Crawdaddy! Magazine – The Brothers Comatose: Bringing New Authenticity to Today’s Swamp Jam – by: David MacFadden-Elliott
A year and a half ago, the Brothers Comatose were playing for free beer.
Right now, they’re somewhere between the Bay and the mountains of Northern Idaho—guitars, banjo, mandolin, stand-up bass, and foot-stomper packed into their newly-acquired vehicle, a red 1988 Chevy g-20 conversion van with a CB radio. There are probably tambourines and beer bottles rolling across the floor.
If experience is any indication, it’s going to be a long road.
A day after the rapturous release of their debut record, Songs From the Stoop, at Café Du Nord, the Brothers Comatose played a sold-out show with their good friends, Sourgrass, in Santa Cruz.
Screams. Tambourines. Chopsticks tapping against broken beer bottles. An inflatable alligator knocking around like a beach ball. That old-timey sound replete with three-part harmonies that would make the Kingston Trio cry. This is the kind of atmosphere you get at a Comatose show.
A lot of friends had come out to support, and around 3am, after a round of drop-offs around Santa Cruz, the Brothers got the van pointed north.
Mandolin player and swordsman Joe Pacini picks up the story from there. “Coming up over [Highway] 17 there’s a cop pulled over on the side of the road, so Phil, our fiddle player, who was driving, went over into the other lane.”
Joe pauses, and explains, “I mean, we had pre-partied in the van, so there was definitely odors, and empty bottles and things rolling around. Didn’t have insurance. Phil doesn’t have a Cali ID. People passed out. Everyone’s drunk, except for Phil, who was sober. So we get pulled over, ‘cause [Phil] swerved into the other lane, cut off the guy who was in his blind spot. I think the first thing Phil said [to the cop] was, ‘Yea, so, I’m in a band.’”
The Brothers Comatose band is comprised of five principal members. I’m sitting with three of them, including the two actual brothers in a street level Mission District apartment.
There’s Ben Morrison, funneling paint into a squeeze bottle to prep for a round of in-house t-shirt silk-screening. He has about 18 months on brother Alex Morrison, who sits in a rocking chair and flips over a copy of Dylan’s Desire every 20 minutes or so.
When Ben was nine, they both started playing guitar.
“We were taking a guitar class at the community center with a bunch of people sitting around in a circle, like, ‘Play the G chord,’” says Ben, “First song we ever played was a Creedence song, ‘Proud Mary.’”
“And you stuck with it, and I left, ‘cause it was too hard,” adds Alex. “My fingers were just bleeding, basically. We played a full-sized guitar.”
“Our dad has this big, old-school Vox,” says Ben. “A big jumbo-bodied thing, and it’s impossible to fret. Heavy as hell.
“So I guess I kept going on the guitar. And then Alex, a few years later—I’m just messing around playing stuff—and Alex decides to learn how to play guitar, and I swear to god, not even two days later, he just sits there on the couch all day, like ‘I think I’m gonna figure out guitar,’ and learns a Chili Peppers song flawlessly, in like two days. I come back, and I’m all, “Fuck you, man.’ So Alex surpassed me in that.”
Ben set about playing modern rock in a heavy band called Elephant Hunter, while Alex got into finger-picking folk music and eventually swapped his guitar for a banjo. All the while, Joe, a friend since the 8th grade, was learning a trick or two at the Brothers Morrison household.
“I started playing a little later,” says Joe. “It was to the point where every time you go over and hang out there would just be guitars and chairs; you just pick it up. Watching TV or just hanging out, there was always some sort of musical instrument around.”
Joe is outside smoking a hand-rolled cigarette when I ask about his work “playing” the sword. When he returns, he recalls his time with the side project Orphans of Doom, whose only live performances were in support of Toast Machine, a popular drum-and-bass band in Petaluma.
“We all dressed up in black cloaks and came out and kidnapped [Toast Machine]. It was a packed house and all of a sudden the band [the kids] came to see gets taken off the stage, and they’re listening to fantasy death metal. All I did during those shows was walk out with a giant Conan sword and stand there onstage as the enforcer.”
Significantly, Toast Machine and Orphans of Doom cofounder Giovanni Benedetti now plays bass for the Brothers Comatose.
“Gio was always like this reclusive, awesome musician that we were friends with,” says Ben. “But he never hung out with us. Instead of hanging out on the weekends, he’d go home [to Sonoma]. He’d just be practicing his bass in his room. And he was up there, on a pedestal. We always thought Gio is the guy.”
It was like asking Willie Mays to come play catch with you,” adds Joe. “And he’s like, ‘Shit, I’ll be your starting center-fielder.’”
Finally, “long lost brother” Philip Brezina rounded out the band on fiddle. Phil’s from Pennsylvania—hence the lack of Cali ID during their traffic stop. “I dropped flyers off at the Conservatory of Music,” says Ben. “It just turns out this guy that’s studying classical music is a country boy that likes to jam.”
“You can’t really jam out on Chopin,” adds Joe. “He grew up like a country boy, so he’s got that in him. He can play these 45-minute Mozart pieces that are ridiculous.”
“Yea, [a] first-chair performer,” says Alex.
“But then he can get down and drink whiskey, and [play] over three chords and jam out in a sticky bar and love it,” says Joe.
Together, the sound is like a well-oiled jalopy, so tight and sweet that when it came time to record Songs From the Stoop, the Brothers went to Prairie Sun Recordings, in Cotati, CA, where the Waits room is renowned for its capturing of bands in the flesh, without tracking and lots of overdubs.
“The studio’s built into all these old chicken coops,” says Ben. “It’s out in the countryside, and it’s top-of-the-line recording equipment, but it’s a cool environment. There are chickens running around outside.
“And so the story goes, they were showing Tom Waits around—he wants to come in and record an album cause he lives up there too—and they take him into one of the studios.”
With a gravelly, near-perfect Tom Waits impression, Ben mimics Waits’ dire admonition of the room, “Nothing good can be borne here.”
“So there’s a storage area that they showed him. A bunch of crap was stored in there. And it’s just an old room connected to the rest of the studio in an old barn—concrete floors, redwood walls, a lot of reverberation. And now it’s really popular for bands wanting to record a lot at the same time.”
“Tom Waits has the Bone Machine album,” adds Joe. “And the legend is that the Bone Machine was an old, metal water heater that’s sitting in the corner of this room. So a lot of the weird percussion on that album and a lot of the later albums is from banging on that decrepit water heater.”
Crawdaddy!: Did you hit it?
Ben: “Swamp Jam.”
Joe: Had to.
“Swamp Jam” concludes the resulting record. Songs From the Stoop is solid, old-timey fare, with musical precision that’s just loose enough to keep it fresh. Their recording method ensured that the album would sound just like the live band, but better. And in the flesh, the Brothers seek to turn every venue, from basement to concert hall, into their Haight Street stoop, where impromptu shows are known to crop up at a moment’s notice.
“Grab a six-pack and bring the instruments out to the stoop, and get a little crowd of toursist, or locals, or street kids, or whatever,” says Joe. “The title of the album and [‘Ballad of Tommy Drecker’] are about those evenings.”
“I did the album cover,” says Alex. “I drew our house in a field, like I transplanted the house to a [rural] area. That’s kind of the philosophy of the album.”
Furthermore, their goal seems to be to recreate the atmosphere of the living room jams that Ben and Alex were around growing up.
“Our mom used to sing with a group, and she had all kinds of musician friends over,” says Alex. “A lot of memories from childhood are me, being yay-tall, walking around, hearing harmonies and people playing guitar in the living room. A lot of folk music, a lot of three-part harmonies. A lot of, you know, [boom chicka rhythm]… [There was] a lot of Crosby, Stills & Nash when I was younger. It gives us a lot of inspiration when we try to sing harmonies, and to get that lush, acoustic sound that they had. So that’s what I refer back to a lot.”
“So, they used to practice in our house all the time,” says Ben. “They were in a band called Compass Rose. They never really played gigs as the three of them, but they’d just play and practice at the house.”
“They played a few little local things, here and there,” says Alex.
With beards running rampant like pubic weeds through the fife of hipsterdom, I feel a journalistic need to see if these guys really enjoy the folk lifestyle or are just hamming it up for irony’s sake. When I try to put this concern into words, the three Brothers present are dumbfounded:
“How do you mean?”
Crwadaddy!: Well, do you hunt?
Alex, Ben, and Joe, in unison: Fish.
Joe: Fish a lot.
Alex: I love camping and being out under the open sky, not much to do but fish, swim. That’s definitely my ideal lifestyle, where I wanna be.
Joe: All five of us grew up, if not in the country, at least on the outskirts of town. When I was a kid I’d go to the creek and catch crawdads.
Alex: Yea, we’d shoot BB guns.
Joe: We’re definitely not raised city kids. I’ve been camping since I was two years old. There’s pictures of me wrapped up in Yosemite.
Alex: That’s why I like the music we play so much too. It’s kind of rural, and has that feel; it’s meant to be played out in the countryside. Anything that puts me out in that environment, I’m 100 percent behind.
It’s maybe 4am when the Brothers Comatose get the Chevy moving again. Phil has passed a sobriety test, and the Brothers have passed the cop a handful of CDs for him and his partner.
Joe: “It was a good first trip with the van.”
Riding along the coast and up into the mountains, the Brothers are likely getting new song ideas with every gallon sparked, like so much fuel in years past:
Joe: “Trippin on Down” came from a trip that Ben and I took to Colorado up in the San Pedro Mountains. “Legacy” was about a trip to Reno.
Ben: “Alley of the Oaks” is about a trip to Louisiana, an old plantation actually. [Then there’s] “Swamp Jam.” A friend of ours had a studio out in the countryside of Petaluma. There was a ranch out there that had a little built-in studio.
Joe: There’s not another house for 10 miles and they have this swampy little lake next to their house. So, something about that energy…
Alex: That’s about as swampy as it gets.
Listen: Various Tracks [at myspace.com]
Watch: The Brothers Comatose, “Dead Flowers” [at youtube.com]
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