Gold Cities and Nature Escapes: A Conversation with The Brothers Comatose

Vortex Music Magazine

Ahead of their performance at Revolution Hall on March 12, Vortex spoke with brothers Alex and Ben Morrison by phone, covering topics from the rapid evolution of their home base, San Francisco, to wilderness exploration.

The Brothers Comatose: Alex (left) and Ben (right) Morrison. Photo by Jessie McCallThe Brothers Comatose: Alex (left) and Ben (right) Morrison. Photo by Jessie McCallThe Brothers Comatose are nothing like what their name implies. Actual brothers Ben and Alex Morrison on guitar, banjo and lead vocals deliver energetic bluegrass-folk shows with a backing ensemble—described by Ben as “a Southwestern-tinged, rowdy string band”—that includes Gio Benedetti on upright bass, Philip Brezina on fiddle and Ryan Avellone on mandolin. As for the “comatose,” while playing the banjo, Alex gets so deep into the music that his eyes roll back in his head—hence the origin of their name.

City Painted Gold is their newly released third album, written in and about San Francisco and crowdfunded through Kickstarter with a hilarious video of them trying and failing at musical styles before finding their sound. Fine musicianship and playful humor are hallmarks of their performances, but when you get right down to it, the brothers and their string band are as friendly and fun-loving as they come and always deliver a raucous hoedown dance party.

Don’t miss a pickin’ and grinnin’ good time on Saturday, March 12 at Revolution Hall, where the Brothers will perform along with The Easy Leaves, and catch them this summer at the 15th annual Northwest String Summit, the Pacific Northwest's premier bluegrass, roots and Americana music festival at Horning's Hideout in North Plains, Ore., from July 14 to 17.

How's your day been so far?

Ben: It's been great! We got the day off. It's our only day off on a two-and-a-half-week tour. We’re chilling in St. Maries, Idaho, on top of a mountain at a friend’s house, so it's pretty nice.

That sounds amazing! I really enjoyed your performance in the Lucky Barn (watch below) this past summer at Pickathon. On the heels of that, just a weekend later actually, you guys held your own camping music festival, Comatopia, at the Sierra Valley Lodge in Calpine, Calif. Tell me about that experience and the balance of organizing, playing and finding time to enjoy it.

Ben: We were completely unorganized, but it was kind of cool that way. We had very little time to prepare and we didn't know anything about the site where we were holding it until we got there. Not having any experience doing our own music festival, we were just kind of going in blind, but it turned out great, considering. We had a lot of friends’ bands playing and we organized it kind of like an adult summer camp. We had activities, we were out in the woods, we did a day trip to a lake where we went swimming. We had kickball and we had beer pong—all sorts of stuff—and it turned out great. It was a small affair—[the lodge] doesn't hold that many people, so it was intimate. We had big jams where everybody that was there was playing an instrument. It was really fun and we had a great time doing it.

I want to ask you about the title track on your new album, City Painted Gold. You talk about San Francisco and ask, “Do I follow my heart, do I follow the sun?” I understand the song addresses the changes you saw in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, from a funky artist enclave to an expensive technology corridor as your fellow artists, musician friends and “weirdos” were being displaced. What did you see there and where did you decide to hang your hat after you left—or did you leave?

Ben: Alex and I lived there for a long time.

Alex: Ten years, in fact.

Ben: Yeah, Alex lived there for 10 years and I was just kind of on and off. I moved there 14 years ago into our Haight Street house when I went to school. I moved out and passed it along to some friends and then Alex moved in, and I had just come back a couple years ago. Our house was one of the ones that got bought by a new landlord who wanted to kick everybody out. It was for a good reason I guess, since they wanted to move in—at least that's what they told us. That's one of the few reasons in San Francisco that you can actually kick someone out of the house. We were part of that whole scene and we had to move out.

Alex: I'm kind of living the vagabond lifestyle [laughs]. I can't really afford anywhere in the city and I tried out Oakland, but now it's getting expensive, so it's just a matter of maybe going further out. But we're on tour so much that paying over a grand a month for a little room isn’t really worth it when I'm only home half the time. I'll find something eventually [laughs] but I'm not in too much of a rush right now.

Ben: I moved across the bay to Oakland so I guess I did follow the sun, slightly. The weather is nicer over there than in San Francisco. I'm living in a warehouse with other musicians and yeah, I miss San Francisco all the time. It's an awesome city, a beautiful city, and it has such a history with art and culture.

Alex: Unfortunately, that's slowly going away.

Ben: Actually, it's quickly going away. A lot of the venues are closing down and a lot of musicians are moving to small towns outside of the city or far away from the city—wherever they can go. People are moving to Nashville and L.A., Portland, Sacramento—anywhere but San Francisco. There'll be a new place popping up soon. I guess Portland is being overrun by all sorts of influx. So I don't know, where's the next spot? You tell us! [Laughs]

Photo by Rosie GutierrezPhoto by Rosie GutierrezWho’s singing backup vocals with you on the song “City Painted Gold?”

That's the T Sisters. They’re three sisters and they’re actually who I live with in Oakland. They are originally from Oakland and two of them are twins. When they harmonize, they sound like one big voice.

I was really struck by the line in “Tops of the Trees”: “If I don’t pay attention I’ll be a slave to my mind, don’t need to wait for all my stars to align, the silver dollar moon is the same as mine, she wants to hear it speak, but I just let it shine.”

Ben: The lyrics to that one were actually written by our friend and tour manager, Jim Pacini. You know, we were talking about that song the other day and it's about finding an escape from the city and finding peace in nature.

Yeah, that song follows “City Painted Gold” on the album and to me, it sounds like the upside-down companion song to it—a sort of City Mouse versus Country Mouse. I sense a little connection between these songs; they both talk about fate, leaving a sense of home and choosing where to live. Even the album cover has a gold row house city with the tops of the trees looming over them. Tell me about the album artwork that Alex did.

Alex: My concept for the album artwork was to use some design elements from old-time West San Francisco rock posters, like old print techniques from back in the day, but I wanted to mix it with more contemporary styles and a little bit of the '60s psychedelia, so, I tried to incorporate all of these elements into something unique. I have the crab on the front—that's very indicative of San Francisco [pauses and chuckles]. After I did the artwork, I kind of had this joke that the crab was actually a giant that's going to go attack the city [snickers] and like, make it more affordable for lower-income artists and musicians to live again.

Ah yes, the superhero crab.

Ben: Crabzilla.

Alex: Crabzilla, yeah. So, that might have been my subconscious thing, and I only realized it later.

“The Way The West Was Won” isn’t your typical gunslinger ballad—it’s a sort of disparaging song about Manifest Destiny and how we subdued the continent. And it’s a less-than-three-minute history crash course through the early American railroad. What inspired you to write this?

Ben: That was actually our fiddle player, Phil [Brezina]. It was his first contribution for songwriting on these albums.

You do a lot of great covers, including “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis & The News last fall, but tell me about your choice to cover "Valerie," a Zutons song via Amy Winehouse. I even noted some Winehouse jazz vocal stylings...

Ben: I have been in love with Amy Winehouse ever since I heard her years ago. I know The Zutons, but I didn't know that they wrote that song; the version I know came from Amy Winehouse. I think I had drunkenly learned that song and played it at a festival years and years ago around a campfire, like some 20-minute rendition of it or something. I've always liked it and never really thought about bringing it to the band ’til the day that she died. We were on our way to a festival in Humboldt County and found out that she died and I was completely devastated.

I just thought, “Damn, I do this song—maybe we could learn this song and play it tonight at this festival.” So, we all ended up learning it quickly, arranging it, and slowing it down. She’s done a few versions, but I really like this super-fast, upbeat one she does with The Dap-Kings. But our version was a slowed down, sort of ballad. Even though The Zutons wrote it, it’s our tribute to Amy Winehouse.

Your new video for “Brothers” (watch below) is this really fun boxing match of sibling rivalry soothed by music. What other musical film stories do you have in the works? I am particularly curious about the recent antics in Joshua Tree with animal masks made by Alex.

Alex: Yeah, that’s for the song I wrote called “Black Light Moon.” Just last week, we went out to Joshua Tree to film the video. It’s kind of set to an old pioneer Western-style theme in the desolate Joshua Tree wilderness. It starts out with us lost and wandering, starving and parched in the desert and we come across something that we find, and it starts getting trippy at some point [laughs]. Then there's ladies and coyotes in cow skull masks that pop out of the rocks and dance.

Ben: Our desert nymphs.

Alex: Yeah, desert nymphs. And there’s synchronized dances that we do with sparklers [laughs]. It gets pretty ridiculous.

Ben: Our first full move towards actual synchronized dancing.

Alex: Yeah, there might be some of that coming up at shows. But we're hoping to release this new video next week during our CD release. The public will be exposed [laughs].

Ben: That was completely unplanned by the way, it was the desert craziness taking over. But it turned out pretty funny.

Anything on your bucket list to check off while you’re here in Portland?

Ben: Oooh, well... we've been to Portland a bunch of times, but Revolution Hall is going to be new to us, so that's going to be an interesting new venue. Maybe you can give us something new to check off from our bucket list that we maybe haven't done.

Well, there’s no shortage of cool nature places. Check our inner-city parks and nature areas—Mount Tabor, Forest Park and Powell Butte are all great.

Alex: We’re always looking for stuff like that to do—quick little jaunts into nature wherever we can.

Don’t forget to check out The Brothers Comatose on Saturday, March 12 at Revolution Hall with The Easy Leaves, and give their new album, 'City Painted Gold,' a listen!

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