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Gentle Weapon

Housed in the Oakwood Community Center, SwordPaw—the collective, recording studio, and performance venue—is helping advance Troy’s DIY cultural renaissance

by Ali Hibbs on November 10, 2011 · 1 comment

When Sea of Trees songwriter Dylan Palazzo’s son Luka was six, he came to his dad with a drawing he’d just finished. “What is it?” Palazzo asked. “A raccoon with a sword-paw,” Luka replied.

Sunday school: Kristen Parslow (left) and Sea of Trees at the SwordPaw HQ. Photo by Julia Zave.

As guitarist Ian White explains, the concept “became part of our lexicon.” Sea of Trees wrote a song called “Raccoon With a Sword Paw,” and when the band released their first EP, it was on their homespun label SwordPaw Music. Then, earlier this year, the band got access to a rehearsal space/recording studio/performance venue in the basement of a Presbyterian church in Troy, dubbing it SwordPaw HQ, its logo bearing the curious combination of mammal appendage and medieval weaponry.

Only recently did Luka follow up on his idea, bashfully breaking the sad news to his dad: His drawing was actually of a raccoon with a sore paw.

Nonetheless, the name has stuck, becoming synonymous with the DIY arts community orbiting the HQ and bringing art and music events to the Oakwood Community Center in North Troy. SwordPaw, the organization, consists primarily of the members of Sea of Trees and Kristen Parslow, an independent concert promoter who jumped at the opportunity to book acts in the small, cozy space and collaborate with others in the community on events at other area venues, such as Valentine’s, the Hudson River Coffee House and Franklin’s Tower. But as the organization evolves and the space gets used for a wider range of shows and events, it’s becoming an important institution in Troy’s cultural renaissance.

As Cecelia Martinez (Sea of Trees vocalist and Metroland contributing writer) explains, acquiring the space on 10th and Hoosick streets in Troy became a catalyst for a number of projects the group hoped to tackle. While working as a reporter for the Troy Record, Martinez covered a fundraising event to save the space after the church closed due to a shrinking congregation in December of last year. Pastor Linda O’Malley was intent on saving the space and continuing the operations of its food pantry by opening the church’s doors to a range of new community groups. “At the time, Sea of Trees was looking for a practice space,” says Martinez. “I saw this room and thought maybe we could rent some space or get involved. It went from there. Once we occupied this space, that really kicked SwordPaw into high gear.”

The Oakwood Community Center is now the venue for a handful of small religious congregations as well as the meeting place for the North Central Neighborhood Watch, Uptown Initiative, the Ninth Tenth and Eleventh Street group, AA, even a small yoga studio. On the third Thursday of the month, it’s also host to an open community dinner. SwordPaw has taken over a large Sunday-school classroom (complete with a leftover “Love One Another” poster on the door) in the bottom floor, repurposing the room to become a rehearsal space (shared by Sea of Trees and Severe Severe) and recording studio. The adjacent fellowship hall is the performance venue.

“The shows are about 80 percent” of what the group now does, according to White, with Parslow booking two to three shows per month, normally one at the venue and one at an area rock club. Rather than being strictly a promotional vehicle for Sea of Trees, SwordPaw normally puts bills together according to theme, featuring genres as diverse as metal and electronica, in addition to the alt-folk indie rock that Sea of Trees specialize in.

“We try to be diverse,” says Parslow. “The way we look at it, anybody who’s really passionate about what they’re doing and focused on trying to make themselves better, those are people worth promoting.” Just last month, the group celebrated its annual Halloween Freak Out at Valentine’s, one of their more notoriously colorful shows.

With a full-scale recording studio in-house, the group has tried to make the space one of convergence for area bands through its “song of the month” project, inviting outside bands to collaborate on a new song for distribution through the SwordPaw listserv. So far, Alta Mira has contributed, with Ben Karis-Nix scheduled next. Meanwhile, Small Town Cinema and Barrow Burrow have both used the space for longer-form recording projects. White says the arrangement is mutually beneficial to Sea of Trees. “We get a lot out of it too because we get the inside scoop on how people work, how they write songs,” he says. “You get to know somebody really well if you spend that amount of time working on their song.”

And that’s really the group’s core mission, amid various projects. “Something that’s been important is building a network,” says Parslow of the various bands she works with. The more people that get involved in the group, the more its resources grow, with various collaborators contributing sound gear, lights and other accoutrements. “People have been so positive about it,” she says. “Outside of shows, people come up to me and say, how can I help?”

Martinez speaks to the same issue on the cultural level. “North Central is a place that needs community centers and buildings that are safe havens,” she says, describing what SwordPaw is doing as a sort of “creative revival” that complements the community center’s other projects. “It’s been a little bit of an adventure,” she continues. “It’s a make-your-own-venue, but we’re doing it because we like to do it.”

On Saturday (Nov. 12), SwordPaw will host an all-horns bill at Valentine’s, featuring Oobleck, the Lucky Jukebox Brigade and the Lobster Quadrille.