Trying to talk to members of Brooklyn fuzzy-math and acute-angle trio Parts & Labor about something other than music isn't easy. Calling it their life isn't being figurative: Right now, they're in a van going from Chicago to Iowa City, stuck in the middle of a 19-gig tour.
Inside the van, keyboardist/guitarist Dan Friel and bassist/keyboardist BJ Warshaw run Cardboard Records, a small but thus far successful boutique record label specializing in the heavy, fleet rock that Parts & Labor makes, too. They don't have day jobs, but Christopher Weingarten, the band's drummer, does. He's one of New York's better young music critics, and he runs a constantly updated music Web site from his laptop in the van. These aren't your average touring dudes.
"That's a little tough. We try not to let our own touring get in the way," Friel says. The band stops at the post office in most cities it visits, filling Cardboard's mail orders from a box of discs and records that travels with the band. "It just adds another thing to the list of things we have to do on tour."
Cardboard's releases since the label began two years ago—like LPs from Pterodactyl, Gowns and Big Bear—are a testament to the fierce independence seen and heard in Parts & Labor itself. Warshaw designs the band's artwork and Web site, bringing cohesion to the band's aesthetic: Pixilated and awash in Day-Glo, it's uplifting, if slightly confusing, art.
"We've always been attentive to detail in everything we do, and we're kind of picky about having control creatively," says Warshaw. "It's kind of in our personalities, but it's also kind of a necessity for us."
Such attention to detail works for Parts & Labor: Their last two albums have reveled in and excelled through a carefully orchestrated balance of the topographically ugly and the at-the-core, melodically beautiful. Every idea winds through distortion, thrown back at the listener in a way that would be utterly defiant if it didn't seem so joyful.
"The band has always kind of ridden that line and straddled that fence," Warshaw says, adding that they've always paid as much attention to hooks as to how those hooks can be obliterated with noise. It's taking a pop song's customary three-minute span and pushing it beyond the usual space it can cover with that time and three chords.
Still, even a great band that grows into the music business outside of its own music always runs the risk of running out of steam. Instead of letting that happen, Weingarten will take leave of the band after their tour-ending show in Chapel Hill. Aside from leading Paper Thin Walls, he writes regularly for Village Voice and is currently starting work on a detailed analysis of Public Enemy's landmark It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back for the 33 1/3 book series. He almost shrugs it off by admitting he was P&L's accidental member, anyway. He never intended to be an adult in a band. It just happened. Weingarten says he only auditioned so he wouldn't regret not trying when he hits middle age. He didn't expect to be chosen, and he even turned the spot down at first.
"Once I graduated I was like, 'Well, I might as well put this whole band thing behind me,'" says Weingarten. "And then I sort of fell into Parts & Labor by accident."
For Warshaw and Friel, the end of this tour and lineup could give them a bit of time to do something else. But who knows what that will be. "We don't do anything outside of this band, it's consuming our lives!" says Friel, mocking stress with a laugh. Hey, that's not true at all.
Parts & Labor plays Local 506 with Calabi Yau and Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan Sunday, July 15, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8.