Words and photography by Kevin Duffel
Only two types of people fly across the world to hide out in total isolation: fugitive terrorists and reclusive artists. When Alan Palomo, mastermind composer behind Neon Indian, packed his bags for Helsinki to record Era Extraña, the follow up to 2009's Psychic Chasms, he proved to fall under the latter. Not that he went there to create some shamelessly contrived PR back-story for the album; he was just seeking an unfamiliar and distraction-free work place. And shit, you'd have to be a real pretentious dick head to think it didn't work for the best. With plenty of retro video game samples hidden beneath fluorescent swirls of vintage synths and catchy vocals, the album—which sounds as if some long lost John Hughes movie soundtrack was remixed and recorded on a dusty old 16 bit Sega Genesis cartridge—is a blissed out mix of nostalgic tones and '80s hooks.
Right before he and his band played to a packed audience in San Diego, Palomo graciously greeted me backstage with a shot of Patron and an ice-cold Pacifico (hot damn, what a gentleman!) to discuss video games, skitching on cars, the new album, and more.
Hex Girlfriend by Neon Indian
First off, what's the worst question you've ever been asked in an interview? Something you never wanna talk about again—I don't wanna make the mistake of asking you the same damn thing you hate talking about.
Anything that involves the term "chillwave." I think the worst question I ever got was, "What is it about the South and rural Texas that just spawns chillwave artists?" It just felt bizarrely out of context. What do you say, like, "Yeah, it's all that barbecue and weed," ya know? It just doesn't really make any sense.
Now that that's out of the way, this being a skate magazine, have you ever hopped on a board?
I have, actually. It was my brother that got me into it. It's funny because I think I was a little bit too shy to do anything even remotely athletic, so I just had a little Tech Deck. Unfortunately I broke the one serious board that I ever owned—I was trying to pull the Back To The Future trick—you know, where you'd grab onto the back of a truck, and gain speed, and then eventually just whiz off in your own direction? Well, my dad was leaving for work and I asked if I could grab onto the back of his car, but like an idiot I did it while he was in park. He was barely pulling out into the street, so he goes in reverse, and the board just slides under me and slips right underneath the wheel. And for a second it's supporting the entire back weight of the car. He kept driving for a couple of feet while the skateboard was under there, and I'm like, "Dad, wait, wait, wait." And when he pulled back it just snapped completely. Serves me right for trying to pull the Back To The Future II trick.
Oh man. You needed the hover board.
Yeah, exactly. You can't do it without the hover board. And the self-tying Nikes, while I'm at it.
Those are so awesome. They're actually making them for wide release soon.
Yeah, totally. I can't wait. They bought the patent for it years ago. They've been sitting on this project for such a long time. They look so cool. Somebody actually bought the first proto pair for like 16 grand or something.
On a different note, you mainly play and record everything by yourself. What's your process for translating your recordings into a live show with a full band?
The whole reason why I like to perform with a band is to breathe a different life into the music, or at least be surprised with the live result. There are songs that required such a process to make—playing all the parts, programming the drums, and eventually doing the vocals—that by the end of it, I wanted a completely different result for the live presentation. When it comes to making music, first it's just about nailing the parts, and after a while you've played a song so many times that you start to deviate from it in some interesting ways. And that's usually when the live show reaches its zenith.
Yeah, I'm sure it keeps it fresh. Especially when you're cooped up in a recording studio by yourself for weeks at a time.
Yeah, totally. This record was the first time I incorporated the band mates into the process. Jason played toms on "Fallout" and did some percussion stuff. Josh played guitar all over the record. It gave the project a new dimension.
Pitchfork and everyone else out there praised you as one of the best new artists when the first record dropped. How'd that affect the songwriting on the second album?
Well, like everybody says you've got 10 years to write the first record and six months to write the second. So it's a very different process. When I first started writing the record, that neuroses would trickle through—as far as what the expectations for it would be. Part of my motivation for leaving the country to write the new album was to escape any sort of familiarity, or expectations, people that I worked with, or anything in relation to Neon Indian. I thought a trip to Helsinki would be more conducive to personal development than just, "And then Neon Indian went to Helsinki to write an album," which in itself sounds kind of contrived. It was more that I needed to remove myself from my surroundings long enough to start generating ideas that felt honest and interesting.
Polish Girl by Neon Indian
I think the name Neon Indian really suits the music you play. If you were in a death metal band, what would you call it?
[Band mates chime in] Dude, we come up with such good band names all the time. Yeah. I actually already have a death metal band name. It's called Demon Semen [laughs]. I've been sitting on that one for a while. Unlimited Tears [laughs]. Well the side projects are called Torcano and Sex Medics. We're all gonna go on one big tour some day.
Yeah, totally. One group of musicians, but a whole shitload of alter egos for each set.
[Laughs] Yeah, it's just a super bill. We just play for like five hours straight.
You're obviously influenced by video games. I think I heard some Street Fighter samples on the new album?
Oh, "Arcade Blues"? Close, but not Street Fighter.
Arcade Blues by Neon Indian
I think it's just one of those samples—I will say, it's something of that era.
So what’s the sample? Or is that top secret?
It's just one of those things where I'm hoping someone will surprise me and reveal to me what it is, if they can hear it.
Well, damn that threw off my entire next question. I was gonna ask you who your favorite Street Fighter character is.
Chun Li I think. It's all about the high kicks, man. She's the quickest one.
Speaking of video games, I heard you love Genesis. I was a bit of a Genesis dude myself, but mainly just because I couldn't afford Super Nintendo. What's your reasoning for it?
Usually chip tunes are modeled very specifically after stuff that's meant to sound like video game music, like in Nintendo. It's a very self-referential thing. But Sega Genesis is rad because they were actually trying to replicate a lot of pop music of the time. That's why Streets Of Rage sounds like early '90s house music. It sounds like Pump Vol. 1 or something [laughs]. Apparently Michael Jackson was supposed to do the score for Sonic 3, and he dropped out last minute. But as it turns out, a lot of the compositions that he wrote are still on the game, and they eventually became singles from him. The thing about the Sega Genesis soundcard is it was a lot like the Yamaha DX7—I mean, like a super cheap version of it, but it definitely sounds more like a real synth. But yeah, that's why, even when I was a kid, I was like, "Dude, this is amazing!"
I know your dad’s also a musician. Have you ever collaborated with him on any songs, or do you have any plans to do so in the future?
I sampled him on two songs on the first record. We've talked about maybe doing something on the VEGA record, and we're still trying to figure out what that will be. We both really like ELO, so we've always thought that could be a possible style of track to write together.
Music-wise, what's your favorite era?
That's a little tough, but I can say for Neon Indian in particular, I'm often inspired by the 70's. Just for listening purposes I really like a lot of '80s music, but by the time you get to the '80s there's a full on formula for how to use synths, how to program them, how to do drum machines… That's when you start getting a really ubiquitous sound. But I liked when there were rock bands who didn't know what a synthesizer was. The good thing about really early electronic music is that there wasn't really a formula for it. A lot of earlier records that integrate synthesizers or drum machines will do it in these really idiosyncratic and interesting ways because there was no right way of doing it.
Lastly, you seem like a pretty smart dude. This article I read a while ago mentioned a company that asks their prospective employees this question: If you're stuck in a blender and you're the size of a goldfish, how do you get yourself out?
That's a fantastic question. Accept futility and wait to be reincarnated as a man in control of the blender.
You're hired. I would've just offered you your first paycheck and slammed it right on the table.
[Laughs] Patience is a virtue.
Mind, Drips by Neon Indian
Fallout by Neon Indian
For more on Neon Indian, go to neonindian.com