• About A Band: Neon Indian

    Alan Palomo says the secret to not being pigeonholed as a certain kind of artist is simple. "In the words of the King, you've just got to be takin' care of business," he laughs, paraphrasing Elvis Presley. "That's not a very sincere answer, but I would say that's something that's entirely out of your hands. I would advise any musician not to do backflips to try to alter the narrative of what they otherwise would have been doing."

    The 27-year-old behind the synth pop band Neon Indian certainly did not. Alan went to school to study film, and spent his summers as a 16-year-old eating handfuls of Sour Patch Kids in the air-conditioned box office of the San Antonio movie theater he worked at. As the son of a Mexican pop star, he planned a different route from that of his father's—and his brother's, for that matter, who was working towards becoming a professionally trained musician. 

    "I think he would have been pleased to see us do something else," Alan says of his dad, who had mixed feelings about his son’s interests in music and film. "I think my parents were both like, ‘Oh, yikes, I guess they're into the arts... well, we're just going to have to roll with that.’" 

    Eventually, Alan changed course—though maybe not in the way that his parents were envisioning. In 2009 he released Psychic Chasms, his debut as Neon Indian. The album’s critical acclaim urged him into full-time musicianship, quickly resulting in 2011’s sophomore release, Era Extraña. “I made the first two records in such a whirlwind. You want to keep the narrative going, perpetuating this idea of the band, so you find yourself flying into a studio and recording there, and then doing a couple of shows—and then it becomes this frantic experience. After that, I told myself I really never want to write it like that again, where I find myself under the gun.”

    Four years later, Alan's releasing his third studio album, VEGA INTL. Night School, with the help of his brother, whose years spent perfecting different genres as a session musician helped steer the direction for "Annie," "Slumlord," and a handful of other tracks on the record.

    We spoke to Alan about his brother’s influence on the new release, how to trust your gut when picking which projects to work on, and how sometimes takin’ care of business takes a little time.
    Photos by Sofia Karchi

    Your father was a pop musician in Mexico. Was he supportive of your decision to get into the arts—first with film school, then as a career musician?
    It was a bit of a duality. Some days, he’d come up with this hair-brained scheme where my brother and me would dress up as clowns and play “Kumbaya” and we’d be called Payasos Sónicas, which is a pun in Spanish that means the “sonic clowns.” And then the other day he’d be like, “You guys should get into computers. You’re on the computer enough as it is, you should really try to make a living off of that.” I think he knew that my brother would be a musician. I wanted to go into film, and that’s what I studied in college—and eventually what I’d like to get into—so there was never that much pressure. But there was that acknowledgement where even that industry has very a small window for you to participate in it, and the people who make a great living off of that are very few and far between. 

    What were you listening to at a young age?

    Obviously, growing up in a house that played mostly yacht rock, I had some weird subconscious influence that would definitely rear its head on this record. I wish it was a more exciting story, but I heard “Pyramid Song” on MTV2 and was like, “What’s that?” [I was] in middle school and started with Radiohead, as many do. I remember I got three CDs in seventh grade or something, and one was clearly better than the other two. I wasn’t completely involved in music at that point, which was strange, because I was definitely living in a musical household. My brother would quite obsessively listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers all day, every day, that’s just what was playing in the house. Once I got to high school I just really quickly connected with a lot of IDM—Boards of Canada, Prefuse 43, and Aphex Twin—and a lot of stuff on Warp that opened up this rabbit hole of this music that existed. In fact, I wasn’t even really interested in a lot of music until I discovered that, and it just unspooled the rest of this musical sweater that I wear now. That was a weird metaphor.

    But a good one! You mentioned your brother is super musical as well. What are some of his current projects?
    He actually is in this project, now. He was pretty instrumental—no pun intended—in the execution of this record. I had no idea that he had spent the past couple of years playing in gospel bands, Earth, Wind & Fire repertories, and stuff like that. He took the session work that was available to him in San Antonio. I believe that that became his strongest asset, you know, he could just be a chameleon of styles. I feel like the more disco-y side was what I was immediately drawn to, and I was like, “Well, I didn’t know you could play guitar like Earth, Wind & Fire can play guitar, let’s do that [laughs]!” So we started working on some stuff, and it was one of the initial tinders that really set off the record. I feel like “Annie” was a really great place to start; that was kind of an earlier demo, and that really informed a lot of what happened next.

    Is this the first time that you two were really able to work on something musical together, aside from the clown band?
    [Laughs] That never happened! Let me clarify that we never dressed up as clowns and played “Kumbaya.” But yeah, in lieu of that, my parents were definitely stoked and they’re like, “Oh, you’re playing with your brother, that’s so wonderful!” That’s the kind of thing that they had been waiting for for some time now. What was interesting was that we had very different tastes in music—even now, I’d say we overlap in some places, but we very much so have the things that we like. So I think the real beauty in these songs is that I wanted him to be coming from this different place, trying to write songs operating in some state of mind that I wouldn’t normally be using to decipher music. He has a completely different way of looking at music than I do, and I think that was a total asset to finishing some of these songs that I had started.

    Last week you played one of your first live US shows in years. What did that feel like?
    The best way I could describe it is I had a moment at [Fuck Yeah Fest in Los Angeles] where I took the stage and [had] completely forgotten that this was my job at some point [laughs], and that it was really fun to do. I had this complete amnesia to what it was like to be on tour throughout the years that I was doing this other stuff and slowly writing the record. It felt pretty surreal, and above all things it felt comfortable, I didn’t have to slowly reintroduce myself to how the songs get conveyed in a live setting.

    It’s interesting how musicians are expected to be able to continually produce, but a writer or director can take 10 years to finish a project and no one bats an eye. Why do you think we hold musicians to different creative standards?
    Music seems to be the exception to so many rules as far as the perception, you know? You think about what it costs to make a feature film—you wouldn’t bat an eye at Michael Haneke spending a few million dollars to make some movie that’s going to get golf claps at Cannes. But, with musicians, a two million dollar record would be seen as a complete obscenity [laughs]. Or even taking money from a car commercial to write a record would be seen as a complete obscenity. It’s pretty interesting—the difference between being in a band and being in a production company.

    You mentioned that you didn’t want to rush this record, or write it “under the gun.” So what was the process like this time around? 
    I’d been living in New York for a couple years, but I hadn’t really spent any time there so I told myself I was going to take a year off and really find the thread of this record. I worked on some short films and I wrote this screenplay—it was really satisfying stuff, because there wasn’t really any expectation with it other than just to make it. I started adapting that attitude to the record; thinking of a lot bands that I love that seem to just take forever, they feel closer to filmmakers than they do musicians because their projects happen every four to five years. You think of The Knife or Boards of Canada or Daft Punk, you’ve got all these people who are maybe not giving you a prolific output of music, but everything they make is a cohesive, fully realized statement of what they do as musicians and producers. If that sentiment was good enough for them, I could only hope to try to take my time and make something that really felt like an amalgam of what Neon Indian meant to me up until this point. It was also treated as what may be the last record that I really want to write for awhile. I wanted to put the time in to make sure that it was touching on all of these data points that have happened thus far, and advancing that narrative further. It seems [more fun] to make it that way than to be looking at calendar dates and wondering if you’re going to be creative that day.

    Pre-order Neon Indian's VEGA INTL. Night School LP now