San Francisco's grooviest folk-roots combo the Brothers Comatose is among a handful of local bands playing this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. With a pair of tuneful albums, a YouTube channel with nearly four dozen videos, and a feverish Bay Area following, the quintet is starting to break out onto the national stage. Before the Brothers Comatose perform this Sunday at 1:25 p.m. on Hardly Strictly's Arrow Stage, we caught up with singer-guitarist Ben Morrison via email.
When you launched the band five and half years ago, what sound were you going for? How has it evolved?
We would tell people we're a rowdy string band — a little folk, bluegrass, and rock all churned up with some harmonies laid on top. When we started, we were doing pretty much the exact same thing as now. It's just that we've had a lot of playing and practicing time since then. I think we screw up a little less than we used to.
How do you come up with those incredible harmonies?
We used to be pretty terrible at it. But after doing it for a while, it has started to come a little easier. We'll sort of just jump in there and see if something works first, instead of going with a proper three-part perfect harmony. Then, if things get a little jumbled, that's when we'll break out the instruments and break it down until we find something else.
Where do your tunes come from?
I think the subject matter of the lyrics often dictates the outcome of the feel of the song. For instance, "Modern Day Sinners" is a stomping, clapping, harder-driving, populist sing-along. The attitude of the music matches the subject matter. In a tune like "Morning Time," an ode to compromise between two people, it calls out for a mellower, sweeter tone. Then there's a song like "The Scout," where it's a pretty straightforward three-chord bluegrass structure with shout-along lyrics about always wanting to remain youthful and not bitter in life, no matter how old you are. It seemed to fit well.
How was the recent tour?
It was mostly great... mostly. There were a few not-so-good shows in there. When you play places far from home, where you've never been before, sometimes you end up playing for the bartenders and a couple of regulars. But sometimes you go to a town where people have seen or heard of you, and it ends up being a party. Some crowds prefer to sit down and don't talk at all, while some just wanna get drunk and talk to their friends. But sometimes, you get the crowd that's rowdy and attentive at the same time — the ones that actually listen and respond to your music. That's the best.
Respect the Van is the title of your second album. Can you explain your relationship to the van?
We love our van to death. It's got such character. It's pretty old — an '88 — so in van years that's like 140 years old. But it runs great if we put lots of love, care, and money into it. It's almost like the sixth member of the band. Our George Martin, if you will. We heard a story about how Neil Young buried his tour bus when it died. We get it now. You develop a relationship with your touring vehicle. It becomes almost like a family member.
Have you "made it"? Do you have bigger goals?
Hell yeah, I think we've made it! We get to play music for people all over the country. I'm doing what I've always wanted to do. Sure, it can be incredibly humbling to go to new towns and play for nobody, but it's all a learning experience, and even if it's a bad show, I just got to play music with some great friends. As for goals, we want to get better at what we do, write better songs, become better musicians, and hopefully we'll continue to grow our audience so we have people to play for when we get old.