Neon Indian
The Man-Machine
by Kevin J. Elliott

As much as you can blame Texas native Alan Palomo and his Neon Indian project for spearheading the imagined genre known as chillwave, you can also thank him for setting the nails in that trend’s eventual coffin with the release of his sophomore album, Era Extraña. It was only two years ago when Neon Indian debuted with Psychic Chasms, an album that was the auditory equivalent of synthetic coitus. It was guiltily infectious, a one-night stand with ephemeral bleeps and blips generated from melting circuit boards, landfill video game consoles, and strip-mined samples of obscure Italo disco and dollar-bin Rundgren records. It wasn’t long before that sound was co-opted by every kid with a laptop and the patience to roam the vast wilderness of Youtube for ironically nostalgic source material to warp and whittle away at. In speaking with Palomo, one can sense that he’s moved on; unable to justify his art with light fluffy electro-pop, he’s instead gravitated towards something more complex and much deeper, with flesh and blood emotion.

Era Extraña is that record, devoid of samples and composed in near isolation earlier this year in Helsinki, Finland. On this record, Palomo plays the role of conductor, waving directions in front of a symphony of towering synths, oscillators, random noise generators, and fantasy guitar tones. “The Blindside Kiss,” traipses through shoegaze peaks and chiptune rainbows, while the more introspective moments on the album explore a cinematic expanse. “Fallout,” the woozy centerpiece of the record, paints the skyline of a waning metropolis post-dusk, while “Polish Girl,” with its percolating anxiety, seemingly originated from some club in a millennia far away where the DJ has just discovered Yazoo. But despite Palomo’s retro-futurist soundscapes being rife with plastic and fluorescent light, there’s a beating heart controlling it all. Naysayers might toss Neon Indian aside as a fad from the dawn of the 2010s, but after our lengthy phone call, I could glean that Palomo is building for a lengthy career. Whether it’s collaborating with The Flaming Lips (who along with Dave Fridmann helped to mix Era Extraña), packaging his record with the Pal198X (a do-it-yourself, simple circuit synth), or assembling a full band to manifest his whimsical pop songs on the stage, he’s much smarter than he leads on and exudes a confidence that assures he’ll be around for the long haul.

In describing Era Extraña, I want to use words like “matured” or “nuanced” in comparison to the first album, but I don’t think those are correct assumptions. Is there a particular way you want this album interpreted by your audience?

Alan Palomo: For me, it’s usually about self-gratification. This record, in a weird way, was a strange rite of passage. Like when you’re working in a studio and you have to share your vision with the other people you are collaborating with—could you do that? How can you get your concept across? The song fodder has always been centered around personal experiences. I don’t keep a diary or anything like that, so these songs are really the only way to document what’s been happening to me.

I would say this album is more cohesive and that there definitely tends to be a beautiful desolation to the tone of the record. Did you go into writing this record with any sort of narrative to guide how the songs would come together? The “Heart” interludes definitely suggest there’s some sort of arc here.

AP: To an extent, yes. The “Heart” sequences, in particular, were made to be sonic arcs between the styles on the record. The first phase has an 8-bit, shoegaze sort of glaze over a lot of the tracks. The middle focuses on the post-punk I was revisiting at the time. Those interludes serve as place-markers to shift the gears of the record. There wasn’t as much a narrative as there was a theme to the record.

What prompted you to go to Helsinki to record? Was it a matter of logistics or was there a more romantic element involved?

AP: There was definitely a romanticism associated with that decision. I went from a situation in Austin where I wasn’t doing anything except recording music and waiting to enter the film program (at the University of North Texas) and going on the road for a year and a half. What was at first just an artistic exercise for me suddenly eclipsed every aspect of my life. So I feel like going to record in Helsinki was a way to separate myself from all of that and get into a state of mind where transparent songs happen. It was very conducive to my personal development.

With the release of the album, you decided to construct an analog synth, the Pal198X. Was that something you’ve always aspired to do? Do you have a lot of experience in the technical side of fixing and modifying electronics?

AP: It’s funny because a few months after the first record came out, I built my first rack-mounted kit. It was essentially just this weird multi-band distortion unit. I wanted to have my friend Lars build it, but he insisted that he watch me build it. So I had to buck up and solder this thing for a few days. I realized how simple it really was if you follow directions. In high school, when I would see bands roll up to town with these esoteric sets of home-built electronics, it seemed like this alien and complicated world that you needed a background in engineering to be a part of. Much of the purpose behind the Pal198X was to at least share that, if you understand the basic principles of that world, it is easy to do it yourself. You can take all of these objects and re-imagine them as musical instruments. If it can serve as the gateway drug for some kid who finds a stereo in his garage and manipulates it through feedback and other circuitry, then I think it’s done its job.

Do you intend for it to be something that listeners would interact with in tandem with listening to the album? It sounds like maybe you are using it at the beginning of “Hex Girlfriend.”

AP: It’s a lot of the same kind of electronics. In particular, the triangle waves have a very video-game sound to them. With Dr. Bleep from Bleep Labs, he based a lot of the circuit boards on these kits you can still order—or at least get the schematics for—called Atari Home Kits. They are these really two-dimensional, very sharp sounding triangle waves. It does very closely emulate the kind of synthesis that I’m into, almost exactly, because I was using a lot of modified Commodore 64 stuff to write the record. Some of the more immediate and playful parts of the record definitely encourage that you mess around with it. As it is, though, it’s a very exciting little noisemaker. You can even get very traditionally musical with it if you were to open up some modular synths and run it through a sequencer. It’s meant to be this open template that you can adapt to any kind of music you make.

I love the almost flippant pop sounds of the first record, but this album is much more widescreen and is darker and more complex. You often talk about how your music is not retro and how it’s more transformative to a different place in time, maybe one we haven’t experienced yet. How did you try to get that across more on Era Extraña?

AP: With the first record, the influences were a little more obvious in the sense that a lot the samples I would use were simply bands that I was listening to. It made perfect sense that I would sample Todd Rundgren because that’s all I would listen to at the time. With this record, because there weren’t samples and there wasn’t a specific year or geographic place that I was trying to tap into, I was just trying to create these little soundscapes that may be evocative of some specific time, but could really only exist in your head. If anything, I wanted it to sound like some weird anachronism, which is why I love Boards of Canada so much. They can sound like the future, but a thousand years into the future where other forms of the future have withered and civilizations have crumbled—a really fucked up lost in time feel. I try to tap into those elements as well.

Speaking of the future, perhaps it’s too early to talk about what comes next, but do you have any ideas in your head about what you want to do? Any lofty ambitions for how you’d like Neon Indian to sound down the road?

AP: I think lofty ambitions are always on the agenda. I’m not sure, but I do know that I want to finally deliver this VEGA (Palomo’s disco-drenched alter-ego) record. I’ve been sitting on it or putting it on the back burner for a while. That’s the most immediate thing that I want to do. There’s going to be a lot of touring for Era Extraña, but I definitely want to carve out some time to get the VEGA album out in the first half of next year. Of all the ideas that I have yet to materialize, as far as dance music is concerned, that’s the record that I’ve always wanted to write and execute.