Rock Island Is a State of Mind: Palm’s Kasra Kurt on the strange zen of deconstructing rock music

Rock Island Is a State of Mind: Palm’s Kasra Kurt on the strange zen of deconstructing rock music Illustration by Aubrey Nolan

This piece appears in AdHoc Issue 24.

The songs of Philly-based foursome Palm rarely end where they begin, taking on tricky time signatures and hairpin melodic turns without sacrificing hooks and songcraft. Their lyrics can be similarly hard to follow: the group’s dual vocalists embrace abstraction, with heavy vocal filters and inventive word games. Still, they get an awful lot across while saying very little—especially during their live sets, which can resemble a performed conversation in a private alien language.

Rock Island, their brightly lit sophomore full-length for Carpark Records, feels like a slight change of pace for the group; with Palm’s introduction of MIDI sampling and other electronic manipulations, it can sound at times like straight-up dance music. In advance of their record release show at Market Hotel on February 9, we chatted with guitarist and singer Kasra Kurt about the band’s ever-growing musical dexterity. 

AdHoc: Palm spent time in New York before moving to Philly. How would you describe the difference between the music scenes there?

Kasra Kurt: Well, Palm has actually never been based in NYC. [Drummer] Hugo [Stanley] and [guitarist and vocalist] Eve [Alpert] have lived there in the past, but the “New York” in or refers to the Hudson Valley, three hours north of the city, which is where we went to school and where we started playing together. I might be wrong, but I think we used New York in the Bandcamp link in the hopes that people would book us there...intentionally vague. It’s hard to stress how influential the scene upstate was on all of us. Bard had a really strong community of bold and adventurous musicians and artists. I’d go to a lot of shows, and my entire conception of music was being challenged all the time. I think it instilled in all of us a particular creative mentality, where nothing was off limits. 

After college, we moved a little further upstate and spent a couple years writing and developing together. We started touring a little, but it was mostly an opportunity to retreat and figure out what we wanted to do.

Philadelphia is different. It’s a big city, for one, so it was something of a transition from country living. There’s so much happening—I highly recommend checking out Ada Babar and Old Maybe, for starters—and [so many] cool spots to play. To me, at least, it doesn’t feel competitive at all; people are supportive. Honestly, I don’t feel super comfortable talking about the Philly scene, because we’ve only been here a couple years and we’re away on tour so much of the time. But we love it here, and we feel really lucky to be a small part of the scene. 

What is “Rock Island”? Is it an actual place?

Ha. I think we all have slightly different ideas of what Rock Island is. For me, it’s a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating, genre-celebrating mental state, in a School of Rock kind of way. When you’re really in the zone, you’re in the flow state; you’re on Rock Island. It’s a ridiculous name for an album, but that’s probably why it felt right.

How would you describe your songwriting process?

 Our songwriting process is messy, sometimes frustrating, and occasionally really rewarding. We play a lot, and it takes us a long time to write; we’re a nonhierarchical band with poor communication, which means we’re not particularly efficient. Typically, Eve and I will come up with a chord progression, melody, and some rhythmic ideas, and then we’ll take it to Hugo and Gerasimos, who will summarily deconstruct what we have and reinterpret the harmonic and rhythmic elements. Then, we’ll all try and put it back together. Somehow it works. Barely.

You pieced together the lyrics for “Walkie Talkie,” off your 2017 EP, Shadow Expert, from newspaper and magazine clippings. Is that kind of purposeful abstraction something you’ve returned to on Rock Island?

Yes and no. We definitely try and leave space for chance in the process, but there are some songs on the record that are less abstract than “Walkie Talkie.” Ultimately, all the songs I write lyrics for have specific meaning to me, but that’s less important than creating emotional events or prompts, springboards for the listener to explore their own sentiments. When pop music works for me, it’s not that I feel connected to the artist’s particular experience, but that I’m provoked to “feel” in a more general sense, and also in a more specific sense regarding my own experience. 

What were you thinking about stylistically when you went in to record the album?

 We were all listening to more electronic music. I started using a MIDI pickup on my guitar, so I had the physicality of 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, a world that you could step into. 

How do you get people to move around so much at your shows? Was there a time when you realized your shows had become looser?

I get stage fright and rarely look out at the crowd, so I’m not the best person to ask. Our music is physical. It’s usually pretty loud and sometimes rhythmically jarring, but not in a way that’s unnatural; it’s reflected in our bodies, at least to me. Our hearts don’t beat in regular time and we don’t experience the world as a series of predictable pulses. So, to me, when our performances and our writing are successful, we’re engaging with what it feels like to be a person. Maybe that’s why people are loose at our shows: cause it feels familiar. Oh, and sometimes we play shows and everyone stands still and looks at us like we’re fools. 


Tagged: Interview, Palm
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