Neon Indian's Alan Palomo Talks Creativity and Musical Narrative

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Neon Indian's Alan Palomo Talks Creativity and Musical Narrative

The fact that Alan Palomo is a night owl is less a revelation of the 27-year-old’s lifestyle and more a common-sense reflection of the music he creates. Since 2009, Palomo’s work under the Neon Indian moniker has garnered the Mexican-born artist merited acclaim due to its hybrid form of electronica, psychedelic rock and pop. With ”[enter vague noun here]-wave” serving as one of the current critical hivemind’s love children, Palomo’s dissimilarity is that much more noteworthy. With this month’s release of Neon Indian’s third full-length, Vega Intl. Night School, Palomo’s characteristic psychedelic backdrop takes on a slightly reserved role, allowing what quickly becomes apparent in the musician’s understanding of dance music channeled through reinterpretation as opposed to the more prevalent regurgitation that relegates many of his contemporaries to retrospective monotony. In talking to Palomo recently, the now Brooklyn-based artist was unabashedly honest and at times even vulnerable in the uncertainty he has concerning the source of his creativity and how the narrative of his music is constantly evolving.

Paste : It’s been four years since Era Extraña. That album was a bit more austere than your debut, and there are certainly elements of that with Vega Intl. Night School. What was the difference creatively speaking for you with this record as opposed to the previous two?
Alan Palomo: I think the biggest component here was time. I think I had written the last record in a different context, and I think it was the first time that I really understood that making music is a vocational trade that kind of comes with pros and cons. We were still touring for the last record when I had to start working on it, and it’s that sort of industry cliché that people talk about where they say, “Well, you’ve got your whole life to write that first record, and you’ve got six months to write the second one.” And that proved itself to be true because I felt like it was kind of this whole process. Like it was very much like Led Zeppelin II or something [laughs] where they built the narrative of that first album, and then they kept wanting to perpetuate it until the record was this amalgam of all the pockets of time they had between tours. That being said, I love Era Extraña, but I wouldn’t write that record in that context again, because it was kind of a stressful experience. I told myself: “Well, you know, you have this three-and-a-half year whirlwind just kind of doing these two records back to back, and you were pretty much on tour for most of that time. And this time around, before I even start working on the record, I wanna just live in New York.” I had been living here for a few years and hadn’t actually spent much time in my neighborhood, so I just really wanted to take it easy at the risk of losing that narrative, and to some extent I think what had some kind of solace was the fact that I was doing other things at the time. I was making a couple of short films. I wrote a screenplay, and it never occurred to me that the only mode of expression I had was one medium in music and this one band called Neon Indian. I think that’s something that was liberating because I was able to come back to it with joy and be like: make the new record when you’re ready to make the new record. It was a bit of a learning curve because I wanted the project to open a little bit, and I realized that my technical abilities would have to catch up with the idea that I had. It was this process of trying to better myself as a musician and as a producer, and I would say that the similarity that would exist between some of the more kind of syrupy sample mashing and a lot of the things you would have heard maybe in Psychic Chasms. To some extent, this was done with the intention of wanting it to be the amalgam of everything I’ve done up until this point, Vega included, which is partly how it found its way into the title. And in a strange way, that was partly motivated by the fact that as I started writing Vega songs and initially wanting to make a Vega record, I kind of realized that I was just splitting hairs over the aesthetics, and that at this point it didn’t warrant two projects anymore. My tastes and my intentions were sharpening to this one point, which is what this album wound up being.

Paste : You mentioned losing that narrative. Is that a risk you’ve found yourself more willing to take as you’ve progressed as an artist where experience dictates more and more of what you create?
Palomo: Yeah, to some extent, there are certain things that I might romanticize about my past that would find their way into the music, but those things are so very separate. In some ways, I always like to look at the records like if you were making a film, and it was its own cohesive statement. There’s always going to be some elements that are aggrandizing— perhaps self-aggrandizing—and complete mutations and exaggerations of actual events that happened to you. And with this album, it was kind of meant to be more like this kind of Scorcese’s After Hours meets Airplane kind of goofball experience of the misadventures in nighttime in New York. There’s a certain element of comedy on the record, but there’s also this idea where I sort of gave myself carte blanche to include as much of myself as I wanted and to omit as much of myself as I wanted. If you’re screenwriting, you could always include elements of your life, but at the end of the day, you want to just make a compelling story. And to limit it by what would be entirely autobiographical components didn’t necessarily feel like that was going to make for the best record. And to some extent, those are just some of the things you’re singing on top of the music, too. I think sonically I was more concerned with lumping these almost cartoonish, hideous palates that came to be some sort of weird American pop culture vomit style where we’re turning into different styles of dance music and having a great time while we’re at it.

Paste : One of the most fascinating aspects of EDM is its relationship to pop culture, and especially so as the genre and art form has become more ingrained into mainstream pop music.
Palomo: What I think is really interesting about that, especially in EDM’s case, is that it sort of seems to have this willful amnesia celebrating the narrative of dance music before it, which is I think why so many people look at it as a bastardization. Like it’s the bastard of disco, and a lot of the things that came before it, but I feel like a lot of twists in genre happen when very naïve people step into the equation that aren’t necessarily calloused by the history of what they’re doing and don’t feel like they’re weighed by it. And in some cases you get some really interesting twists, and then sometimes you get some kind of regurgitation. It’s a crap shoot in terms of what one would hope to expect. I remember in 2006 or 2007 kind of feeling like, wow, all this sort of electro resurgence stuff is really gonna shape contemporary pop music. You think about that dynamic and the irony is, yes, a lot of it did come from that mentality from the past, but those initial things that spawned it would now be lost in that landscape because they were coming from a slightly more schooled perspective of what electronic music and what dance music even is. But that’s just kind of how these things go, right? Even if you listen to something in someone’s basement and you think, wow, this is gonna change the world; it’s never gonna necessarily change it for the better. It’ll certainly influence it, but whatever that initial spirit was just won’t be present because it’s not being made with the same attitude or mentality. They’ve taken the tropes but they’ve got none of the initial sincerity. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic; I just think it’s kind of the way that pop music typically goes. When you have these artists where they take these things from these very specialized individual scenes, it just sort of homogenizes it into this one palatable idea that everyone can find agreeable to some extent, and I think maybe that killed the impetus of what the music was meant to initially be. But that’s what happens when it’s filtered through 50 people who put their own varying opinions and interests about how it would operate in an economy. For me, I even see that in some of the paradigms that I operate. You look at these very contemporary microgenres like vaporwave or two years ago with chillwave, and what’s never made sense to me is it sounds like someone who doesn’t really listen to electronic music is coining it. It’s this idea where if vapor wave is this amalgam of samples of all these different styles of music, how can you extract the origins from what the product actually is? Just because it’s slowed down to ‘80s R&B doesn’t mean it’s no longer ‘80s R&B. I feel like what we construe of a genre seems to be more about the process of making the music than what it seems to be referring to or alluding to and the idea that lo-fi electronic music was fucking new in 2009 seems completely bewildering, because I could give you an example with every decade. You could have Magnetic Fields’ Holiday in the ‘’90s; you have coldwave music in the 80s, and you could have Bruce Haack in the early ‘70s and late ‘60s. There are all these examples of people who were doing exactly what that is on paper, but because anybody can just write about it now, sometimes that stuff just sticks.

Paste : A lot of that homogenization or impulse to immediately categorize comes from music journalism as well, to a large degree.
Palomo: Totally, and to some extent, the idea that at the end of the day a publication has a certain quota or certain words to fill, and someone isn’t necessarily going to put the same amount of thought and care into evaluating the piece of art as the artist doing the making it. That’s just how it is. Every once in a while you’ve got these pop essays, and there’s plenty of great journalists out there who do good work, but I do think there’s also this idea that sometimes you just gotta turn something in, and the crazier you have to be like, “Hm. Okay, ‘slow wave,’ that’s two words, um, I’m counting on my hands how many words are left before I turn this in.” And then that’s the nature of what it becomes. It wasn’t meant to be some sufficient analysis. The variations that are available to us not only in terms of resources and making music, but the angles from which people are coming at it from, I almost wish the genre would disappear, because there are so many specific places from where things are coming from and references to some previous things, and sometimes it’s just someone who didn’t really listen to music before they started making it, and how would you be able to evaluate what that person is doing if it’s not coming from a narrative? But because they took source material from something that did have a narrative, you could lump it into that same category, and something about that feels, I don’t know, it’s a little bit lazy. Maybe the response to that oversaturation is just to be like, “Well, how do we keep up with all this stuff and how do you make it editorially interesting? Well, we’ll call it uh…” That awkward silence should say it all. [Laughs.]

Paste : Now, you started Neon Indian at a fairly young age, and even in the short amount of time since then, are there certain perspectives of your own that you’ve seen change?
Palomo: Well, I think that it’s hard to quantify what the takeaway to my twenties is when I’m still meandering and improvising my way through it, [laughs] but I would say that a lot of the ethos of this album was just this idea that I’ve always been sort of a night person, and it’s not something I say with a sort of romanticism, because I really do envy anyone that can wake up at 8 in the morning and have a really productive afternoon. But at some point I realized, for me making music, even if I try to start early in the day, I always wind up throwing away most of what I do. There seems to be this sort of sanctuary that surrounds the quiet when your friends stop texting you and everyone’s going to sleep. It creates this little pocket of time. I remember someone consoling me, saying, “Well, you know, Prince apparently thinks his best hours of work are 10 to 4 in the morning,” and I’m like, “Well, if it’s good enough for Prince, I can’t complain.” But that’s just where productivity happens for me, whether workwise or whether it’s leisure or life experience. It just happens to be in this time. At the end of the night, talking with friends and just kind of contemplating what we’d like to do with our lives or making sense of what the night’s experiences were, there’s a lot of time for reflection there. And you don’t really get as much of that when you’re at work, or when you’re figuring out what the rest of the day entails. I liked having all of this raw data that I hadn’t processed yet, that I’ll only really process at sleep, but still kind of be reeling from these experiences. It’s a more accurate reflection of who I am as a person. Whether healthily or not, I guess to some extent I’m somewhat nocturnal, and it seems to work out musically. At some point, I think once I’m done touring I might want to get on a slightly better schedule. [Laughs.] Who knows? Maybe I’ll be one of these people that wakes up at the crack of dawn, does some yoga, goes for a jog, and has an office that they operate out of. But for now I kind of like this rampant disorganization that my life seems to be comprised of just because it makes for better music, at least for now.