writer and interviewer for 440 Magazine
Nov 7 · 8 min read
PARLOR WALLS WANTS YOU TO FEEL SOMETHING
. . .
In Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, parlor walls are expansive television screens that cover the surface of an entire wall. In the dystopian story, they serve as a metaphor for society’s collective isolation.
When the novel was written, in 1953, Bradbury could not have possibly foreseen the relevance this term would have upon our current society, the world in which the band Parlor Walls, named in reference to vocalist Alyse Lamb’s favorite novel, came into being.
According to multi-instrumentalist Chris Mulligan, who supplies drums and keys in Parlor Walls, the name is an intentionally subversive callout: “We’re all empty, disconnected screen zombies who never fully experience what is around us.”
Parlor Walls is a millennial band advocating for their parents’ style of revolution. They formed in 2013, when Mulligan, formerly of Delaware, met Lamb, born and raised in a small town in Connecticut, after a show in Brooklyn at one particularly iconic venue. Both had recently made the move to New York, and were playing in separate bands.
Lamb recalls that they were very much aware of one another’s presence in the local scene and often played shows together, but didn’t realize how well they could mesh creatively until one fateful night: “We were hanging out after a show at Shea Stadium and we were admiring each other’s outfits. Then we found out we both loved Fugazi and all hell broke loose.”
Mulligan was drawn to Lamb’s aesthetic, and vice versa, but he was quickly able to look beyond the superficial. “I think we were both intrigued by each other’s style. I could envision the beast that would show its face if we ever collaborated.”
From the very beginning, neither wished to make music that would simply provide vapid entertainment. They share a compulsive need to shake things up. In a world of white noise, Parlor Walls aspire to be agitators. And they seem to be succeeding at it.
They take cues from genres like ambient and new wave, but don’t seem too keen on labels. The goal of Parlor Walls is straightforward: to disrupt the silence.
As a woman in rock, Lamb is not likely to cower in the face of any sort of prejudice, although she acknowledges it is an occasional obstacle in her circles. She handles it with grace: “There is no room for misogyny in my world. If and when I encounter it, I call it out and strike up a conversation about it. Sometimes this doesn’t work and sometimes it’s fruitful, but I will always make every effort possible.”
In 2016, Parlor Walls put on a gritty yet deeply intimate show for Sofar NYC. The video footage showcases Lamb and Mulligan at their best: aggressive, yet soft, and uniquely capable of turning protest into poetry.
Leaving such an experience is likely to feel inspired one way or another, whether they realize it or not; Lamb and Mulligan do not speak of their “fans,” or even “listeners,” but instead simply state that they hope their audience will always be full of “people not afraid to lose themselves in the music. Open and free.”
To rouse people from the heady addiction of technology, even at a live concert, is an increasingly difficult feat. Mulligan believes music has the power to break through to the inner rebel within us all. “The most powerful shows I’ve seen shake me from this haze. Suddenly, I’m hyper-aware I’m an insignificant fragile baby flying through space. It’s terrifying, but it opens me up to laugh at the absurdity of it all.”
It is with a certain violent, spitfire earnestness that Mulligan describes his ideal audience: “A hundred people in a warehouse who had a rough day and just want to let go. It’d be great if our music helped people shed their fear and celebrate the void. At the very least, it’d be cool if someone saw us and bobbed their head a little bit and smashed a bottle on their way home.”
If Parlor Walls takes you back to the ‘80s in an eerily visceral way, it’s likely due to Lamb’s uncanny memory (she’s also professionally trained in composition and encouraged Mulligan to learn several instruments). When speaking to her, you get the sense that she’s a bit displaced herself, generationally. But more than that, she’s able to call to mind the sensory requirements to cultivate a truly timeless listening experience.
“I’m a pretty nostalgic person,” she remarks, not certain if her keen memory is a blessing or a cure. “I can still remember the way I felt when I first heard Janet Jackson on my older sister’s stereo—I was bursting at the seams. Or when I heard Depeche Mode blaring from my brother’s room—it was dark, hypnotic, and so intriguing to me.”
Watching P.J. Harvey in the “Man-Size” music video stands out as a particularly vivid memory in her mind, as does the smell of her first cassette tape. “Music was my life from a very young age, and I cherish these first memories of discovering vibrant, kinetic, and provocative music. I want to be forever excited about music. So, I strive to create art that conveys these emotions. I want people to feel something.”
Is it purely nostalgia that inspired Parlor Walls to sell their recent EP, EXO, as a limited edition cassette tape? Not entirely. Though the novelty certainly makes it interesting, Mulligan also appreciates the sound quality.
“Sometimes I hear an older recording and it sounds so warm,” he says. “I also love the digital plastic sound a lot of forward-thinking artists are pushing today. I don’t think we are unique in wanting to figure out interesting ways to combine the two.”
The writing process of the band’s EP, EXO, involved a “constant push and pull” of ideas. “There are always creative differences, but I think they are expected.” Like any great songwriting partnership, the two find themselves clashing—more often than not. But they’ve figured out a way to make it work. “We have vastly different ideas a lot of the time and bash our heads until we arrive at the center.”
A third member, clarinetist Jason Shelton, was introduced in the studio. Prior to setting foot in the studio, Lamb and Mulligan graciously settled their disputes. They worked and reworked songs numerous times in their practice space in preparation for what would be a marathon recording session. It would be a waste of a time and a drain on their creative energy, Lamb believes, if they spent precious time arguing. “We try really hard to demo out our songs beforehand.”
In order to create the sinister, atmospheric sounds on the EP, the band relied on close friend and producer Joseph Colmenero, who they refer to as Joe. Known for his work with Philip Glass, Colmenero produced “Low Vulture” first and stunned Lamb with the results. “He made me sound exactly how I envisioned—like a huntress out to destroy the people who try to bring me down.”
Lamb, Mulligan, and Shelton decided to continue working with Joe; together, they recorded the rest of EXO in record time. Without the luxury of time or money on their hands, they set to work and recorded three songs in one day. “We did it all very fast,” Mulligan says. “There wasn’t time to second-guess ourselves too much. It can be a little anxiety-inducing, but I like that method; it can feel more pure.”
However, for the band’s next full-length, they have decided to go at a slower pace. “We’ve already written the next album,” Mulligan says, though it likely won’t be released until late 2019. “Now we are taking our time and letting the songs breathe.”