Ghosthustler, VEGA, Neon Indian: You'll Hear It All On Alan Palomo's New Album.
It's been four years since the release of Era Extraña, Alan Palomo's sophomore album as Neon Indian. And, mostly, the Denton ex-pat wants to talk about that gap in time when I ring him up for an interview to preview his upcoming VEGA INTL. Night School LP (due out October 16) and also his band's October 1 headlining gig at the Bomb Factory as part of the ongoing Red Bull Sound Select series. (Full disclosure: Central Track is curating that party. RSVP for $3 tickets here!)
To hear Palomo tell it, the time that lapsed between these albums represents an intentional, extended break. The music industry grind had started to wear on him, he admits, and his creativity started to wane as a result.
And so Palomo recessed toward the things that drew him to music in the first place. Among other creative endeavors (more on those later), he began focusing on DJing again — something he'd done regularly back in the days when he was still living in Denton and when his post-Ghosthustler projects of VEGA and Neon Indian were initially somewhat blurred together. While prepping for some high-profile gigs of that ilk and scouring for cumbia, Belearic beat and early house records to play during them, he rekindled his flame for music discovery.
He learned a couple lessons, too. For starters, he realized how much he really loves DJing — a realization that made him nostalgic for his time spent in North Texas, too. One problem there: “You can't make a living DJing Wednesday nights at Hailey's,” he says with a laugh.
That lesson led to more understanding. First, that it's OK to think of music as a vocational skill. Second, that it's important to take one's time to produce solid work. And, third, that one's life work, disparate as it may be, needn't be compartmentalized into separate entities.
As its name implies, that's the real story of VEGA INTL. Night School, that it's a concession to a degree that VEGA — despite once-upon-a-time chatter that an LP under that name would be coming via Fool's Gold Records — shouldn't exist as an outfit removed from Neon Indian. In turn, the new album very much incorporates VEGA's house flair, right alongside the Balearic beat and cumbia influences that had gripped Palomo throughout his songwriting for it.
Another cool thing about VEGA INTL. Night School? Though a fellow Denton ex-pat, Leanne Macomber, has left Neon Indian and struck out on her own to focus on her Young Ejecta project, her replacements are also locally tied. These days, Neon Indian is comprised of Palomo, his brother Jorge, original drummer Jason Faries and new members Max Townsley and Drew Erickson. Ardent observers of North Texas music will recognize Townsley and Erickson as the pop geniuses behind The Colurs and Roy G & The Biv.
For more cool reveals and VEGA INTL. Night School insights (including the fact that it was at least in part written at sea) from Palomo, check out the extended transcription of my talk with Palomo below.
Sounds like you've been going through a bit of a sonic rediscovery lately.
Totally. When you DJ, it starts off as this distinct thing of searching for the feel of what you're going to be playing that following week. But, at some point, you just find a bunch of weird shit – things like, “I could never play this, but I'm completely obsessed with it.” And that's when you reach this magic point of, “Oh, this is what got me into music — looking for one thing and then finding something else entirely.”
Over the course of your career, there's been some oscillation, aesthetically. New songs like “Slumlord” and “Annie” have a little bit of a more summery feel. Era Extrana definitely felt a lot colder. And that goes throughout your musical history, even from Ghosthustler into Psychic Chasms and VEGA. Were you responding aesthetically to Era Extrana with VEGA INTL. Night School?
I wouldn't say it's been intentional. I don't really think of my music as seasonal, or like how The Gap thinks of its spring line or whatever. [Laughs.] Maybe the geography had something to do with it. The irony is that Psychic Chasms was written in the winter and I almost feel like, if “Deadbeat Summer” didn't exist, people wouldn't mention it as a summertime sound. The rest of the album really makes no allusion to that lyrically.
But the warped stuff…
Yeah, there's the fact that it sounds more warped, like it's been sitting in the backseat of your car for four months, I know. But, with this one, I think this record's mostly an encapsulation of everything I've done so far, even reaching back to something like Ghosthustler. The talking point is that it took my skillset as a whole to put this record out. There's a lot of genre-hopping. There's an intended non-sequitur feel where it's all sort of unified by this one vibe, but not necessarily. It's interesting because, when “Annie” came out, people were thinking it was going to be this reggae record, and now that “Slumlord” is out, there's more of a disco vibe. But the further you get in, if you listen to the entire record as a whole, they could be, individually, from anything. I'm not necessarily meaning that as a compliment, honestly. [Laughs.] It's just how it happened! You just work on a record for so long, and your influences change, and the M.O. changes and you just eventually find that you can't stray from being yourself, and that kind of replaces the idea of an overall cohesiveness.
Do you like that culmination narrative? Is it accurate?
Yeah, I think so. Most of my favorite records are these kind of collage aesthetic records, like The Avalanche's Since I Left You or J. Dilla's Donuts. I didn't necessarily make a collage. But we're taking all these sharp left turns and celebrating dance music as a whole, and not necessarily trying to stay in one area too long. That was kind of the essence of making the record. And it was pretty liberating to just write whatever kind of song and worry about how it was all going to be put together later. Not just saying, “This is going to be a Belearic record” or “This is going to be an early house record.” Records that stay in one lane, there's really great examples of them, but a lot of times they can feel almost overly collegiate in trying to be this full exploration of this one idea that we've already heard before.
You mentioned geography being an influence. Where did you write these songs?
It's funny because I kind of wrote them all over. I told myself that I would try to write a record in New York, but the thing I think I realized is that, in New York, it's easy to be your own boss, but not really your own employee. So just making sure that what you do is getting done — that can be a bit of a challenge. It can be a bit of a distracting place, which is one of the many wonderful things about it. But I realize I was kind of in a stall, hanging out with people that were in their 20s and nothing else — not to make a broad generalization because I would argue that most of my friends are far more productive than I am. But there was a commitment to the idea that, “You live here, now you really need to make something here.” I did that for as long as I could; a lot of songs did actually get written here. But then I went to Austin, for example, and I was doing some writing at Pure X's rehearsal space. And then, at some point, my brother took a job on a cruise ship playing in a house band and the only way we could keep recording was if I booked a couple of consecutive cruises and set up in one of the cabins, which is what I did.
No way. That's amazing. Where was the cruise going?
It was leaving Orlando and going to Nassau in the Bahamas. It was rad, but we did it in November, December, and that's basically storm season. Once we got to the Bahamas, it would be gray and windy. But that was fine, because, like, maybe we could sit in the Jacuzzi for a bit, but we were there to get some songs done.
I love the idea of writing a record at sea.
Oh, totally! Totally! A maritime yacht rock record would be great. [Laughs.]
The other big taking point of the record is the four-year lapse between these albums. Did that feel like a long time to you?
It did. Not to get into the old cliché about time, but as I get older, yeah, it does go by way quicker than it used to. Mostly it feels like a long time because I've never taken this long to slowly chip away at something, for the ideas to come but also for my skills to catch up to the ideas. When I started writing the record, I was far less prepared than I was, say, down to the two last songs, which came out the easiest. And then, y'know, I love the second record, but it was definitely written under the gun. Like, I wrote it between tours. It's that industry cliche, too, where you've got your whole life to write the first record and the sixth months to write the next. It really was kind of like that to an extent. Other than that trip to Helsinki, which to some extent I think was more conducive to personal development than actual album writing. I was really just kind of hanging out, removing myself from this narrative around that I had created around me and, for the first time, I was back to just being a dude in his apartment, trying to write music again. It was kind of a total mindfuck because now I had all this context that I had to keep out of mind and be like, “Let's pretend that nobody paid attention to Psychic Chasms.” And eventually I did get to that point where I said, “If this isn't going to be fun, I don't want to do it.” So I had to do it in a way that sounds satisfying — and was sidestepping Neon Indian and its narrative and its expectations. All that stuff had to be set aside, and it was a really important lesson on the second record. But, that being said, it was still done in the system of now having music being a vocational trade. You don't hav an indeterminate amount of time. There's no part-time job that you can keep afloat while you do this with your spare time. It was very much: You've got these pockets of time to do it. And, after that experience, I told myself, if it's not exactly the circumstances in which I like to make a record and it's not the record I want to make, then there's really no purpose to making it. I very staunchly told myself, “You could go to back film school, there's many things you could do if this stops being fun.” So, first and foremost, it was take some time off, find that thread and wait until the idea happens. And that took a long time. In the meantime, I worked on some short films, I wrote a screenplay.
If you don't mind revealing, what was the screenplay on?
The screenplay was a sci-fi horror film. If something ever comes into it, I'll go into what it's about more. Y'know, I looked at a lot of bands that I loved and I saw these long pauses between records. And the thing is, I noticed the same thing with a lot of filmmakers. There's plenty of directors that only make a film every, like, eight years. What I think was really cool about making this record for me was this thought that, whether the fanbase sticks around or not, what's important here is that you're making a record that you really like.
So why didn't you feel the time pressure on this new album? What was really different about it?
I just put the hammer down. [Laughs.] No more touring. The last few years have been this wonderful, crazy fucking whirlwind, so I wanted to just try to actually live in New York for a while and, basically, just be in my neighborhood. And I think I was just creatively exhausted. I was at a time in my life, a very small window of time where creating was just this really daunting task. This time around, I was just thinking of all these wonderful bands like Boards of Canada or The Knife or Daft Punk, and if that system of taking your time is good enough for them, it absolutely should be good enough for me. There's no reason why not. And it feels a little more sincere. There's just more time put into it. I think it's just a construct of the music industry where you make a record, you tour it for 18 months, and then you put out another record in six months and do it all over again. There's definitely people who make that work and it's totally awesome. But I feel like, for what I do, at some point, it's like, if I don't take my time, the quality of work is totally going to suffer for it.
It definitely sounds like a far more satisfying process.
In every sense. It was a slow-cooked dish and I chewed every morsel thoroughly.
OK, let's pivot specifically to this show coming up at the Bomb Factory. Is there anything we should look forward to with it? I know you've been working on the live show. Is there anything you can tease about what we can expect?
It'll be very unlike any previous incarnations of the live show! [Laughs.] At the very least, I can now say that we have neon signs on stage, and we didn't have those before. Also, I don't know, but there's a certain affectation in indie rock that I've actually found myself a little bit board from the past couple of years, the style of performing where you just play the songs, you look somewhat stoic of disaffected and you play the music and let the music make that statement for you. But with a lot of the music I've been influenced by for this record, it only makes sense to perform it by putting a little bit of Morris Day & The Time in there. You want to do the best you can to make an homage to these people – people where music is their vocation in every sense of the word, where the performance is just as important on stage as it was in the studio, y'know?
So more of a presentation?
Neon Indian performs Thursday, October 1, at the Bomb Factory as part of the ongoing Red Bull Sound Select series. RSVP for $3 tickets here. Photos by Luke Lauter.