Q&A With Brothers Comatose’s Ben Morrison

While some bluegrass bands (and fans) take the genre way too seriously, the guys from The Brothers Comatose are more interested in having fun – while also creating some terrific tunes.

Case in point: After SF Sounds tried to diss the band by calling the five-piece “the Backstreet Boys of bluegrass,” The Brothers Comatose responded by releasing a music video for “I Want It That Way,” complete with dance moves. Somehow it works and not just as a clever joke.


The Bay Area-based band, which could also be categorized as Americana or folk, features Ben Morrison on guitar, Alex Morrison on banjo, Gio Benedetti on bass, Ryan Avellone on mandolin and Philip Brezina on fiddle, with the Morrison brothers taking turns on lead vocals.


The Brothers Comatose released its third studio album, City Painted Gold, last year.


A review from Glide Magazine says, “This isn’t your daddy’s bluegrass anymore. But in the hands of the oddly named Brothers Comatose, it is just as potent. After solidifying their reputation through constant touring and two stellar previous releases, the Brothers Comatose’s latest effort, City Painted Gold, offers a case study in tightly tailored musicianship and the kind of close-knit harmonies that only siblings can deliver.”


In December the band released an EP featuring The Brothers Comatose’ take on songs by Cake, Huey Lewis, Ryan Adams/Dave Rawlings, and Hank Williams. The EP can be streamed via Soundcloud.

Ben recently talked to Pollstar about the group’s latest recordings, the Backstreet Boys beef, and the band’s very own


The Brothers Comatose
Kelly J. Owen
– The Brothers Comatose

Can you talk about picking tunes for the covers EP? You have a nice variety of genres and artists. 

Some of them happened by accident, some of them we’d been playing for a few years and really love. The most random one was the Huey Lewis one, “I Want A New Drug.” It started because we were playing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is a big festival in San Francisco. We’ve been big fans of Huey Lewis for a long time, me especially ever since I was a little kid and we knew he lived in San Francisco. We [wondered] if we just reached out to him … would he be interested in sitting in, if we learned his song and recorded his song? So we learned “I Want A New Drug” and we made a video and we sent it to him and he emailed us back immediately. He said, “Oh man, I can’t do the gig with you guys, I’ll be in Europe, but I really dig it and I’ll send it out to the band so they can check it out because I really like it.” So they ended up sharing it on their social media and everything.


And I was just blown away. My 4-year-old self was freaking out. And it was just really cool.  


“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” I learned it from [listening to] Hank Williams. I think somebody else wrote it but I’ve just been a Hank Williams fan for a long time.


“To Be Young Is To Be Sad And To Be High” that’s a Ryan Adams and Dave Rawlings song. We’ve always loved that one. That’s been in the set for quite a bit for the last few years.  


And then “Stickshifts and Safetybelts,” that’s a Cake song. We’re all huge fans of that band. That one just transfers well to our form of music.

Yeah, it really does. That song has some alt-country flavor so it seems pretty natural.

Yeah, [it’s] kind of got that little bit of country twang to it but it’s still rockin’ pop. It’s hard to describe, actually. But yeah, we just love that band. So we thought it would be a nice song to cover.

It must have been fun just going back to your roots and playing songs you love. 

Oh yeah, I mean, that’s how we got started, just playing songs with our friends. My brother, [Alex] who plays banjo in the band, it was just us playing songs that we love in the living room together. That’s how we learned how to play music really. It wasn’t until later that we started writing our own songs and going more into that territory. So it kind of pays homage to the bands we love and the songs we really like. I just feel like it’s a really nice part of this genre where people pay respect to other songwriters and bands by covering their songs. It’s a homage sort of thing. I just love that that’s part of this whole community. It’s just like, “Oh I really like that song so I’m going to do my version of it.”

Can you tell readers some more about how you and your brother started the band and how long you’ve been playing as The Brothers Comatose? Was this your first band together?

This is definitely our first band together. I was in a couple rock bands before this band got started. But we’ve always played music ever since we knew how to play guitars and banjos.


Our mom was in a band when we were kids and they would sing and rehearse around the house and sing beautiful harmonies. We’d be little kids just sitting there watching them warm up and practice and just be in awe of what was going on. You know, when you’re a little kid you don’t really know what’s going on, you’re like, “What? How do they make their voices sound like that?” So it was a cool experience, it didn’t really hit me until later that that’s what kind of got us our start.


They always had musician friends hanging around and they’d throw music parties and invite all their friends over and everybody would be just like sitting in a big circle in the living room, just passing songs around. … That was some of the coolest musical happenings that I can remember. I [thought], “How do all these people … get together and play music? You know, they don’t even necessarily know each other.” But this was before I knew how song structures worked and keys. You know you just shout out, “Oh, do you know this one? This one’s in A” and everyone would just play along. That just blew my mind.


And then somebody, a good friend of my mom, just left the banjo behind one day and Alex picked it up and started playing the banjo and I would play acoustic guitar. We’d play whatever we were listening to at the time, Rolling Stones or Weezer or whatever it might be. And that was just really fun. That was a great way to pass the time and connect. Because we always fought a lot when we were younger and it wasn’t until we were in our late teens that we started hanging out and connecting by playing music together. So that was a good way to bring us together. And then shortly after is when the band got started. We called on some friends. Gio who plays bass, we went to high school together, we called him up, and then little by little we started adding musicians in and then we became The Brothers Comatose.

The Brothers Comatose
Jessie McCall
– The Brothers Comatose
Gio Benedetti, Alex Morrison, Ben Morrison, Philip Brezina, and Ryan Avellone

As far as you and your brother fighting a lot when you were younger, maybe that’s good you got that out of your system. Hopefully it’s smooth sailing from now on. 

So it’s not like Oasis status.


Yeah, exactly. 

Or Black Crowes or anything like that.

You probably get questions like that all the time.


Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, we do get along. But it is funny though because nobody knows how to push his buttons or my buttons like each of us do. So we definitely get in our squabbles when we’re out on the road but I think that kind of happens with anybody. We have a deeper bond and connection now. It’s never ended in a fistfight on stage, thankfully, so hopefully it will never get to that. (laughs)

How does that work as far as sharing lead vocal duties? On the EP, for example, you sang lead on three tracks and then Alex did vocals on the other one. How do you decide who should sing lead on which song? 

It’s been interesting because a lot of times if you write a song you’ll end up singing it but over the last couple of few years everybody in the band’s been writing, which has been really cool.


Not everybody in the band is a singer though, so somebody will write something and bring it in and be like, “Oh, I feel like this is a Ben song or this is an Alex song.” So we kind of just give it a go. I mean, it’s not always concrete. We’ve definitely had songs where I started singing something and then oh, it’s not the best it can be and then Alex will take it on and … that’s what it needed to be. Because you know, we have different voices so sometimes they will lend themselves to songs better. It’s been really nice having everybody contribute and have somebody in mind a lot of the times to sing the song when they bring it in, in addition to the ones we bring in. So that’s been fun.


It seems like it would be nice to mix things up with different vocalists on stage too.


Oh yeah, totally. It keeps it fresh and makes it more fun for us and I think probably it’s more fun for the audience with a little bit of variety.


So speaking of covers, I was looking through your YouTube page and noticed the band recently made a video for a cover of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” What was that about?


Well, there’s a story behind it. I don’t want to go too deep into the story. It was basically about this article that was posted by somebody who had some beef with us. … [SF Sounds] kind of wrote a hit piece article … about us. There was some false information in the article … and he called us the Backstreet Boys of Bluegrass. At first we were like “Oh, screw that!” But then we were like, “Oh, that’s kind of funny.” So we said, “You know what, instead of getting mad we’re just going to cover a Backstreet Boys song.” And our friend Sam Chase, who is also a great singer/songwriter and has a cool band, he’s a great videomaker and he was like, “You guys should cover a Backstreet Boys song. I’ll film the video, we’ll make it hilarious and we’ll put it out there. We’re going to rise above this bad reporting and put out something funny.” We just had a good time with it and it turned out to be the funniest thing we’ve ever done. (laughs)


It was pretty amazing. I like the dance moves too.


Thank you. Yeah, it was kind of inspiration in the moment. When we walked in and saw the studio lit from the back we were like, “Oh my god, this is perfect.” We quickly whipped together some dance moves. (laughs)

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Was 2016’s City Painted Gold the first album that featured all of the band members contributing as songwriters?


Most of the songs came from myself and Gio, the bass player, at the beginning. The first couple albums were mostly us, with some lyrical contributions coming from our friend Joe Pacini, who is now our tour manager. Starting with City Painted Gold, Ryan and Phil and Alex really stepped up and started writing a lot more, which has been fun to have some different flavor added to it. That was really cool with that album, we recorded that. And we’ve all been writing since and we’re excited to get back into the studio. We’re headed [into the studio] in a couple weeks to start the next recording project.

The Brothers Comatose
Sterling Munksgard
– The Brothers Comatose

On City Painted Gold, do you have a favorite song either that you wrote or to perform? 

My favorite off that album, I think, for the energetic tunes [is] “Angeline,” which Alex wrote. been opening shows with that one lately just because it kind of just kicks you in the nuts right off that bat. And that one’s really fun. As far as the more slow jams go, there’s one called “Top of the Trees” that was kind of a collaborative effort. That one’s really fun to play. It’s got some really fun harmonies and it kind of breaks down to this vocal part, which we’ve expanded in our live set a little bit. It’s kind of like an homage to Boyz II Men type of harmonies. (laughs) So that one’s been really fun to play too.   

You’ve said the title track is about how San Francisco has been changing from a “weird, art friendly mecca to a place that only super rich tech workers could afford.” Did you and your brother grow up in San Francisco?


We grew up in Petaluma, which is about 45 minutes north of San Francisco. So, Alex, Gio and myself are all from up there. Alex and I both moved to San Francisco to go to college and we’ve been there ever since up until about almost two years ago, when we got displaced by landlords coming in and buying the building we were living in on Haight street. So we don’t live there anymore, unfortunately. I live in Oakland, just across the Bay, which has a great art and music scene. Alex is up in Petaluma, which is also becoming a really cool place to live again. …

Our fiddle player still lives there, actually, and we rehearse at his house so I get to go into the city all the time.


The band just announced its festival, Comatopia.



What can you tell readers about the event? 

This is the third year. We have changed locations this year to a really cool spot, actually not too far from Fresno, called Bandit Town, which is up in North Fork, kind of near Bass Lake, near the south entrance of Yosemite.


It’s kind of like this Old West sort of environment, up there, this little pocket where they have this old saloon, it looks like an Old West town in Bandit Town. This is our third year of doing it. The first two years were up in a place called Calpine. This year we’re just really looking forward to a change of scene. I’ve heard great things about the location. We were able to get some of our favorite bands to stack the lineup, which basically [means] you’re just throwing a party (laughs) with some of your favorite bands out in the woods.


We’ve got Sam Chase & the Untraditional, that’s who made the [Backstreet Boys] video for us; Hillstomp, a great junkyard blues duo out of Portland; John Craigie who’s an awesome singer/songwriter/storyteller/entertainer; Willie Tea Taylor, he’s amazing also; Rainbow Girls are an indie folk trio; Marty O’Reily and the Old Soul Orchestra, they’re a great psychedelic soul, folk rock [group]; Crow & The Canyon, they’re an awesome bluegrass string band from up in Portland; Ismay, who is a great friend of ours, she’s kind of an indie folk songstress; and our buddy John Courage, who’s a rock ’n’ roll singer/songwriter.

The Brothers Comatose
Sterling Munksgard
– The Brothers Comatose

How’s the tour been going so far?

The spring tour has been awesome for the most part. We ended our Frostbite tour about a month ago, when the snow started melting. And then we went into the spring tour. It’s really cool. We kind of just started heading east, out into Colorado and the Midwest. Colorado’s been really great to us. It’s been kind of building over the last few years. …


We played some really good festivals, like Winter Wondergrass, which is one of the craziest festivals we’ve ever played because you’re playing like in 10 degree temperatures in a snowstorm, outside. (laughs) Yeah, it’s crazy.


I never thought about playing an acoustic instrument in a snowstorm until that festival came around. It’s so hard to keep your instrument in tune, but looking out at the crowd, nobody is deterred at all. Everybody is still there with you, partying, and no matter how cold it is, Colorado people are just hardcore. They’re just in it – and I love that about them.


Was there anything you wanted to tell readers about your live show?


In general for the live show we just really enjoy the audience participation factor. We like it when people get rowdy. We just like throwing parties everywhere we go and getting people involved. That’s just so much more fun for us. We’re not really into the passive listening experience. We try to get people up on stage to dance or help us sing songs so I guess that’s what you can expect. 

Check out The Brothers Comatose’s upcoming tour dates by visiting its Pollstar artist page