New York Noise Punks Palberta's New Album Is Equal Parts Silly and Scary
Fueled by the once in a lifetime chemistry of three longtime friends, 'Roach Goin' Down' is a special, experimental take on what it means to rock.
Photo by Jonah Peterschild
Ani Ivry-Block, Lily Konigsberg, and Nina Ryser, the three talented and funny women who make up the cult noise rock band Palberta, have been doing a lot of cooking on tour. They’ve been alternating head chef, they tell me from their Subaru in mid May, on the drive from Spokane, Washington to Seattle. Nina made veggie burgers one night at someone’s house, Lily made lentils and sweet potatoes and broccoli slaw, and Ani made a warm grain salad. Together, they collaborate on pasta dishes and egg breakfasts. “And oatmeal,” Ani adds. This tour is a lot chiller than past ones. There’s been a lot of embroidering going on, too.
Ani, Lily, and Nina have a once in a lifetime kind of chemistry. “It’s hard to figure out if we all have similar interests, or if we all became each other because we spend so much time together,” Lily says. “It kind of feels like we all share a brain in a lot of ways, at this point.”
Palberta’s telepathy shows in the way they talk to and about each other; in their explosive, synergetic live performances; and their knotty, kinetic punk sound, which they’ve spent the last year or so refining into the cobwebby Tilt-A-Whirl that is their excellent new record, Roach Goin’ Down, (out June 15 on Wharf Cat Records, and streaming in full today). They share in their creations as equally and naturally as they do the kitchen, treating their songs like experiments in riffing on each others’ energies.
The trio met at Bard College in 2013 when Nina organized a show in which they each played solo, along with Paco Cathcart, who records all the Palberta albums. (They each have very cool solo projects: Nina’s is under her own name and she’s in the band Old Maybe, Ani goes by Shimmer, Lily’s got Lily & Horn Horse.) Lily was attending Vermont’s Bennington College at the time, and after the show she approached Nina and Ani to tell them she was going to apply to transfer to Bard, and if she got in, they should all jam sometime. “And so Lily got into Bard, thank god, congratulations,” says Nina, who always tells the story of how they met. In a happy coincidence, the three new friends also happened to all be from New York City, so there was no summer break interruption in their budding project. They jammed, and kept jamming.
Nina, Ani, and Lily each came to the table with different influences and skillsets. They all grew up playing piano, but leaned in different ways when studying music at Bard — Nina contemporary-classical, Lily acoustic, and Ani electronic and performance — and through Palberta, taught themselves to play instruments they weren’t previously familiar with. When they started practicing together, they encouraged each other to try their hands at new parts, and now when they play, write, and record, they take turns on each instrument. That’s part of what makes their sound so specific, intricate, and playful. It’s “the Palberta way,” Nina says. They play off of each other’s particular techniques on each instrument; their collective style is almost avant-garde. “Over time we just realized that we all had different styles on each instrument, but that it kinda made a collective, unique sound,” Ani explains. "Now, when someone wants to play one instrument, we jam on whatever someone wants to play, and take it from there.”
Palberta released its first album, the wacky, careening My Pal Berta in late 2013, which is tagged amusingly on Bandcamp with “dreampop,” “rock n’ roll baby,” “slime,” “sophisticated ladies,” and “sweat,” and includes a song called “Anyway” that is mostly screaming and chanting the word “anyway,” and one titled “Ode to Gabe” which consists of a simple beat and some soulful singing of, “Ooh, I think I wanna get a little high tonight.” One user commented, “If the witches of Macbeth had a band when they were young this is what it would sound like.” After that came Shitheads in the Ditch, the low-key scary Hot on the Beach, and 2016’s sprawling Bye Bye Berta. They’re a highly self-referential band with a clever, purposeful, and animated sense of humor — Bye Bye Berta’s “Ode to Honey,” for instance, is a totally different song that contains the same lyrics as “Ode to Gabe.” Their bio on Facebook reads, “Gotta get creepy to be creative, can't sing in a bing,” and Nina tells me they crack each other up all the time.
For the previous records, the writing was off-the-cuff, and mostly recorded before played live. This time around, however, with Roach Goin’ Down, which clocks in at 37 minutes with 22 tracks, their longest yet, the group spent more time than ever constructing their songs. Lyrics were a really big focus, and this was the first time the three actually went back to tweak and edit the tracks. “It’s a more thoughtful album all around,” Ani notes. A lot of it was written around the time when Nina was moving into a new house (that explains the title track’s “A new life, sittin’ in a new house / A new house, sittin’ in a new life”), and reflects on consumerism and capitalism and being a woman in the world. And it’s about America, Nina explains, particularly “Momentous Space-Up,” one of the album’s more melancholy, sing-songy tracks, which is based abstractly on observations from the band’s experiences touring around the country.
It’s hard to pick a favorite of all these songs that waver between sweet and funny and fierce and straight-up weird. At first it was “Palberta,” where they proclaim, “Weeeeeee’re Palberta!” and then it was “Rich Boy,” a crackling flip on the Hall & Oates classic. But after hearing the trio talk about “Gimme Everything You Got, Girl,” it has to be that one. “Gimme everything you got, girl / Show it to me / I’m just a little baby / Show me what you got when you see,” they sing hazily. Though it was written while they were fooling around on GarageBand, they tell me (“just laughing and the words just came out and we thought they were kind of goofy”), looking back, it’s about the power of friendship between women. “When you feel weak or insecure, finding strength through the other women in your life,” Nina says.
And that’s what Palberta’s all about, isn’t it? Giving each other everything you’ve got? I ask. They all agree. Palberta is about friendship, about big-upping each other as women and humans, as much as possible.
Even though they’ve been around the punk scene block a million times over, and it’s 2018, they often still get lumped in with bands they don’t necessarily resemble, but happen to be composed primarily of women musicians. “Yesterday was like the two thousandth time someone said we sounded like The Slits,” Lily gripes. They find this silly, as their sound bears almost no comparisons, a fact they take pride in—as they should.
“People are often really surprised by how hard we can rock,” Lily says, casually. “It shouldn’t be so surprising. I think we just rock harder than most bands, no boy or girl, or anyone. People are just surprised because they’re like, ‘Damn, I’ve never seen anything like that before.’”
Ani puts it more simply: “We pretty much hold it down and no one fucks with us."
Leah Mandel is a writer and reporter based in New York and is on Twitter.