Just as soon as you think you have a frame of reference for Palberta's sound, it swerves into an entirely new direction. The group's idiosyncratic punk draws comparisons to Captain Beefheart and The Raincoats while taking notions from contemporary art-rock bands like Mothers and Palm. But ultimately, Palberta sounds like its three members — Ani Ivry-Block, Lily Konigsberg and Nina Ryser — and their years of working together to craft an utterly unique chemistry with one another.
The group's forthcoming album, Palberta5000, out Jan. 22, leans on pop influences while maintaining its classic Palberta charm. Konigsberg says the music she grew up listening to from her parents' CD collection — especially Liz Phair and Lucinda Williams — influenced the new record, too. "We all got back into that, and heavily listened to those two artists," she says. "I feel like that type of female rock star vibe came through." Ahead of the release of Palberta5000, the three members spoke to NPR Music about their influences and why they could never add another member to the group.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sam Kesler: I love the way that you do three-part harmony. Do any of you have formal training in harmonizing or music theory, or do you just work it out together and see how it sounds?
Ani Ivry-Block: It's our gift.
Lily Konigsberg: We can harmonize — if someone was like, "1-2-3, harmonize this sentence," we would find it in a second and then do it.
Nina Ryser: I was in a chorus for a long time, so I'm sure that that has to do with my ear training in harmonizing. But I do think the three of us each happen to just naturally know how to harmonize. And we've been harmonizing and singing with each other for so long that we're used to it with this group.
Konigsberg: We also get the response when people are like, "Hey guys," and we're like, "Hi!" that it sounds like a harmony. It's just funny; we say a lot of the same things because of how much time we spent together, so often we'll all three say the same thing in what sounds like harmony. [Ed Note: This is exactly happened when I joined the call for this interview.]
But also, growing up listening to a ton of The Beatles and Liz Phair and Elliott Smith, I would harmonize to that stuff out loud.
Ivry-Block: I think the first harmonies that ever really spoke to me were Nirvana's harmonies. That was the first time I was like, "Wow, harmonies are cool."
Konigsberg: And if you want to get into girl groups, I have a girl group compilation CD of all these different [groups], like The Shirelles, and they're doing three-, four-part harmonies. So I grew up listening to that. Oh, one more: Avril Lavigne's album, Let Go. She does a bunch of really good harmonies on her slow songs. I was listening to that when I was 10 and learned a lot from that.
This new album feels a lot more structured, with longer songs. Did you all go into this album thinking that you were going to switch things up?
Ivry-Block: I think we always try to push ourselves with our songwriting [and] see where we can take it. But yeah, I think we just attempted to make longer songs; probably it was slightly influenced by music that we're listening to. We're all into similar things right now, just like melodic rock, alternative pop music. And we had a different style of recording, because we recorded it in a studio and with tons of equipment. So it made for a very different sound.
Konigsberg: We always recorded vocals — even if we were singing different things —pretty much in front of one mic, the three of us. And this time, we got to record each in a room by ourselves, and it really made our voices shine more, and the harmonies that have consistently been in our music are more audible now.
Ryser: We also, over the years, are just continuously becoming better musicians. So it makes sense to me that, with each album, there will be a newer or a slightly different sound, because we're just growing as musicians with each album we make.
What do you think are the characteristics of a Palberta song?
Ryser: I think the only thing that characterizes it is that it's something that happens when the three of us are in a room writing music together. It can't really be recreated in a different context, because it just so heavily relies on our dynamic as a threesome.
Konigsberg: Yeah, we couldn't replace a member of Palberta; it would be completely confusing. It might be the most confusing thing to do ever.
Ivry-Block: It would really suck for that replacement. I think they'd quit the band.