Q&A: Neon Indian Conquers 'Creative Paralysis'

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Neon Indian's Alan Palomo
WRITTEN BY
William Goodman

You could call Alan Palomo, the 23-year-old mastermind behind atmospheric synth-pop outfit Neon Indian, a detail-oriented person.

He deconstructs and reassembles, tweaks and customizes all sorts of synthesizers, tuning them to find a very particular sound. An avid film buff, he dissects movies scene by scene, pointing to certain moods, dialogue, camera angles in influential works like A Clockwork Orange that have helped shape his art. He even carries spectacles with two small binoculars attached to the frames, which he uses to examine birds in the park, leaves high on trees, and blades of grass. The glasses are inspired by two more of his favorite films, La Jetée, the 1962 short directed by Chris Marker that inspired Twelve Monkeys. "They're sci-fi binocular frames," he tells SPIN, brandishing the glasses in a bar in the hip Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Palomo recently moved from his hometown of Austin, Texas.

This attention to detail and the things that inspire it -- synths, cinema, all things psychedelic and sci-fi -- collide on his second album, Era Extraña, out this week. Recorded during a solitary period last winter in Helsinki (more on that later), the LP is a collection of atmospheric synth-pop with watery melodies that reveal more and more depth with each peeling layer of sound. And to create those sounds, Palomo even designed his own synth, the PAL198X.

We had a long chat with Palomo over beers and tequila shots, his preferred poison.

Dude. You built a synth.
[Laughs] I take great pleasure in coding even the simplest things. It's fun. I've evolved into a person who's more fascinated by instruments than just music. I wrote most of the new album on this particular synth. You can sit there for days and just fuck around with sounds. The first record, Psychic Chasms, was about being surprised by the instrument. This second record is about trying to surprise the instrument. I liked the idea that you had to build the synth, too. But I realized that most people have never worked with a soldering iron. I don't want someone to scald themselves trying to build it.

That'd be unfortunate.
The happy compromise was to make it semi-modular, which means it has these little screw terminals where you can connect knobs. But I want people to fucking hack this thing.

LISTEN: PAL198X Preview

What do you mean by "hack"?
The synth is really just a template to play with. So if someone can rewire it and come up with variations on the sound to completely blow my mind, then by all means -- do it. The fun of writing music is fucking with sounds until you find one you like, then building off of it. There's nothing on this synth that isn't self-explanatory. It's centered around the idea that you plug it into an amp and play.

I heard you had some trouble with your synth at the airport.
[Laughs] Yeah. I had a circuit board in my bag as I was running it through the X-ray, and immediately the TSA ran up a red flag. An officer walked up to me and said, "Would you mind opening up this bag?" I pull out a circuit board, set it down and said, "I can show you how it works," and reached for it. They were like, "No!" and desperately kept it away from me. I just laughed. They said, "Do you think it's funny to bring an exposed circuit board to the airport?" Just looking at it evokes a sense of mystery like, "Oh my God, what is this thing? What does it do? Is it dangerous?" But I shouldn't have brought it on a plane [laughs].

Do you remember your first synth?
The first synth I ever played was an Oberheim OB-X at Krazy Kats Music in San Antonio, TX. I was 16 and there with my dad. I flipped it on and hit one note, and it blasted these sounds that I had associated to pop music throughout my life. I was a few hundred bucks short of buying it, which sucked. It'll always be the synth that got away.

Was there a song, album, or artist that really pushed you to synth music?
In high school, electronic music was one of my first musical epiphanies. I remember hearing New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" in class and I realized that it was my favorite song, even though I'd heard it my entire life and not realized it until then. It completely summated these romantic feelings of childhood. One of my earliest memories of hearing that song was riding around in a convertible with one of my cousins in Mexico in 1993. The same cousin was obsessed with video games and played Earthbound or Phantasy Star on Sega Genesis. It was setting up all these musical sensibilities for me. In high school, I had a lipstick red 1988 BMW. I sold it to buy a laptop, which is what I wrote the first record on. It was for the best, but I still miss that car.

You said "Bizarre Love Triangle" instills feelings of nostalgia. Many fans say the same about your music.
Memory is a musical instrument. As time passes, it's becoming obvious that we're living in a culture that's slowly eating itself. Art is becoming more referential. To navigate that I use music as a time warp to evoke feeling. I don't know where "Benny and the Jets" was recorded, but hearing those handclaps and the Moog solo evoke a time and place, like a room shrouded in bong smoke or a drive-in burger stand with neon lights. Sure, with my music there's an impulse of, "Oh, this reflects my childhood." But maybe to somebody else it sounds like a Nintendo game, or a forgotten day. I like playing with sounds that might seem referential and recontextualizing them. It's a very cinematic concept.

And you're very fascinated by film.
Music and film are inextricably intertwined. When I write I'll have a scene or narrative in my head, and I'll try to put music to it. With this record, I kept thinking of the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" video, but set long after the world has ended. The teenage narrative will always live on, even in this fucked up post-apocalyptic dystopian wasteland. I'm completely convinced that in my lifetime I'll see some really bizarre and fucked up things. The only thing that you can hang onto is those stories. It doesn't have a time or place; it's just a feeling.

Why did you go to Helsinki, Finland to record your new album Era Extraña?
To tackle an entire body of work I have to get out of New York. It isn't the most immediate place to spawn creativity. I'd been to Helsinki a couple of times on tour and thought it was very picturesque. It has a whimsical quality. I always knew that I wanted to go back. I had just finished a year and a half of touring, and wanted to detach myself. The most spontaneous art comes from detaching yourself from anything that's familiar. So I disappeared to the Arctic Circle.


Alan Palomo

Considering the success of the first album, did you feel a lot of pressure to deliver with the second?
Yes. It motivated the whole trip to Helsinki. This record felt like a rite of passage -- I had never recorded in a proper studio before. I had never written synth sounds from scratch. There are no samples on the new record and that was a conscious decision. The most valuable advice I've gotten for the album was from Sean Lopez, who came to Helsinki to shoot the "Heart: Attack" and "Heart: Decay" videos. He said, "You need to stop Googling yourself and start being an artist."

And your first step was to hole up, alone, in a studio in freezing-cold Helsinki.
What makes Neon Indian, Neon Indian, is solitude and playing around with sounds. I was able to explore my headspace. I couldn't write another lo-fi record. It didn't seem representative of where I'm at right now. So to say, "Oh, I'm still recording with a four-track recorder," is a lie. It's not the same beast anymore. It took awhile to find a new sound, which is why I was there for so long. For the first two weeks I thought, "What's this record going to sound like?" Then after four or five weeks of literally not seeing the sun, it became this Werner Herzog-esque nightmare.

Uh oh.
Yeah. About five weeks into recording in Helsinki I hit a creative paralysis. In the six weeks I was there, I saw the sun maybe twice. Each day was four hours of grey skies, then nighttime. It was bizarre. There were definitely moments where I was like, "I need to find a different place that can remind me what it feels like to be myself."

And did you finally hop aboard a plane and take a break?
I tried to leave Helsinki a few times but missed my flight. In New York City it's easy to say, "I'm done for the next three hours. I need to go outside or get some food." In Helsinki I had to make my own fun. I had to self-generate optimism. I'd watch Kids in the Hall and lie on the couch with a pillow over my face. I trudged around in the snow listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising." This all weighed into the content of this record. But if I wasn't getting frustrated writing music, then I probably shouldn't be making it.Watch: "Polish Girl"

Play

Why name the album Era Extraña?
Era Extraña in Spanish has a couple of meanings. "Extraña" means strange, but the most literal translation is "stranger." It also means "to miss," or "to long for." "Era" means "she." So, it's "She longed for..." or "she missed..." The wordplay compelled me. There was this moment when I was in Helsinki that I was on a ton of painkillers. I had this crazy wisdom tooth flare and scored some random painkillers from a cab driver. I took them and watched Blade Runner at 4 A.M. and completely zoned out. I had this epiphany: We are living in the future, but it's nothing like the sci-fi movies. We're accepting these scientific advancements as the new norm. But at the same time, we're rummaging through the past to find creative inspiration. It's an era of longing.

What do you make of the "chillwave" label?
Lo-fi electronic music has been around for a long time and has had many different incarnations. If it helps with a hash tag or a link to a Wikipedia page, then -- whatever. If it helps paint an image in your mind, then use it. I can see the commonalities. Sometimes all you can really do is ignore the loud hum of the machine and focus on making art that makes you excited to be alive.

You've had many collaborations recently, including recording a single with the Flaming Lips. How did you meet them?
Wayne Coyne and Ariel Pink came to my show in Portland, OR. We talked for a bit, and decided that we wanted to work together. We just didn't have a plan yet -- but we kept in contact. Later I was planning to work on Era Extraña with [Flaming Lips] producer Dave Fridmann. So Wayne asked, "Why don't you come in a few days early and we'll record some shit and see what happens?" It was so wonderfully nonchalant. It was the only way I could have imagined that collaboration. Watching the Lips in the studio is as much of a production as watching them live.

What's Fridmann's Upstate, NY, house like?
The walls are lined with all these reference points to bands that have been there before, whether it's MGMT or Mercury Rev. I left behind a Casio keyboard and a few days ago Wayne texted me, ''What is this thing?!?" The house is quaint and livable, and reinforces the idea that, yes, you can write and work on music here. I lived there for six weeks. Working with Dave on my album was great. I just had this collection of ideas to solidify into complete songs. Most of the tracking I had done in Helsinki, but they were abstract song ideas. We pieced it all together there. Dave has a way to force you to bring your A game. He has a way of playing devil's advocate. He wants to test your ideas.

And you certainly have some abstract ideas.
Yes. And I have a very sound footing in reality. But I also believe that at any moment, like a Rubik's Cube, reality could just break into a different configuration. I'm always trying to figure that one out.

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