Palms: “It’s important to highlight the good stuff as much as the hardship and the shame”

Sydney indie rockers return after a five-year absence with songs about growth and self-acceptance

When Palms emerged from the demise of aughts-era Sydney buzz band Red Riders, their very first single was 2011’s ‘Summer Is Done With Us’, a careening indie rock anthem about escaping “the pitfalls of my past” and the blanketing Sydney summer.

A decade later, Palms have just broken a five-year release drought with an EP largely devoted to big, crashing hooks and yet more interrogations of their city’s disproportionate stretches of warm weather. While that’s partly because singer/songwriter Al Grigg wrote three of the five songs during a single week of summer in January 2019, it’s also an inevitable consequence of living, working and playing music in that sunny setting.

“It’s a very Sydney thing,” Grigg tells NME over the phone while walking home from a stint of jury duty. “The sunshine slowly seeps into everything here, for better or worse.”

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A friend has already told him that the EP – named ‘Intensity Sunshine’ after a paint sample he spotted at Bunnings – reminds her of when she lived in Sydney, while someone at a recent gig remarked that the new songs sound more mature. “They meant it as a compliment,” Grigg says with a laugh, “but the word ‘mature’ rings this thing in my brain that means not as exciting.”

“When you are just completely yourself, as scary as it can be, you open yourself up to big acts of love as well”

Luckily, the new songs have it both ways. Short in duration and spontaneous in feel, they revel in Palm’s trademark one-two hit of fuzzy guitars and singalong choruses but dig deeper in terms of subject matter. Case in point: the EP’s centrepiece ‘Calling’ documents Grigg’s personal journey of coming out as gay to his friends and family. After the scene-setting opening line “I was on the outside / I was scared that I might lose,” Grigg goes on to celebrate the hard-won victory of being true to himself.

“It speaks to where I am in my own personal progression in my acceptance of myself,” he says, contrasting it with the uncertainty he felt while penning songs about male love interests on the Palms albums ‘Step Brothers’ (2013) and ‘Crazy Rack’ (2015). “Singing songs at great volume when you’re playing live – amplifying your voice and expressing yourself – is a very liberating and powerful expression of self. I’d never put those thoughts so blatantly into a song.”

‘Calling’ may be about his own unique experiences, but the song presents quite a universal statement about self-acceptance. Many of us are treading a similar path towards treating ourselves with more kindness and openness, hoping that others in our lives will follow suit. Grigg recounts a story about attending a large family wedding with his boyfriend and being unsure how his conservative aunt would react, only to have her heartily congratulate him on his new partner. “When you are just completely yourself, as scary as it can be, you open yourself up to big acts of love as well,” he notes.

Grigg documents the buoyant early stages of his now four-year relationship in the EP’s two-minute opening track, ‘This One Is Your One’, which carries on the hugely catchy Weezer-meets-The Drums sound of ‘Crazy Rack’. On the other hand, ‘Life (It’s Going Around)’ settles into a gentle, country-licked gait as Grigg sings about changing and growing as a person. Though Griggs writes Palms songs exclusively on acoustic guitar, they all start stripped back like ‘Life’, but he admits he jettisons a lot of “mellow, strummy stuff” because it wouldn’t suit Palms’ upbeat bursts of hooky enthusiasm.

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Palms began as the duo of Grigg and drummer Tom Wallace, whose previous band Red Riders only released one album yet toured Australia with Franz Ferdinand and notched many other notable achievements at a young age. Expanded to a quartet thanks to bassist Brendy Walsh and guitarist Dion Ford, Palms slowed down a bit following 2015’s ‘Crazy Rack’, with Grigg wanting to focus more on his personal life and Ford relocating to Melbourne (though he has since moved back to Sydney).

Ford and Walsh also became parents during the intervening years, while Wallace pursued as-yet-unreleased solo work and Grigg continued to bash out wild garage punk in Straight Arrows alongside repeat Palms producer Owen Penglis and ‘Intensity Sunshine’ cover artist Angela Garrick.

Palms new EP Intensity Sunshine interview Al Grigg 2021
Credit: Rebecca Allen

The quartet finally reconvened properly in 2019, working on demos with DZ Deathrays frontman Shane Parsons, who had considered producing the EP. Palms eventually decamped to the Blue Mountains instead with producer Liam Judson (Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Cloud Control). The appeal of working with Judson after recording earlier releases with Penglis was his extensive expertise with guitar pedals and effects – which could make up for Grigg’s relative lack of knowledge on that front. “I’m not a gear person,” he admits.

Palms finished the vocals for the EP in January 2020, only for its release to be put on hold due to the pandemic. They’re now planning a launch tour for mid-2021 – “It’s classic Palms to be touring an EP called ‘Intensity Sunshine’ in the middle of winter,” quips Grigg – and will also press some vinyl independently to sell on the road and online.

Grigg expects to be recording a new Straight Arrows album midyear as well, and he’ll continue to co-curate the popular Twilight at Taronga summer concert series at Taronga Zoo, through his job at music management company Winterman & Goldstein.

Griggs’ biggest takeaway from the new EP, and the current chapter of his life, may be that he doesn’t have to be unhappy to be creatively fruitful. “I always thought songwriting had to come [from being] unhappy or dissatisfied,” he says. “I thought you had to be discontented to create. It’s been nice to realise that I can make stuff from a place of genuine contentment. I hope it’s not corny [but] it’s been reassuring to know that there’s still stuff in my life to draw inspiration from, without being miserable.”

Grigg points to Troye Sivan’s acclaimed 2015 debut album ‘Blue Neighbourhood’ as a recent example of a record by a queer artist that’s about affirmation rather than self-doubt. Though Palms’ sun-steeped guitar rippers may seem a world away from Sivan’s polished pop, it was important for Grigg to convey a similar sense of positivity for a gay audience – to show that contentment is out there and possible, he explains.

“It’s important to highlight the good stuff as much as the hardship and the shame,” he says. “It’s just nice to be able to sing songs about being in love, or being yourself.”

Palms’ ‘Intensity Sunshine’ is out April 9

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