This article was written for Ante Magazine.
Given the swell of criticism that flooded the online music scene after the popularity of the ‘chillwave’ genre boomed in 2009, you could easily forgive Alan Palomo, a.k.a. Neon Indian, for wanting to get as far away from the tag as possible. Coined by the satirical website Hipster Runoff to describe emerging artists like Neon Indian and Washed Out, the phrase refers to a sound characterised by lo-fi production and hypnagogic synths. Almost as quickly as it became prominent, it was rejected by many critics en masse, with a blunt, dismissive article in the New York Times leading the way. It seemed like chillwave might become a musical contagion, avoided by all.
However, Palomo couldn’t care less about the tag. ‘Honestly, I think the days of being remotely bothered by that are just so pointless,’ he says. ‘I feel like, the fact that everyone’s second records are so polarising only re-iterates the fact that we’re all coming from different musical places to begin with.’ And polarising might just be the word to describe his follow-up record to debut, Psychic Chasms, which Pitchfork named the 14th best album of 2009. So clear is the difference in sound that his new record, Era Extraña (a Spanish double entendre, given that ‘extraña’ translates to both ‘strange’ and ‘longing’), will be sure to divide fans.
Gone is the heavy saturation of psychedelic nostalgia, replaced by something that sounds more like the classic Blade Runner soundtrack. It’s not as light as Psychic Chasms, but in no way does that mean it’s not as accessible. In a sense, there’s more here to find; Palomo has moved beyond working with delicious sounds bubbling on the surface. ‘I think this time around – there weren’t any samples on this record – I was trying to build these sounds from the ground up that were already kind of individually and inherently a little fucked-up and horrible sounding and then trying to create songs out of these different components,’ he explains. ‘I think whereas before the idea was playing around with these pre-existing sounds and trying to re-contextualise them, or place this horrible sheen over them.’
One thing that has influenced the album is the inevitable surprise of something that every newly-successful artist has to deal with for the first time: relentless touring. ‘If there’s anything that informed me what I wanted to do for the next record it was touring off the same songs for like a year and a half,’ he says. ‘It was more just driven by the idea of what would be fun to play in front of an audience; what kind of songs do I feel like the band could expand enough on over time and integrate their own interesting components into, and I think that was what was always in the back of my mind.’
With Neon Indian’s success came collaborations with artists like Miami Horror and The Flaming Lips, releasing a vinyl-only EP with the latter band. It featured bizarre song titles such as ‘Is David Bowie Dying’ and ‘Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want The Truth Part 2,’ and sounded like a creeping trudge through a nightmare. So what was it like writing songs with the Lips? ‘It was really awesome actually. After talking to (frontman) Wayne (Coyne) for a little bit, we decided that we wanted to do something, but we just didn’t know what it was going to be or what the template was for it.’ At this point, Palomo’s natural enthusiasm sounds even stronger as he recounts the band’s synergy. ‘It’s interesting watching them work because it’s just as much of a production as their live shows: everybody breaks up into these different teams and tackles these separate components of the songs and then after five or six hours of that they come together and a song almost magically materialises.’
Palomo, a former film-school student, is clearly feeling comfortable enough in the music industry to let his sonic fecundity point him well off the beaten track. ‘I’m always working off a template or writing a song with a set of images in mind,’ he says. ‘I’d like to see the project go in a direction where I could conceivably make some sort of film and write the score for it and have that be the next record or something.’