ALAN PALOMO, THE 23-YEAR-OLD TEXAS NATIVE AND ELECTRONIC IMPRESARIO BEHIND NEON INDIAN, FOUND PLENTY OF ACCLAIM FOR THE BAND’S 2009 DEBUT, “PSYCHIC CHASMS,” LANDING THEM ON PLENTY OF BEST-OF-THE-YEAR LISTS AND GETTING THEM DUBBED ONE OF THE HOTTEST NEW BANDS OF 2010 BY ROLLING STONE. SO HOW DO YOU FOLLOW THAT UP? HOLE UP IN A STUDIO IN WINTER-DARKENED HELSINKI AND FORGET ABOUT IT ALL, AS IT TURNS OUT. AND THAT’S JUST WHAT PALOMO DID, HEADING TO FINLAND TO RECORD “ERA EXTRAÑA,” NEON INDIAN’S LUCIOUS, SYNTH-DRENCHED NEW ALBUM. “IT’S THE CLOSEST YOU CAN GET TO FEELING LIKE YOU’RE AT THE EDGE OF THE EARTH,” PALOMO SAYS OF HELSINKI IN WINTER. “THERE WERE MOMENTS WHERE I LOST SIGHT OF WHAT I WAS REALLY THERE TO DO.” PALOMO CHECKED IN WITH DIRTY WHILE TOURING ACROSS EUROPE TO CHAT ABOUT LIFE ON THE ROAD, DEFENDING ELECTRONIC MUSIC AND HOW TO FEEL WHEN “TERMINATOR 2” DOESN’T COME TRUE.
TEXT Ned Ehrbar
DIRTY: HOW’S IT GOING?
ALAN PALOMO: Pretty good, pretty good. Just driving to Amsterdam at the moment.
D: HOW IS THE TOUR GOING SO FAR?
AP: So far it’s been awesome. We’re actually just kind of on the last home stretch. I think everybody was pretty antsy to get to check out Europe a little bit. It’s been beautiful, actually. It’s a pretty ideal time of year.
D: HAVE YOU GUYS PLAYED MUCH IN EUROPE BEFORE?
AP: Yeah. We’ve toured a couple of times, but it’s kind of rare that we get to do it this extensively. Usually we’ll have a week, week-and-a-half type tour. But we’ll be there close to a month.
D: HOW’S BEING ON THE ROAD FOR THAT LONG?
AP: It’s pretty strange. I think you have to put yourself in a state of mind where you have to surrender a lot of creature comforts, you know? It sounds like the old cliché when they say you’re living out of a suitcase, but you really do kind of get resourceful with that. I don’t know, I guess in some weird way that can be kind of liberating. I know I have my apartment in New York, but I can’t really think of anything in there that I’m missing other than, like, maybe some synths.
D: AND MAYBE SOME PERSONAL SPACE?
AP: Yeah. And I do kind of from time to time… you do miss that, and I’m kind of more of a studio guy than a touring guy, but I think they both kind of exist on very different terms.
D: HOW IS THE TRANSLATION FROM STUDIO TO STAGE FOR YOUR SONGS?
AP: Well, I mean it’s pretty different. I think initially the formula that we’ve fallen into is that at first we’re trying to just really nail the songs, I guess, as true to the recording as we can. And then as we hit that stride with them, over time it will undergo a very slow mutation until we just try to reinvent them as much as possible. I don’t provide too much of a criteria for what it should and shouldn’t sound like. I like that my band-mates all come from different musical backgrounds and can surprise me in that sense.
D: YOUR NEW ALBUM, “ERA EXTRAÑA,” HAS BEEN OUT FOR A LITTLE BIT. HOW HAS THE RECEPTION BEEN?
AP: Good. I mean, it’s tough to gauge where you’re at. Once it’s out there, I try not to concern myself with it. But I guess it’s been good. You never really know until you go out and play shows. I mean, you can read an article or you can answer a question about it, but until you’re in a sweaty room with people that want to sing your songs back at you while you perform, that’s really the only way to kind of gauge where you’re at.
D: YOUR FIRST ALBUM, “PSYCHIC CHASMS,” GOT A TON OF ACCLAIM. DID THAT EFFECT HOW YOU APPROACHED THE SECOND ALBUM? OR DO YOU JUST NOT PAY ATTENTION TO IT?
AP: I think the latter. I think at first I was sort of concerned. I tend to over-think most things, so at first it was a pretty neurotic process to try escape that. But I think initially my motivations for leaving New York to begin with were drawn from the idea that I’d never really given myself a chance to adjust to everything that had happened, so I kind of needed somewhere that would be a little escape from everything and to not really be mindful of those things and just treat everything like just kind of an experiment, as if nobody had listened to “Psychic Chasms.”
D: HELSINKI SEEMS LIKE AN INTERESTING CHOICE FOR A PLACE TO ESCAPE TO.
AP: (laughs) Well, I think the idea was that it was going to be incredibly cold and I would be forced to be indoors working on music anyways. But I think once you’re actually living like that, it’s a really great way to drive yourself completely insane.
D: WELL, WITH ANY IMMERSIVE, CREATIVE PROCESS, YOU RUN THAT RISK.
AP: Totally, and it becomes part of the narrative of it, you know? I think in a lot of ways — especially answering a lot of interview questions about how the first record came to be and what sort of circumstances I wrote the songs in, the more I talk about it the more I detach myself from what the actual thing was, and you just end up saying things that sound good on paper or something. I’ll romanticize a lot of the alienation that I put yourself through when I want to work on music, and then when I’m actually in those moments it’s a very different kind of beast. I’m actually kind of reminded of how intense it is and how not necessarily fun it might be in moments where some of the transparently honest ideas come from.
D: HOW DO YOU FIND THE FOCUS TO GET BACK TO THAT KIND OF PLACE?
AP: Well, I think not having the internet helps. (laughs) And I find that when you’re on tour, you’re kind of just looking at things from a very logistical, day-to-day standpoint or just kind of addressing the next immediate thing at hand. But when you’re working in the studio, there’s not really any kind of expectation or responsibility lingering overhead, and hopefully I would imagine that you’re never really in a place where you’re looking at schedules either, especially if you record from home. I kind of like being in that mindset where it just kind of slips from under you and the next thing you know it’s seven in the morning and you’ve finished a song.
D: UNLIKE THE FIRST ALBUM, YOU PUT THIS ONE OUT ON YOUR OWN LABEL, STATIC TONGUES. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
AP: I was going to do a series of singles for a bunch of mainly Austin-based electronic groups who are part of the same community, that I do a lot of collaborations with, just some buddies that I’ve known for a few years. But I thought before jumping into that, my record would be the perfect guinea pig to see if I could even operate something like that. But it’s actually bit off really nicely. I like being able to work under these circumstances.
D: HAVING MORE CONTROL OVER EVERYTHING DOES SEEM THE SMARTER WAY TO GO.
AP: And I think also because I tend to be pretty neurotic about those details, it’s kind of nice when the only person you have to answer to is yourself as far as what the record needs to be at the end of the day or what it’s going to look like, when you get your hands on it, all those different components to it.
D: THE TITLE “ERA EXTRAÑA” HAS A FEW POSSIBLE TRANSLATIONS. IS THERE ONE FOR YOU THAT’S THE DEFINITIVE MEANING?
AP: I don’t know, I think it was meant to be open to interpretation. It was kind of meant to be something a little alienating and somewhat ambiguous, but the word “extraña” in Spanish means both the word to miss and also the word for strange. I kind of like the idea that those things are both rooted in the same thing, so I think it was kind of meant to be a play on that. In context, it can say, “she is strange” or it could be “strange era” or “the witching era.” It’s all sort of rooted in the same idea, given the lyrical subject matter on one side. Everything has this weird, eerie pre-apocalyptic feel.
D: I JUST WATCHED THE VIDEO YOU MADE FOR THE PAL198X. IT’S VERY AUTHENTIC.
AP: That’s definitely my buddy Johnny’s doing — which is the first time that I got to direct something with anybody, which is really pretty awesome. I’ve always wanted to jump into something like that. It was weird because it was one thing to explain the PAL198X and to kind of just sort of say it’s this three-oscillator synth, and the other thing was just like, well once people get it, what are they going to do with it? Should we provide, like, instructions for it? Since much of the ethos behind building it to begin with was more centered around the idea that you get this thing that’s basically a very simple noisemaker but that you can hack very easily and implement in your own ways or integrate it into whatever genre of music you’re trying to make with it or as part of your setup, I think we kind of needed to put together something like this, a kind of goofy video to give people more examples or possibilities for what they could do. I remember being mainly inspired by this really terrible corporate promotional video for Atari from the early 80s. It’s so obnoxiously brilliant that I had to take a couple cues from it.
D: HOW MUCH IS THAT EARLY 80S TECHNOLOGY AND STYLE AN INFLUENCE ON YOU OTHERWISE?
AP: I’m kind of more influenced just by how hands-on it is. I like that it has a certain sort of glaze or sheen that it puts on things. I find it interesting that on one end people can talk about a distortion pedal or a chorus pedal, but the actual degradation of sound isn’t necessarily seen as an effect. It’s seen as more of a novelty or is meant to be construed as something nostalgic, but for me I think it’s just as much an instrument as any other part of the song. It kind of created a context for a sound and a place. It’s one thing to hear the song just playing out of a speaker, and then it’s another thing to hear something that’s a copy of a copy of a copy, you know? It has all these implied narratives to it.
D: DOES IT CHANGE THE SONGWRITING PROCESS WHEN YOU’RE DEALING WITH THAT MUCH SOUND MANIPULATION AND THAT MUCH DETAIL?
AP: Oh, totally. I think that to me, I’ve never written down with a piano, just written a song like that. I started with some weird, off-kilter element and built things around it to try to make it a more cohesive song, you know? It’s working very backwards. I know that for a lot of people you write this very simple song,and then afterwards you walk in and you try to throw these little arrangements on it to make it psychedelic or the make it more original or whatever you want to call it. But I kind of like building off of just those original weird frills or sounds and then trying to imagine what song would be playing around it. I never really formally learned any instruments, so it was just kind of how I always approached music. It made more sense to play around with things that sounded fun as opposed to being, “Oh, and then I’ll write this minor swing in E sharp” or something.
D: AND WHERE DO THE IDEAS FOR WHAT THE SONGS THEMSELVES ARE ABOUT COME FROM?
AP: I don’t know, I definitely was pretty obsessed — and still am — with a lot of sci-fi cinema and books, predominantly from the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s and stuff. There’s a lot of cyberpunk books like “Neuromancer” or “Snow Crash” and stuff. I remember a few months ago hearing that it was the date that supposedly Skynet becomes aware in “Terminator 2,” and that’s when the computers become self-aware and take over, and I find it kind of comical that we’re definitely living in those years that were dreamed about in all this sci-fi cinema, and yet it’s nothing like they imagined it. And it’s very futuristic in a different way, in a way that I don’t think anybody could have completely have pegged down. It’s interesting to see the things that actually actualized and the things that ended up being completely wrong or different, you know? But at the same time, I think I always just write songs based out of personal experience, and I like the idea that even in this strange environment, that the teenage era doesn’t really change. It’s the same songs that you’d always write, but the feeling is a little bit different or the space around them. I remember the first image that came to my mind was the Smashing Pumpkins “1979” video, but in like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
D: SO HOW MUCH LONGER ARE YOU ON THE ROAD, AND WHAT’S COMING UP NEXT FOR YOU?
AP: I’m on the road for another two weeks, and then it will be… I don’t know, I think for the next couple of months after that I’m just going to start working on some VEGA stuff because I’m pretty close to being able to have a complete record with that.
D: ARE YOU GOING BACK TO NEW YORK OR TEXAS?
AP: Well, definitely Texas for the holidays, but I think most of my time off will probably definitely be spent in New York trying to clean up my apartment or something.