An Interview with Neon Indian

· Wednesday February 22, 2012

Alan Palomo is Neon Indian in the way Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails. The son of a minor Mexican popstar, Palomo released his debut LP Psychic Chasms on Lefse Records back in 2009. Made from glistening, kool-aid synthesizers and crunchy guitar, Palomo’s first album sounded like it’d been inspired by the soundtrack to a late ’80s cyborg time travel flick (on VHS). Some blogger called this kind of music ‘chillwave’, and the internet started arguing over whether it was cool, possibly forgetting that all music ever is inspired in some way by older music.

Reason prevailed, Psychic Chasms got awesome reviews, and Palomo/Neon Indian followed up by collaborating with the Flaming Lips on a rather tautologically named EP, The Flaming Lips With Neon Indian. As it stands, this record is probably the only concept album in history built on the theme that David Bowie is dying; a niche it could dominate for some time. Most recently, Palomo has released Era Extrana, a swirling vortex of electronica that confirms he’s one of the most talented young dudes in music right now. He even wants to take acid with you, but probably not at the Perth Festival where he’s performing this weekend.

Callum Twigger: (Presses 'Call' on Skype. After about ten seconds the phone rings out and a bizarre message tone clicks in. Each subsequent call goes through to the message tone, which sounds like a drowning robot moaning 'leave a message' over a busted synthesiser. On the seventh attempt, someone picks up). Hello? Is this Alan Palomo?

Alan Palomo: Why yes, yes, this is him. Sorry, my apartment has really bad reception, so I had to step outside.

CT: You’ve a very Neon Indian message tone. The production values were off the chain.

AP: (laughs) It’s been a crazy runaround trying to tie up all the loose ends before I leave town. I’ve been preparing with the band for some of the new songs we’re gonna be playing.

CT: Who are you bringing on tour?

AP: Leanne Macomber and Jason Faries, who’ve been playing since the start. And Josh McWhiter, who plays guitar on the record, is going to be traveling with us. Ed Priesner is the newest member; he’s going to be the wall of electronics that we have to bring with us to keep the operation going.

CT: Sweet. The title of your latest record is ‘Era Extraaaahna’, pardon my atrocious accent…

AP: Hey dude, that was pretty good.

CT: …Shucks. Well, Era Extrana means ‘she’s strange’ or ‘strange era’ in Spanish, doesn’t it?

AP: Yeah, it’s definitely a play on words. I like the idea that in Spanish, the word for strange is also the word ‘to miss,’ and I feel that those feelings are rooted in the same kind of mindset. It creates this tone of depth within that nostalgia. At one end, it can take on the allusions of right now being this strange era – at the time I was pretty captivated by a lot of cyberpunk graphic novels and books – but yeah, it’s an open-ended statement that can be interpreted in numerous ways.

CT: Woah, cyberpunk? That was one of my questions (uh, quote: ‘Are you secretly a cyberpunk?’)

AP: (laughs) Well yeah, man! I haven’t actually heard any cyberpunk music, well, not in the most literal interpretation of ‘cyberpunk’. It’s weird how it’s more of a concept for film and literature than it is for music.

CT: I just tell myself that one day it'll actually be a musical genre, and not just this moribund sub-species of science fiction from like 1992.

AP: I think there’s one album ever that got called cyberpunk. It was this really awful Billy Idol record…

CT: Your video for 'Polish Girl' by Tim Nackashi is all kinds of science fiction. Have you seen Hardware by Richard Stanley? Or Phantom of the Paradise?

AP: You know, that’s funny, because that’s actually one of the images that Nackashi sent over to me: the Phantom of the Paradise, hunched over the keyboard. It was certainly a major inspiration, but again, it’s strange, because most of the inspiration was kind of the feeling of these environments. We talked a lot about films like Repo Man, because we wanted the video to be shot in the outskirts of L.A. I liked the idea that there are these strange stories you can tell around the back ends of buildings. It seems like they have more inherent character than a lot of store fronts these days, and it seemed like a really interesting place to tell a story. It’s funny, we had this really long conversation about what we wanted the video to be, and we ended up accidentally coming up with Blade Runner.

CT: The ‘polish girl’ in the video reminds me of Kim Greist in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

AP: Sort of, we were riffing on the ’80s dystopian films, and that was one of the key influence points. I figure if the girl was too much like Sean Young, then it’d be too obvious… but I never really thought about how close they look. It’s that look that we were going for, that ’80s look: short-haired, attractive, but still tough.

CT: What’s it like shooting a video while miming to your music? You make it look seamless. Where does all this come from?

AP: Well, for me, it’s hard to describe what it’s like, because it’s the first time I’ve really had the opportunity to do it! I’ve always had videos in mind when I’m writing music. It’s how ideas seem to come along. When I’m writing records my sleep schedules and social habits become so irregular that the only thing I can get away with is taking a break for a couple of hours and watching a movie. It’s funny, because for Psychic Chasms I watched Stroszek,  My Own Private Idaho, and Border Radio… a lot of these movies are kind of about these loveable fuck-ups who come close to finding long-term composure, but lose it because of one or two things.

It’s funny, because for Psychic Chasms I watched StroszekMy Own Private Idaho, and Border Radio… a lot of these movies are kind of about these loveable fuck-ups who come close to finding long-term composure, but lose it because of one or two things.

With Psychic Chasms, that’s almost literally how I felt: stuck in a psychological chasm. For Era Extrana, it was kind of the same thing, but I was retaining a lot of those ideas in the sense that like my dream video is sort of like recreating the Smashing Pumpkins’ video for ‘1979', but after the world has ended. A ‘void of god’ type scenario, where we’re left in a desert wasteland and people just have these small nickel shack porn theatres, and that’s all that’s left.

CT: All right, well, I’ve been putting this off for the entire interview on the grounds of ‘most over-digested internet debate from two years ago’, but… why do we love chillwave right now?

AP: For me, I can see some of the inherent qualities, or attributes, or traits that people tend to associate with chillwave, but when I first started tapping into the stuff that makes my music, it was a unique impulse; it came out of how I felt. Chad and Ernest Greene are great guys, but really, we didn’t have much in common until journalists started putting us into the same sentence.

CT: It’s embarrassingly redundant to write out ‘musicians are influenced by previous music; and during childhood, everybody is at their most impressionable,’ but apparently in the ‘metamodern era’ (whatever the f–k that means) that’s verboten. Lennon was shaped by skiffle music as an adolescent, and Morrissey loved Dusty Springfield as a child, so it makes sense that kids who grew up listening to NES and synthpop would follow suit. Isn’t your music more sophisticated than, say, nostalgia fetishism?

AP: Definitely. I feel like the interpretation of what it’s become has been perpetuated just to create a more interesting narrative for articles. It’s easier to write out three or four bands as a whole than to figure out the nuances of one. Chillwave doesn’t really bother me; I mean, well, okay, maybe the name bothers me. But shoegaze is a pretty daft name, and a rose by any other name, yeah?