Parts & Labor’s debut album, Groundswell
, was released two months before the Yeah Yeah Yeahs unleashed Fever to Tell
on the world, six months before the launch of Myspace, and five years before a MTV news segment
christened Brooklyn as a "musical hotbed" — a seemingly random string of facts that, in the context of today’s hype-band grind, sets Parts & Labor apart as something different.
On one level, they're a doggedly DIY band that are as much an unifying force, known for the sort of melodies that people categorize as “anthemic,” as they are brainy and unapologetically loud; Fugazi with ‘effed-up keyboards, basically, brought to reality by Casio guru Dan Friel, bassist BJ Warshaw and a bizarre amount of drummers over the last 10 years.
On another level, they're representative of the ways in which the Brooklyn music scene has nurtured experimentation and creativity, but also perhaps disenfranchised those in it for long haul. In honor of the band's final show, we pieced together an oral history of their career as told through all four drummers – all of whom will be playing the band's final show at 285 Kent tonight – to showcase one of the new Brooklyn's first career bands, maybe one of its last, and definitely one of its best.
Jim Sykes, drummer on Groundswell (2003)
How did you meet BJ and Dan and get involved with the band?
At the time (wow, circa 2001!) I was playing in a band called Polaris Mine, a sort of math-y band that released one album and used to play free shows at The Charleston. The two members of that band, Joel and Jordyn, were roommates with Ty Braxton (later of Battles). They were all friends with Dan and BJ, and that was how I met them. At some point Dan needed a roommate, and I wound up moving in (56 Bushwick I think the address was? Maybe we began the gentrification!). I was already living with Dan, if I remember correctly, when he said they were looking for a drummer. At first we rehearsed in BJ's Williamsburg loft. So I was basically the Polaris Mine drummer and then started also playing for Parts & Labor.
One great memory I have is of driving around with Dan while he played a recording he made of him playing some sort of metallic object with a saw. He wasn't playing the saw, 'cause that would be too melodic — it was pure industrial noise, like him sawing a metal work table or something, and I thought, "This is the kind of person I want to play music with."
Dan, at the time, worked for The Onion
, and sometimes we would rehearse in their office. One of the editors [there] is a drummer, and he had a drum kit that I would use. I remember those rehearsals being very awesome and noisey. I loved Dan's old Casio sound, and that there was no guitar in the band. I definitely thought it was new sounding, yet also classic. Punk rock with a Casio.
By the time you joined did they have the majority of Groundswell ready to go, or was there a lot of work to be done before heading into the studio?
wasn't written yet when I joined. Perhaps there were some riffs there, but I believe it was mostly written in rehearsals. The studio recording happened very quickly. It's really weird to say it, but at that point I had already kicked around the NYC scene for a few years and was feeling weird about my life/job prospects. I applied to and got into University of Chicago for grad school, and it seemed time for a change from New York. I mean, I wasn't thinking that being in an instrumental Casio-driven rock band was exactly a career choice... So we decided to record all the material that we had before I left, and it became Groundswell
We did lots of shows in NYC and some out of town; I remember touring to Chicago in the summer and playing at a Fourth of July loft party. Anyways, I always knew they had potential, but, to be honest, I had no idea the band would grow and last the way that it did. I don't regret leaving for grad school, and I've done tons of things since, but it's strange to think that me leaving was just the beginning of the band. At the time it felt like it was the end of something instead.
Did you guys intend to be an instrumental-only band or was that format always meant to be limited to the first record?
The first album was instrumental I think just because [Dan and BJ] weren't used to singing and didn't feel comfortable doing it. It's not something we really talked about.
Were there any Brooklyn bands surrounding you that directly influenced your drumming or the band's overall sound at the time?
I think it was a very weird time for music. I can't really say there was anyone who directly influenced me or the band as a whole at that time. We were into composers like Steve Reich. You know, we didn't talk much about music though. Dan obviously loves Neutral Milk Hotel, also the band Sleep, and I remember him being obsessed with Amps for Christ. I'm sure they would probably say Lightning Bolt. I remember hearing Deerhoof for the first time at BJ's and liking them, but that was after we had formed. Some bands I later got really into, like Black Dice and early Animal Collective, I think they were more or less just starting up at the time. (In fact, I have a memory of Ty Braxton playing me a CD-R of his friends who "worked at Other Music," and it was the first album — or demo, at that time — of Animal Collective).
Was the band's formation a reaction, either consciously or unconsciously, to The Strokes/Interpol/other image-heavy, nonchalantly cool LES bands that the press claimed were defining the "New York sound" just a few years prior?
It definitely was not a reaction to that stuff. I remember feeling like everyone was just tired of Pavement ripoff band, so if I was consciously reacting to anything, it was that — as I think The Strokes and Interpol were, too, in their own ways. We were all looking for something new; we were just more experimentally-minded. I think the best way to say it, from my point of view, is that there are bands that are into art and creativity and pushing boundaries and experimentation, and bands that are perhaps more interested in fashion and pop and so on. I have nothing against The Strokes or Interpol — I still love that first Strokes record — but that just wasn't what we were doing. We were from a music-school crowd. We were interested in experimenting.
In fact, I was actually bummed when all those bands came out because I felt like it held back experimental music for a while. Not to mention that everythting became "retro." I felt kind of liberated when the freak-folk thing happened because I felt finally something was not only retro but interesting and forward-thinking.
The "Big Deal" New York album in 2003 was The Rapture's Echoes, which sits at pretty much the opposite end of Groundswell in terms of punk. This was around the same time LCD Soundsystem was starting to pick up steam too — dance-punk was all the rage that year. Was it daunting to see so many people around you getting excited about this sect of a genre and knowing you were doing something so different from it?
Yeah, hmm. It wasn't daunting. Around the same time there were also the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio starting out. I knew about The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, of course, but I didn't feel like they defined the whole scene. I have a great memory of Dan coming home after he had played a solo show. He was all excited and described this new band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and said the singer was wearing a plastic bag as a shirt that said "Thank you for shopping" on it and was dumping beer all over herself. I'd say overall it was a very good time because the whole New York music scene kind of exploded.
Do you remember the band's first show in New York?
You know, I'm actually not sure which was the first show. It might have been, or at least one early memory is, playing this really great loft party at BJ's. There were a lot of people there, and I remember Ty did his solo thing too. Back when P&L started, I think we were in the last vestiges of the traditional music industry and getting a proper show was literally about sending in your demo or CD to a club and then calling them on the phone. I [remember] some out-of-town gigs though. There was a hilarious one at Sarah Lawrence where Dan had taken old remote control cars and doctored them through amps so that they made loud distorted tones, and our "show" was controlling the cars as they moved around on the stage. I don't remember the crowd being very big for that one.
I'd say the turnout tended to be really good at the Brooklyn shows because we were young and so we basically had a clique of friends — it wasn't from there being any press. Although surprisingly over the years, a few people have told me they remember me playing with that band, and I wasn't aware anyone besides our friends came to see us!
There weren't any Facebook invites to be sent out, of course, and Myspace didn't launch until that summer... How did you advertise your shows?
Yeah, I have no idea... it really was just word of mouth.
In the pre-Todd P era, what were the popular underground/DIY venues? Were most of them still in Manhattan, or were they starting to shift over into Brooklyn?
The venue scene, obviously, was totally different. I remember Brownies in the LES closed down about that time. Brooklyn was very much already the place to be, I would say. But there were obviously still more places in Manhattan than there are now. No one would play at CBGBs, but Brownies, or this awful place on the corner of St. Mark's Place that's still there.... Partly because we were young and didn't know any better. The coolest shows were certainly in Brooklyn, but none of the known places in Williamsburg existed yet; it was really either people's lofts or official clubs.
What do you miss most about playing with Parts & Labor?
I really loved the actual sound created by the band at that point. Other bands I've been in have had too much guitar or what have you, but the sound of Dan's synth mixed with BJ's bass is pretty awesome. I will say that, while I have no regrets about leaving when I did (and I really like the stuff they did after me when they got a bit more pop and added the vocals), I do feel like that first lineup had more music in it that didn't happen because I left. So in a way, I miss the music that didn't happen. But I'm glad that first album was made, and proud that people still give a shit, even if a little. For me this band was about my early-20s — [it] reminds me of that old apartment, Dan's two cats, eating waffles at the diner, parties, and so forth. I had no idea anybody was listening.