re working it out. This is gonna be an interesting year because we have a lot of festivals and tours and trips to the East Coast and everything on the books so we’re hoping for the best.”
One of the first breaks the band will experience this year is a run of dates alongside Chico favorites, Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers. In fact, The Brothers Comatose’s newest album, Respect The Van, features Nicki’s voice on the song “Morning Time.” Morrison shared the story of how the collaboration came about.
“We played this festival called High Sierra and I’d heard Nicki Bluhm’s name before, but I never heard her sing. She was playing an early set in the day on the main stage and I was blown away. I was like, ‘Oh man, what if she would sing this song with me?’ My next-door neighbor who is in a band called Poor Man’s Whiskey happened to know her so he introduced us. I sent her the song and she liked it and wanted to sing on it so we went into her husband Tim’s studio and recorded the vocals for it. It’s been awesome because since we’ve been able to go on tour together, we get to sing it all the time so that’s pretty cool.”
Ben and I continued to chat about touring, its significance for career musicians, and how to turn
music performance into something sustainable. Eventually Ben shared his vision for the future of the music industry and the evolution of how listeners will discover new artists.
“Music is gonna be free,” said Morrison. “It’s basically almost there. We have our albums on Spotify and people stream a bunch of music all the time and pay their monthly fee, but artists see very little of that. I really think it’s gonna go towards touring.”
For those who don’t know, Spotify is an online service for music fans to stream just about any song you could think of for free on your computer or smart phone. The site generates revenue from advertisements that appear between songs, or through subscription fees that some users pay to bypass the ads. Some major artists such as The Beatles or Coldplay have withdrawn their music from Spotify, but others consider it the future of how music will be shared.
“Some people refuse to put their music on Spotify for whatever reason, but that’s just the way things are going. You have to adapt and you have to go with it or else I feel like you’re going to be left on the fringes,” insisted Morrison. “Also, what a great way to check out new bands?! There’s so much music out there and not everyone is gonna just hear your name and go buy your CD at an indie record store…”
The Brothers Comatose have enjoyed successful record sales, but like many other bands in this day and age, their career is primarily sustained through live performance. Personally I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing for the world of music. After all, one of the best ways a musician can improve is through consistent performance, and the genuine connection created between artists and fans in a live environment often transcends anything that can be streamed through a computer or iPhone. I asked Ben what advice he might have for young musicians looking for ways to improve their craft.
“Oh, man. Well I mean I’m guilty of this, but I would say to turn off the computer and work more on your songs. It’s so hard because you get wrapped up in all those things. I get overwhelmed by this like, ‘Shit, I gotta update the web site with all these new shows and then put ‘em on a Reverbnation page and then our Facebook page, but I have to work on new tunes too,’ so it’s really important to put that down and be able to focus on getting the music out there. So that’s what we’re all trying to work on – the balance between managing yourself as a band and trying to create new music.”
Finding that balance can be difficult, especially when you’re doing it all yourself, but The Brothers Comatose have experienced success with a few strategies to stay connected with their fans. Specifically, live videos.
“People want content all the time and I think videos are really important,” said Ben. “People go on YouTube all the time and it’s like the new version of MTV. Nowadays it’s not only working on new music and playing as many shows as possible, but it’s also about recording videos because it’s such a powerful thing to be able to see and hear music.”
To get a better idea of The Brothers Comatose’s music and devilish good looks, you can check out the aforementioned videos here: http://www.thebrotherscomatose.com/media/video. If you like the tunes, check out their show this week at Café Coda. The band recently hosted Chico locals, The Railflowers, at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley and at the end of the show both acts shared the stage for one last big sing-along. I asked Ben if we should expect a similar finale this weekend.
“Yeah, probably. They’re amazing and, ya know, they have those sisterly harmonies. Hopefully they’ll be willing to come up again and do some more tunes.”
The Brothers Comatose will perform this Friday, February 1st at Café Coda along with local post-modern folk/Americana group, The Railflowers. This all-ages show starts at 8PM, costs $8, and is going to be pretty legit.