The drums and guitars shift from clashing rhythms that threaten to pull the song apart to locked-in attacks. Ethereal voices float in the stratosphere. Clattering percussion blinks in and out of the chaos. Eventually a simple melody pulls everything together.
Palm (Eve Alpert, Hugo Stanley, Gerasimos Livitsanos and Kasra Kurt) can be hard to describe. Psychedelic, indie and avant-garde get close to pinning down the band, founded in New York in 2009 and now based out of Philadelphia, but records such as “Shadow Expert” (2017) and “Rock Island” (2018) showcase a unique blend of experimentation and pop. The group’s latest album, “Nicks and Grazes,” released in October of this year on Omaha’s Saddle Creek records, is another evolution.
The Reader sat down with Palm to talk about the new album, Dec. 4 show at Reverb Lounge and what’s next for the band.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
The Reader: So you guys met in 2009 at Bard College (a liberal arts college about 100 miles north of New York City). What were you majoring in?
Kurt: I studied history.
Alpert: I studied photography.
Stanley: I studied mathematics. I actually was a music major, but the concentration was electronic and experimental music. But I didn’t start out there. Most of the time I was actually studying creative writing and literature.
The Reader: Yeah, I ask that because I know you guys aren’t formally trained musicians, but there’s clearly a lot of thought going into your music.
Stanley: My dad’s a musician and my mom’s a music fan. My dad’s mom was a singer and my dad’s brother’s a musician. I grew up with my parents playing records around the house. Once I got to late middle school, early high school age, I started to actively seek out new music and broaden my horizons. And I played drums and guitar from the age of like, 13 or 14, but it was mostly self-taught.
In college, we had places to play and practice spaces where you can make noise. We met pretty early on in school, and at this point most of our musical experiences fall within the timeline of the band because we’ve been together more than 11 years.
Kurt: I don’t think I ever actually thought about doing music professionally. Not that we always are doing that now. I wanted to be a historian or something, but I don’t think I was smart enough. So music was like a fallback option. But, yeah, if I was trying out a guitar at Guitar Center or something, I would sound notably more amateurish than the vast majority of people there. But I think all of us, as a result of our love for music, take our craft seriously.
Alpert: We’re highly trained together.
The Reader: How have you guys seen your style or approach to songwriting progress through the years?
Kurt: My impulse is that I want the next thing we make to be somehow more confrontational and more inviting than the last thing. Like trying to see if we can get noisier but more melodic at the same time.
We also all like sounds, which sounds silly. But those records we grew up with, there can be a moment where you’re listening and hear a sound from an instrument, or something achieved in the studio, that is as immediate and present as a lyric or a note choice. Sometimes it’s like you want to listen to a song over and over again to hear this crazy sound. [As for songwriting] there’s always some collaborative element. I don’t think any of us, individually, would make music that sounds like Palm. It really is the combination of our voices and instincts.
The Reader: You guys pull a lot of interesting sounds into your recordings. The one that sticks out to me is this steel drum effect you play through a guitar, but I wonder if you could talk about how you build texture.
Kurt: So the steel drum guitar sound was primarily on “Rock Island,” our previous recording, and that’s a MIDI guitar pickup. I don’t know how we ended up incorporating that, but it came earlier on in our explorations of incorporating non-traditional rock sounds. But that MIDI guitar is from the ’80s or ’90s. It’s really limited and misfires a lot so it’s hard to be expressive.
With “Nicks and Grazes” we really tried to widen the sonic palette. There’s a lot of different stuff going on, ranging from samples of things we recorded out in the world, guitars with rubber wire wrapped around the strings and other more traditional percussion. There’s also a lot of synthetic, made-in-the-computer sounds.
The Reader: I think I read you guys were unsure if you’d do another album. What prompted you to return?
Stanley: The last record came out in February 2018 and we had recorded it nearly a year prior. So we’ve been working on material [for “Nicks and Grazes”] since late 2017, early 2018. A lot of ideas were getting scrapped, and we were all really fried from touring. And then other life stuff happened. We all got jobs as well.
But I think we all felt we had put so much work into the music and wanted to make something to reflect that growth. Once we started preparing to record there was a little bit more excitement again. And we worked with a producer for the first time, which also was really helpful. We just started to feel like we had this momentum again.
Kurt: Maybe all artists have a habit of thinking all previous work was a steppingstone to get to where you are now. With this record we took [what we started on “Rock Island”] as far as we could, and we’re really proud of the record we made.
The Reader: How did you guys connect with Saddle Creek?
Kurt: They reached out to us and we only got good vibes. I can’t speak highly enough about Saddle Creek. They’re super genuine, nice and supportive.
The Reader: It seems like you’re in good company, too, especially with Spirit of the Beehive, another Saddle Creek signee that tries to strike the balance between abrasive and beautiful.
Albert: We’re friends with them.
Stanley: Yeah, it seems like the label is diversifying their sound. They’re more known for singer-songwriter stuff, which we love, but our band is obviously not that. So it may be that having [Spirit of the Beehive] on the label was encouraging — that stylistically we would have some company.
The Reader: Yeah, I saw them in Omaha a while back and was floored by their show. It sounded as good if not better than the record. I was curious if you guys have to sacrifice some of that sonic expansiveness when you play live.
Albert: Most people like our live shows a lot because they think it sounds better than the record, or just as good.
Kurt: I definitely understand why this might not come across on the first couple of listens, but “Nicks and Grazes” was primarily recorded live. So I think it’s less that our live set is going to sound like the record and more like the record sounds like our live sets.
The Reader: So what’s next for the band? Are you guys thinking about another album or leaving that up in the air for now?
Albert: We’ve never expected each other to commit to the band beyond what we do in the now. And I think that’s a really healthy way for us to grow as people. So never say never, like this is not deemed our last record at all.
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