With a name like Brothers Comatose, you might expect that the Bay Area’s rowdiest string band enjoys sinking their fair share of suds while performing. And though that isn’t what their name actually derives from — it refers to how vocalist and banjo player Alex Morrison’s eyes tend to roll up into his head when he really gets cooking — their raucous shows are indeed fueled by beer.
“I’ve done a few shows without drinking, but they’re not as fun for some reason,” laughs vocalist and guitarist (and Alex’s brother) Ben Morrison. “I always usually have a couple of beers while I play. I’m not trying to sound like an alcoholic or anything, but it really puts me in a different place while performing. It just makes me a little more carefree, and not really thinking too much. You don’t want to get inside your head while you’re performing – you just want to let it flow.”
It’s therefore unsurprising to learn that the Morrisons, who grew up in Petaluma, CA, have a long-running connection with that city’s most famous craft brewery, the Lagunitas Brewing Company. “We were one of the first bands that ever played in there, right when they opened their tap room,” Ben recalls. “It was just a tiny little room, and the stage wasn’t even big enough to fit more than three of us; one of the guys had to stand in front of the kitchen door! It’s been really cool seeing them blow up since then.”
The Brothers Comatose haven’t quite blown up to Lagunitas-like levels yet, though they will be headlining the Campfire Caravan tour this fall, a two-month, cross-country trek fueled by Lagunitas, which will also feature Mipso and The Lil Smokies. Indeed, they’ve garnered a devoted nationwide following through years of tireless touring; among their biggest fans are Alex Tweet and Barry Braden of Fieldwork Brewing, who have named several of their beers after Brothers Comatose songs. The band’s third album – 2016’s City Painted Gold – has also won critical raves for its tuneful and inspired mixture of bluegrass, southwestern cowboy folk and classic rock.
The album’s title track deals with the immense transformation that San Francisco has undergone in the wake of the tech boom, changes that forced the band (like so many other artists who once called the city home) to leave the Haight for less expensive surroundings. But as Ben Morrison reflects in this conversation with October, heavy changes can be a very positive thing, as well.
What’s the first beer of the day going to be?
Right now in the fridge, I have Lagunitas’ Aunt Sally – it’s kind of a low-octane sour, which has been treating me well.
Are you a big sour guy? Or is this as sour as you go?
Well, my girlfriend really likes sour beers, and she just goes to the edges and beyond. [Laughs] I just kind of dabble, I guess. I’m more of a super-hoppy IPA guy, myself.
You and Lagunitas go way back — what do you make of them selling their remaining ownership stake in the brewery to Heineken?
You know, I don’t know; I still haven’t really decided. I’m happy for them… It’s really cool to see a company start from scratch and just build up so rapidly. They’re maintaining their quirkiness, and they’re such huge proponents of music, and sponsoring bands, and just loading up bands with beer all the time. I don’t think any of that’s going to change.
If anything, this infusion of cash could help them do more of that.
Yeah, exactly! So, if that’s the case, then what the hell. I know a lot of people are pissed off about it – that their hometown beer has “sold out,” or whatever. But I don’t see it as a huge deal. They’ve always been really cool, and it doesn’t seem to be changing the jobs of any of the people that I know there – they all seem to be pretty happy with the situation. And now they’ll get distributed in Europe; who knows, maybe we’ll get to do a tour of Europe, all the Heineken spots, because of it!
So their support for Brothers Comatose has gone well beyond booking you into their tap room?
Oh, yeah. We had this great deal going on with them for a while where they would deliver beer to our tour stops. To show up to a venue in Idaho, or whatever, and have two cases of beer waiting for you, that’s like the coolest feeling in the world. It was like, my high school self would be high-fiving me so hard right now! Like, “Okay, man – you’re not making a lot of money, but you get beer delivered everywhere you play!”
They have resources and stuff that we don’t necessarily have, so if we have some crazy project in mind, we’ll reach out to them about helping us put it together. Like, we did a horseback tour [of California’s gold country] last fall, and they helped us out with getting the funding to film it; we’re going to put out a mini-documentary-slash-longform music video. They’ve been really awesome to us in many ways.
Was Lagunitas your introduction to the world of craft beer?
Growing up on the west coast, I think it was always there. But there’s kind of this arc, you know? You start off drinking beer in high school, and it’s, like, terrible stuff – you play stupid games with forties and stuff, and that’s your beer selection. And then, when you get a little older, your beer taste gets a little more refined. Even in high school, I remember a teacher of ours saying, “Life’s too short to drink shitty beer.”
Now there’s a good lesson for the youth of America!
Yeah, and that has stuck with me! But you are confined, unfortunately, by what’s in your wallet. But the west coast craft beer scene has been pretty on-point for a while, and getting into the IPAs and the super-strong beers… so yeah, you start drinking more stuff like that.
I’ve even worked at a couple of breweries: A small place called Dempsey’s, up in Petaluma, which is a restaurant where they serve their own beer. And then I worked at this place called Thirsty Bear Brewing Company, in San Francisco. They make all organic beer, and they’re part of the whole San Francisco craft brewer scene. It was really cool being a part of that.
In what capacity were you working?
I was tending bar at Dempsey’s, and I was a server at Thirsty Bear. But being part of that scene, you really had to be knowledgeable, because super beer nerds would be coming in, especially during, like, SF Beer Week. They’d be like, “What’s the IBUs on this one?” And I’d be like, “Okay, I actually know that. Let me tell you about it!” [Laughs] And it was fun, getting to be schooled in that kind of stuff; because I’ve always loved beer, but I was never really involved in the technical side of things, and I didn’t really know what all went into it.
“City Painted Gold” is about how the tech boom has changed San Francisco. Obviously, we know how that’s impacted musicians and artists, but how do you think it has impacted the Northern California craft beer scene?
Unfortunately, I had to move out of San Francisco a little under two years ago, but I’m just across the bay in Oakland. But I have seen new spots pop up around the bay that maybe wouldn’t be able to make it in San Francisco. Our buddies at Fieldwork Brewing Company, they keep opening up tap rooms in all of these strange little cities that I might not expect would have craft beer scenes.
If I’m having two beers, then IPAs are great. But if I’m planning on having several beers, I like crappy beers.”
So that’s actually a positive development – in the sense that the rising rents, etc. in San Francisco have caused the scene to expand to smaller cities and towns?
Yeah, definitely! I think San Francisco will always have its core craft beer scene, but it’s definitely pushing creative people further away, and forcing them to find new scenes in different little pockets – and with that comes better food, better beer, all this different culture, really. And San Francisco’s still there, you know? I go over there all the time, and I still really love it; but it’s just a little bit of a different place than when I lived there.
Fieldwork has named two beers after Comatose Brothers songs, right?
Actually, they’ve named three or four… I think the fourth one didn’t quite see the light of day; something happened with the recipe. But there’s Painted Gold pale ale, there’s Morning Time, which is a coffee stout, and then the most recent one was T’angeline, after a song my brother Alex wrote. It was kind of a small release, for when we played their second anniversary party a couple of months ago. My brother’s the sour beer fanatic – he loves Gose, and sour beers in general, and he wrote a song called “Angeline”. So they were like, “Well, Alex always asks for these kinds of beers; let’s make Alex a beer.” It was so awesome, man! [Laughs]
How cool is it that there are beers inspired by your work?
When I heard about that, I could not believe it. It was such an amazing feeling – like one of those “I made it!” sort of feelings.
Had you known about them before they introduced Morning Time?
No! I’d heard about it from my manager, because he lives near there and was in the brewery. He said, “They’ve got a beer called Morning Time!” And I was like, “Well, that’s a funny coincidence!” [Laughs] I didn’t even meet those guys until we played their first anniversary party, but we’ve been like buddies ever since. It’s been really cool hanging out with those guys. They’re such great people, and great supporters of our band. We played their first anniversary party last year, and got to do it again this year.
They stepped it up quite a bit this time to a bigger venue in Berkeley. They printed out this huge banner, which was a photo of the tanks in their brewery, so that was adorning the whole back of the stage. And then we had my dad onstage, bartending – we put a bar onstage with a couple taps on it, and my dad was onstage pouring beers. All these people would be wandering onstage; Alex, the brewer from Fieldwork, him and his buddies would go sit at the bar while we’re playing! It was hilarious, man. It was awesome!
You mentioned your love of IPAs – is that your preferred type of beer when you’re performing?
It definitely varies. It kind of goes against the things I was saying earlier, but if I’m having two beers, then IPAs are great. But if I’m planning on having several beers, which does happen sometimes during shows, I like crappy beers. I’ll have an IPA before we play, but then I’ll bring like three Tecates or something like that onstage. Something low-alcohol, kind of boring, that you can drink a handful of and not be too messed up onstage. You don’t want to get sloppy! But I just want to be sipping on something. What’s your crappy beer of choice?
Tecate was also my go-to when I was living in California. But I’m in Chicago these days, and Tecate is more expensive out here, so Old Style is my beer of choice when I want something cheap and crappy.
Old Style?!? Whoa!
Yeah, I grew up on that stuff. It’s perfect for when you’re watching a ballgame, or grilling out on a hot day.
Oh yeah. I think that’s really important, to fit the beer to your mood or situation, or whatever.
So, despite your various associations with the craft beer world, you wouldn’t consider yourself a beer snob?
Oh, definitely not. Like, a lot of times, I’ll go into a bar, and if I’m having a few, I’ll ask the bartender, “What’s your finest crappy beer?” [Laughs] Because usually every bar has one or two of those three-dollar cans of beer…
Are there any particular favorite beers that you’ve discovered in the course of your travels?
Yeah, always, but of course I can’t remember them now! [Laughs] There was this one place we played a few years back – Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain, North Carolina, which is just outside of Asheville. They have a big outdoor stage and a little indoor stage, kind of like the Lagunitas set-up in Petaluma. They had this extra pale ale back in the day that was like my favorite thing in the world. But then they stopped making it!
Usually, when we play different towns, and we play a venue with a good beer selection, we’ll use our drink tickets for the local beers, when we can. It’s a good way to learn about the local scene, for sure. Everyone in the band has their particular favorites. Gio [Benedetti], our bass player, really likes stouts or porters; Phil [Brezina], our fiddle player, usually just drinks shitty beer. Ryan [Avellone], our mandolin player, doesn’t drink; and Alex loves sours and good beers but will drink whatever’s around.
You guys toured Australia last year. How was the craft beer down there?
The beer in Australia is… not as good. It was super expensive. I ordered an IPA, and they were like, “Twelve dollars!” I’m like, “Twelve dollars? You’re kidding me!” And it wasn’t that good. I did have a couple good beers down there, but I feel like they’re still getting into the whole craft brewing scene, and they still haven’t quite found it yet. They kill it with the lagers – their lagers are fantastic! But the IPAs and stuff… or maybe the overabundance of IBUs in West Coast IPAs have blown out my tastebuds to the point where I’m like, “Oh, this is only 80 IBUs? What the hell? I want it to taste like I’m chewing on a pine cone!” [Laughs]
Do you guys have any notable beer-related gigs coming up?
Not specifically, but every festival we play usually has some kind of local beer sponsor. Especially when you get out to Colorado – those guys are crazy out there! Man, we did this benefit show a couple of weeks ago in Boulder, Microbreweries for the Environment at the Boulder Theater. They had like 20 craft breweries in this big venue, and three bands playing; it was $25 per ticket, and all you can drink. And dude, you’re at like six thousand feet above sea level at that point, and you’ve got these high-octane Colorado breweries, and people are just going nuts. It was amazing – they can party like no other!
Were you able to stay upright?
We did. Luckily, we played second out of three, so we were able to hold it together for a while. But it really does just sneak up on you. I can drink three or four decent IPAs and be okay, but all of a sudden, it was like, “Oh crap, what happened?” And then I realized, “Oh, right – I’m in Colorado. That’s what happened!” [Laughs]