Shortly before my interview with Break Of Reality, I was handed a factsheet on the American instrumental band. The first page alone immediately captured my attention.
It featured the group’s publicity photo which had its members posing with a cello that had been broken into pieces.
“It was already a very damaged and unplayable cello,” founding member Patrick Laird assured me when we started our interview. “And we made it even more damaged and unplayable.”
Break Of Reality comprises cellists Laird, Laura Metcalf and Andrew Janss and percussionist Ivan Trevino.
Laird continued: “The idea behind it was to capture visually what we do with our sound in terms of breaking the boundaries of the instrument. It’s typically used in classical music solely and we try to take away people’s expectations and do something different.”
Indeed, the band has been breaking perceptions of what people generally think of the cello, as its music combines the cello with, get this, rock sounds. For instance, the quartet puts its spin on rock songs such as Radiohead’s Burn The Witch and System Of A Down’s B.Y.O.B. and sports a decidedly edgier sound with its original material.
“People put it (the cello) on a pedestal and it becomes somewhat inaccessible. And this is a message that says, ‘No, it’s for everybody’,” said Trevino.
Break Of Reality was formed 13 years ago by students of the Eastman School Of Music in New York. Its blend of classical music and rock is certainly unique but getting the word out there still proved to be a challenge.
“It poses a problem when it comes to marketing our music sometimes because there’s not a proven method of marketing as there isn’t a genre quite like ours yet, so we had to learn how to get our music out there,” Laird shared.
Metcalf chimed in: “But that makes it fun too because we can play at a rock club or a classical venue. It allows us to fit into a lot of different places and to reach a much larger audience than if we were just playing classical or rock music.”
The band has found a large audience on another venue as well: YouTube.
Its covers of songs by popular rock bands have earned hundreds of thousands of views. One cover in particular, the Game Of Thrones theme song, generated over 14 million YouTube views and has put the band on the map. “Not a concert goes by where we can get away with not playing that song,” Laird said.
Having said that, the quartet is by no means a cover band. It has churned out four albums made up entirely of original compositions, and one covers album.
“We could just cover every popular song in the world and that would be fine, but I don’t think we would be fulfilled as artistes,” Trevino noted.
Laird said, “Even with the covers, we won’t do it unless we are able to add a significant voice to it. With the Game Of Thrones theme song for instance, the entire middle section of that cover is completely original.”
Break Of Reality joins a wave of other classical instrumental bands sweeping over the music landscape such as The Piano Guys and Brooklyn Duo (which Laird is incidentally also a part of).
“It’s starting to shift,” Trevino shared about the wider appeal of classical music these days. “Now, there are a ton of bands like ours who are getting people to notice these instruments, we’re happy that we were at the beginning of that wave.”
While Laird lamented that being a purely instrumental group, listeners may not find the music as accessible as having a vocalist, he does believe it has its advantages too.
“I feel like because we don’t have a vocalist, we can play in other countries where people don’t speak the same language (as we do) and we can just communicate through music.”
In that respect, Break Of Reality couldn’t be more perfect in its current role as music ambassadors for the US Department Of State’s American Music Abroad initiative. Every year, 10 music acts from various genres are chosen (through an audition process) and sent overseas on a 35-day trip to communicate American music to the global music audience.
Through the programme, the band has gone to places to explore cultures different from their own and build bridges through its music.
Janss feels lucky being able to visit countries he doesn’t usually travel to such as Turkmenistan while Metcalf says the opportunity to collaborate with local musicians is what she is most excited about.
“We’ve developed long lasting relationships with some of them. There’s a Kazakh singer who we met on our tour to Kazakhstan. We worked with him later on, bringing him to New York to shoot a music video together and travelling back to Kazakhstan to perform together again,” Metcalf recalled.
Break Of Reality, who was recently in Malaysia as part of its second stint with American Music Abroad, collaborated with Malaysian sape player Alena Murang.
Trevino says he fell in love with the traditional musical instrument from Sarawak after performing with Alena at a public concert in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
“I didn’t know what a sape was until I met her and now it’s one of my favourite instruments. It’s like a better sounding guitar, it’s beautiful.”
But could the cello and the sape come together and complement each other? Laird said he actually found the combination of the sape and Break Of Reality’s sound refreshing.
“Our sound is really high energy, fast and precise, but her sound is incredibly soulful and there’s such an interesting dichotomy between them.”