Interview Ian Orth
Photography David Ryle
Eight months ago Neon Indian barely existed as a band. Earlier today they played a last-minute set filling in for the Raveonettes at the Austin City Limits Festival in front of 10,000 people. If ever there were a poster band for the immediacy of popularity the Internet can create, the swooshed-out bliss pop of Alan Polomo’s Neon Indian is it.
Created as a means to escape the polished and restricting world of dance music – which Palomo’s other shining star, Vega, wiggles around in – Neon Indian thrives on musically throwing caution to the wind. Learning to allow himself the level of carefree tenderness that rests in the songwriting of his disjointed acid-pop was a mandatory lesson for Palomo. With his own creative voice finally discovered, a tour schedule for both of his projects that sees him traveling around the world at least three more times before the end of the year and a growing demand as a remixer, Palomo is quickly separating himself from the kids who sit at the popular table at Internet High School.
Lets talk about your childhood for a second, if that’s cool. Did you watch a lot of Nick Jr. cartoons when you were young? I hear a deep Doug Funnie vibe running throughout the album.
Oh yeah. Hit the nail right on the head. Nick Jr. and PBS always provided a few interesting gems to grow up with, in particular Wishbone (laughs). It wasn’t until discovering the mid-’90s Nickelodeon roster that I think much of my sensibilities developed. Are You Afraid of the Dark, Rocko’s Modern Life and The Adventures of Pete and Pete were probably the most memorable. It’s strange to think that the people behind these shows were secretly throwing in obscure cultural references for you to revisit later.
I only recently discovered that Iggy Pop and Steve Buscemi had reoccurring roles on Pete and Pete.
A lot of the episodes also featured some amazing tracks from The Magnetic Fields. The sense of bemusement they had for romanticizing experiences you’d have growing up in the suburbs really spoke to me then.
It seems like that has transferred over into the over arching idea of Neon Indian. Is there an importance of connecting an emotional theme through both visual and musical experiences for you?
Absolutely. It’s hard to divorce visuals from music for me, given that my background is predominantly in film. Even growing up, music was always a passive experience for me. I tended to bond more with my mom who was heavily involved in television and radio and over time, it seems like music for me – at least the music I write – has become a conglomeration of those childhood experiences.
Then you think you fell into music accidentally? Growing up with a musical father [Alan’s dad is Mexican singer Jorge Palomo], was there ever pressure or an expectation placed on you to get into music, or was there more of a leaning from them to have you avoid it all together?
I always had an interest in it. I really wanted to bond musically with the rest of my family, but I always sort of struggled with how to make that happen. I didn’t know how to get into it. I was always more fascinated with old synths rather than the guitar. There was this one time when I was walking around San Antonio with my dad and we walked into Crazy Cats Music, which is this little vintage music shop. I remember seeing this Oberheim OBX sitting in the corner. I turned it on and began playing around it with it, and in that moment I knew that what I had been looking for – to have my own musical voice in my family – was the odd creative power behind these old synths. Which is also when my love for dance music began as well.
Which then led you to your first band Ghosthustler, I take it?
I wanted to take this newfound love and turn it into something. At the time my only real reference for synth-based music was New Order. I was so intrigued by the incorporations that an indie band would have with synthesizers in their music. I think at this time I was a sophomore in high school and really into the Unicorns. I remember being very curious about the reasoning behind a lot of the sound production choices they made. Blending this sort of garage rock production with indie-driven dance music was fascinating to me. It really wasn’t until I got to college that I wanted to really just make dance music and work exclusively with synths and explore their limits. I think Ghosthustler was the end result of that. Vega and Neon Indian have been kind of a discovery process for me. It took quite a few songs and attempts for it to form its own sound, but I do think that where Vega is now, and what Neon Indian has become is totally the end result of what I’ve been trying to achieve. I finally have a sound that’s private and intimate and comes from a process of sincere songwriting.
Do you find that now working alone as a songwriter has become more liberating?
I think that Ghosthustler was really restricting. Everyone really had their own distinct vision – or lack thereof – of where they wanted it to go. We were shooting down each other’s ideas and not growing. Over time a huge gap just opened up creatively. We were all listening to different kinds of music. We became less a band and more a strange collective of people trying to write music together. That was the main point of Vega: to experiment with writing by myself and let things grow naturally. It was so much more of a relief.
Then what need does Neon Indian serve for you as a songwriter, as opposed to Vega?
I think that what it serves for me as a songwriter is that it allows me to write with transparency and expression. The only way I can explain it is like this: I feel like I’ve had certain cathartic moments through the evolution of Neon Indian into what it’s become. Originally it just began as a creative exercise. Then writing “Should Have Taken Acid With You” became such a liberating experience for me. It felt so different. It was one of the first times that I wasn’t concerned with references. In fact it didn’t have a reference point at all, just a few very ambiguous sensations I was trying to communicate with Alicia Scardetta who at the time was helping to create visual counterparts to the music I was working on. That writing style then became a daily exercise for me. Trying to write a new song everyday and not allowing myself to be concerned with the aesthetic. Then I would go back to those ideas later and create the commonalities to give those songs the Neon Indian sound. Now that I’ve had time to listen to the album objectively and not be so tied to it, I realize how personal that situation actually was for me.
In the past I felt like dance music restricted me. Working on dance music felt so mechanical, this idea of trying to replicate ideas and emotions with chords and sounds just doesn’t feel artistic. It feels like a trade school. Neon Indian, on the other hand, feels like expression. I’m actually creating something and it’s the first time I’ve made music that feels that way. I’ve had to completely reconfigure Vega to fit that purpose as well.
Neon Indian definitely seems–not more mature–but mature in a different way than Vega. When I first met you I remember you had this new Vega project and you were so stoked on it, and you told me how it was a continuation of what you were doing with Ghosthustler. I don’t think Neon Indian was even a thought for you yet was it?
Ha. No it wasn’t at all.
That was only a year ago exactly to the day, oddly enough. It’s interesting to me that in six months you’re able to find this new, more artistic voice for yourself.
Well honestly I think a lot of that had to do with moving to Austin. I feel like it put me in a situation where all I had to do was write and that’s where 80 percent of my time was spent outside of school. Moving here wasn’t really initially what I expected it to be. I came to Austin with the expectation that it was going to be a lot more socially liberating. I’d meet more people, be forced to interact with them in a musical community and learning from them in that sense. However, when I got here it was bizarre because in a lot of ways it was alienating. Everyone tells me you have to be here for a while before you get into the groove of things, but I feel like arriving in Austin and being completely stoked on what I was doing with Vega–having this mapped out vision of what I wanted to do with that project and where I wanted to take it, then getting slowly disenchanted with that idea, and feeling stuck in Austin, and stuck in my classes at ACC [Austin Community College], and realizing that pulling myself out of the shadow of Ghosthustler was going to be its own tricky maneuver – led to oddly falling into what I’m doing now with Neon Indian. I don’t really think would have happened if I hadn’t moved to Austin.
It sounds like Austin has been a little bit of a negative experience for you. Is that what you’re saying?
Definitely, but I feel like as a result of that it created a new artistic channel for me to write through.
That’s interesting, given the community of young Austin bands that are doing well right now and are proud to consider themselves Austin bands. Then from your experience of living here would you consider yourself part of that community, or do you view yourself as a musician who just so happens to be living in Austin at the moment?
(Laughing) I guess you’re not really living in Austin lately given your insane tour schedule.
I was going to say, I’m not really living in Austin at the moment. I guess it kind of depends on who’s asking to be honest. For example, today we played the Austin City Limits Festival, filling in for the Ravonettes. Right before we went on stage the announcer pulls me aside and says, ‘So, hey man, you’re from Austin right? The whole band’s from Austin too right?’ I explained to him that really the rest of the band was from Dallas and Denton so I’m not really sure what’s the most appropriate thing to say. The announcer says, ‘Well, you can say that you’re from Austin and people will be a lot more receptive to you and everyone will have a good time.’ I tell him that I kind of just wanted to say that we were from Texas, but you know, fuck it, if it’s going to make for a better show. So the announcer runs up on stage and says, [Alan slips into his best announcer/morning radio DJ voice]‘ ‘Alright everybody, give it up for a brand new band from right here in Austin, TX: Neon Indian!’ The very first thing I see when we get off stage is this Dallas Observer tweet that says: ‘Neon Indian, a new band from Austin? What the fuck!’ So you know, everybody wants to claim us as their own (laughs).
You know I love Austin. I love living here, but I understand it’s very hard to feel like you’re taken seriously sometimes to the rest of the world. Lets be honest too, there are a lot of great bands here but sometimes the desire for them to break out of Austin is difficult to fully realize, because it’s so comfortable here.
Exactly. That aspect of it was really kind of tough. I feel like there are a lot of really great bands here and a lot of really fantastic people. From being sort of alienated from the community though, the Austin scene is a little bit niche-oriented. It is something that speaks to a certain time maybe. I just remember moving here and saying to people, ‘Hey man, let’s go jam,’ then having this moment of realization that you’re the awkward guy at the party who just wants to go home and bang chords out on the keyboard.
I completely understand that. It’s hard doing these sorts of things living in a city that’s known for its blues and indie rock.
Absolutely. It seems like much of the level of comfortableness that people have around you either speaks to being some kind of patron of the city, or there is some specific thing that people can associate you with that sort of speaks of your motivations or your personality. I’ve never really experienced that here until Neon Indian has kind of taken off. I haven’t really spent much time in Austin, but it’s weird going out to Spider House [a local coffee shop and bar] and having people saying ‘Oh, you’re that Neon Indian dude.’ It feels very different from when I first arrived here.
Do you find those comments to be genuine?
I’d like to think so. Who knows though. Sometimes in a musical community it gets weird, and it’s about status and ego and it’s kind of tough to differentiate those things. I could never take myself so seriously that it affects the way that I interact with people, especially when it comes to music. The history of music is so long and rich. In the grand scheme of things, everything we do has the possibility of being completely irrelevant years and sometimes even months from now.
The popularity of things ‘breaking’ on a national level over the Internet is becoming the undeniable way many bands are reaching their level of success these days. With that, bands are being discovered and loved intensely for six months, then, something else that sounds just enough similar and just enough different comes along and that first band is long forgotten. Are you worried about that?
I think it’s a double-edged sword. Do I use that to my advantage? Do I recognize that I have this really amazing medium that exposes my music to a wide audience instantly and do I use it? Of course. Why wouldn’t you? It seems like in the past people had moments with music or particular pieces of art and those discoveries felt like a very natural process. With the Internet though, people are constantly hunting for a true genuine moment with every link they click. Discovering it on the Internet almost falsifies it to an extent, though. I feel like whenever someone’s telling you, ‘This is the next band that’s gong to fucking blow your mind. You’re going to put this band on all your new road trip mixes that you listen to on your way to the next big music festival. Then when while this band is playing at the festival you’ll propose to your girlfriend and it’s going to be amazing!’ I realize how ridiculous that sounds but I feel like those are the kind of expectations that people are putting on music today and it’s very unusual to me. People aren’t saying, ‘Listen to this band. They’re really awesome.’ They’re saying, ‘You have to listen to this band because it’s so cool right now. They will change your life.’
I feel like a lot of people aren’t looking for their new favorite record that’ll stick by them for years. They’re looking for their new favorite download on Monday morning. That idea is really depressing to me.
Well, it is. It’s almost as if they are trying to create the same expectations or feelings they had the first time they heard [My Bloody Valentine’s] Loveless (Creation, 1991). I think the context of where it used to exist as opposed to where it is now with the Internet is mutating by the day. People have such grandiose expectations for every new thing they grab off of the Internet. They run the risk of blowing through what’s truly good, what’s truly unique, so much quicker. It’s not something that naturally grows on you. It’s not an album you’ll hear passively at first, then you’ll start getting into it later, then realize that you keep coming back to it as the years pass. I’m afraid it’s not like that anymore. People go into records now just because it got a 9.7 and not because they genuinely are passionate about that record.
Is this new attitude towards experiencing new music affecting the way music is evolving in terms of genres you think?
I do think that it’s affecting the way in which music is evolving. There’s such a wide community out there, and it’s all internationally known and connected through all these places and people you never thought would be involved in this sort of world. They’re all shaping these sounds and genres, which seem to be exhausted far more quickly than they used to be. For Neon Indian it’s so weird that people have tacked on terms like ‘chill wave’ and ‘glo-fi’. I don’t feel that Neon Indian is anything new by any form of the imagination. Of course the approach is very intimate and personal, but I could tie it to things like Ariel Pink and Magnetic Fields’ Holiday (Merge, 1994), which is a record that’s very near and dear to me. I hear more of that in the music than something like Memory Tapes, which I like, but I find it strange that these days you don’t get to pick the musical movement you want to be a part of. It’s already determined for you. A friend of mine stated it perfectly when he said, ‘Music journalists want to be the first people to coin it and the first people to hate it.’ It’s as if they can tell that this new form of getting music out to the world is a process and they want to usher something in, then push it along as quickly as possible.
I think the key there is progression. If you don’t want to be an Internet star for three months, on everyone’s favorite blog for a season, you have to allow yourself to progress as a songwriter. I feel like hype is a very interesting and danger-ous thing.
To further that, I think you have to do it on your own terms as well. There’s another kind of progression that happens in blog culture that’s bad, which seems to happen more in the world of electro and music like that. These producers will change their sound or their style because certain production techniques or sounds are more popular on the blogs this month than they were before. So you get a producer that started doing bangers, then a few months later he realizes to up his downloads he needs to throw in more disco hi-hats, then it’s some warbly dub-step bassline all just to maintain relevance on the internet. I understand that the best thing an artist can do is to evolve, but they should do it completely divorced from outside influences. Also what’s sort of wild about it – before blog culture became what it is – you had the freedom to evolve over a couple of albums. Now I feel like people have much greater expectations of you. They expect you to completely reinvent yourself from one album to the next. I wonder quite a bit what the second Neon Indian album is going to sound like. I have general ideas and outlines in terms of what I’d like the album to tap into and even maybe connect it with a screenplay I’d like to write, and fall more into the world of film.
That would definitely fall into the realm of progression, if that were to come about.
Moving onward and upward I guess (laughs).