Walking Away from the Machine: An Interview with Neon Indian

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Cover: Neon Indian by Ben Rayner

Alan Palomo’s hair is perfect, like, all the time. After shaking hands and exchanging a cheers, I look at myself in a mirror hanging just to the side of our table. “I look like shit,” I say to Alan, loosely referencing my prior evening's activities and how it has affected my disposition today. “How could you let me conduct an interview with my hair looking like this?” 

“Trust me: I say the exact same thing after nearly ever photo I see of myself,” Palomo says generously. I know he’s lying for my benefit, so I cut him a look of disbelief quickly enough for Pam, a member of his management team, to laugh audibly at the exchange.

Off the bat, you can tell that Palomo has learned, possibly the hard way over his five-year stint as Neon Indian, the value of relating to people. It’s what makes his music so digestible and good; he’s never been guilty of fabricating any of these sentiments. He’s whip-smart, but not at the expense of this empathetic point of view. It’s the most endearing thing about Palomo.

A few hours prior to his Saturday night performance, we sit down to chat about life post-VEGA, the toils of the industry and the genius of Boards of Canada. 

PMA: We fell in love with VEGA. We thought it was something that seemed incredibly natural for you. Though Era Extraña pushed boundaries and was polarizing to some, it felt as though you were going somewhere. On VEGA, it sounds like you’ve arrived. Tell us about the release. How’s it going so far?

Neon Indian: Honestly, it’s been such a myriad of events that have all blended into each other, like a wild, beautiful mess. We’ve been doing a lot of touring, and we basically had to rebuild the live show from the ground up. We started that process near the end of July, premiered it in Mexico City in late August, and the next night, we did it at FYF. And we’ve kinda just kept going ever sense. It’s been wild, and we’ll be on tour until a few days before Christmas, so I feel like we’ve gone from three years of inactivity to three years’ worth of activity in just three months. But that’s kinda what you do it for, you know?

That’s also why it’s so great to take your time on a record. With the amount of time and commitment and thought it took me to make this record, I knew I could play these songs night after night and find something new in them each time because they were dense undertakings.

PMA: You mentioned in an interview with Pete Freedman that as you’ve gotten older, time has begun to feel faster to you. Post-VEGA, do you still feel that way? Do you think it’ll keep getting faster?

NI: Absolutely. It has less to do with what you’re tangled in at the time and more to do with the general perception of life as it goes on. Now that I’m preoccupied with all these things going on around me, it’s really easy to internalize how much time is passing and what I’m going to ultimately get out of said time. It really sort of blindsides you. But I really look forward to turning 30 because I feel like I’ll make more sense as a 35-year-old. Just the way I am and the way I carry myself and speak, it’s not the dopest look for a 17-year-old. But for a 37-year-old…

PMA: Suuuuuper dope.

NI: Dope look. Dope look. <laughs>

PMA: It’s no surprise to you that, prior to VEGA Int’l. Night School, “Polish Girl,” and “Deadbeat Summer,” were the two tracks most identifiable with Neon Indian. Are you excited to buck that trend with tracks like “Slumlord”, and “Techno Clique”, and “Dear Skorpio Magazine”?

NI: It’s funny, because a lot of the circumstances by which [debut LP] Psychic Chasms was executed were accidental. There were a lot of sentiments captured in songs like “Deadbeat Summer”, or “I Should’ve Taken Acid With You”, that really can’t be repeated because that was a different time of life. I feel like perhaps some people wish I’d keep making variations of Chasms, but the second record was really made in an industry incubator. It was a huge change; I went from making music as a hobbyist to making music vocationally with a newly assembled crew around me that I suddenly had to adhere to. Accepting the obligation of perpetuating the narrative of Neon Indian was more of an exercise in sink-or-swim. “Given a timeframe to make a record, can you make said record?” And I did, and I was happy with the record, but I would never want to make anything under those set of circumstances again. So arguably, VEGA Int’l. Night School was really the first time that I said, “Let’s write an album from start to finish. Let’s polish it and execute it and not turn it in until it’s done.” And I would attribute this change in aesthetic to finally getting to make a record with an actual idea behind it.

PMA: How has moving to New York City from Denton, Texas affected the sound and aesthetic of Neon Indian?

NI: Well it’s affected it since Era. I moved to New York in 2010, and ultimately, I’d say that for a long time as a music fan, it was hard not to be aware of the musical trends in place. I read publications and find out about new bands, and maybe I’m a little too read up for my own good, but I’ll eventually have to just disconnect and remove myself from it. Electronic music is a bit of a losing battle. It’s very trendy and every six months is a new permutation that people are obsessing over, and there are very few artists who enter their canon and are able to keep going on their own tangential direction while managing to carve out this inimitable niche. The only trick you have in electronic music is to be so entirely your own and so incapable of being reproduced by anyone else, and even then, journalists will turn their back on it. Look at Boards of Canada: The Campfire Headphase was one their greatest records; why do people toss that away? I don’t want to sound cynical, but as somebody who voraciously finds out about new music, it can be kind of disheartening. That’s why I was so glad that, editorially, people had moved on from chillwave. It gave me carte blanche to make any kind of record I wanted without having it adhere to some ecosystem that had been created around me by people who thought it was a fashionable sound to play around with.

PMA: In response to making electronic music your own in order to be successful, where is the line drawn between being original and having a product that doesn’t resonate to people because it’s so yours?

NI: Ah man, that’s such an intangible. Simon Reynolds could write an entire essay about that, you know? A lot of it is lightning in a bottle, but also it’s hard to determine the difference between how something becomes canonized; how much of it is through organic fan acceptance and how much of it is through a purely editorial focus? Only time can really tell if certain records get great reviews because it was right-place-right-time, or if a record gets overlooked at the time but is lauded 10 or 20 years from now because people discover its place in the ecosystem.

PMA: I think that’s exactly what Boards of Canada goes through. When people were digesting it in a new way, it was just so voracious—a lot of things that audiences had never heard. And now, 15 years later, The Campfire Headphase makes so much more sense now than it did when it first came out.

NI: Totally! And Headphase was and always will be hugely influential. That was the first Boards album I heard as it was being released. Before that, music was sort of a spectator sport for me. After learning how to digest music by proxy via my brother and my dad who have always been writing and creating music, then I started learning about all these bands. The first show I drove to Austin to see was Caribou, Junior Boys and Russian Futurists. And I remember at that point, hearing about Boards of Canada and realizing that it was a record that was happening right now. You start to take those things for granted until you’re a musician who is tasked with fueling the machine and maintaining the machine and optimizing its efficiency. It very suddenly became something I didn’t want to have any part of anymore.

PMA: So you walked away from the machine.

NI: Absolutely. The second record was made in a timeframe, and I had never made anything in that way before. Someone says, “Make a record. Here’s the timeframe.” And I had a really adverse response to the process at the end of that cycle. I remember a time when artists took four or five years to make an album, and no one batted an eye because that’s just how much time was needed. And I took that kind of time to write this new record, and it sounds exactly how I want it to, and now I’m ready to represent that and stand behind it.

PMA: I think a lot of this is a byproduct of the internet. How has our ability to digest music as quickly as our fingers can move affected the way you deliver your music?

NI: I’d say that in my earlier days, it definitely would have, but now, I truly feel like a record is worth celebrating. When I go on tour, that should be a decision made very deliberately. I can’t deny that all of these things are the few avenues by which others can monetize your career. And mind you: These are very unhip things to talk about. There are certain things about DIY and punk that are dogmatic in terms of how art happens and when it should happen, and I say “dogmatic,” because they’re only represented in one medium. No one’s gonna shit on Michael Haneke if he needs $3m to make Amour; in fact, he’ll get golf-clapped at Cannes! But if some band needs a couple thousand bucks from a car company to shoot a music video or to go on tour, it’s seen as utter punk sacrilege. And maybe that’s changed over the past couple of years, but the sentiment is the same. When people are like, “Check out your stats and numbers,” it’s all gobbledygook to me. I have no idea what it means. All I know is I’m happy people are connecting with and consuming the record.