Palm’s unpredictable songs prove there’s still room for boundary-pushing in rock

Get to know the Philly-based band, then listen to “Pearly.”

Illustration Sharon Gong
Palm’s unpredictable songs prove there’s still room for boundary-pushing in rock Dylan Pearce

Eve Alpert, Kasra Kurt, Hugo Stanley, and Geri Livitsanos are sitting in their car in a parking lot in Winona, Wisconsin, after finishing up some eggs. They’ve been on tour for almost half of 2017. The four Bard graduates play in Palm, an exciting new rock band. Their live show — fueled by a specific, unpredictable energy — is already the stuff of DIY lore.

ADVERTISEMENT

Palm is a project hinged on a lack of structure. Even their new album's title, Rock Island, is proof of that. When I ask the four of them why they named it that — is it a joke? Is it earnest? — Eve says it’s named after a city in Illinois, but that it’s also “tongue-in-cheek, or celebratory, of rock music in general.” Clarifying, Kasra notes the title has nothing to do with the Illinois city. Further clarifying, Hugo counters that they, “definitely came up with the name in Rock Island, but it also is a coincidence.” It ultimately doesn’t matter too much; that’s how Palm rolls. They’re a band “without rules.”

Rock Island, which comes out on Carpark in 2018, is the follow-up to Palm’s June-released EP Shadow Expert, a dazzling collection of meandering, melodically complex art-rock. Composed over the course of more than a year, during in-between-tour stretches at their adopted home in Philadelphia, Rock Island is the most cohesive-feeling and sophisticated-sounding piece of work we’ve heard from Palm to date. On it, they play with an abundance of digital and organic textures; the songs are both tightly-wound and anything but. They sound smart.

Their inquisitive spirit is definitely audible on “Pearly,” their new record’s opening track, premiering here today on The FADER. It’s instantly recognizable as a Palm song, and it leads you straight into their magnetic, labyrinthine world. Listen to it below, and read our full conversation about rock bravado, sonic world-building, and working without a hierarchy.

Hello! You’re on tour again, this time with Girlpool. How does being on the road a lot affect your existence as a band?

EVE ALPERT: Each tour we get a little bit better at it — eating correctly, upgrading sleeping arrangements, getting new cars. But it can also take a toll.

KASRA KURT: It seems like it makes us better at performing live — more off the cuff, [better at] being able to communicate nonverbally with each other. For the last few years, we’d practice all the time — sometimes five days a week. But this last year we’ve been touring so much that when we’re home we take it easy. We worked really hard on writing the last album; we finished writing it in March or April. Since then, we haven’t really been writing together, but we have played a ton of shows. We’ll see when it comes to writing the next album what the difference will be.

OK so, what is Rock Island? Or, where is it?

EVE: Rock Island is in Illinois.

So it’s an actual place, and not an island where everyone rocks out?

ADVERTISEMENT

KASRA: The name was a celebration of rock tradition to some extent. Rock music is so culturally irrelevant nowadays. Like, that’s totally the fault of countless [contemporary] rock bands — if you look back, rock bands were pushing boundaries. There is still room for that to happen. For me it’s primarily a fun name, ‘cause it’s almost like a School Of Rock-esque state of mind to get into — like, being on Rock Island. But it’s also about owning the identity of a rock band and taking it seriously.

HUGO: Rock is funny ‘cause it’s one of those things that has become this ridiculous, bloated, caricature-joke of itself. People make fun of the bravado and grandiosity of rock music and rock and roll musicians, but everyone still loves it.

“There’s always been an unwritten rule in our band that there are no rules. Nothing’s off-limits.” —Kasra Kurt

That infallible bravado of a rock musician can be toxic, also. How are you all feeling about these sexual assault allegations coming out in the indie music world?

KASRA: There’s a power dynamic if you’re a musician engaging with people who like your music. It’s obviously extremely upsetting.

HUGO: It’s a problem with our society as a whole that’s so deeply embedded. I’ve encountered loads of people in my life that I’ve thought were sketchy but it wasn’t like they were predominantly musicians. I think the reality is that this shit is happening and has been happening forever, and it’s a good thing that people are feeling empowered to speak up about it. I’m hopeful that it will encourage people to act less shitty. For too long people have assumed that predatory behavior would be tolerated by everyone because historically it has been. It seems like a good thing that people are holding people accountable and shattering the myth of musicians being infallible and do whatever they want. It’s disturbing as fuck. It’s a lot to think about.

You guys have experienced a bunch of different concentrated scenes — Bard, N.Y.C., and now Philly. Do you have a favorite location you’ve lived/played in?

EVE: It might be different for all of us, but I really enjoy Philly. We have a really comfortable place to write, in our basement.

KASRA: Philly’s awesome. There’s a really fertile music scene, good show spaces. The cops seem less bothered about closing down venues, compared to some other cities.

We all really like playing in Atlanta. We have some friends there, and there’s a really good music scene. There’s a lot of really odd, interesting bands out of there. Red Sea. Suffer Dragon. Warehouse. Honestly, Palm would probably sound like a pretty different band if we hadn’t been exposed to that music scene. It’s been very influential.

Speaking of the way your band sounds, how do you think your style has evolved on the new record?

ADVERTISEMENT

KASRA: The music we’ve been listening to was somewhat different. We were all listening to more electronic music, and I started using a midi pickup on my guitar. I have the physicality of the playing the guitar, but with different sounds. And Hugo, during the recording process, was using similar technology on his drums, so you could replace the sound of a drum with the sound of pretty much anything else. That was a pretty big difference for us.

It was important to try and make a record that felt like it had some kind of cohesive palette, and a world that you can like, step into. When I listen to it, which I haven’t done in a long time, it feels like a specific environment.

Palm’s unpredictable songs prove there’s still room for boundary-pushing in rock

I like the idea of an album as world or a landscape that you enter, or that surrounds you. Can you picture what that space looks like? Are there any colors?

EVE: There’s a tropical element inherently, so maybe like… light blue?

HUGO: Some of the sonic elements are sort of cold or harsh in a way that clashes with that. There are sounds in there that are futuristic. There are certain samples that are idiomatic of hip-hop or contemporary electronic music that don’t necessarily evoke tropical imagery in the way some of the guitar sounds — which are like steel drums — do. I don’t think it would be accurate to say it’s a sunny-sounding record; I think there’s an equal force that’s the opposite of that.

Wait — the steel drum sound is coming from the guitar? That’s so cool.

KASRA: Every sound you hear is almost always gonna be coming from the guitar, or, in a couple exceptions, from a sample that’s been overlaid after. But it’s almost all guitar-based. There’s no keyboard on the record.

Are you guys good with techy stuff?

KASRA: None of us are very techy.

EVE: It’s super simple technology. Kasra also has this plastic pedal board from eBay or whatever, that triggers sounds.

ADVERTISEMENT

KASRA: It’s from the ’80s. It’s like a synthesizer. It’s fairly simple.

HUGO: We’re not a band that would have computers on stage. But there was some computer-y editing stuff that had to happen.

EVE: We’re definitely not a technical band. A lot of people think that we are, that we’ve all gone to music school or something. I don’t know if we’ve brought it on ourselves. But at the core of it we’re very much a regular band. We practice a lot and write weird parts For me, it’s all based on the feel.

KASRA: We’re all curious, adventurous listeners. There’s always been an unwritten rule in our band that there are no rules. Nothing’s off-limits. We’re always trying to do something different. We’ve been playing together for so long, that you wanna do something that’s gonna be creatively stimulating for the other members as well. It’s not like we’re trying to impress each other, it’s us trying something new because we’re gonna get bored if we keep doing the same thing.

HUGO: We never had a conversation about the kind of band we wanted to be, which is a totally normal thing for a band to do when they get together.

EVE: We came together having some musical influences in common, but not really knowing what we were capable of making.

HUGO: The first time I ever met Eve was the first band practice we ever had, for example. It’s not like we had preconceived notions about what kind of musicians we were, or what our aspirations were as individuals creatively. This maybe doesn’t pertain to everyone, because the three of them were friends before. But my getting to know the other three was through writing and playing the music. The conversation about the kind of music we want to make has been this conversation that’s been going on for the entirety of…

EVE: Our band is that conversation.

KASRA: I think people assume more intentionality than there actually is in our band. I’m sure this is true for a lot of bands, but it just like, happens. Because there’s not just one songwriter and there’s not a hierarchy, it’s kind of impossible to maintain a cohesive vision. There’s no control over what happens, in a way.

Rock Island is out February 9 on Carpark Records.
Palm’s unpredictable songs prove there’s still room for boundary-pushing in rock