The lo-fi pop songwriter and synthesist is gearing up to release his fourth LP. Eventually.
This article originally appeared in print in AdHoc 29.
Alan Palomo likes to take his time. The electronic musician has released three albums as Neon Indian over the past decade, and he can’t quite be sure when he’ll release the next one. We’re supposed to talk about that record, but details are scant. There’s no single yet, no album art, no title that Alan’s comfortable sharing at the moment. There is a tour, but Alan informs me that it was booked nearly a year in advance, with the explicit intention of promoting the album. “It’s like, Okay, guys!” he says, with a laugh. “You can book it if you want, but no promises!”
A few weeks after we speak, he does drop a new song called “Toyota Man,” explaining in a statement that he filmed its accompanying video “along the road map of what essentially was my path to American citizenship: Monterrey, the Nuevo Laredo border, San Antonio, and finally Austin.” Still, it’s obvious that he has a perfectionist streak—in conversation, the Mexico-born artist makes it crystal clear that the only creative schedule he’s interested in following is his own. With the two records he’s released since his acclaimed 2009 debut LP, Psychic Chasms—Era Extraña in 2011 and VEGA INTL. Night School in 2015—he’s persevered in pushing his boundaries as an artist, layering new textures and references into his melodic, synth-driven sound. In a 2016 interview, Alan mused that the first three Neon Indian albums felt like a trilogy and that he would only feel compelled to make another if there were an “aesthetic overhaul.” What that means exactly is unclear, but you can count on Alan to innovate on his idiosyncratic lo-fi pop, perhaps with some Peruvian psychedelic cumbia mixed in.
Ahead of his November 22 performance at Detroit’s El Club, we talked about the evolution of independent music over the past ten years, setting goals, and his complicated legacy as a chillwave pioneer.
AdHoc: You released the last Neon Indian album four years ago. What have you been up to since then?
Alan Palomo: It’s funny—the gaps between records become broader. It seems to be centered around this idea of never being musically redundant. I feel like I spent a couple of years building the chops to even make VEGA INTL., and then once I’d done that, I abandoned that whole aesthetic in favor of this new style of music. There’s certain sonic components that will be constant throughout every single thing that I do. It’s my signature; it’s unavoidable.
But my brother and I in the last few years—we started listening to a lot of chicha, which is ’70s Peruvian psychedelic cumbia. And when we toured in South America, it [gave us] the opportunity to start doing our due diligence as far as researching the genre and wrapping our heads around the musical tropes. It’s not really music you can simulate; you just have to play it. You can’t fake the funk, so to speak.
We grew up listening to cumbia, but my brother actually played in a lot of those bands. A way to make money living in San Antonio was to play in a tejano or grupera-type act. So he was a lot more familiar compositionally with that style of music. But for me, there was no real way around it. I just had to grow as a musician, and that’s taken some time.
With every record, I enter the research phase of it, and I feel like maybe with the first two records, I already had the toolkit of what I was trying to make. With Psychic Chasms, I had my whole life to think about what kind of record I’d try to make if given the opportunity. And the second one—there was this exploration into shoegaze stuff, but compositionally a lot of it was not particularly difficult to write; there are so many swirly songs that follow the same rubric of three-chord song structures. But with VEGA, it felt like a huge overhaul.
I meet so many musicians starting out—and this isn’t explicitly music, either—but a lot of artists get stuck on this idea that they’ve been given some ineffable gift, and they don’t want to dilute it by getting better or learning more about their process. “It’s just this thing that I do.” That will only carry you so far. I did this too. With Psychic Chasms, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, and I think that was half the joy of it. But with VEGA, I had certain ideas that my hands couldn’t keep up with. I had to actually build the chops and become, dare I say, a fucking musician [laughs].
A lot of the time off has been the record, but there were also a lot of things happening outside of Neon Indian. I moved to Los Angeles, and that was its own gradual process. I did a short film, which was something I’d been waiting a long time to be able to make. I put together an awesome crew and realized that touring festivals as a filmmaker is not all that different from the gamut of touring as a musician. That was really affirming. I’ve been working on some projects in that regard.
I did some film scores. There was a Joel Potrykus film called Relaxer and Everything Beautiful Is Far Away, this movie by my buddy Pete [Ohs], who had done the first video for [my old band] Ghosthustler back in the day. Every time I commit to one of these things, I know it’s going to take a few months, but I do it with joy because it’s still something I want to learn more about. Eventually, it became time to start thinking about this [Neon Indian] record in a serious way.
How have you aesthetically overhauled the project ahead of this next LP?
Stepping outside of the project for a while was healthy—to view it objectively. With these broadstroke ideas of a concept record, or certain themes you want to explore, building the world and populating it is such a time-consuming thing that there’s no real metric [where] I could say, “If I sit down for X amount of hours in a day, then this record will materialize.” The aesthetic overhaul comes from living your life. Your musical tastes start to change, or you start to get particular about what you like, and you stick to those things. All the clichés of aging are true in that you stop being as clued in to new things that are happening, and you have a more difficult time differentiating between the nuances of what’s happening in new music. You stop understanding why people latch onto one band and not another when it all seems to populate the same space.
Now I have a very clear trajectory and flight plan—or flight path?—for the completion of this record. Maybe I’m saying too much, but this tour was booked almost a year in advance, and it was done with the expectation that there would be a record completed by this time. Then it’s like, the tour to promote the album is obstructing the recording of the album the tour is going to promote [laughs]. One thing I’d like to say about it is it’s been cool to play with a band. Max [Townsley] and Drew [Erickson] and my brother have made their way onto it. That was something that was birthed out of soundchecks in the VEGA days: You realize you’re working with these shredders, man. And that makes you want to become a better musician. You learn a lot in that environment.
I’ve been recording a bunch with Jacob [Portrait] from Unknown Mortal Orchestra; he’s been co-producing some of the songs. And I’ve also been working with Enrique Padilla, who co-produced a couple of Oh Sees records. It’s funny because I want to say the name of the record and I want to say the names of the songs, but it’s not quite the time yet. It’ll sound too didactic if you don’t hear the music and also understand that there’s a lot of humor in it.
Pitchfork published an essay on chillwave by Larry Fitzmaurice that name-checks you, calling you “the Summer of Chill’s most left-field figure.” How would you define chillwave, and how do you feel when people bring up the genre to you?
It’s sort of inescapable. It’s funny—I’m not going to get on the soapbox. At this point…whatever. It was a moment in time. Was it annoying to the people who participated in it, having never met each other or been encouraged or influenced by each other, to be unable to avoid each other in any sort of musical context? It was not an ideal way to start the conversation. Even now, the tone of that article—I guess it felt like a nice consolation prize?
I thought it was odd that literally no chillwave output was [on lists of] the 200 most interesting things that happened in the last 10 years. It’s hilarious. I didn’t even expect it to be me! But “Feel It All Around” isn’t in the Top 200 songs? That’s kind of wild.
On one side, you embrace the narrative. I’m sure that Kevin Shields felt weird about it being called “shoegaze,” but it was so beatified eventually that nobody understands the humor of [the term]. I don’t expect chillwave to ever get that sort of praise, because I don’t think any of us wrote a Loveless.
There was an eventuality that was going to be hit: the merging of the lo-fi sensibility that had been imparted on rock and maybe some components of synth music. Ariel Pink would’ve been the arbiter of that, really, but also the inescapable emergence of electronic music—finding this hybrid between the two. One thing that I will sing its praises about is the influences were dead-on. The Avalanches were a major influence on me, and so was J Dilla, and so was Ariel, as much as I sometimes hate to admit it because he probably secretly loves that he has that kind of influence over people.
Reflecting on chillwave now, my relationship with it was probably really adversarial at first, and then [there were] the five stages of acceptance [laughs]. I was pissed at it and then kinda bargaining with it, and then it was like, “Well, you can be the best purveyor of chillwave”—and finally, “Who gives a shit?” Honestly, the most freeing thing about the third record was waiting so long to put out the next one that the editorial M.O. of chillwave just had to die. Music had moved on to something else. They were celebrating other new genres. So then it was cool to be like, I’m not carrying the burden of anything anymore. I can just make a record, and I’m not going to completely betray my sonic palette. If this is what I have to offer to music, why should I change it just so that it will reinforce ideas about the clichés of something I make? Even then, I would argue that the output has been dramatically different each time.
Being on my own little aesthetic island was the perfect setting for VEGA INTL. because it was a record made with pure, unfettered joy. There will be components of that with this new record, but there’s other music that I’m making that might fit better in this singles economy. It might be cleaner work. It might be informed by Prefab Sprout and things that Thomas Dolby produced. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the beginning of something to do once you let go of tape-affected music.
At the same time, it’s amazing how much of chillwave I hear in a lot of modern, pop-affected music. They make plug-ins! There’s literally a lo-fi knob you can turn. The fact that that’s made its way into the vernacular of the equipment people make thinking that’s how they can cater to modern musicians is something that I’m also really proud of. As much as the chillwave thing can be snarky, well…you wouldn’t have had the warbled guitars. Now the warbled guitars are on fucking everything. At the end of the day, that’s something I’m tickled by.
Are there any other details about the new record that I can get from you before we go our separate ways?
The new single’s called “Toyota Man.” There’s going to be a music video. It’s the first single in Spanish. Until I get a cease-and-desist from Toyota, that’s what it will probably be called [laughs]. If it changes, maybe I’ll add an extra “Y” or something.