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Long Time Coming: A Lengthy Chat with the Microtonal Canadians of Body Breaks

. 15 min read
Long Time Coming: A Lengthy Chat with the Microtonal Canadians of Body Breaks

by Raphael Helfand

Body Breaks is a new group that’s been around forever. The band, whose music cleaves to many of the trappings of the conventional DIY four-piece, is really just a duo, with Toronto-based experimentalist Julie Reich providing vocals and Montreal indie anomaly Matt LeGroulx taking care of everything else. Both band members have over a decade of experience in their respective scenes, and even their collaborative debut, Bad Trouble, has eight years of history behind it, but they are introducing themselves to the world in earnest today with its release.

Music editor Rapha Grumser and I tag teamed a text message review of “Eyes to Brightness,” the second of three Bad Trouble singles released to promote the album, in Laid Off’s Favorite Songs of May 2021 roundup. In our conversational review, we honed in on a single chord progression in the bridge and broke down the theory behind it. (More truthfully, I took wild guesses at the chords, and Rapha set me straight by swiftly transcribing them on his guitar.)

In the interview below—conducted via Zoom in early June from New York, Quebec and Ontario—Matt, Julie and I got to the bottom of my theory questions, broke down the duo’s precociously (pre-COVID) remote recording process, and skimmed the surface of microtonal music’s infinite potential.

JULIE REICH: Matt, I hear some sirens coming in from your end.

RAPHAEL HELFAND: I think those are on my end actually.

JR: Oh, so they’re New York sirens!

Yup. Do they sound any different in Canada?

JR: No, they sound the same.

Speaking of sounds outside the diatonic scale, it says in your bio that you’re a microtonal duo. I’m familiar with microtonal music, but I’d like to know what makes a band itself microtonal.

MATT LEGROULX: It just means that on this album, we’re using twice as many pitches as you normally have on a guitar.

What does that tuning actually look like?

ML: Well I used two guitars to record most of this music, so basically I just tuned one a quarter tone flat from the other.

JR: Actually, I would love to know more about that, because Matt played all the instruments on the album. [to Matt] How did you do it again? You tuned one normally and the other one to the notes in between?

ML: Exactly. I used standard tuning for each, but one is a quarter tone flat.

Julie, how did that translate to your vocals, having to sing above the weird guitar harmonies?

JR: I was just going by instinct, playing off the music and using my natural ability to find a place that sits nicely with it. It wasn’t hard for me to create melodies that complemented Matt’s harmonies in that tuning. It was definitely inspiring to have something to work with that wasn’t typical, and maybe I brought some order to it all for the common listener. But I wasn’t trying too hard to sing in any particular scale, so the vocals sit somewhere in between [the tunings].

I was trying to figure out some of the chord progressions before I realized there was microtonality involved, so I was really frustrated until I figured out a lot of the intervals I was—or wasn’t—hearing were quarter tones. I couldn’t tell if the guitar was detuned or Julie was just singing blue notes.

JR: That would be something cool for the booklet, Matt—figuring out the actual MIDI notes I was singing and transcribing them into sheet music.

ML: We would have to hire a pro to do that. I’m not good enough to be able to transcribe microtonal singing to the level of accuracy that would be needed.

JR: There’s software that can convert sung notes to MIDI, I’m not sure how accurately. [to Raphael] You’re right, though, that I probably was singing in scales that complemented Matt, and it would be interesting to find out what they are. Again, it was just intuitive. My background isn’t in theory. I did studio piano at the Royal Conservatory for a few years, but when I started actually getting into writing my own music and singing in other people’s groups, I came from an experimental place. I just finished a post-grad program for sound design in TV, film and video games, and I’ve composed for some short films. But I’ve come at it in a strange, backwards way, and I definitely have to use a lot of software aids. Matt is definitely the genius behind the music.

Even though you’ve got a sound design foundation now, Julie, are you still starting with improvisation and taking care of the more nuts-and-bolts compositional elements afterwards?

JR: I try to come at it from a more compositional standpoint, in that I’m thinking of different scales for different moods. But trying to compose too much based on theory, you lose the magic. So you sometimes have to be able to forget about all that stuff and start improvising until you get the right feeling and derive the rest from there. Creativity can compensate for skill and knowledge. [Laughs]

I understand this album was made remotely, with Matt writing and recording the instrumental parts in Montreal and Julie writing and recording the vocals in Toronto. Skipping over the obvious COVID stuff, what challenges did that present? The album has such a cozy vibe that, on first listen, I assumed you were together in the same room—not only for the recording of the songs but for the whole creative process. I’m wondering how you accomplished that from a distance.

JR: That’s awesome!

ML: COVID really didn’t play into it at all because I recorded the music in 2013 and then Julie did the vocals a couple years after that.

Wow, so this album is long in the making.

JR: Yeah, we’re finally releasing it after all this time waiting for the right moment. And what a strange moment it is.

How did you decide now was the moment, as opposed to any other moment over the past five years?

JR: We wanted a family to help us. Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you can do everything yourself. We have friends who are better at spreading the word than we are, and I knew this album deserved more attention than Matt and I could get it on our own. So we waited, and then the stars just aligned. I’m a backup singer in Chandra Oppenheim’s band—Chandra was 12 years old in 1980 in New York when she wrote this really awesome album with The Dance that developed a cult following; I helped her reissue the album a few years ago, and it blew up again, and we got to tour—and Jesse Locke, the drummer in her band, started a label with her called We Are Time. They’ve known about this album for years, and it means the world to us that they’re the ones releasing it. It’s staying in the family.

Most DIY bands weren’t recording remotely before COVID hit. What were some challenges and advantages of working that way?

ML: I think most bands now, regardless of what we’ve all been through, would really prefer to be together in a room recording the music they were together in a room rehearsing. But maybe it gave us a bit of an advantage that we never worked on the music with each other. The instrumental parts came before the vocal parts, so Julie had all of them there in front of her.

JR: Yeah, that was ideal for me. Talk about a method that works!

ML: As far as it sounding like a band in a room, I think that mostly comes down to Nyles Miszczyk’s mixing. I recorded the drums in one space and the guitars and bass in another space, and Julie recorded the vocals in a third space. Nyles did a great job gluing it all together and making us sound like a band.

JR: Nyles is also in the Chandra band, so it was truly a family project.

ML: I’ve tried my hand at mixing a few times, but you really have to know what you’re doing to do it well, and Nyles really does. The drums sparkle. I could never figure out how to do that. I asked him, and he told me, and it flew totally over my head. [Laughs] Mixing is the kind of thing you have to spend a lot of time doing. There’s a lot of nuance, and you really have to train your ears to hear the difference between frequency ranges and learn how to set up your compressors.

JR: I spent the last year doing that, and I still have so much to learn.

ML: That’s why all the recordings I’ve released on my own sound like crap.

JR: Give yourself some credit! You do a pretty good job. [to Raphael]: He’s really good at things! He’s too modest.

Even though you’re technically a “new band,” you’ve both been around a while and played in plenty of projects. Could you talk about some of the bands that helped you build toward this record?

ML: I started releasing music in 2010, but I’ve been recording on my own since I was in high school. Every time you make an album, it’s a learning experience; that’s how you hone your skills. It’s weird because this album is coming out now, but I have to try to forget the last eight years and put myself back into the shoes I was in [when I recorded the instrumentals,] three years into releasing my own music online. Recording and releasing music was still pretty new to me back then.

JR: I was really naïve and hopeful. I was feeling on top of the world, without realizing the hardships to come. [Laughs]

What’s some of the work you’re most proud of that you made in the long interim between Bad Trouble’s recording and its release?

ML: I’ve released like 11 albums under the band name Expressway (Expwy). I also play in my friends’ bands: one called Chairs, one called Manners, and some others. We used to play gigs back when it was legal to do that. Hopefully we’ll do it again.

When it comes to writing music, though, have you mostly done it just for yourself?

ML: Yeah, although I do have a synth pop project called Galaxius Mons with my friend Ian Jarvis that’s really collaborative. We like to be in the same room working on the music, rather than just bringing in a song and just recording it. But other than that, in my friends’ bands, they write the music.

JR: Galaxius Mons is amazing. I’m still craving to sing on one of their songs someday.

ML: It’ll happen.

Julie, do you want to talk about some of your other projects besides Body Breaks and Chandra?

JR: I started off in some noise bands, playing different instruments. Then I played keyboards in Wolfcow. Then Bile Sister was born—that’s my solo project, which I’ve collaborated on with so many artists over the years. I write the music, and then I’ll have a band reinvent the songs because they’re really hard to do exactly the way they were recorded. A lot of people record songs they’ve already performed, which is much easier. But of course, I had to go and do it backwards: writing the songs in a way that couldn’t be performed, then rewriting everything for band members.

Being from different cities and scenes, how did you two decide to work together?

JR: I remember certain parts and Matt remembers certain parts. What I remember is that we just knew of each other, and we connected at a show. I came to see Galaxius Mons play in Toronto and they blew me away. You meet people and you don’t know them and, especially as a woman, you have to assess very quickly: “Who is this person? Are they cool?” I quickly figured out that Matt was cool, and very talented. We stayed in touch, and one day we were talking online about microtonal music, and I was really getting into it about Harry Partch, and Matt shockingly just said “I have a microtonal album that’s ready if you wanna sing on it.” Matt, am I forgetting anything?

ML: No, I don’t think so. [to Raphael] There are a million details that are probably irrelevant, but I think you get the gist.

Sounds like an unusual origin story, but maybe not so unusual in the wild world of DIY.

JR: Yeah, you nailed that! It’s strange, but our world is a small world. People end up connecting in weird ways.

The first thing I wrote for this publication was a feature on a DIY venue in Brooklyn called The Glove that shut its doors in 2019. The last question I asked everyone I interviewed for that piece was what they thought the next five, ten years of New York DIY would look like. So I’ll pose that same question to you two in an entirely new setting: What will the post-pandemic DIY world look like in Toronto, Montreal, and the world at large?

ML: I think people are yearning to be part of their communities again, to make art together again. So I would have to assume that people are gonna be really enthusiastic about getting together and doing stuff. Maybe after this period of everything being done online, swapping audio files and making these livestreams, there will be a backlash against some of that, and people will just want to hang out.

A lot of independent venues in the U.S. closed during the height of the pandemic because they had little to no government aid. The worry here is that AEG and LiveNation venues and festivals will be the only ones left standing when the dust clears. Is the situation the same in Canada, and if so, could that lead to a renaissance of underground venues and house shows?

ML: I guess there would have to be. I’m not so worried about people in the DIY scene because we’re always gonna find a way to do what we want and need to do, and we’re gonna do it however we can with the means we have available to us. We’ll always come out the other end of it still managing to make something.

JR: But not money!

ML: Just like the old days.

JR: Just like the old days!

ML: But that’s not why we’re doing it, right?

JR: Nooooo. Unless we can get our music on a TV show…

Most DIY artists who aren’t independently wealthy have day jobs, and Julie, I see you’ve done a lot of work with the neurodiverse community. What sort of jobs have you had in that space? Have you ever done music therapy?

JR: I’ve definitely used my music knowledge when I work with people. You have to be creative to problem solve when you’re helping people with disabilities. I’m currently working as a support and program coordinator at a non-profit. Basically I work with neurodiverse people to help them get jobs. I also work with employers, teaching them how to accommodate and not discriminate. The organization I’m with just got a huge grant from the government, and the goal is to change employment in Canada. We want to open up the workplace to people with disabilities so they can be independent and show their skills. I’ve worked with so many artists who have disabilities. Being able to harness that creative energy in other people is natural for me because I harness it in myself. But I’m moving towards working in film and TV, so we’ll see. Maybe the next step is to make a documentary on this organization and do all the sound. Maybe Body Breaks can add some music to it. [Laughs] I don’t know, I’m thinking ahead.

Matt, what do you do when you’re not making music?

ML: I’m a stay-at-home parent to a nine-year-old daughter.

JR: I love the way he says that.

ML: I’m grateful to have a supportive family that allows me to do things I’m good at instead of being forced to do things I suck at and hate.

Let’s talk about the Bad Trouble. The lead single and opening track, “Between the Heart and the Mind,” is a break-up song that starts things off on a pained note, and that pain morphs into anger on that next track, “Work for the Man,” where Julie alludes to the frustration she feels at her job, seeing the way folks with disabilities get treated. Julie, did you put a lot of thought into the album’s thematic sequencing, or is the order more based on you and Matt’s aural impulses?

JR: Maybe Matt remembers the order he gave me the songs in, the order he had them in originally, if that meant anything. Because then I could tell you the rest.

ML: It was probably alphabetical, to tell you the truth. [Laughs] But as far as how we sequenced the album, the thing I was most concerned with was the general flow from beginning to end.

JR: For me, there was total intention. It goes from questioning life in the first half of the album to giving advice on Side B. The first songs have a lot of question marks in them, a lot of enigmatic, unsettled emotions. You have me talking about my personal experience in a relationship [“Between the Heart and Mind”], showing up for work [“Work for the Man”], questioning my reality [“Reality”], and then having a meltdown on “Bad Trouble.” The repercussions of all that are on Side B: “Anthem for Artists” is a message about the hardness of what we have to do; “Generation Y” is about how our generation needs to respect where it came from and the people who preceded us, who died without being recognized. I put “Eyes to Brightness” near the end, even though it was the first song I recorded vocals on, because I didn’t think it would match anywhere else. But it worked really well before Matt’s song [“Break the Icons Down”]. That one is also unique because he sings on it, so they’re the two unique tracks at the end. I listened to the album in lots of different ways. If you listen in a different order, it actually has a different message. And then, of course, as Matt said, it had to flow.

Were there any conflicts between thematic flow and sonic flow?

ML: From what I remember, there was a lot of shifting things around. I’m not super picky about track orders, so—

JR: He knows the songs are good; it doesn’t matter.

ML: Exactly. It’s like saying which of your children is your favorite.

My favorite track on the album is “Eyes to Brightness.” We’re gonna include it in our Favorite Songs of May roundup. My co-editor Rapha and I co-wrote the blurb in a very cheeky way. I won’t spoil any of the specifics for you, but while writing my half of it, I listened over and over to the breakdown at the end of the chorus, which flows into the bridge the second time around. I struggled to figure out even the simple chord progression at the end of the first chorus, but I’d like to talk about the real compositional achievement, which is the bridge.

ML: I’m looking at the sheet music right now, actually, so I can tell you what’s going on. Basically, they’re just major and minor triads and arpeggios on top of each other. The really fun thing about microtonal music is that you can’t rely on a lot of the tricks you normally use. A quarter-tone shift changes everything: Going from a G major chord to an F# minor chord and going from a G major chord to a quarter-tone-flat G minor chord are very different things. If you combine two triads that would normally have a recognizable sound, and one of them is off in some way, you get this totally new harmonic thing that your brain doesn’t know how to process. You hear familiar elements, but they’ve been distorted in some way, and you can’t quite figure out what’s going on. On the bridge of “Eyes to Brightness,” one guitar is playing D minor, followed by C, followed by B minor, followed by A minor, followed by A major. The other guitar is playing an E octave, followed by an arpeggiated A over the C, and then there’s a third inversion C major arpeggio over the B minor chord. Over the A minor chord, the quarter-tone-flat guitar is playing an A major, and over the A major chord, the quarter-tone-flat guitar is playing an A dominant 7 chord.

I was gonna ask whether the two guitars are playing different chords or just the same ones a quarter tone apart, but that answers my question and makes me feel better about not figuring out the progression right away.

ML: [Laughs] It’s actually something I took from early Cajun music. They were using these diatonic accordions, so they would only be able to play in one key, and they only had a certain number of chord buttons. There are recordings from the ‘20s and ‘30s where there’s a guitar player and an accordion player playing different chords simultaneously, and you get these big sus chords and major 7 chords, and it’s all because of the limitations of the instruments they were using. It’s this really gorgeous, futuristic sound in the middle of this extremely rustic-sounding music. It’s surreal. I heard that and I needed to know what was going on, so I figured it out, and when I was writing this music, it was always in the back of my head. It was a way of systematizing my thought process, because working in quarter tones was a pretty new thing for me at that point, and I got easily overwhelmed by all the options that are available with twice as many notes. Thinking about it as these two streams of harmony running simultaneously helped me visualize how I thought about the music.

JR: I didn’t even know about that. I learn something new every interview.

ML: Ask a different question, get a different answer.

Raphael Helfand is Laid Off NYC’s Editor-in-Chief. Get to know him better: @raphaelhelfand

*All photos by Natalie Logan