The Breaks: Fanning the Flames

[This story originally ran in the October 2012 issue of Radius Magazine]

By Jack Firneno

The Breaks totally lit some dude’s bike on fire. And, they have the picture to prove it.

“I don’t know whose it was, but I’m sure they’re not happy about it,” laughs singer CJ Morgan. He says the band initially toyed with the idea of surrounding the photo, which graces the “cover” of their first digital EP and was recreated for their second release in September, with a certain degree of mystery: “We were just gonna say ‘no comment,’ whenever anyone asked about it.”

In truth, it was an off-the-cuff event courtesy of the band’s guitarist Chris Wagner. Apparently he was at a campfire along with the two-wheeler and some gasoline, and one thing just led to another.

“It was a really genuine moment, and when Wags showed me the picture it really caught my attention,” recalls Morgan. “Not to get too hung up on it, but we all sort of created our own meaning behind it and I think we’ll run with it for a little while.”

And, far be it for this writer to impose too much of a narrative on the picture either, but the photo and its origin does seem to reflect the band quite clearly. It even ties into the chorus to the first song the band wrote, which revolves around the phrase, “Let’s start a fire.”

And, that flame burns through the hometown suburban punk scene of Landsdale, PA, where most of the members first got their stage legs in previous bands. The Breaks is a back draft of angular, crackling, distorted guitars and a tight rhythm section, throwing just the slightest whiff of funky swagger in between straight-ahead rock riffs and beats. On top of it all, Morgan’s vocals alternate between a throaty Credence Clearwater Revival growl and a slithery Bon Scott sneer.

Conceptually, they’re on par with the Foo Fighters, sharing that rare ability to coalesce classic rock bombast with the lean, aggressive punk that set out to destroy it. The sparks are flying, but ironically they were started by a band that almost didn’t even strike the match.

Before there was The Breaks, there was Morgan and Wagner. The two had crisscrossed through bands over the last ten years, and Morgan was burnt out after their last one broke up. “If you’re going to make it in any sense, at some point it becomes business. That band itself became its own organism. I felt like I was writing for the business, not creating what I’d want to create,” he says now.

The band had been building up a strong following, but on the eve of their debut release a key member quit and the group lost its wind as a result.  Morgan, Wagner and his former band mates are still on good terms, but the experience left him feeling dejected. “It’s hard when you’re emotionally invested and committed and it falls apart.  It’s like breaking up with a girl. I was picking up the pieces, and was starting to think that maybe the days of being in a band were behind me,” he admits.

But that’s all in the distant past. Last year, Morgan and Wagner began getting together to casually write songs with no actual project in mind. “Some people have a poker night, we’d get together once a week for this instead,” says Morgan.

His partner saw their potential almost immediately, but Morgan was still hesitant to get into another band. Recruiting drummer and former band mate Chris Mehr gave him some confidence, but ultimately it was their new bassist, Jeff Gill, that really inspired him.  “He’s an old friend of ours, and an avid music fan who was always around the bands we were in,” he says. However, he’d never played an instrument before entering The Breaks, and his beginner status cast the project in a whole new light.

“He was excited about things I took for granted,” says Morgan. “To me, practice is a chore after ten years of being in bands. But he was happy just to be there. It reminded me of being 16 and new to it all again. That kind of energy is important, and having someone reminds you of what it was like when you started is really cool.”

The Breaks eponymous debut EP is a forward-looking statement of purpose, kicking off with that rousing “Let’s start a fire” chorus. On The Road, their second outing, continues that trend but accidently casts a passing glance over the band’s collective shoulder. “I am what I am,” sings Morgan on the title track, but he laments for a moment in the refrain: “I have lost my way.”

He admits he realized after the fact that the their latest release references that old band break-up, even though he and his colleagues are certainly excited about the band’s future. But there’s a difference between acknowledging the past and dwelling on it.

“It’s a little weird right now, having to rebuild a fan base,” he admits, but regaining a following means knowing what to expect from prior experience: “It’s a challenge, but it’s like pushing a giant snowball up a hill. It’s tough at first, but once you reach the crest it just starts rolling on its own.”

There’s plenty of reason to think about what worked and what didn’t – and how the world around them has changed since then. “The landscape of music right now sort of feels gray, especially for a new band,” notes CJ. “I try to compare to six or seven years ago, when I was 18. A lot of the rules don’t apply anymore.”

Old enough to remember the days before digital downloads and social media, but still young enough to harness these new tools, The Breaks work from a position of both experience and experimentation. It’s the reason they’re able to record a few songs at a time and release them digitally, rather than wait longer for a full-length release. “This way, we’re able to put out a few songs every couple of months to keep people’s interest over longer periods of time,” he explains.

And, CJ jokes about the advantages and drawbacks of Facebook: “It’s like a marketing course: you can see how many people are checking out each song, and which ones are doing better than others. At the same time, though, you’d like to think there are millions of people checking out your page each day, but then you see that’s not the case,” he laughs.

With two releases out this year, footholds in their favorite places to play in Landsdale and promising new relationships with venues in Philadelphia and Bucks County, The Breaks are already building toward something big. And, according to CJ, they haven’t even really started yet.

“We honestly think of everything up until now as a pre-season. It’s a challenge, but a positive one,” he says. “It’s hard to qualify success. It’s relative, and in some ways by going out there we’re still just trying to get people to wear our t-shirts. But, in terms of my own musical career, this is the most free, most liberating experience I’ve had artistically.”

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