For those who follow the latest trends and “it” bands in the indie rock scene, Neon Indian kinda came out of nowhere as the hyped band of 2009. The lo-fi dance-rock quartet’s songs “Deadbeat Summer” and “Terminally Chill” were summer dance anthems for those who read hipster blogs and tastemaker websites like Gorilla Vs. Bear and Pitchfork. The Brooklyn-based band’s sound was so fresh yet retro that it inspired a new genre name: chillwave. And this was all before their debut album, Psychic Chasms, dropped in October (making best-of-2009 lists shortly after).
As it turned out, Neon Indian was the third in a line of popular music projects created by Denton songwriter/producer/film student Alan Palomo. Before Indian, we Texans recognized Palomo as the man behind the glossy house-music group VEGA.
A year has now passed since the Summer of Chillwave, but Neon Indian is still selling out shows across the country and playing major festivals like Bonnaroo. The band’s staying power can be attributed to Palomo’s psychic-like sense of what sounds and song structures will resonate with the terminally hip. He has his pulse on the indie music world, and he doesn’t appear to be letting up any time soon.
But what has been lost in all the hype is the background of the man behind the hippest band of ’09. Few people know that Palomo was born in Mexico and raised in San Antonio. His father, Jorge, was an accomplished pop singer in Mexico. I spoke with Palomo recently about this often-overlooked side of his story, as well as future plans of his.
Neon Indian photos by Chantel Clopine, taken at Fun Fun Fun Fest 2009
Ajay: All right, man. Well, first off, just start off my telling me your name and the band’s name.
Alan: OK. My name is Alan Palomo and I am in Neon Indian.
Ajay: Cool, man. You were one of the most talked about acts last year, and deservedly so. It’s very cool. You have this kind of like experimental but also accessible at the same time kind of sound. But the one think that I noticed from all the write-ups that doesn’t necessarily get glossed over, but it’s really rarely kind of a focal point is your background.
Alan: Yeah, absolutely.
Ajay: Like where you were born and kind of your upbringing. Let’s talk about that. Tell the people where you were born.
Alan: Totally. Well, I was born in El Monterey [sp] and I moved to San Antonio when I was like five or six. I go back there usually like once or twice a year. Yeah, I’ve kind of lived all over Texas. I mean San Antonio is where I’ve lived most of my life. And then at some point, I lived in Denton, UNT, which is where I really started making music. And that’s where my first two project started, like Ghost Hustler and then Vega. And then I moved to Austin, and Austin was kind of like the conception of Neon Indian.
Ajay: And so was Denton more like college year stuff? Where did you grow up mostly?
Alan: Oh, Denton is definitely college years. I would stay I was still a little kid, relatively, when I moved to the US. But San Antonio is probably where I’d say I…
Ajay: Where you spent most of your formative years?
Alan: For sure.
Ajay: Cool, man. Did you grow up around music? What got you into music?
Alan: Well, you know, it’s kind of funny. I mean my family is pretty musical in a sense. My brother has been a musician since as early as I can remember; he’s always picked up a couple of different instruments. I mean these days, bass is certainly his focus. And that’s what he studied in college. My dad has actually been a musician his whole life as well. I mean like by the time of my brother and I were born ,the bulk of his catalogue was already recorded, and he had already gone through most of that. It really provided this kind of interesting background, at least culturally, for us growing up. I mean we grew up around a lot of pop music. I remember Sunday afternoons cleaning the house and my parents would put on records or something and hearing like a lot of Beatles, or Doobie Brothers. You know, a lot of like ‘60s and ‘70s pop. And like MJ, of course, and things like that.
But it was funny, because then you’d also have something like [xx 2:10] Fernandez or Miguel. Just like random stuff. It was a real kind of smorgasbord of, I guess, cultural reference points. And yeah, I mean it still kind of echoes in the background, especially on Psychic Chasms. I sample my dad on two of the songs. I took some of his recordings form the late ‘70s and just interjected them into little parts of the songs.
Ajay: What kind of stuff did he do?
Alan: He actually did kind of…I mean the first one was real, like, orchestral balody, you know, like kind of ‘70s pop stuff, which was very prominent in Mexico at the time. I think that was when he was living in Mexico City. But later on, he started doing more, like, pollen oats [? sp]. You know, kind of that electro-rock, early ‘80s kind of stuff where it’s like a lot of drum machines and guitars kind of thing. And a couple of synths here and there. And that’s usually the kind of stuff that has come to influence me a little more, just in terms of like…
Ajay: That’s cool, man. So from what I understand, you studied film.
Alan: Yeah, totally. Well, I mean I grew up around…My mom was actually a news anchor for Telemundo for a while. So, you know, that was kind of where more of my interest in film…
Ajay: In San Antonio?
Alan: Yeah, totally. Totally. Yeah, at some point I started showing a real vested interesting. Not only in just acting or stuff like that, but just like filmmaking in general. I remember I started really getting heavily into film around the end of middle school. I remember my mom…It was the year that Stanley Kubrick died, so that entire week Cinemax was playing a bunch of his stuff. And I remember I watched some with my mom, which was kind of interesting. I’m sure “A Clockwork Orange” the first time around, and “Barry Lyndon” really fucking blew my mind.
Ajay: I know. Especially…you were probably a kid, that’s mind blowing stuff.
Alan: Totally, totally. And stuff like that has definitely kind of echoed on as an influence. But it’s funny, because I still haven’t necessarily given up on film. I think that right now music is this really interesting deviation, because I didn’t have any interest in making music until college. And it was kind of more of a social thing. I mean I had the drive for it, but it was kind of more to be a part of this musical community. And the fact that there was a lot of stuff happening around that time that was really exciting as far as music…
Ajay: Well, in Denton especially, from what I understand. I’ve been there a couple times but I haven’t really delved into it all that deeply. But from what I understand there is a pretty good music scene there; a lot of creative musical minds there.
Alan: There is. Absolutely. And the one difference between there and Austin, I mean in Denton it’s such a confined space. You know, that real sense of community, it gets just pounded in, in terms of just meeting a small set of musicians sharing similar influences, and then, all of a sudden, you’ve got like these little micro-genres that pop un in the area.
Ajay: So let’s talk about your musical journey. You got into it kind of late. I mean did you start with an instrument or did you start more with kind of producing stuff?
Alan: Actually, I started more with…It was kind of a mix of both. Like, Ghosthustler, that was my first real attempt at making music. And the nature of electronic music is it forces you to look at it from the perspective of what would be every musician in the band. It’s just like you have to program the drums, you’re thinking about the bass and the synth lines. And then you start getting really heavily into the production of it and the esthetic that you’re trying to tap into. And it’s weird; Ghosthustler was kind of this like boot camp for developing all the sensibilities very quickly. I mean I was working with three other guys. But much of the objective behind Ghosthustler was to be able to keep up with our musical peers in that genre. So each song was trying to make like these massive production strides. And like, “All right, for this next single we have to finally learn how to EQ our fucking drums or compress them properly.” Just trying to fit all these things in these individual single. Which was, after a while, actually, pretty miserable. But it definitely allowed me to develop the chops to eventually just move onto my next projects and develop from there.
Ajay: think probably being in the digital age, too, probably speeds up the learning curve. You see all sides of it as opposed to the…
Alan: It does. Absolutely. And you, you know, you have like the interfaces that allow you to just look at it from those multiple perspectives. It’s one thing to write a guitar line, but it becomes a completely different realm to give it character and then figure out where it fits in the mix or something like that.
Ajay: That’s cool. Well, you have the new single that came out recently. You made a music video for that.
Alan: Oh yeah, Sleep Paralysist.
Ajay: It’s a pretty cool music video. Your first music video, right?
Alan: Yeah. Like, well the first formal budget one. The only one I’ve ever had before that was one for Ghosthustler which was made with this guy Pedos [sp]. But that was only one that I…I mean Sleep Paralysist was the only one like where we flew somewhere, we had a budget, and like, you know, we had like a couple days to just explore Lexington, Kentucky and all of its incredibly bizarre fucking nooks.
Ajay: I know it’s like a really kind of surreal kind of video. How much input did you have given your film background?
Alan: Well, I mean, you know, when we first started receiving treatments for it, one of the names that immediately popped into my head was Focus Creeps [sp], because I had seen some of the stuff they did for the Morning Benders and those girls videos that got a lot of attention. And I thought that they were incredibly versatile and really competent dudes. And I love how they really knew how to work with kind of these more grainier mediums. You know, like filming on old Super 8 cameras and stuff like that. And that kind of really struck a chord with me as far as the esthetics of Neon Indian go and what I wanted to translate as far as visuals.
Ajay: Low-fi visuals and low-fi music in a way?
Alan: Oh, yeah. And you’ll even see tonight. That’s what we do in terms of the actual projections, we have a friend that does live video synthesis with like some pretty weird modular video synthesizer stuff. And it’s kind of that same thing. It’s like taking these sort of vaguely familiar childhood references and running them through this low-fi psychedelic filter.
But more for the video of Sleep Paralysist, it was interesting, because they approached me with an idea that wasn’t necessarily ambiguous, but it was just kind of…it really set the template to have a lot of different elements that could happen spontaneously on the shoot. And the concept for it was actually pretty simple. It was just kind of this, you know, having me be this transient tourist in this sort of world of dream logic. And it’s like this dream landscape, and there’s a lot of imagery and a lot of sort of references, but it’s really hard to sort of garner what the sense of it all is.
And once we actually got there, it was more of a question of exploring the space around us and finding these props and these different things. And I feel like they’re really good at that. They’re really good at just creating some kind of surreal situation and then everyone just runs around frantically trying to do their best to capture it. And then you’ve got all this footage that I think they edited very brilliantly.
Ajay: You just said something there a little while ago that I think also kind of touches on the music, which is kind of there’s an internal sense. There’s like a, you know, it’s more emotional, but also has kind of like an internalness to it. Your music tends to be more out of the…the lyrics tend to be autobiographical and kind of more personal. There’s more psychology than sociology, I guess would be one way to put it.
Alan: Totally. Yeah. But to me, the most fascinating thing….because I mean initially writing it, especially here in Austin where I was having like the most introspective, alienating year of my life; I’m in my own head for a few months, and it leads to eventually the end games that I write these songs. But now that it’s kind of been a year…Or well, I guess not entirely a year. A year since I finished the album and it started circulating on the Internet. It’s really interesting how it’s been completely recontextualized. And it becomes sociology in the sense that suddenly you have these incredibly personal experiences that you are trying to articulate through these lyrics. And the associations become incredibly ambiguated. And it’s not…it no longer is just about your private narratives that are being injected into this music, but it becomes about everyone’s associations with it and what they think when they listen to the music. I mean that in and of itself is pretty interesting. I like that component of it.
Ajay: That’s kind of like what happens when you’re done making it, and you are kind of giving your baby over to the world.
Alan: Oh, totally. It’s no longer yours, in a sense. It becomes everyone’s.
Ajay: Well, where are you at musically? I mean you have VEGA and you have Neon Indian. What’s your priority? Are there any plans to even touch on and do some other projects?
Alan: Well, there’s a few collaborations that can happen organically. But I think for the most part, the main thing that I’m focusing on is writing the VEGA record, which will happen in October. And then this winter I just want to get completely immersed in the next Neon Indian record. I think as soon as we’re done touring, which will be in October, I just want to completely hibernate in the studio for like six months and see what happens.
Ajay: Given your background and upbringing, have you ever thought or has anybody ever pushed you kind of into touching on Latin sounds in any way?
Alan: You know, I have considered for the next Neon Indian record maybe trying a song in Spanish or something. It’s funny. There’s a lot of like EVN and early ‘80s industrial music that I’ve found that, whether it’s from Mexico or Spain, or some other Central American countries, it’s just as…I mean it’s Just as relevant. Or I’m surprised to find that there aren’t more people in these sub-genres that get more attention. There’s this band Leazon St. Jurosis [sp] from Spain that has so many songs in Spanish that are incredible. And it’s just tough as any like, anything from like Mean [sp] records or something like that. Actually, it’s funny. There first singles were on that label.
But yeah, I definitely have every intention of trying that out at some point.
Ajay: There seems to be a resurgence in interest in music…I mean I feel like for a long time Latin America got overlooked in a lot of ways, but people are starting to be interested again. I just bought this compilation the other day from Waterloo which is like this old ‘50s, ‘60s garage rock, like proto garage rock sounding stuff that’s all from this record label out of Spain called Belter [sp]. And it sounds like stuff out of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but it’s like all people from Spain. So I feel like in the genre there’s like a resurgence kind of interst, like, “Maybe we overlooked them. Maybe we should go back.”
Alan: Well people always want to see how something can be recontextualized through a different culture. I mean it’s funny like now…I see some trends in electronic music right now that people are starting to do this sort of like reggae tone beats or something, like that band Tan Lines or Lemonade. You’ve got all these bands in Brooklyn that are still very…that still have all these like sort of techno or even just like low-fi electronic components to their sound, but they are starting to mess more with these like world percussion rhythms. And it’s funny, because it’s like, you know, you might as well have it come straight from the source. I’d like to see like an actual Mexican take on industrial electronic music or something.
Ajay: I like the story about how Neon Indian kind of got off the ground with that first song…
Alan: Oh, “Should Have Taken Acid With You”? Totally.
Ajay: It’s a funny story, man. The one question, the silly question is like, if you could take acid with anybody, who would it be and why?
Alan: Wow, man. I don’t know. Who’s somebody that…Well, as far as filmmakers go, maybe Michelangelo Antonioni would be someone pretty interesting. Let me think. As far as musicians go, I don’t know. I’d probably like to take acid with Todd Rengren [sp], but only if I could be in his studio at the time.
Ajay: So you could see what happens, what kind of crazy collaborations come out of it?
Alan: Oh, yeah. Totally.
Ajay: That would be pretty sweet. I guess the last thing I want to touch on, you’re sound has been…It’s funny, because we talked about earlier, you mentioned MJ being a big influence. And kind of in your stage presence, I can see that being a big influence, just in like trying to do the moves or whatever, and a lot of the sounds are very ‘80s. It seems to be that a lot of bands from Brooklyn now are sounding like the ‘80s. I know everything is kind of like cyclical, but why do you think that’s coming back now? What’s the appeal?
Alan: Well, I mean I think that…It’s kind of funny, because I made this analogy not too long ago. You’ve got all these different genres that are constantly coming up, specifically from like just different guitar sounds or textures or tones that you really kind of get out of that. And there seems to be a lot of variety because you have so much control over it, and there’s a sort of unstable quality. It all depends on…It’s a very responsive instrument. It’s completely reliant on the person who is playing it.
But as far as electronics go, especially these days, you have a lot of..I don’t know. To me, all the new digital synths are really like stale and predictable because they come with all these built-in sounds. It’s not so much about kind of like the more ungelating, unstable qualities about it. And when people start messing with analog synths, they generally tend to have this more like ‘80s sound to them. I mean they are like these old esoteric pieces of equipment that break down constantly, and they have a lot of character, though. I mean that’s kind of the point, you know, is that the sound won’t…It won’t even sound the same from beginning to end of the song, let alone a different show.
And I think that people kind of like having that sense of identity with electronics, as well as just any other instrument that you can play. And I guess, you know, by association, it kind of ends up sounding a little bit like the ‘80s because that was kind of the proliferation of those instruments.
But I think that people are more concerned with kind of injecting their more psychedelic qualities now than perhaps then when it was a little bit more formulaic.
Ajay: I guess I just don’t kid of think of electronic instruments in terms of having character, because, like, a lot of people who are still old-fashioned, it’s like the antithesis of character almost.
Alan: Oh, totally. But I think if you look at anything hard enough or mess with anything, a lot of times it can develop its own identity.
Ajay: And you just mentioned earlier maybe doing a song in Spanish. Are you fluent in Spanish?
Alan: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, of course. I mean that’s all I talk to my parents in and anybody that I come across that knows Spanish.
Ajay: You said you were six, maybe, when you moved here?
Alan: Yeah. I mean like I think what’s always continued to develop my vocabulary in Spanish is just like hanging out with my family a lot. And I mean, yeah, sometimes if I’m a little out of practice I develop a very mild accent that I tend to be very self-conscious about. I try always to just eliminate it as much as possible. Otherwise, my cousins start calling me a Gringo.
Ajay: That’s funny.
Alan: But, you know. On the road it’s kind of interesting. Whenever you meet someone…especially in a different country. Like, I’ve run into people from like De Efe or like [xx 17:02] who will be in Helsinki, or just like I’ll see them in Copenhagen or something. And it will give us definitely something to talk about, in Spanish, of course.
Ajay: Cool. So your family moving, was it just kind of like a typical experience, or was it more moving more in the sense that…because you said he was like a professional singer.
Alan: Yeah, totally. I think my dad came to the US first, and then we migrated there may be like two years after. So I think he was kind of getting everything set up for us. I mean I didn’t become a US citizen until high school. So yeah, it started off as just like an alien impermanent residence and then, you know, I ran the gauntlet.
Ajay: Well that’s cool, man. I think it’s important to talk about something that people probably don’t even…
Alan: Yeah, totally.
Ajay: I think with the blogosphere now, it’s all so kind of impersonal. It’s like, here is an MP3, but you don’t know who’s behind it necessarily, you know?
Alan: Yeah, absolutely.
Ajay: So it’s just interesting once you actually dig in and see, “Oh, that’s who’s doing this? Oh, that’s cool.”
Alan: No, of course. And I think it’s interesting when you kind of broaden that scope. I remember when I was at Sasquatch, Public Enemy was just like spouting off about Arizona and the controversy over there, which I thought was really awesome on their part that they had like an opinion. But it’s really funny, because people don’t take it into consideration when it’s like, “Yeah, well, you know, you’re listening to a guy that came to the US when he was really young and had to go through a lot to eventually become a citizen.” So it’s kind of interesting that people sort of tend to dismiss those aspects of it, you know?
But I mean, yeah, not to say that I’m writing music specifically as a nod to my heritage. My music is for everyone.
Ajay: Well that’s what I mean. It’s so broad and kind of appealing that it has like a good pop esthetic to it that you wouldn’t even consider, necessarily, who’s behind it. You know, you would just, “Oh, this is a dude who makes good music.” But so when people find out that, “Oh, he was born in Mexico. Oh, he grew up in San Antonio,” it’s kind of like, “Oh, that’s cool.” It’s like these two different contrasting things where it’s like…I like bridging that and finding out how he got to be that guy who is making that music. There’s only so many ways you can talk about the music. I like talking about the people behind it.
Ajay: Cool man. Well, that was it. If you have anything else you want to throw out there…
Alan: Just enjoy the show.