Q&A with Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo

By Stacy Gueraseva

Thanks, Jet Blue. Not only for your extra leg room and getting me home alive during that one emergency landing, but for introducing me to Neon Indian. The in-flight playlist of a budget airline can be a good place to discover cutting-edge, new music. Who knew?

It was late summer of ’09, and by then, the buzz around this enigmatic Austin/Brooklyn duo had reached fever pitch. Though just a few months old, Neon Indian was already being touted by bloggers as the next big indie thing (many called them the “new MGMT”), their then-undisclosed identities igniting rabid curiosity. Somehow, the buzz had passed right by me, and unaware of their rep, I listened to these enchanting, synthy soundscapes while descending over the hyperactive night glow of my destination city, Las Vegas. The effect of the music, set against the backdrop, was deeply cerebral.

Psychic Chasms, Neon Indian’s debut album, is like a gadget that was taken apart by the nimble hands of a tech nerd and then reassembled—with a few pieces pleasantly out of place. Or like a random ‘70s movie on a dusty VHS tape that you dug out of a storage box in your parents’ basement and then ran through the latest editing software, preserving some of the vintage quality while adding modern bells and whistles. It sounds like the future—the kind of future imagined in a decidedly ’80s film like Blade Runner. It’s upbeat, it’s mellow; introspective and carefree.

It all came from the mind of Alan Palomo, a 21-year-old Mexico native who grew up in Denton, Texas and moved to Austin in 2007. It was there that Palomo, during a kind of self-imposed creative isolation sometime around the winter of 2008, pumped out a series of short tracks in his bedroom, using a small yet sufficient set of tools. When he found that they didn’t fit the style of his other outfit, the more poppier-sounding band Vega, he filed them under a new project with collaborator Leanne Macomber, the project now known as Neon Indian.

Recently back from a worldwide tour—including three sold-out shows in New York City—Palomo shared the story behind the buzz with NERDTORIOUS.

What was it like for you, moving to the States from Mexico at age six?
Definite culture shock. It was a complete immersion process. I have these vivid memories of being in all-English classrooms and having these really specific moments where I didn’t know how to say a certain word. I remember this kid had accidentally spit on me and I was trying to tell the teacher, and all I could come up with was, “His mouth water was on me!” Because I didn’t know how to say saliva. At the same time, as a result of that, I got assimilated pretty quickly. I think I learned English in maybe 8 months to a year. It’s nuts how, when you’re little, you pick up a language like it’s a video game or something.

Are you still fluent in Spanish?
I am. I don’t get to practice it nearly as much as I’d like to. I have relatives [in Mexico] and whenever I’m talking to them, they kind of notice that I’ve developed a very slight English accent. So I’m kind of their gringo cousin, Mr. Living-in-America.

Have you guys played in Mexico yet?
No. But actually, we’re slated to play at Todd P’s little day festival that he’s doing in Monterrey the Sunday after SXSW. It’s kind of long overdue because my cousins keep asking me, ‘When are you gonna come to Mexico, when are you gonna come to Mexico?’ And now I can finally just be like, ‘This is what I’ve been up to for the past year!’

Amazing year, right?
Oh man, absolutely. It’s very surreal.

Around this time last year, what did you visualize, what were you hoping would happen?
Oh man, I remember it was very kind of a weird time in Austin. I feel like Neon Indian was kind of birthed as a result. I think I had just written or was in the process of writing, “I Should’ve Taken Acid With You,” and I didn’t have any particular expectations. It was sort of just this thing that I made. Around this time last year, if you told me that Neon Indian was sort of on the cusp, I would not have believed a word of it.

That you would be selling out shows in New York City.
No, totally. Because I hadn’t even written the songs yet. Even when I did, I think the last thing on my mind was, 900 Brooklynites are gonna be singing along to this pretty soon! It wasn’t really the thing that came to mind. It’s been very much of a whirlwind.

Can you describe the creative space where you were coming up with the music, and just piecing it all together
I predominantly worked on the record in my room in Austin, living in this little two bedroom apartment with my friend Danny. I had my synths laid out, I had this MS-20 clone and a Prophet 08, and I had a Juno-106 at the time. It was a small amount of gear, but definitely enough to record with. Pretty much the only things I had in my room were my records, which played a big part in getting into that state of mind to just write or to kind of lethargically meander around my room and think about the past four years, which is kind of what much of this record is about. It was kind of this thing where I fell into this rhythm, or lack thereof. I had finally decided to not go to [film] school that semester, and decided that I was gonna work on music. I’d go out to like I Heart Video, which is this rental store in Austin that specializes in more macabre kind of film releases, walk around and pick some stuff at random.

I remember watching this Werner Herzog movie called Stroszek which is a very intense, very brooding movie about this German invalid that falls in love with this prostitute and moves to the midwest to become a cowboy and slowly begins to lose his mind shortly thereafter. Apparently, it’s the movie they found in Ian Curtis’ VHS player after he hung himself. I definitely developed a pattern between watching movies about isolated people and sort of being in that state, where I was feeling relatively isolated. When I moved from Denton to Austin, I had this expectation in my mind that I was gonna tap into this musical community and that I was gonna find a lot more people that were doing electronic music. That definitely didn’t turn out being the case.

Why not?
Austin is something you gotta invest a little time into to get something out of it. You sort of have to be an Austin patron to really be able to get around and see what’s happening on a given weekend. And I didn’t have that at the time, I had a very small group of friends that I would see occasionally. But for the most part, I was sort of thrown into this place where I kind of had to just work on music, cause that’s what I set out to do, and if not, then I’d just feel very stir-crazy, because there wasn’t much else to do. So my creative space was just kind of bridled with movie rentals and records and a few synths, and just kind of working on music like on the floor.

Film was obviously a big influence, but what kind of music was exciting you at the time?
In terms of electronic stuff, for influence and reference, I listened to a lot of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Todd Rundgren, who I feel is the undisputed master of sentimental sappy sentimental pop songs, integrated with these bizarre and innovative modular synth sounds. I remember compiling this mixtape for a penpal at the time that I actually have been listening to lately; it was just sort of a collection of really good wintry songs, there was a lot of The Clientele, which is very nostalgic music for me; I had some Ariel Pink, which I guess is just the obvious influence for Neon Indian and Psychic Chasms; stuff like the Walker Brothers or Cab Calloway, a lot of film score stuff as well. I feel like film and music are kind of inextricably intertwined for me. It’s very difficult for me to see them as mutually exclusive. If I’m working on film, I’m always kind of also thinking of the musical components of it and vice versa, which I guess was the case for Neon Indian.

How important is lyrical content to you and in your songs?
I would say even if the vocals are kind of obscured within the mix or the effects, I still think that lyrics take quite a bit of precedents. I can’t ever really bullshit lyrics. I think I’m always kind of trying to base if off of some kind of personal experience or at least some kind of idealized fantasy of something that may or may not have happened. It’s at least coming from a place that’s very personal to me. In the case of Psychic Chasms, obviously, I chose to make every song sort of be like these little snapshots, these pivotal moments in relationships where you’re introduced to this combination of feelings. Coming out of high school, which is this very angsty place of infatuation, but it’s becoming convoluted with the experience of college and life; when things take that turn where it’s not nearly as unadulterated.

I feel like, through the introspection, I was free to really dissect the last couple of years. In a place like Denton, you’re constantly surrounded by friends and people you know; it’s like you’re exercising the act of being yourself around other people. And when you’re starting over in this new place and you stop being surrounded by the people or the routines that remind you of yourself—you’re kind of this collection of memories. You don’t really get to exercise your personality. So you’re just stuck in this introspective mess, so to speak. That was really why I started writing those songs, it sort of came out as this creative exercise. And the lyrics were very much so a part of that. The title, Psychic Chasms, is sort of this idea that I was exploring this introspective space, like conducting some kind of interior land survey, so to speak. Venturing the “psychic chasms”.

You mentioned Todd Rundgren earlier [whose “Izzat Love” is sampled on “Deadbeat Summer“]. How do you approach sampling, in general?
One of my favorite records is Since I Left You by the Avalanches, which is just this little wonderland of musical references and it seems very cerebral in that way. Cause they’ve managed to somehow take what must have been thousands of little loops and samples and soundbites just from people talking and created this completely new and absolutely fresh record out of it. And I feel like, as long as sampling is coming from that particular place, then I have a vast appreciation for it. In Psychic Chasms, when I was trying to find the most out of using these little samples, I always kind of saw it as a component of the song or a good starting point to sort of build off of. Or start on the opposite way, where you kind of have this existing song idea, and it’s sort of an abstraction because it’s just the bassline and some drum machine rhythms and a guitar and then you kind of throw in these little arrangements that come from other places. And even when I perform live, I try to be very candid about the origin of the sample.

Like when I’m creating some kind of weird little soundscape or introduction into a song, like let’s say “Deadbeat Summer,” I pretty much let “Izzat Love” play out as sort of this tongue-in-cheek nod or wink at the fact that this song does exist and it’s a really good song too. I love the original song, and I wouldn’t have wanted to use it if I didn’t think that I could recontextualize it in a fun way, to push more the ideas that I was motivated by at the time, which I guess was the notion of having a deadbeat summer.

What about sample clearance? Did you have to clear all of them?
I definitely cleared “Izzat Love” and anything aside from that is so obscured in the process. I feel like, obviously if it’s something that you’re paying homage to, which was such an obvious reference like “Deadbeat Summer,” everything else in the album is so well-obscured that it really just serves as just little components of the music. So those other ones actually I think if I put it out on a bigger label, I could very much so consider the option of. But if I told you that the Doobie Brothers were somewhere on that record, would you be able to find it? But even then, on the vinyl sleeve, which is now it’s a very recent thing that I finally on the CDs and on the actual vinyl, I include not only the lyrics—which I think is a first for a lot of people, so they can kind of see where I’m coming from, cause I get a lot of random myspace messages or emails about people just wanting to know just what it is that I’m saying on this particular song—I also have included on the bottom, this little acknowledgment: “Featuring samples from.” And I even put my dad’s name in there. [Alan’s father is Jorge Palomo, a former pop singer in Mexico]

Where does he appear?
On “6669” and “7000.” It was from his second record that he put out in the 80s, which was something that I had been always really mesmerized by. It took a while for me to come full circle and to really respect my dad musically. I mean, I always thought it was really cool but I never really appreciated it on a music level until coming from the perspective of a musician. So I think that was kind of my way of being able to pay a little homage and to be able to write something that was sort of influenced by the kind of sounds that he was coming up with. Because there’s this particular synth line that’s always been really, really haunting ever since I heard it, and that was kind of what I ended up using in the background of those songs.

Why didn’t you guys reveal your identities sooner? Was that done on purpose?
I think the primary motivation for being anonymous was that I didn’t want the music to be judged pre-emptively, based on any other associations that I had with other music. I kind of had this idea that people would start judging it in reference to something like Vega. They’d say, “Oh, this is just a trippier Vega!’ Or Vega would be like a “dancier Neon Indian.” It seemed to make a lot more sense to sort of let the music speak for itself. But eventually it did get to this point where I realized that my perceptions of Neon Indian were changing as people’s perceptions were forming about it, and I realized that it was gonna become this thing that was definitely gonna take prominence over any other musical project, at least for the time being. And as a result of that, I came to the conclusion that just trying to retain anonymity was gonna become a huge nuisance. And eventually when it came to start doing interviews and to play live, I just kind of decided to let people find out for themselves.

Have you been approached by any major labels?
Well, I’ve been approached by quite a few labels over the past three, four months. And I’m kind of in the final bouts of settling—I’m sort of in-between three right now. Can’t publicize which just yet. I have at some point, talked to different major labels, and it’s funny because I think that initially—before “Psychic Chasms” even came out and there was this internet buzz—there were a lot of people mainly more interested in the notion of recontextualizing the music or re-recording it in a studio environment and making them these big, MGMT-style pop hits.

A lot of people thought that maybe the songs would’ve had a lot more impact if they were straight-forward, pristine-cut pop songs. And even then, when I was starting Neon Indian or didn’t even realize what is was—I just had this batch of songs—I was trying to re-record them as Vega tracks, and I realized that it just wasn’t fitting. It was definitely its own kind of beast. And I just came to the conclusion that these songs already existed in their best possible incarnation. Part of the whole creative exercise of writing Psychic Chasms was that I didn’t wanna spend more than two or three days on a given song. It was just like, “Don’t let the songwriting get convoluted, don’t slave so much over the production, just get these songs out and finished.” And that’s why I was able to write it within such a short amount of time. I would never wanna betray the roots of what Neon Indian came out of by wanting it to be reinterpreted with, like, an eight-piece string section, saxophone player! Or what I think about when I think of cheesy, over-produced pop songs; have a cameo from, like, what’s that guy? Scatman John.

The whole MGMT-comparison must have been a little annoying. I personally don’t see it.
Neither do I. I feel like that’s just kind of a journalist thing. People try to draw references. It seems like people’s musical scopes in terms of the media reference, it can’t exceed like two years or something. Like they wouldn’t be able to make a comparison to something that came out in 2001, cause it’s like, ‘Who’s gonna connect to that?’ So it has to be this very immediate, like, ”the pop element of it, we’re just gonna say is like an MGMT.” Usually, I tend to not take comparisons very seriously, cause they seem to come from all sorts of crazy places. Like when you look at Lastfm and you look at similar artists and you’re kind of like, Yeah, I mean we’re all coming out at the same time, but I don’t think we sound anything alike.

Have you been putting any new stuff together while on the road?
On the road, I’ve mainly been working on remixes. It’s kind of tough to work on remixes on the road, because I think when people are plotting these musical opportunities for you as well as mapping out these tours, it’s just like: “Oh, you’re gonna be on the road all day, just put some headphones on with your laptop and work on some music!” I’m trying to explain that it’s just not how it works. Or just being in a situation where you’re trying to find the time within hotel rooms or crashing on people’s couches, to be able to pull out your synth and get some kind of recording set up.

I will have these kinds of strides where I’ll be with friends that had their own little studio rigs and me just being able to try to be a good enough producer to be able to replicate the kind of Neon Indian aesthetic within the tools that are already readily available. “I’m gonna try to be the best Neon Indian I can be within this context.” Which made the remixes have quite a bit of variety, just because I was always working with different resources, and it’s funny that the Grizzly Bear one doesn’t sound an awful lot like the Au Revoir Simone one. But I am actually working on some kind of short Neon Indian EP, maybe like 3 or 4 songs, kind of be its own thing, maybe a collection of singles, or it could be something that would be added if I were to re-rerelease Psychic Chasms on a bigger label, kind of bonus tracks. This year is gonna be a lot about developing Vega as well. This next month, when I move up to New York, I’m gonna be heavily immersed and finally writing the first Vega record, which is kind of an ambitious project, given that I’m putting it out on Fool’s Gold and I can’t say who the producers are just yet, but I can definitely tell you that they’re extended members of the Fool’s Gold’s family, definitely a band that I’ve taken much influence from.

Do you feel like, with having two bands, you have to kind of compete with yourself almost?
Oh totally. But it’s not that difficult to compartmentalize the music, because I feel like Neon Indian and Vega come from very different musical objectives. But it is getting kind of to this point where it’s like, Wow, so the debut Vega album is really more like my sophomore record. It’s still coming from me and it’s still something that, when you look at it in the linear sense, it’s coming as a direct reaction to Psychic Chasms. So it is like I have to outdo myself to a certain extent. Because Vega, obviously, is a pop project and it’s something that I am very unabashedly connected to—wanting to pursue those same kind of musical ambitions as writing a Prince song. Looking at it from that perspective, what I’m gonna have to do after that is write another Neon Indian record, which is gonna have to be the reaction to that, so I’m constantly trying to sort of create these very clear defined concepts that I can build off, so that once again I don’t turn it into like, “Well, that Vega album sounded like a dancier Neon Indian record.” It has to have its distinction and I’m constantly working on being able to fine-tune what those distinctions are.

The whole album is just over 30 minutes, and the songs themselves are quite short. Was the brevity of it done on purpose or was that just how the songs came out?
I think that’s just how the songs came out. It’s about getting the point across and once you’ve done it, the song is over. And I think, creatively, it was coming out in these very brief spurts, so I think the fact that the album was that long was kind of perfect for what it was. It’s just a very immediately subversive experience, a production style that obviously evokes these very nostalgic qualities that you don’t find necessarily dictated in lyrics. It creates a narrative, just by the style of the music. And I feel like, once again tying into the film thing, I wanted to just have this very brief experience, it’s very fleeting and then—boom!—30 minutes, it’s over. And then you can put Animal Collective back on.

* Stacy Gueraseva is the author of the acclaimed Def Jam Records biography, Def Jam, Inc. (Random House 2005). A former editor in chief of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld Magazine, she has also contributed to XXL, The Source, Vibe, Interview and other publications. You can also find her on her blog, Strangetopia. Stacy wrote this exclusively for NERDTORIOUS.


4 thoughts on “Q&A with Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo

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