Neon Indian On Songwriting, Gear, And Next Album
Alan Palomo started his solo project Neon Indian out of the ashes of two different bands, Ghosthustler and Vega (the latter still exists). It was a natural move for the synth-wielding Texan, who had come to better understand what he wanted in songwriting and production through the band experiences. Then when Psychic Chasms exploded on the scene, Palomo called on some of the same musicians from his experimental college music and film days to flesh out the live version of Neon Indian. After a gig at last month’s MoogFest in Asheville, North Carolina, Palomo headed to Iceland for the winter to work on his next album, alone. The week before MoogFest, we spoke to Palomo about synthesizers, the intersection of film and music, and how he goes about writing songs.
You recently played MoogFest. How long have you been using Moog gear?
I think a long time ago, I had hit up a Moog just out of curiosity, for some of their instruments. The Moog brand is pretty iconic. If anything, I’ve had a lot more experience working with their older stuff. They were really awesome. We just kind of established a pretty solid dialogue about some gear and they helped me put together some stuff into the live shows. They’ve just kind of been fans of Neon Indian [laughs], and actually recently I was up there to do a little demonstration video for the Moog Filtatron. That’s sort of how the dialogue was established, and eventually the offer to play the festival came along.
How did you first get started using synthesizers?
Well, it’s kind of funny. It first started from a fascination level before I ever really owned any. I just watched a Moog documentary and all kind of things that just sparked my interest. I remember the first synth I ever touched was the Oberheim OB-X, which was sitting at this pawn shop in San Antonio and was completely mis-priced. It was kind of the synth that got away. I think they were selling it for 600 bucks, it costs at least $2,000. I started playing around with those, and I think, like any descent into nerddom, I kind of inhaled as much information about it as I could. And then, by the time I was in college, I wanted to start experimenting with doing some recording. I’d always grown up around music, but I’d never taken any very serious attempt at trying to make anything until Ghosthustler came along, which was my first project.
It’s interesting that you grew up around music but didn’t start making music until later on. What inspired you to start making electronic music?
I definitely grew up around a lot of music, but eventually, when I came to the conclusion that I wanted to start writing it, I think it was an intuitive sensibility that I slowly began tapping into, just from watching my brother and my dad do it for so long. I think the first instrument I had was when I bought a guitar in high school – everybody has a guitar – and sort of confined to the limitations of just playing around, like open mic nights and things like that. I’ve always had an interest in electronic music, as far as I can remember in high school, in the respect that a lot of the bands that I listened to were construed as that, but it wasn’t really until college that I was surrounded by circumstances that would really allow me to facilitate that sort of thing. I was just around other people that were into it, and we were exchanging music quite rapidly. They actually became some of my bandmates in Ghosthustler. So it was pretty easy as far as that was concerned, because it was all coming from different branches of electronics and had diverse ideas about what we wanted to do, which ironically enough I think was the eventual downfall of Ghosthustler – there were so many different ideas as far as direction.
But within that time, it was this production boot camp. I remember each song was this attempt at making these massive leaps and bounds, as far as production and writing were concerned. We were just really trying to keep up with our contemporaries. It really fueled this desire to create the sounds that I wanted to without laboring so much over all the little trivial production components of it. And that’s eventually how Neon Indian spawned, because even Vega was more of that school of thought of really trying to finesse sounds. Eventually with Neon Indian, it was just kind of this amalgamation of all the skills that I had picked up along the way, a little bag of tricks or whatever you want to call it, and I finally had a project in which I could have the context and the template to able to experiment with.
What was it like transitioning from the group settings of Ghosthustler and Vega to solo recording?
Vega was a natural progression of what Ghosthustler would have been had I continued it under my specific interpretation of what I thought that project should entail. [There was a similar] tone within the new set of songs I was writing, but it still retained that original aesthetic. But Neon Indian was really the first time that I wrote music just more solely based on impulse and focused more on the songwriting than trying to tap into a certain genre or make any kind of references or gestures to the music I already enjoyed listening to. [Neon Indian] wasn’t really coming from that place. I think it was more transparent and personal, at least as far as the writing and the lyrical subject matter was concerned.
You have this great quote about production and songwriting. How do those two worlds connect for Neon Indian?
I don’t necessarily see the two as mutually exclusive, because I think that obviously to an extent, the sounds you’re experimenting with can kind of influence the subject matter you want to tap into. I think that in a weird way, Psychic Chasms felt like a scrapbook, a meditation on the last four years for me and where I was at. It wasn’t even necessarily musically, just in terms of watching certain relationships introduce themselves and then deteriorate. Some come into focus, and some get pushed into the backdrop, and just the evolution of being out of that comfort environment of wherever it is that you grew up, that solid set of friends and being in this new place. It’s really a petri dish for creativity and a lot of drama. [Laughs.] To a certain extent, what you try to tap into with production is always very important, and I think it does inspire you to want to go into certain directions or to think about certain things that you want to write about. There are a lot of genres that are synonymous with a lot of Italo [Disco] stuff. It’s always playing on these notions of space and sci-fi and trying to find these tongue-in-cheek narratives around it. If there’s anything that holds precedence over anything else, it’s definitely songwriting itself. You can record it anyway you want. In reference to that particular quote, it’s definitely coming from the place of having a mild frustration with the idea of lo-fi electronics and lo-fi recording techniques as a way of masking discrepancies in the music and passing them off as more charming, or as something intentional as opposed to covering what could be thought of as a blemish or an incomplete idea.
How would you describe your actual songwriting process?
I think my actual songwriting process just starts with a notebook, very far away from my instruments. Usually all of my lyrics have to be based on some kind of interaction I’ve had, whether fantasized or happened. It has to be rooted in something somehow that’s just real to my set of experiences. Once I have a concept, it’s like there’s two kinds of songs that I have. One’s just going into it with a certain concept, like “Deadbeat Summer,” I had a song title before I had any of the music, it was just this idea that I wanted to get across. If anything, it comes from a film perspective, which is what I studied in college and what I’ve always been into. It’s just imagining this narrative and space that the song can exist around. It’s like trying to score this experience that you’re trying to get across. And that’s one way to do it. The other way is to just start with the melody, and playing around with synths. It always starts with this four bar loop that I listen to for a while and space out to and think about what it makes me think about. Slowly, the four bars turn into eight, turn into sixteen, kind of like this looping circle that’s slowly expanding until I feel like it’s big enough and has enough components to it to consider it a song, at least by my standards. Sometimes it’s inspired by the instruments that I’m toying around with, or the sound that I’m generating, and building ideas, lyrically, off of that. Every once in a while, I feel like, oddly enough, that the songs that have clicked with people the most are the ones that I sat down with, an idea already in mind, or something that I specifically wanted to address.
The comparison of songwriting to film narrative is really great. Will you talk about that a little more?
In a weird way, I almost always have the visuals before the music comes. There are a lot of records I really love that have such an airtight aesthetic to them, as far as lyrics, production style and all that. They immediately become [tied] to this place and time. Whether something you’re just drawing from it, or the time and place that they were coming from. I think about Psychocandy, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and that’s just a cinematic record to me. Many of the songs have been used in films because of that. So it’s kind of interesting to me when an album can immediately do that, where the aesthetic is so complete that sitting down and listening to the record is almost like watching a film. Maybe that’s some kind of creative exercise that I developed from very early on, having this obsession with film and always looking at things in that respect. To me, at least, it feels natural.
I’m going to Helsinki to record this next record, and renting an efficiency apartment and [taking] all my equipment to just have there and [I’m] not coming out until the songs are finished into some kind of record. The idea, or something I’d like to do, is a kind of 20-minute short that would be this loose narrative, which would start as a making-of and then veer off into its own narrative tangent. Basically, just have it feature music from the film and release it as a series of chapters preceding the album. If there’s anything I’ve noticed, there are a lot of records that have these ambiguous sounds. People’s imaginations run pretty rampant, with subject matter, or what it makes them think about. If there’s any kind of medium that people use now to articulate what they see when they think about the music [it’s video]. There are so many YouTube videos now that are just someone taking a song that they like and putting together this kind of found footage for it, or just a collection of Super 8 or a scene from a film and sort of re-editing it to the context. It’s really interesting to look at it in that way. It kind of means that a lot of people are looking at it in a multimedia realm. I think for me, it sort of dictates visuals as well, that it might give a more complete understanding of what you really get out of the record. Not that it’s necessarily my job to tell somebody what they should think about my music. Much of the beauty in it is that people draw their own associations to it. To me, it would be an interesting undertaking to create this companion piece that creates more of a full narrative.
I’ve heard other people like Javelin say – especially when you’re working with samples and production – that audio editing starts to feel more like video editing or even Photoshop. Do you feel like the editing processes are similar too?
Oh, of course. I’d almost argue that in [that] the format in which people make music now is confined to this screen, that forces you to look at it in physical increments. Looking at so many seconds of a sample, you literally just view it as this chunk. The more elaborate things get and the more parameters that you’re automating and the more things that you’re incorporating – at least as far as the first [Neon Indian] record’s concerned – it definitely feels more like a collage than just immediately as a songwriter. It’s funny, because I love what Javelin does, those guys definitely have a very interesting take on taking these found sounds and retelling it as this very playful, psychedelic sculpture, something I think they do best. One of my top five favorite records is one that didn’t have a single instrument track sound to it – the Avalanches’ Since I Left You – and that’s such a rich record to me. It’s so full of layers and story and it seems like a lot of audio samples. I love in the opening song, which is kind of like, “We’re up in the club man, we’re having a good time, you’re in paradise!” Something as arbitrary as that, where you’re just kind of like, “Yeah! Paradise!” [It’s] this raw concept in your head that gives you something to visually play around with as you’re listening to the music. Music now is becoming very referential – there are so many factions and microgenres laboring over recreating things – because of resources available. To me, I find that very interesting. I think a lot of people are conscious of the visual aesthetic [in music], or the context of time and place and playing with those things. That’s why I really love a band like Boards Of Canada. The same thing can be said about the Avalanches as well – they’re really good at creating that space I was talking about. It’s one thing to hear a song, it’s another thing to hear a song muffled through a car speaker, or it sounds like it’s coming from another room, playing around with that idea of place and space.