Brooklyn's Cardboard Records, the in-house label of exhilarating noise-punk outfit Parts & Labor, has, in just three years, established itself as a building force in a vibrant nationwide landscape of underground rock. Already drawing from a wide swath of music continually climbing out of warehouses and basements everywhere (I'm using “rock” rather loosely), and with two more notable releases plus expanded distribution due this spring, we can only expect more great things to come. This is their story so far.
In the manner of so many other excellent projects, Cardboard began humbly over drinks between friends. It was early 2005. Pterodactyl guitarist Joe Kremer hoped to release their second 7″, I Can See A River, for their next tour, and a somewhat inebriated BJ Warshaw assured him that he'd take care of it by starting his own label. The next day, it was still a good idea. Hell, it was a great idea. Warshaw and his Parts & Labor co-conspirator Dan Friel had already been wanting to get a label off the ground for two years, since observing a wide range of yet little-known talent over their first two tours. And the Pterodactyl EP, four tracks of manic riffs and corrosive lo-fi feedback pressed soon afterwards in gleaming blue vinyl, proved to be exactly the impetus they needed. Drawing a name from one of their own lyrics (originally “cardboard shields” from “The Changing of the Guard”, as selected by the band's mailing list), Cardboard Records was off and running.
Seven releases later, the Cardboard principals were gathered on a chill January Saturday for brunch at a diner in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Founders Friel, Warshaw, Kremer and Pterodactyl drummer Matt Marlin were joined by the latest additions to the Cardboard family, Ecstatic Sunshine's Matt Papich, Keiran Gillan and David Zimmerman. The Baltimore drone-punks, whose latest effort arrives this spring, were in town for a show the night before at the nearby Music Hall of Williamsburg, one of their first with the current line-up, which was sadly derailed at the last minute by an earlier show that never ended.
Exactly two weeks later, back from tour in Baltimore at their own warehouse loft home and venue, Floristree, Ecstatic Sunshine presented the new mission statement they were denied performing in Brooklyn, spinning noisy jabs and squeals through shimmering layers of reverb. As on much of Way, the sonic vernacular seemed unmistakably that of drone, but when they performed, the trio was clearly rocking out, and for a band whose only visible instrument is now Papich's guitar (Zimmerman and Gillan appeared more as technicians, switchboard operators with myriad knobs and samples), theirs is a surprisingly full sound. Things have certainly developed a great deal since Ecstatic Sunshine consisted entirely of the intricately interlocking guitar melodies of Papich and original co-founder Dustin Wong, who departed with the new year to concentrate on the spaz-out melodies of his other band, Ponytail. For a few moments in the Floristree set, however, it was almost as if Wong had returned for an encore, rapid guitar notes piling up as before, but this time it was only Papich riffing against his own echo.
Without Wong, Gillen and Zimmerman's additions provide an electronic noise angle that might have been inconceivable to fans a little over a year ago, when Ecstatic Sunshine shared the stage with fellow precision guitarist Dave Longstreth and his band the Dirty Projectors at Brooklyn's Glasslands — the show, incidentally, at which Warshaw and Friel, tipped off by Parts & Labor’s then-drummer Chris Weingarten, first approached Ecstatic Sunshine about putting out a record on Cardboard. But no changes have been quite so dramatic as those of the band's earliest days. The embryonic Ecstatic Sunshine of spring 2005 was actually a six-piece assembled as an assignment for a class called “Parapainting” at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Wong and Papich, general sculpture studies majors, weren't actually in the class, but had a friend who was.
“The dude's band fell apart,” Papich recounted at the Greenpoint brunch, “and so he was like 'Can you guys maybe just write some songs and play guitar?' The first show, there were two singers, a drummer, and a bassist. That was the first Ecstatic Sunshine. There's video footage of this somewhere.” One of the singers moonlighted as a stripper at the Hustler Club and “the show was a mess. There was a fight there. And I thought I lost my car that day. I put it somewhere and forgot… but I reported it stolen. Someone else found it.”
Amused murmurs from the table: “And you decided to still do a band after this?”
Somehow, they did. The line-up dropped to Papich and Wong, who refined their sound and went on their first tour: five dates in Michigan, and one in Ohio. (Papich: “total first tour style.”) The first album, Freckle Wars, was released by the DC-area Carpark imprint in 2006, and after immediately agreeing to put together a record for Cardboard, the duo began work on an early draft of Way lost when the laptop on which everything was stored was stolen. It's the same tragedy that recently struck Cardboard affiliates Best Fwends in November. Deprived of the four years of beeps and beats they formerly yelled over live, the duo intends to rebound by playing actual instruments, hopefully in time to join Ecstatic Sunshine, Pterodactyl, Parts & Labor and Gowns in Austin in March for the SXSW Cardboard showcase.
[CBR005 – Gowns – Red State]
Only shortly after Cardboard's inception, in August 2005, Gowns' Ezra Buchla and Erika Anderson were touring with and in Amps for Christ, and encountered Parts & Labor at the South Philadelphia Athenaeum. The experimental warehouse art and performance space, like Ecstatic Sunshine's Floristree, was a quintessential Cardboard venue choice. “It was almost like an indoor shanty town,” Friel recounted, “where people were just putting up their own rooms. And with a half-pipe.” That first visit was for a Halloween party in mid-December 2004, where Parts & Labor and Pterodactyl shared the spotlight with several “activities,” the least unusual of which involved swinging over the crowd and attempting to strike an 8-foot purple squid piñata with a sledge hammer. “There was a knife throwing room with a wooden painting of Jesus and all these kitchen knives that people were just throwing and bouncing back. And the last one was Lice Roulette, where there were three hats, and two of them didn't have lice. That place was bad ass.”
Eight months later, at the Amps for Christ show, Warshaw and Friel were “impressed from the get go” with the nascent Gowns. Just two months after that, the Athenaeum was gone, everyone given two hours by the police to gather their things and go, in the middle of the night (though they were paying rent, the space was still zoned industrial, not residential). But a legacy, of sorts, continued. A week after the eviction, Parts & Labor, having kept in touch, were again sharing a stage with Gowns at the Smell in Los Angeles, and the poetic, harrowing Gowns debut, Red State, came out on Cardboard last year. (The Athenaeum crowd, sadly, never got their home back, though one member went on to found a space called “Stairway to Freebird,” since characterized as “a mess.”)
Arguably one of the finest releases of 2007 on any label, the subtly noisy Red State captures emotions and senses dangerously frayed by a combination of experience and the drugs intended to ease its effects. It's a postcard of middle-American desperation, ranging effortlessly from muted drones of violin and static, voices held to strained whispers, to the raging guitar shrieks of revelatory visions that rise up unbidden, terrifying, the confusion starkly rendered in drummer Corey Fogel's sustained arrhythmic clamor. The album's exquisite restraint on tracks like centerpiece “White Like Heaven” allows it to sublimate the abrasiveness of no-wave into something simultaneously explosive and delicate.
It's a perfect foil, perhaps, for Pterodactyl's frenzied debut full-length Blue Jay (Cardboard put out the vinyl edition, CBR006), where oddly catchy falsetto vocal harmonies are constantly assaulted by semi-dissonant bass and guitar. If there's a unifying element to Cardboard's current catalog, it's in the innovative use of noise shared by those two bands. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given Parts & Labor's own fascination with making noise as fist-pumpingly anthemic as possible (their upcoming disc for Ace Fu, Escapers Two, will follow-up the more electronic feedback-melody experiments of One with 50-something rapid tracks recorded in two days: “our grindcore record.”) Certainly, a love of noise joined the acts at last year's Cardboard CMJ showcase, which also involved the math hardcore Big Bear, clatter-pop Flying, Warshaw's bedroom shoegaze Shooting Spires and the dense, polyrhythmic High Places.
[CBR008 – v/a – Love and Circuits: A Cardboard Records Compilation]
For all the quality of their catalog so far, Cardboard Records is essentially a non-profit. Under-the-radar bands are exactly that, and the crisp cardboard digipacks that give the first three CD albums a clean, cohesive look eat up profit margins by costing twice as much to produce as jewel cases. Pressed for the label's long-term goals, Warshaw said first “to release a record that breaks even,” before accepting their current status: he'll be happy just to expose a couple deserving bands each year.
To that purpose, the definitive Cardboard release may be the Love and Circuits compilation due in March. Subtitled from “Aa to Zs”, the double disc set presents 57 tracks by the likes of Japanther, Oneida and Matt & Kim spanning punk, electronica, drone and noise. “We're just documenting one probably five-year iteration of how the underground works,” Warshaw said, indignant at the recent suggestion (via MTV and others) that the current d.i.y. movement was something new, and offering a nod back to the Troubleman Mixtape. Released in 2001, that compilation captured its own preceding five-year period with exclusive tracks by bands like Blonde Redhead and Lightning Bolt. Though there is no overlap between the two compilations, there are a lot of parallels. Love and Circuits also favored original material (77.21 percent unreleased, to be precise). Both took years to assemble and were forced to expand to two-disc sets (Love and Circuits, briefly, spilled onto a third). And most importantly, both are imbued with a genuine love of music they document.
If a single track sums up the entire compilation, it's 45-second noise-blast “I Have So Much Respect for Women”, from Phoenix unknowns Father's Day.
“When we met them they were like 16 through 20, and they look younger,” Friel described. “They all dress up as different Dads. So there's like Golf Dad and Business Dad and Drunk Dad. They have a song called 'My Son Is a Gay'. 'Stay Out of My Den'. There's one 'I Was Only Looking at eBay' where they catch Dad looking at porn. And 'This Really Happened', where the singer's dad found out he was skipping football to play D&D and he just keeps screaming 'What's all these dice for?!' The drummer was playing standing up with just one cymbal and a snare, knocking everyone over, and it's just so crazy. And violent. And awesome. Also of note: the first time we played with them, a sniper was shooting at the cops from across the street. They shut down this five-way intersection and were running out the M16s. Right outside the show space. We were walking back from a taco stand and this cop car pulls up on the sidewalk and the trunk flies open and they're grabbing assault rifles.”
Warshaw: “We were in lockdown, but the show was happening. By the time the show was over the place was desolate.”
Friel: “By the end of that tour we were like 'there's a lot of crazy shit going on', so we just wanted to grab people from different cities and get that comp together.”
No word yet on any upcoming Cardboard releases from Father's Day. Or from the Phoenix Police Department.