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Living Museum

The Parlor is at once a band, a space and a connection to heritage for Altamont musicians Eric Krans and Jen O’Connor

by Josh Potter on May 16, 2012

Eric Krans is down in the streambed outside his Altamont home, tossing rocks from the middle up onto the banks. “It’s only recently that we realized how important this is,” he says. The stream has slowly begun to wend in the six years he and his wife Jen O’Connor have lived in her family’s 19th-century farmhouse, and if they don’t keep it running straight, it will eventually erode a line of trees and the adjacent town road.

Krans is only the latest in a century-long line of residents to do this chore, and as he walks he tells the story of the first, O’Connor’s great-great uncle Luther, who moved to the house in 1904 with his wife Margaret. Luther left WWI when he lost a finger, perhaps to his own blade, and followed a stream of letters home to his wife, with whom he planned to start a family. Margaret was diabetic and couldn’t give birth, so the couple had to make the painful decision to end a pregnancy to save her life. In grief, they hung a cloth over the room of the house that was to be the nursery and vowed never to enter there. In the depths of depression, Luther would walk the stream, tossing rocks to the side to make it run straighter.

Krans and O’Connor agree that the anecdote sounds a bit like the makings of a ghost story, but the two have learned to live with such hauntings. In fact, while most people get a little spooked by the idea of living among spirits, either apparitions or the ones that live on in family history, it’s become an inseparable part of how the couple live and create music as the Parlor (formerly We Are Jeneric). The name change for their new record, Our Day in the Sun, is homage to this. It’s impossible for the two to walk their land without talking about how O’Connor’s grandfather’s feud with woodchucks once led him to pour gasoline down every known hole, dislodging the sidewalk with a fiery explosion when he lit the match (a feud that continues and has found documentation in the band’s music), the same way it’s impossible for them to deny the sound of Aunt Margaret’s piano playing in the parlor late at night.

“The sense that your ancestors can be walking on the earth beside you at any given time is something we’ve both experienced,” says Krans. “That grain of feeling that they’re real is enough to make you act straighter, follow things you instinctually know you should be following. . . . I don’t know how to describe how all of this goes into the music,” he admits.

“But it does,” says O’Connor.

 

The parlor itself is a “museum of eras,” a storehouse of family furniture and ephemera that Krans and O’Connor have been slowly unpacking and exploring ever since they assumed the role of the house’s caretakers and curators. On the wall, there’s an enormous mirror that once hung in a train station and Krans describes as “a portal to another universe,” but the room itself is the real portal. When the house was a working funeral home, this was the room where the bodies were displayed. Both O’Connor’s great grandmother and great grandfather had their services there.

Build us a castle: Jen O'Connor and Eric Krans in the Parlor. Photo by Julia Zave.

“Growing up as a kid and coming to visit my grandparents here, that was definitely the most terrifying room,” O’Connor says.

In the ’60s, the family dramatically altered the house and land. In an attempt toward modernity, her grandparents tucked away the heirloom furniture, put in shag carpets, air conditioning and drop ceilings, and pulled out almost everything growing other than grass. This is when the hauntings started.

“There’s something that’s deciding things and it’s noticeable to us,” O’Connor says of the parlor. It has the power to both repel certain elements and attract others. When Krans and O’Connor moved in, the first thing they did was open the space up, tear out the carpets, bring back the old furniture and restore the space to how it must have looked around the time of the Depression. One of the most important additions was music. Only then did the haunting begin to subside.

“There’s something about listening to old music that makes the parlor feel normal,” says Krans, “but as soon as you put on something fresh or recent, like Radiohead or Animal Collective, it doesn’t feel right to be listening to it in this room. You almost have to blast it through the house and it sounds better in the kitchen.”

“It almost sounds like the room is rejecting that music,” O’Connor explains. Instead, the parlor prefers gypsy jazz and Christmas music (especially the Motown variety), hand-picking Animal Collective’s “Winter’s Love” and Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse” as permissible exceptions.

“So it ends up informing what we play,” says Krans. The result is a brand of music forged by contemporary methods but built from organic, acoustic, folk-based textures. It’s the sonic corollary to what the couple is bringing to their land, an artisanal reimagining of an antique dream.

The parlor is the band’s music room. It’s where they write, rehearse and have recorded all four of their albums. Yet, the two talk about the space as if it’s another member of their band, in fact, the most important member of the band. “The parlor’s the tastemaker,” O’Connor says. “This place has informed our music more than anything. How can you not pay homage to the biggest inspiration you’ve ever stumbled upon?”

After finishing school at UMass and teaching English in Thailand, the duo only really became serious about music upon moving to O’Connor’s land and making a home in the parlor. Having befriended Albany’s B3nson collective, they joined Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned for a number of years, which sparked their own project We Are Jeneric. Now, the Parlor is their only gig and the eponymous room is more important than ever.

 

For Our Day in the Sun, engineer Frank Moscowitz urged the band to abandon their four-track recorder, on which they produced their earlier lo-fi-leaning albums, and enter a proper studio. The idea of leaving the parlor, though, seemed impossible, so they compromised with some new microphones and a copy of ProTools so they could keep the room’s warm echo and intangible muse.

While technically acoustic, only select tracks feature the acoustic guitar, instead forcing a mighty low-end into the foreground with melodic upright basslines and thunderous drumming. The infinite tracking capabilities of ProTools allowed for more complex vocal layering and a more intuitive shape to their song structures.

“It felt like we were constantly doodling,” O’Connor says, “but with sounds. Stuff we’d been wanting to do for a long time.”

“With Animals Are People Too,” Krans says of the band’s prior record, “we learned a new way of writing songs, what I call ‘flat songs.’” Using Michael Jackson and Fela Kuti as early analog examples of this approach, he describes simple, vamping song structures that change minutely between verse and chorus, introducing and removing upper textures without subverting the underlying chord progression.  With the digital looping potential of ProTools, these flat songs became almost cyclical mantras, carrying the seafaring motif of Our Day in the Sun.

In fact, the album itself is cyclical, adhering in a way to mythologist Joseph Campbell’s three-part “hero’s journey” of departure, initiation and return. “The first and third third of the album are flat,” explains Krans. “The story we tried to capture is the drive of pursuing a dream [“Tear Down the Coastline,” “Our Day in the Sun,” etc.], then when the album spins away from the vamp structure, things get a little dark and complex. Things don’t line up. It’s a rocking boat. An existential crisis. That’s the middle [“Full of Hope and Heart,” “Mouths Dried Out”]. Then you’re back on land and there are things that can help restore the groove again [“In the Past,” “The Backside of the End of It”]. Those flat songs were bookending something we needed to get out in the middle.”

In the way that the spirits of the parlor “breathe through” what Krans and O’Connor do, the duo describe the way the album’s theme and track order materialized as a little “spooky.” O’Connor was reading A Perfect Storm when Krans by chance painted a boat on choppy water with its sails down. “That’s how we felt,” says O’Connor. “We could be going somewhere but our sails aren’t up. There’s all this potential energy but we’re not harnessing it.” This was the “mood” that eventually shaped each “vignette” on the album, whether or not the two were conscious of the process.

 

“I’m still finding stuff I haven’t seen,” O’Connor says of living among the effects of so many generations. “Part of living here is being constantly open. I almost feel like I’m cheating future generations by finding so much stuff,” opening all the proverbial presents underneath the tree. But, realistically speaking, it takes someone with an artist’s eye and an artisan’s flair for reuse to find value in the things that others might regard as clutter. Reels of a prior generation’s old beach vacation footage might be something destined for the curb or estate sale, but this is precisely the kind of documentation that simultaneously connects O’Connor to her history and inspires her work.

Discovery of this material was yet another spooky synchronicity in the Parlor’s recent project. O’Connor edited the material down and synched it to “You’re In My Eye” and “Tear Down the Coastline” for the album’s first music videos. Amusing as it is to watch families posing in their period swimwear, waving to the camera as they reel in fish and tracking seagulls with their untrained hand, the audio-visual pairing is an intimate suggestion that certain themes, dreams and experiences remain constant despite the march of time. The things that we create connect us both to the past and the future. Maybe this is what the ghosts had been demanding.

“We are really thinking about what we can tuck away so that a future generation can have as much fun as we have,” says Krans. So long as the couple remain connected to their heritage, though, it seems like they’ll be receiving plenty of help from the spirits and stories that inhabit the Parlor.

“Art is more meaningful to me when you’re creating it, but all of a sudden you feel like it taught you something you didn’t intend,” O’Connor says.

“It’s hard to talk about,” Krans says. “Talking about the parlor is the only way to really get out that weird process that all of a sudden forms something you couldn’t have made yourself.”

“If you could say it in words,” O’Connor agrees, “the songs wouldn’t exist.