Some music obsessives would call “chillwave” a misnomer. Since its peak in the early aughts, the sub-genre known for lo-fi, sun-drenched electronic recordings exemplified by artists like Neon Indian, Toro y Moi, and Washed Out has diverged stylistically, blasting into realms of hip-hop, R&B, and funk. But, inaccurate labels be damned. When Alan Palomo, the creative force behind Neon Indian, connects with EW from Portland, Oregon he’s chill as hell.
Neon Indian’s tour for their third record, VEGA INTL. Night School, has just started, and Palomo’s still fresh, speaking about his interests with mile-a-minute diction that obscures his eloquence. Then he mentions something decidedly unchill. “I had written the first few demos [for Night School] while I was still on tour for the second record,” 2011’s Era Extraña, the 29-year-old Texan says. “And I lost my laptop at the end of that tour, so I had to start from scratch.”
Palomo reconstructed any demos he could remember — which were, he points out, probably the best ones — and allowed everything else to “just sort of fade into nothingness.” But things don’t die so easily in the digital age. “It’s funny because arguably the first song I wrote [for Night School], ‘Street Level,’ I stumbled across a YouTube video that somebody had uploaded,” he says. “It was the only time I had ever done this. I DJ’d a demo of mine to see what it sounded like on a sound system — and it just so happened that this one occasion was documented and uploaded to YouTube. I was able to rip that audio file and start rebuilding the song around it.”
For the most part, though, Palomo promises those demos weren’t much to write home about, adding that losing them was “maybe liberating.” He said, “I don’t think that I then had the skill set to make the kind of record that this wound up being.” That expanded aesthetic shines on Night School, an album Palomo has packed with live instrumentation and a cinematic vibe that would’ve been unthinkable based on the bedroom-pop of his 2009 debut, Psychic Chasms.
Palomo, who grew up in Denton but relocated to Brooklyn a few years ago, caught up with EW about his favorite Scorsese films and coming to terms with musical fame.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been four years since your last record. You gave a TED Talk, had a song on the Grand Theft Auto soundtrack, and even scored a film that screened at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, the horror flick Lace Crater. What else have you been up to?
ALAN PALOMO: The first two records were made sort of back-to-back. There’s that industry cliche. “You have your entire life to write the first album and six months to write the second one.” That cliche exists for a reason. I was under the impression that if I didn’t perpetuate the machine that Neon Indian was becoming that interest in it would wane. I had gone from trying to transfer into a college program and working at a burrito place to living on the road and performing to people I had never met but who all seemed to have some connection to my music. It was this fantastic thing [that] I didn’t want to leave hanging.
I didn’t want to come back to Neon Indian until I really felt like I had something to say with it. The modern climate is that you make the record, you tour it until people don’t want to hear the songs anymore, then you go back to the studio, you make another record, and then you do it all over again. I thought as a brain duster I’d opt out for a minute and go into not seclusion, per se, but just the company of my neighborhood in Greenpoint.
I kind of opted out of the live shows for at least a couple years and it wasn’t until we played FYF [in August] where I had that startling realization of, “Oh yeah, this is my job.” And it has returned to being my vocation — you know, the thing that I wake up and go do. It felt amazing. Honestly, I don’t know why I shied away for so long from it.
How would you describe the sound of VEGA INTL. Night Club? Did you have any goals going in?
I wanted to make a collage piece — kind of with the intent of like writing a singles collection for a band that never existed. Individually [the songs] all seemed to be quite different, but in the scope of the larger record [they] make sense in a conjoined and confusing sort of way. It’s something more akin to the DJ sets I was doing in my downtime than 10 variations on one idea.
The record is more dense than the previous stuff I’ve done. The main limitation was trying to make my hands keep up with the ideas in my head. It was cool to bring in session players [who were] able to execute some of these ideas. There was also the vibe to do it a little like Steely Dan, where you’ve got the compositions, but you want some variations that only your most talented friends can provide for you.
Is there a lyrical theme behind the record?
The common thread that all the songs share lyrically is to some extent biographical. But it’s kind of meant to be these different facets of what my life has been in New York, but also grotesquely like cartoons to some degree. It’s meant to be more of a caricature of that experience than a serious recollection. I wanted to take the process of making music very serious, but certainly not myself. At the end of the day I wanted the record to have a little bit of ham and cheese. [laughs] The best way that I can encapsulate the record is some weird mix between Scorsese’s After Hours and Airplane or something.
Was there a story behind the album’s title?
It was an amalgam of two names. I was playing around with the VEGA INTL. part when I was actually going to write a Vega record. The Night School component of it felt like it’s the right phrase to encapsulate the general feel of the album. It became this running joke in my head about this fictional institution called “VEGA INTL. Night School” that we don’t entirely know what it is or what it does, but there are many lessons to take from the experience of going there.
Scorcese, Airplane, Steely Dan — you sound like a media consumer. What else influenced you?
I remember watching After Hours and King of Comedy at Nitehawk in Williamsburg. [They] encapsulate a certain sentiment about New York living that’s not as grandiose as some of his other films, but that to me felt far more personal than watching something like Raging Bull or Goodfellas, which might as well be operas, in terms of how dense the plot lines are and how much time they span. That was a key influence in piecing together the thread of this album. Because you have all these filmmakers that mythologize and exoticize New York City, especially in the 1980s. You’ve also got a lot of trash cinema — movies like Street Trash and Alphabet City and 1990: The Bronx Warriors — essentially intended to be these cartoonish reimaginings of the city. I wanted my own chance to do that — and if I can’t make films, I’ll do it through music.
You’re a transplant from Texas. What has your experience been like in New York?
Brooklyn has become the city of transplants. [Many] people moving to New York are fresh out of high school or college and haven’t had much experience out of their hometown. You see a lot of really bizarre behavior, because you’re not only acclimating to living on your own for the first time, but you’re also doing it in the epicenter of the western world, where bars stay open till 4 a.m. and you can essentially have access to anything and everything. It breeds this temporary insanity. People who move here, the first six months they’re just kind of this spitting mess. [laughs] I was totally that guy, and to some extent I still am that guy.