Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Ben and Gio of The Brothers Comatose Talk "Respect The Van"

On the new album, Respect The Van, The Brothers Comatose follow up their first album (Songs From The Stoop) with a fiery set of bluegrass-influenced folk rock. Fans of Trampled By Turtles, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Devil Makes Three: listen up!

Original members Alex and Ben Morrison and Gio Benedetti have solidified the band's lineup with the addition of Philip Brezina (fiddle) and Ryan Avellone (mandolin). Together, the newly energized and inspired Brothers Comatose deliver a record that captures the band throwing it all down in one big room by treating the studio like a stage.

The group will be building on their previous experiences performing at such major festivals including the esteemed Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, The Strawberry Festival and High Sierra by playing shows everywhere all spring and summer. Head over to http://www.thebrotherscomatose.com/ to obtain copies of their albums and to look over their tour dates so you can catch them when they roll into your town.

To mark the release of Respect The Van, I recently spoke with Ben and Gio of The Brothers Comatose regarding the band's history, the making of their two albums, as well as their biggest influences and songwriting processes. 

Can you discuss your early experiences learning and playing music?

Ben: Alex and I are brothers and our mom was in an acoustic band when we were really young. Their band, a harmony driven folk band, would rehearse in our garage and we would both sit and watch, mesmerized, at every rehearsal.

And our folks would always have music parties at our house when we were younger. All the badass local musicians would come, hang out and play songs all night. Those parties are pretty much what inspired us from an early age. That is the reason we picked up instruments.

Who were some of the artists, albums, etc that inspired you to pursue music seriously?

Ben: Well, definitely everyone at those music parties. Alex and I grew up on a healthy diet of classic rock: Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young and Creedence. I think those bands definitely shaped our early musical minds.

When did you realize you wanted to start a band?

Ben: Both Alex and I played guitar from an early age. For a long time it was just messing around in the living room, playing covers and such. I played in a couple rock bands throughout high school and college. Alex never really played in a band besides this one. He was more into the visual arts (painting and sculpture) at that time. He does most of our artwork these days.

One day, a family friend left a banjo at the house. Alex took to it right away and we started off playing all those old songs we grew up listening to – Stones, Zeppelin, CSNY, etc, and it kind of developed from there. We eventually started writing tunes and doing some recording at a friend’s house. One day we called Gio, who was a killer bass player and had his own rock project going on at the time, and we asked if he wanted to play with us. To our surprise he said yes.

What was it about string band music that inspired you to go in that direction?

Ben: Well, honestly we didn’t grow up listening to much string band or old-time music. We grew up on more folk and rock. When Alex got that banjo, we began incorporating that into our playing.

From there we started listening to more modern string bands like Devil Makes Three and Old Crow Medicine Show, and eventually we worked our way into the older stuff from there. The modern bands were sort of our gateway music into the classics.

Also, we had been attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco for the past 8 years or so, and for me that was definitely an inspiration and eye-opening experience to so much of this music. I was also really attracted to the lack of pretentiousness and simplicity of this music.

When and how did The Brothers Comatose form?

Ben: I suppose it all started in that living room years ago with Alex and I deciding to play together, but the band officially started about 4 years ago, when we booked our first real gig and we got Gio to play bass with us. We then started hitting all the bay area bars and clubs that would let us play.

Can you talk about what drew you all together musically?

Ben: Well, for Alex and I, it all began with our parent’s record collection. That was the music of our youth. And even though we eventually were able to buy and develop our own music collections, our parent’s music never became old or uncool.

Also, the Morrison family living room music parties were what drew us together musically. We all had different tastes in music but the songs we ended up playing together at these parties were mostly folk and classic rock songs that everyone knew and were fairly easy to play. And us, being the young bucks at the music parties, we all sort of bonded together with the songs that we brought to the table.

When did you begin writing music for your first record, Songs From The Stoop? Can you discuss your experiences writing and recording the album?

Ben: I would say about half of the songs from Songs From The Stoop had been written before we became a band. Some were written and just didn’t work with the other bands we were in at the time. The other half were skeletons or pieces of songs that each of us brought to the table and then worked on together, figuring out arrangements and harmonies and such.

Can you talk about your experiences following the album's release? How did that record and the performances that followed prepare you for work on your next album?

Ben: Before our first album, we hadn’t played outside of the greater San Francisco Bay area. We planned our first tour to follow its release in March 2010. We did 11 shows in 10 days up the West Coast and we booked the whole thing ourselves. During that tour we realized how important it is to take a day off every once in a while. We still had a blast though.

We bought a red 1988 Chevy G20 conversion van to go on that tour and we still have it to this day. In fact, we sing songs about it and even dedicated a whole album to it: Respect the Van.

As we played more and more shows, we got a little tired of playing the same arrangements over and over so we started changing little things here and there to keep it exciting and to make sure the songs were as powerful as we could make them. That attention to detail definitely shaped how we approached our newer songs, fine tuning them until we were happy.

How did Ryan and Philip join the band?

Ben: Around 3 and a half years ago we decided we wanted a fiddle player and started posting up fliers around San Francisco. I posted one up at the conservatory of music in SF on a recommendation from another band and we ended up getting a call from Phil. He’s got his masters in violin performance, but he’s also a country boy from central Pennsylvania. You don’t often find classical players like him, loving the improvisational and creative side of things.

Since the beginning of the band we have had a few mandolin players. Alex and I started the band with our friend Joe who happened to play mandolin and was a good lyric writer. After a couple years, Gio’s younger brother Ian joined the band on mandolin until he moved to the East Coast last summer.

Then Ryan entered the picture. He is the newbie of the bunch. Ryan played guitar and mandolin in a few bands in Santa Cruz. We played a show with a string band he was in at the time and when we knew Ian was leaving I called up Ryan and asked him to fill in on a couple gigs. And it turned out he was a great fit for the band.

What would you say their biggest contributions have been to the band?

Ben: Both Phil and Ryan are constantly striving to make things better. They always have ideas to improve performance, musicianship and arrangements…which is awesome because you never want things to become stagnant. I feel like that leads to the death of a band.

Can you discuss the writing of Respect The Van? How collaborative was the process?

Ben: I would say this album was slightly less collaborative than Songs From The Stoop. Gio and I wrote most of the tunes and Phil came up with the fiddle melodies and arrangements for the 2 fiddle based songs, "The Van Song" and "Pennies are Money Too".

We would usually come to rehearsal with skeletons of the songs and the band would make suggestions and all work together to make the best arrangement we could. None of us have much of an ego and are totally open to the band working on songs together.

Your songs tap into rock, folk, and bluegrass sensibilities.

Where does bluegrass intersect these other styles, and how do they all culminate for the band?

Ben: I would say that folk and bluegrass laid the groundwork for the things that I love about rock music. Simplicity, energy, passion and storytelling are commonalities that I personally am attracted to in these 3 genres. Though they all sound a bit different, I feel they do share that common ground.

For me, folk has always been about the story. Bluegrass took that idea and supercharged it with different instrumentation and threw in some solos, though sometimes the themes are a bit simpler. Then rock came along and stole from both of those, added drums, electricity and a bit of overdrive and modernized it all. Now I feel like I’m getting kind of dorky, but basically I would say that for us, we take folk song ideas, add rock song structures and throw in our bluegrassy instrumentation and we end up where we are.

What commonalities do the two albums share? What would you say sets them most apart for you?

Ben: Both albums have a similar feel for me, though we are a bit more practiced and tighter as a band. Thematically they both came from different places though. Songs From The Stoop came out of songs that were either written or developed while playing on the stoop on Haight Street in San Francisco where Alex lives and where we still rehearse today. That one had much more of the living room or stoop jam session feel to it.

On Respect the Van we were a little more focused on certain themes and were able to play the songs at shows lots before we recorded them so the songs and we as a band are much tighter.

Can you describe your inspiration for the new album overall? Was there a theme for the record as a whole?

Ben: I would say the overall inspiration is our 1988 Chevy G20 conversion van, Red. From the moment we released our first album, we bought a van and headed out on the road. That was a huge change for us and many of the songs reflect being on the road, away from family, friends, partners, and really living out our dreams of being in a touring band.

This is what we always wanted to do. But it turns out to be much less glamorous (but still no less awesome) than you imagine when you are 13 years old practicing guitar in your bedroom.

I don’t believe it was preconceived record. It just sort of happened this way. Hang out in a van with a bunch of dudes for a while, traveling and playing music, and it’s bound to sneak its way into some songs.

Was there a song that set the direction for the record?

Ben: I think it was "Strings", which was written by Gio, that started us down that road. I’m pretty sure it was the first one written after the recording of our first album, though I don’t think it was intentional to have the others follow suit thematically. Sometimes things just work out like that.

What were you listening to during the writing and recording process?

Ben: Until recently we only had a tape player in the van. That limited our music intake for a while. We listened to lots of tapes we got at garage sales: truck driving classics (on a compilation tape), Hank Williams, Huey Lewis and the News, and Flying Burrito Brothers.

When we got a tape adapter we delved into our Ipod collections: Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Queens of the Stone Age, Devil Makes Three, Fleet Foxes, Gillian Welch, Kinks, Radiohead, Mississippi John Hurt, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Bill Monroe, Townes Van Zandt, Violent Femmes, White Stripes. Kind of an odd collection for a folk/bluegrass band, I know. 

What was different this time around regarding the recording of Respect The Van?

Ben: We recorded both albums in the same studio, Prairie Sun in Cotati, CA. We got a very live feel out of the first album, recording it all standing in a circle in the same room. It was really fun way to record but it definitely sounds like a bunch of dudes standing in the same room playing songs. We took all the things we liked from that recording and put that toward the making of Respect the Van and I think we came up with a sound we really like.

For Respect the Van we wanted a live feel but with a little more isolation on the instruments so we could get a bigger sound out of everything. I feel like recording for a band like ours can be difficult because most bands like us pride ourselves on our live shows and the energy it provides as well as audience energy and vibe. That’s what we really love to do and it can be a challenge to capture and then communicate that through a studio recording. I still don’t think we’ve figured it out. It’s definitely a learning process, though I do believe we got the energy we wanted out of songs for Respect the Van.

Do you the write music or lyrics first? Please discuss how these processes connect for you and influence each other in your writing?

Ben: It usually differs from song to song but I usually tend to come up with a melody first and the lyrics second. I’ll play some chords on the guitar and make up some words, just sort of messing around and try to find a melody that I like. From there I go to my idea notebook and try to find a theme or perhaps some verses I’ve already written to see if they fit the melody and the feel of the song.

Rarely does it ever all come in one package. With "Morning Time", I played the chords and a few verses came out right away. After that I had to put down the guitar and come up with the rest of the verses and chorus and then toyed around on the guitar until the rest of the song came together.

Gio: It happens both ways. For "Sleep", the words and melody came first, and on "A Walk Around The House", the words and melody came together. "120 East" had chords first. In the case of "120", the chords came out of a whiskey-jar jam session down in Yosemite. The lyrics didn't get written until weeks later. Then there is the rare and legendary exception to both where it all comes together at the same time. That's what happened with "Strings". That's rare. Convenient, but rare.

A lot of the time the processes are completely separate. When I'm writing words, I don't usually have the chords or the melody in mind. It goofs me up a lot of the time if I try and have the song too planned out before hand.

A lot of my lyric notebooks are just filled with ideas for songs, stream-of-conscious ideas on a theme, or vaguely rhyming pseudo-lyrics. I don't usually have the guitar in my hand when I'm writing the words. A lot of it happens in the car or in the van, or walking. They don't end up as lyrics until I'm sitting with an instrument and I'm really trying to pull a song out of the scattered ideas I have in the notebooks.

As for the music, a lot of the time I'm playing trying to find something to fit a mood or an idea I started in the notebooks. If I'm just playing for shits and giggles, if I stumble on something I like, I'll just start humming a tune I think fits. Then I'll bust out the phone and record it before it gets away. I have dozens and dozens of 12-second clips of me humming 2 bars of a melody in the car.

How collaborative was the songwriting process and recording of the new album among the band as a whole?

Ben: The songwriting wasn’t as collaborative as the first album. Gio and I write most of the songs and come to the band with a skeleton of the song. From there we all collaborate on arrangements. 

Can you discuss your influences?

Ben: Really, my biggest influences have been my parents and my guitar teachers growing up. They shaped my musical reality and inspired me to listen to a wide range of music, much of which I still listen to today.

As far as lyrics go, I can’t really say there is anyone that stands out as a main influence. I suppose the way I approach writing takes a little piece from everyone I’ve listened to over the years. My personal influences range from old blues and folk songs to Weezer, Dylan and the Kinks. I really appreciate simplicity in songwriting.

Gio: I really think that my music and writing instructors have been the biggest influences on what I play and write. All through high school and college, it was my teachers that introduced me to poetry, made me write it, and then circled and edited the parts that could have been better.

Same with my music and composition teachers. They all introduced me great artists, made me copy them, and then told me how to make things better. The source material came from all the famous poets and writers and musicians you could think of to study, but the way of transforming that into my own voice and phrases and ideas was inspired by my teachers.

Can you tell us about some of your non-musical sources of inspiration? 

Ben: My non-musical sources of inspiration are coffee, people watching, road trips (on backroads, of course), bars with a stale beer stench, walking around at night, museums, storytellers, rivers, and a bit of alone time. It’s amazing what your mind can come up with by just taking a step back and observing a little more than you normally would.

Gio: When I look at the songs that were written for this new album, they all come directly from family and friends. That's where I spend all my time. That's where all my love comes from and goes.

Growing up, family was always first (ala Arrested Development), and now that I have a family of my own, those old lessons and values just start to percolate up into my world. And when you're in a band with your best friends, you end up being inspired by the things they do, the songs they make, the way they don't get out of the hotel on time when you're on tour, or they way they fall in love with every coffee shop girl they see on the road.

What would you say sets this record apart the most from your previous work?

Ben: I think that the songs are more band-specific with this album. Most of the songs for the first album were written before the band (as it exists now) was performing, touring, living in vans together, and spending so much time together. So many of the song off of the new album are from shared experiences on the road, or stories that we've shared with each other. It feels like an album that the band and the van created.

What's next for you in 2012?

Ben: Lots of touring, lots of playing, some more touring, writing, writing, writing, some playing, and then some more recording and possibly some touring thrown in as well.

What have you been listening to lately?

Ben and Gio: Gillian Welch, The Band, Credence, White Stripes, Kinks, Stanley Brothers, Sam Cooke, Alabama Shakes, Lou Donaldson, Donny Hathaway, Mavis Staples, Louvin Brothers.

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