Interview by Harry Kaplan
The best interviews are the ones that are conversation, just friends chatting. That is exactly the way it was when I chatted with Ben Morrison of The Brothers Comatose. He is gracious and extremely open. Ben speaks in detail about his upcoming album and solo project. He also speaks about the current break from The Brothers. This Brother has a lot to say.
TL = TwangriLa Ben = Ben Morrison
TL: Ben, thanks for doing the interview with me. I really appreciate it.
Ben: My pleasure. Thank you for doing it.
TL: I’m speaking with Ben Morrison, front man of The Brothers Comatose. Welcome.
Ben: Hey, thank you.
TL: You have been with The Brothers Comatose for 10 years or so?
Ben: Most of my adult life has been with The Brothers Comatose, definitely. The band has kind of been going through some changes. We had two guys leave the band, so we all decided to take a little break while we look for new people. I have always wanted to make a solo album, so I figured that this is a good time to jump in and do that.
TL: Yeah, I saw on your press release that you said it’s a “palate-cleanser”; right?
Ben: (Laughter) Yeah, absolutely.
TL: Which is a pretty creative way of saying, “We’re taking a break.” (Laughter)
Ben: It’s good for everybody, really. When you’re in a band, it consumes your whole life.
Ben: You just tour—you tour constantly. We love it. We have loved it, but I think it’s just good for everybody to chill for a minute and then you get that energy back of why you got into it in the first place.
TL: I totally agree. I can imagine how it is. I mean when you’re in a van with somebody or in a tour bus, on the road for months, I mean after a while I think everybody needs a break. (Laughter)
Ben: Oh my god. There is hardly anybody that I know in this entire world that you could just spend months with in a tour van and be totally fine the entire time, let alone with four people.
That being said, me and the BroCo boys get along really well.
TL: Of course.
Ben: Everybody kind of just needs a little break from time-to-time, you know?
TL: Absolutely. In fact I think probably part of the reason you do get along so well is because you recognize that you all need some time apart.
Ben: Yes, totally. That’s becoming more and more important. Just start figuring ourselves out after a while.
TL: You guys are from the Bay Area, around San Francisco?
Ben: Yeah, yeah, right around San Francisco. Alex, my bother plays the banjo and sings in the band as well. We’re from Petaluma/San Francisco. We kind of got our start when we were all living together in a house on Haight Street in San Francisco, so that’s kind of where the band culminated.
TL: Seven, ten? (Laughter).
Ben: What’s that?
TL: That was where the Grateful Dead lived.
Ben: Oh, yeah, that was on Ashbury. Yeah, yeah, they were actually just a few blocks—three blocks away.
TL: Got you. I guess you’re in very good company? (Laughter)
Ben: That whole area—Janis Joplin lived two blocks from there. Then there’s a house that Jimi Hendrix used to play at all the time. Yeah, man, we have some rich, rich history.
TL: I don’t know if it still is—but where the Grateful Dead used to live I think it was a Gap at one point. (Laughter)
Ben: Oh. Well, on the corner, the actual corner of Haight and Ashbury, there was a Gap, but they were a half-block up. The house is still there and it’s still just a plain old house.
TL: I knew there was a Gap somewhere around there. (Laughter)
Ben: Oh yeah, but it was on the corner and they did get a lot of shit for it because, you know, that’s the Mecca; right? Rightly so. Who wants a fucking Gap on the corner of Haight and Ashbury?
TL: Exactly. I mean it represents everything against the purity of music—well, anyway. That’s another story. (Laughter)
Ben: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
TL: Can you tell me more about your solo project and doing your record?
Ben: I’ve been playing with the string band exclusively for over 10 years now. I was in a rock band before that and then when we started a string band we had the philosophy : Oh cool. Let’s rock as hard as we can with stringed instruments.
It’s great. It’s super-fun, but it’s also kind of limiting as far as what kind of tunes you can play. I write different kinds of songs and some are more mid-tempo things and mellower songs where you can’t quite get away with it as much. Because you don’t have a drummer or electrified instruments. I just kind of wanted to get together with some friends that played drums and electric guitars and stuff and rock a little bit again. (Laughter)
TL: Hey, that sounds great. Variety is a good thing.
Ben: (Laughter) Yeah, totally.
TL: So what genres would you say the album covers? Is it your garden-variety rock and roll?
Ben: No, I mean, I have a song that’s coming out next month and that’s more similar to Americana and rock and roll. It’s got rock and roll and a little bit of country kind of twang to it, so I guess that falls into the Americana-roots category. There’s a little bit more of old-school R&B kind of soul aspect too.
A couple songs in there; and then some super-mellow, spacey, tunes. It’s been fun to not be held back by constraints of a string band on writing stuff, because you can do anything. That’s why I’m doing this album for, is just get all that all out.
TL: Did you write all your material for the solo effort?
Ben: It’s still being recorded, actually. The next recording is in late March, so I’ve got half the album done. So far they’re all my tunes, but I’m toying with the idea of—I mean I’ve got some great songwriter friends. I’ve never co-written any tunes before. I’ve been talking to a couple friends about getting together and writing a couple songs just to see how that feels. So I don’t know. It depends on how that goes, but one or two of those might end up on the album as well.
TL: Well, that’ll be nice. Your creative process, can you describe your songwriting and composing process?
Ben: Oh man. It varies. I get high.
TL: (Laughter) That’s always a good start.
Ben: I don’t know; coming up with a groove and a vocal melody usually is what starts it for me—just simple chord changes and a simple melody. You know what’s funny? I looked into this songwriting podcast or something—with David Crosby—the other day. He was talking about how he and his wife they have dinner and then after dinner he smokes a joint, goes into his special music room—or whatever it is—and then just grabs a guitar off the wall. It might be whatever tune he can yell out and then he just starts screwing around, and maybe something comes, maybe it doesn’t—hopefully, if you can get the beginning of something.
It was really similar for me, because I know that a lot of different songwriters have their different process. Sometimes people write the lyrics first.
Then they put those to chord changes, or whatever, and find a melody then. Personally for me, I prefer to have a working melody in my head while I’m writing lyrics, so then I have the flow of it. Then I’ll kind of just have that down and then I’ll sit down and grind out the lyrical process. (Laughter)
TL: I know people that write the words first and then they put the music in later.
Ben: I’ve always wanted that to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet, but I hope someday I can sit down and then it just kind of all comes out at the same time. That would be a magical experience.
TL: It’s interesting. I try to ask everyone what their process is, because I learn a lot. Do you consider yourself more of a recording artist or a live performer; or both?
Ben: I think just because we have so much touring under our belts, that’s where I feel the best. But I really want to be able to do both, because I mean the studio is so fun. I think I’m learning more and more how to be in the studio.
Even though we’ve made a bunch of albums and I’ve recorded a bunch, I’m still learning as I go along. I’m still figuring shit out—what it is that I like and how to communicate that to people and engineers, and all that kind of stuff. I feel as if every time I make a record, whether it’s Brothers Comatose or another project—your solo project—it’s different every time you go into it.
You know what? Last time, this, this and this worked, so let’s take that and move that over to this next time but then maybe try something different here and here.
The first proper album I ever recorded with Brothers Comatose – you’re in a nice studio but we’re all sitting in what was called the “Waits Room”, because Tom Waits did a bunch of albums there. There’s this great story. He went up to this place called Prairie Sun—that recording up right near Petaluma—at a place called Cotati, and apparently he—
TL: I’ve been to Cotati!
Ben: Oh, yeah, man. It’s a cool town and this is a great little studio. Apparently, Tom Waits was going to check it out, walking around and looking at all these really nice studios—and they’re all built into these old chicken coops in old barns . He’s walking around and he’s looking around and he’s thinking, Oh man. Apparently, he walked into one of these nice studios and he said, “Nothing good could be born in here.”
(Laughter) Then he’s says, “Show me what else you got.” Then they responded with, “Well, we got this storage area here which is just concrete floors with redwood barn walls and a little stove in the corner.” He says, “Yeah, this is the room.” So he ended up recording a bunch of—a couple albums in there. So they’ve turned that into the “Waits Room”, but it’s still just concrete floors and wood walls. We just stood in a circle in that room with a handful of mics and just recorded. And live as possible.
TL: That’s great. I love to hear that. (Laughter)
Ben: It was fun. That was our first experience in the studio. It was raw and it was perfect for where we were at the time. But, it didn’t quite translate to a lot of people, because it was raw and I think people aren’t necessarily used to hearing super-raw stuff—they are more used to the more produced stuff. I think progressively every time we recorded we went a little bit more separated. We would baffle in between us, take out the bleed, or we just do the rhythm tracks and record the vocals after; or whatever it might be. We’ve gone the gamut. We’ve gone from super-raw to all the way to let’s record the vocals and individual components.
Then we’ll all do the solos—”Oh, that solo wasn’t good or oh that vocal wasn’t good. Let me put this in, punch that in” or “Oh, can you notch this?” So from super-raw and sloppy to perfect.
I feel as if after having done all of that, there’s this sweet spot in the middle. For me at least, where there’s a little bit of rawness and some mistakes, but it’s still good and it’s got the energy. But it still sounds nice and slightly produced, I guess.
So I’m still trying to find that sweet spot; is kind of what it comes down to.
TL: I think people look for that for their whole lives. (Laughter)
Ben: (Laughter) Yeah.
TL: When you’re painting, writing, or doing anything creative, you never really know when something is finished, so sometimes discipline is the best thing.
Ben: Totally, absolutely.
TL: So I always wanted to know something. You already mentioned some of the reasons why this material for your solo project differs from the Bro Co—but sometimes if you’re in a band isn’t it tricky doing a solo album? I mean, how do you know that material for your solo effort wouldn’t be something that you could use for the band? I was just wondering if that’s ever an issue.
Ben: Oh, yeah, totally. I’ve wondered it too from people that I know that have done the same thing. It’s a strange line, because you’re thinking, “Oh, this song might be great for the band.”
Ben: You know what kind of started it was the fact that I brought—actually, the first single that I released is called 25 Miles —I put it out in November.
TL: It’s very good by the way. It’s a very good song.
Ben: Oh, thanks. Well, I brought that one to the band a while ago—two years ago, or something—and we tried it, you know. It’s a mid-tempo song. It’s got a rolling-groovy rhythm to it, but for some reason that rhythm and that vibe with the string band it never quite translated to anything. It just didn’t—it never got exciting for us to play.
TL: It just didn’t gel with that current construct.
Ben: Yeah, I think lack of—I think, honestly, it really needed drums, is kind of what it came down to because in order to keep it groovy in that tempo that it’s at—that mid-tempo kind of groove—it needs a heavy back-beat drum to it and we could never recreate that with a string band situation. We gave it a frigging-college try, but it never quite made it very far. We preformed it live a few times, but it kind of just fell flat a little bit.
Ben: We set it aside and then I thought, “I don’t want this song to just die. What can I do with it?” I had a few other tunes that kind of fell into that category where I’m thinking I can see this working better with a band than with Brothers Comatose.” So that’s the seed that started it all.
I just kind of need to see these out. Then with the big break that we have had, I kind of just decided – You know what? I’m just going to take a few months and then work on some new tunes too; and everything that I work on I’m just going to apply to the solo record.” Then finish that and kind of have that be a complete work. I have some touring on the books as well with the band that I’m recording with. So, yeah, Brothers Comatose is going to continue on and we have some new musicians lined up and everything. But I’m finding this fun as well.
I will continue to tour, doing the solo band thing, or just me solo with acoustic guitar too, and with The Brothers Comatose. Maybe to answer your question: moving forward, I don’t know how it’s going to work out.
I’ll write a song and be pondering, “I don’t’ know. Should I save this for this, or save this for this?” I don’t know the answer to that yet, but the timing has made it so that I can just take everything and put all my energy into this thing right here.
TL: Yeah. I was just curious. I hope I didn’t offend you by asking that question.
Ben: No man, I’m really intrigued by how other people approach that as well.
TL: Yeah, especially the Drive-By Truckers—which is a band I follow—but Patterson Hood, who is the lead singer, does his solo stuff. Then even the Grateful Dead, they had their solo projects. I just was always wondering how that dynamic works, the delineation between solo and band.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, great question. (Laughter)
TL: Well, thanks.
Ben: I’m curious to read it if you ask some other people what they have to say about it.
TL: Yeah, me too. You mentioned, I guess, on your solo album, you got completely different players. So there’s no BroCo players on the album; right?
Ben: Well, it’s only halfway done right now. So far, no. Not for lack of invitation, but more so the timing didn’t quite work out. I’m definitely not opposed to it. If the song calls for it—which I could see—I’ve been thinking about it and it might totally work out.
TL: You mentioned also going out on the road. Can you tell me some more about that; when you plan on doing that? Where you’re going?
Ben: Oh, yeah. Well, I have a west coast tour lined up; and our very first show is in less than two weeks.
TL: Oh, wow, that’s great.
Ben: Yeah, we’ve got a show opening for this band called The Record Company.
TL: Oh, I’ve heard of them. They’re pretty big; aren’t they?
Ben: Yeah, yeah, they’re on tour opening for Bob Seger right now.
TL: (Laughter) I know that last year they were playing 10,000-seat venues or even bigger— the summertime amphitheaters.
Ben: Oh, yeah. They’re crushing it right now. I kind of met them a few years ago and The Brothers Comatose did a couple opening slots for them. That one kind of just worked out, so that’s going to be our first gig as a full band. Then I think after that, we have a San Francisco show for this festival called Noise Pop in San Francisco; and then that kind of starts off the west coast run. We’re going to be doing a bunch in California, Oregon, Washington and one show in Nevada as well.
This is the first iteration of it all, we’re just kind of giving it a west coast run and see how things go; and then maybe push on out east and further over that way.
TL: Yeah, that’ll be great.
Ben: You might see us in Maryland one of these days.
TL: I hope so. (Laughter) Unfortunately a lot of acts they go from Philly to DC and they skip Baltimore all together.
TL: Well, I mean, there aren’t really that many places to play here. I go to DC a lot to see shows. It’s only 50 miles away.
Ben: Not too bad, I guess.
TL: Do you have a firm date for the release date for the album yet?
Ben: No, it’s still up in the air. It’s going to be late-June/early-July, most likely.
TL: Okay. That sounds good. I guess you do a lot of festivals, so you must play with a lot of different bands. In the Bluegrass world, who excites you these days?
Ben: Oh man. There’s a bunch of stuff. I go in waves, you know. I will get into the more traditional stuff. I love Del McCoury; he’s a legend.
Ben: But I also enjoy Trampled by Turtles. I’m a big fan of them and The Devil Makes Three. People are doing stuff with string-band lineups in traditional Bluegrass but it’s more songwriter-oriented, it’s got some—I don’t know what you want to call it—putting all their gut into it. You know what I mean?
TL: How about Billy Strings? Have you ever seen Billy?
Ben: Oh yeah. We’ve played with him before, a handful of times. Yeah.
TL: I just saw him in December. Man, he’s got something going good, I’ll tell you. They got a good thing.
Ben: Oh man. Yeah, that whole band is incredible.
TL: I know, they really area; there’s so many. In this genre, everyone is just incredible as far as skill and the way they can execute their instruments is just amazing to me.
Ben: Yeah, it is a smorgasbord of awesome players. I’ve always had a thing for Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys; they’ve always been awesome and I really appreciate what they do. She’s such an amazing vocalist and songwriter and her band is so kick ass. I think they just go by Lindsay Lou now. Her band was called the Flatbellys, but I don’t think they go with the name anymore.
TL: So how can people follow you and find out what you and The Brothers are up to?
TL: That was all the questions I had. I want to thank you. This was great.