Music

Neon Indian Enters a Strange Era

Chill wave pioneer Alan Palomo discusses the '80s and vintage synths

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Neon Indian's music has the unique capability of sounding like it comes from the future and the past simultaneously. Often drenched in a hazy gloss of fuzz and imbued with vintage synthesizers and keyboards, it invokes a type of nostalgia that comes from thinking about your favorite VHS tape or Sega Genesis game. At the same time, it has an eerie post-apocalyptic dance-party feel, where pulsating lights and synthetic virtual worlds shield a listener from the desolate wilderness of reality.

"I've always been fascinated by the notion of a future of uncertainty," said Alan Palomo, the 23-year-old artist behind Neon Indian. "Or just living in this strange time and place, where in order to create cultural gestures indicative of the future, we're trudging through this Internet wasteland of the past to find all of these little nuggets of influence and then Frankensteining them into some unique statement."

Neon Indian's debut album, Psychic Chasms, was released in 2009. Fueled by the ridiculously catchy singles "Deadbeat Summer" and "Should have Taken Acid With You," Psychic Chasms generated loads of blog buzz and critical acclaim. Its quirky samples and effects, processed beats and relaxed vibe even helped spur--with aid from Toro y Moi's Causers of This and Washed Out's Life of Leisure--the creation of a new genre: chillwave.

"For the first record, I definitely had one solitary aesthetic that I was going for," said Palomo. "It was just sort of glazing the sheen over the whole mix and using the entire song as an instrument and kind of re-pitching things and creating characters in that sense."

Neon Indian released a new record in September titled Era Extrana. It's a more dense, complex and musically thorough album than its predecessor. Palomo's voice is raised out of the undertow, the individual instruments and effects are more pronounced, and the haze is lifted to reveal more nuance and craftsmanship in songwriting. Whereas Psychic Chasms felt like one cohesive unit, with each track contributing to a singular vibe, Era is more of a collection of solid individual tracks, each contributing to the varied feel of the album.

"With [Era Extrana] it was more about creating individual sounds that were already inherent in nature and trying to combine all of those components to create one song. I wanted a lot of the tuning to come from the sounds themselves as opposed to treating the song after the fact," said Palomo. "All of the new record was generated live. There are no samples other than the punching sounds on 'Arcade Blues.' I think it was pretty important this time around to really try and craft an aesthetic that was completely self-generated and not play around with or try and recontextualize any preexisting stuff."

One of the common threads in Neon Indian's music and aesthetic--visual, lyrical and otherwise--is a throwback to '80s music and culture. Songs like "Arcade Blues" and "Fallout" feel like they would fit nicely in a late-night episode of VH1 Classic.

"I guess I'm so involved in that kind of influence that I don't really see it as nostalgic, necessarily," said Palomo. "It's one thing to write an experimental record, but it's another thing to be in an era when people are creating these different jumps in technology just to see what they sound like. Back then, there were no presets. You had to carve these aesthetics out of wood and really fine-tune them. I've always really loved that. As far as the visual aesthetics of it, I think that in a lot of ways, memories can be as much an instrument as anything else. I like trying to create these little worlds for all of this stuff to live in."

A key component of Neon Indian's sound is the variety of vintage synthesizers and keyboards that it utilizes. Palomo even channeled his love of old-school synthesizers into developing his own, the PAL198X, described as a "triple triangle-wave oscillator noisemaking device." Palomo's nerd-sensibilities compel him to scour old shops and thrift stores in search of new knobs to twist.

"They're very characteristic, temperamental and fascinating machines," said Palomo. "They kind of undulate in and out of pitch, and they have all of these little things that kind of require finesse over time. In that sense, they start to become your friend. They definitely shape the moods and personas around any body of work you're doing, and I've always been obsessed with harnessing that."

When it comes to refining and promoting his art, Palomo is restless. Aside from the two albums and constant touring, Neon Indian has done everything from an EP with the Flaming Lips, to recording a song for Mountain Dew's Green Label Sound Internet record label. He has also been prominently featured in music publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. Regardless of all the spotlights and clamor, Palomo intends to stick with what he does best: creating weird, energetic, nostalgic, high-tech pop music.

"I've just been along for the ride in a really strange way," said Palomo. "The last gig I had before doing this was rolling burritos in Austin, [Texas] ... It's just such a drastic leap in nature that I kind of am completely enchanted by it. I do it because it's just a fun thing to wake up and do. ... The interrelation between expectation and creative impulse rarely sync up, and so I'd rather follow the latter than put more seats in the house or something. That's just not why I make music."

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