Feature – Neon Indian May 15, 2011

I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Neon Indian before I was asked to write this story. My previous listens were too flippant, I think. Psychic Chasms is certainly not what I reach for, not at the top of the party stack, but it is pretty incredible.

Stepping in to research though, this fake “chillwave” discourse washed over me. It was really incredible the way people frothed at the mouth to slap the label on his stuff. There was no discussion of the incredible maturity of the record, just about how cool it was. That’s really what it all came down to: it was cool. Oddly, the person making that cool record is so far above all that bullshit it’s scary. Does that make him transcendently cool? I think probably.

It’s a conversation involving everybody except those involved. The genesis and subsequent disavowal of chillwave all took and takes place online, a preening mass of genre argumentation and classification concerning the heavy hitters of a sonic Furby, too trendy to sustain itself and destined to collapse under the weight of its ironic baggage. But these are the shrill inventions of commentators, as evidenced by the deep calm of the fake genre’s favorite son, Alan Palomo. The Neon Indian himself, he’s mentioned in any worthwhile breath on the subject. Wise beyond his 22 years and a scarily thoughtful individual, he breaks with the loud lo-fi chorus by starting most sentences with the words “I think,” and instantly convincing you that’s true. Recording his follow-up to the 2009 breakout hit Psychic Chasms, Palomo doesn’t let those voices affect him as much as they’d like to.

“I think for the longest time I told myself, regardless of the way things might unravel that I will just follow the same trajectory. I mean obviously influence is always going to be there,” says Palomo. Fresh from recording a collaboration with The Antlers on a yet to be released track and speaking from his home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, he admits that his influences are much more personal than aesthetic, but his past success still informs what he creates. “I try not to think about it, but there are those moments when you come up with something unusual that you might like but you might wonder, well… I’m sure there are some people that would appreciate some more sonic nonsense, and others that are just looking for the clear cut single. I get the most joy out of music when I play with that impulse and see what people project onto it.”

The yet-to-be-titled sophomore release from Neon Indian led Palomo away from the New York breeding ground that claimed it to an unlikely Scandinavian cradle. “I did most of the writing in Helsinki. I have a little studio or an efficiency apartment up there with all my synths and I set up a little work station in the living room and got into the headspace of making music there.” The locale caught his eye during an extended tour in support of Psychic Chasms. “There was something always really bewitching about that city that made it a… I don’t know, just a really suitable place to take some time off. I had spent most of the year touring and the notion of kind of being in solitude for a little while in the winter months sounded like a real placid way of stirring up some new ideas for the record.” That headspace wore itself thin, however. “I think people tend to romanticize solitude. I think it was more conducive to personal development than album writing. It kind of ended up getting dark at certain moments just because of the lack of sunlight and the negative Celsius weather.”

The danger with any sophomore release seems doubled lately. Artists have their entire lives to work on their first great masterpiece, and then just a year or two to follow it, undertaking complex baker’s math to innovate while not alienating their base. Palomo is attempting just that in the age of the buzz band and the “Best New Music” tightrope, aiming for a new, dynamic sound. “The first thing that really came to mind as far when you think of lo-fi records with dynamic, a lot of post-punk comes to mind. It is like, in a way, an electronic post-punk record.” This is not to say that the frigid European north turned Neon Indian into a completely different animal, he says. “I think a lot of the influences are still there, but I think when I got there I was listening to and revisiting a lot of post-punk records, enjoyed previously. In my head I was coming up with these songs that were essentially guitar songs but I don’t really play guitar (laughs).” Like most things, Palomo is calmly aware of the dangers of a sophomore reinvention. “It’s a little bit more of an expansive sound, which in some ways can obviously come off as kind of a cliché when somebody is talking about a sophomore record. The idea right from the get-go was, I definitely am somewhat rooted in lo-fi recording and get some pleasure out of that aesthetic as far as the sonics go, but I definitely wanted it to have more dynamic because there was some sounds I was hearing weren’t translating.”

With all the expansion, it helps to look back at where he’s come from. Neon Indian caught ears with it’s innovative soundscapes but kept them with honest emotion. The moody vocals and stained-glass nostalgia colored Psychic Chasms, but the idea of writing specifically about a scene or event in his life is lost on Palomo. “I think obviously when I write a record, at least lyrically, I have to shoot from the hip. I can’t write lyrics based on any kind of abstraction, or I can’t write a song about a rock in a pond, you know? I think the music definitely reflects my current disposition and that is definitely in and of itself a scrapbook or a document.” That too will undergo a change with his new record. “I think that idea is still the same but I don’t think it’s necessarily as nostalgic.”

The lo-fi, bedroom-recording aesthetic runs up against a certain philosophical wall after a successful record and tour. Does the destruction of the poverty aura surrounding the movement become a concern of authenticity? Does the sound ring false if money can be spent on its curation? Palomo is unfazed. “I think, obviously this time around I do have more resources and to just sound exactly the same would not be entirely representative of some of the things I could do. I don’t necessarily think it’s contradictory, it just depends on what the equipment is and what it’s meant to do, or what it’s not meant to do, more importantly.” Lo-fi chic is another abstraction Neon Indian just doesn’t subscribe to. “I think playing with fidelity is an aesthetic choice to begin with. I think if I wanted, if originally Psychic Chasms was meant to sound better or different it would have. I think because my background before Neon Indian was kind of more rooted in dance music which is just kind of obsessing about production.” That stifling attention to detail is what attracted Palomo to the “kind of aloof, carefree take on the arrangements and sounds,” Psychic Chasms made gospel. “The ideal was to never slow down the momentum,” he says. “This one, by design because I’m trying to make sounds that are a little more focused or are used a little more strategically, any way you cut it, it was… you would have to sit and really tinker with the sound. You would get to a point where the initial spark of it wasn’t there.”

What is it that allows someone so young to ride so firmly in the eye of a storm created around him? The coping mechanism could be credited to another musician in the family, the Palomo patriarch dabbling in Mexican pop music before Alan was born. Making music accidentally perfect for pissing off squares and one’s parents (a distinctly retro and seemingly forgotten notion), Palomo insists they’re open to his endeavours. “The comments I hear are like ‘why is your voice so obscured? You have a beautiful voice! You shouldn’t put too much effects on!’ The kind of stuff where you’re like ‘Daaad! It’s supposed to sound like that!’ ” Their interest is probably more parental than musical though, Palomo figures. “I think because I’m doing it, they definitely try to branch out and really listen to it. My dad’s done music his whole life, so the bridge isn’t that wide.” The acid narratives are another story, though. “I guess that’s just the kind of thing you don’t talk to your parents about.”

A savantish, centered 22-year-old riding the eye of a manufactured sensation, Palomo translates that advanced maturity into his work: it endures, and will endure when their chillwave enters the elephant graveyard alongside ragtime and trip-hop. “I didn’t really set too many tangible goals or expectations, it was just, they’re all rooted in the music itself. There’s nothing I can be prouder of than whatever comes out.” The hyperventilation is not his, and the quick route to cool is a selfish dedication to the art, one he navigates easily. Its future?

“I’d like to be hanging out in Texas, eating tacos with my friends.”

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