In 2016, Ben Morrison’s five-piece San Francisco bluegrass band Brothers Comatose sold out the Fillmore. Last year, it nearly happened again. It was a culmination of the 120-day-a-year touring schedule the members had maintained for over a decade in their push to carve out sustained indie success.
Then, early last year, two of the members—the mandolin player and the bassist—told Morrison they were quitting the band. He didn’t know what was going to happen next.
“I put all of my energy into that band. It’s like, ‘My dreams are coming true.’ It was shocking to have two guys leave the band, and all of the sudden not know the future. It was heartbreaking,” Morrison says. “I’m not mad at those guys. You’ve got to choose your own path in life.”
The remaining members of the group decided to take time off to reassess everything, and to see if they even wanted to continue as a touring band. But Morrison didn’t slow down. He had been toying with the idea of recording a solo album for a while, and it suddenly seemed like the opportune moment.
“As much as I love that band, there’s a few songs I wrote that didn’t work for Brothers Comatose. It needs drums. It needs electric guitar,” Morrison says. “That’s the good thing about music. It doesn’t have to be a monogamous relationship. You can do something on the side, and then you can come back and probably be a stronger musician because of it.”
The new record, Old Technology, shows a whole different side of Morrison. There are no finger-picking string jamborees. These are bittersweet, singer-songwriter-style Americana tunes in the vein of Kris Kristofferson and the Band.
“It was pretty trying for me. I put my head down and focused on this project,” Morrison says. “I’m going to funnel it into this thing.”
He first recorded “25 Miles” late in 2018. It’s an older song he’d written for Brothers a few years back. He tried, but could never make it work. As a solo artist, he was able to give it the country-rock feel it needed, with hand-picked musician friends to bring it to life. It’s a fitting anthem for this time in his life; he sings about the joy and sadness of being on the road with friends, about to run out of gas.
The song has racked up more than 350,000 Spotify plays so far, which shocked him. He’s watched other friends in successful bands put out overlooked side projects.
“Whatever you’re trying to do, there are no shortcuts. If you’re super famous, that can help. But I’m not super famous,” Morrison says. “It was awesome. Something can exist outside of the band scenario.”
The success of the song gave him confidence to pursue a full-length in the same Americana style. The tone of the record expressed the upheaval in his life.
None of the songs directly deal with band dynamics, but they do express Morrison’s complex emotional state. Some of the specific back stories of the songs are odd, like the country weeper “I Hope You’re Not Sorry.” In it, he sings about a woman who stalked him for a while. It got so bad he filed a restraining order. Then, one day, she disappeared, and he kind of missed her.
“Things got really strange for a while. Then she stopped coming to shows. I was bummed,” Morrison says. “It’s kind of a love song—love you never wanted, but as soon as it’s not there, you’re depressed about it.”
Morrison has already done some touring as the Ben Morrison Band, which has gone well. Brothers Comatose found new members, and they’ve been up and running as of March this year.
“I want to have these projects coexist, and be able to record an album with Brothers, and tour behind that. Go record an album with my band, too, and then tour on that,” Morrison says. “I want to get out there and play music for people. It’s the best job I could ever have. I’m trying to do it before I get old and bust my hip. Might as well go for it.”
The Ben Morrison Band performs at 9 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $15 adv/$20 door. 479-1854.