Interview with Neon Indian

Note: This interview will also appear in 7x7 Magazine.

2009 was quite the year for Alan Palamno, the brainchild behind the uber-buzzed lo-fi electronic outfit Neon Indian. It was only last April that the then bedroom production project first made waves with the anonymously leaked instant lo-fi classic, "Should Of Taken Acid With You." Now just a year into the project, Alan has already found himself making appearances on late night television, headlining national festivals and selling out just about every venue he performs at. His nostalgic sample and synth heavy debut Psychic Chasms was arguably one of the best albums of last year, landing a well deserved position in the top 20 of both Gorilla vs Bear and Pitchfork's year end lists. And if his recent single "Sleep Paralysist" is any indication, we can only expect bigger and better things from the 21-year-old prodigy in 2010. We had a chance to catch up with Alan last week, where we discussed working with Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, blog scandals, the media's love affair with chill-wave, his approach to the live music and much more.

Neon Indian will perform a DJ set tonight (3/25) at Milk ($5), and a live set tomorrow (3/26) at Mezzanine ($15).

Your new single "Sleep Paralysist" has drawn quite a bit of speculation as to the future direction of the Neon Indian project. Was this meant to be a sort of statement track, or are people reading too much into your intentions here?

If anything, "Sleep Paralysist" is this weird little studio deviation -- I have never been commissioned to write a single or anything, so that was a rather interesting creative process for me. But rather than trying to kill myself over thinking about what the next record was supposed to sound like, I was interested in having this kind of strange one off track. I sort of had the studio curiosity of seeing what it would be like if Chris Taylor [of Grizzly Bear] and I were locked up in a church tracking vocals, playing around with an old Prophet-5 and seeing what that would sound like. And "Sleep Paralysist" is the culmination of that. And it’s funny, because I think a lot of people are construing it as Neon Indian 2.0, and it couldn’t be farther from that – it is more like Neon Indian expansion edition or something.

I feel like the best way I could describe this song – in fact it's my favorite quality of it – is that it sound like a sonic argument [laughs]. It sounds like a push and pull of Chris and my sensibilities.

It is pretty remarkable how high profile the release of the single has been – it was highlighted on just about every music site I can think of within the first couple hours of the official press release. It is quite the contrast from the situation you were in less than a year ago, when you anonymously sent the first couple Neon Indian tracks to Gorilla Vs. Bear. Has moving from the DIY sphere to the more official world of release dates and PR firms been at all difficult for you?

Well I’m not necessarily opposed to the change-- I just see it as one of the components of making music now. But I do feel like I have to be incredibly conscious of the decisions that are being made. When you are working within those guidelines it's very easy for somebody to sort of just say "yes" on your behalf, and the next thing you know there is a t-shirt or poster that is kind of catching you off guard. So I try to play as active role as I can, to make sure that a pin doesn’t drop without me hearing it.

But I can honestly say that I am really stoked I did this -- [Green Label Sound] has these amazing resources that they are putting behind [artists'] music. And if they are willing to to put these resources behind what I consider to be a interesting little studio track between me and Chris Taylor -- well I think it is fantastic. Particularly because we don’t really have true label backing right now. Everything that is going into Neon Indian is getting funneled back into the project, and being able to do something like this is a great opportunity while still kind of in that label purgatory.

So do you have any idea what exactly who will release the next Neon Indian record?

No, I think right now it is still more in the decision process. I mean, I haven’t even started writing the next record. I am barely focusing on the VEGA record – I am going to be spending all of April and May recording that, as soon as I am done with SXSW. So yea, that has sort of been my stance. And this single was a really good opportunity to just sort of create interesting content and keep a rhythm going. Because it won’t really be until fall when I start writing the Neon Indian record -- It will hopefully come out by the end of the year, if not early next year. But I think within that time, it is good to have a little something circulating.

I imagine juggling two projects at once like that could be quite difficult. I am curious -- when you sit down to write, do you always have a specific project in mind, or does the track get the VEGA or Neon Indian stamp later in the creative process?

I generally sit down with the intention of writing for a specific project, because it tends to come from a very different creative place. With VEGA, there is always some kind of vantage point that I can see very visibly -- some sort of musical objective that I am trying to accomplish. Where as with Neon Indian, it's just sort of whatever gets drawn on the paper -- it’s what it is. And I sort of try to just keep them within that reach. I mean obviously, even when writing for Vega I start doing one thing and it winds up being something else entirely. But this idea that I have some sort of reference point or some kind of specific aesthetic that I am trying to tap into sort of implies that I will be working towards a particular kind of goal and production style.

There has been a recent wave of solo bedroom producers who take this sort of one-man-band approach to their live show, exclusively using midi controllers and various sound devices to reconstruct their songs in the live setting. Was the decision to opt to tour with a full band one you made early on?

When I initially started writing music for this project, I didn’t have a particular expectation as to how I would be construing it live. But when I started looking at it through that particular filter it sort of forced me to ask the question -- if I was going to see a Neon Indian show, what I would I want to see on stage? Would I want to see a guy like Ronnie Gierhart shredding on stage, wearing god knows what [laughs] or would I want this crazy conglomeration of all these songs, with segues and all that stuff. These were things that were sort of flushed out over the course of the summer, shortly after the record was completed and it became very obvious that I would start touring with it very soon. And I considered going that route -- I think there are some people who do some really amazing things with that, and actually work off that template when I DJ. But I think just for me, it is a lot more fun when I get to be on the road with my friends and do it that way.

You once described the live show as the "proving ground" for an artist, stressing the importance of conveying the music in a way people can enjoy. Have you been satisfied with how the shows have gone thus far?

Yeah, absolutely. I think it was like twenty or thirty shows in that we really hit this stride. [laughs] I can definitely say, the first ten were shaky, as we were still trying to figure it all out. At that point we were still a three-piece, so there was way too much [we were each doing] on stage. Playing the lines, singing, manipulating certain components of the samples and sort of re-contextualizing all of it -- it was really getting to be too much. And it wasn’t until after our first trip to Europe -- which was a complete disaster really -- that we finally found this groove we were building off of.

But yea, I think right now we are at a really great place -- we are all incredibly confident with it. We have come to know the songs and all the parts so well that we can kind of deviate from them in fun and interesting ways. Where as before, if you heard some deviation, it was because someone was forgetting a line. [laughs] It’s funny, because I still wonder if people can tell the difference between us intentionally fucking it up as opposed to just fucking it up. It gives me a little piece of mind.

In its earliest incarnation, Neon Indian was conceived as a collaboration between you and visual artist Alicia Scardetta. While I understand that time constraints did not allow Alicia to get involved with the project in the manner you initially hoped, do you still plan to explore some of these live visual elements down the road?

Oh, absolutely. I have actually been working with my friend Lars Larsen, who does a lot of video synthesis. He built his own little video synthesizer based on old schematics from 70s television studios -- these really archaic ways of making green screen effects, and then changing certain color ratios to do weird things. He has been doing these video feedback loops live while we were performing, manipulating this footage that we have gotten really excited about. I feel like it is the perfect compliment for Neon Indian, because it's also sort of taking these reference from childhood and re-contextualizing them through this psychedelic, lo-fi filter.

Thus far, we have only been able to do it at Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin as well as a few select New York shows, but we are trying to find a way to do it consistently for every show.I feel like that is going to be a huge component of the live show that we want to get across, so that will definitely start coming to fruition very soon.

Changing topics a bit, but it was around this time last year that you were involved in a bit of a blog scandal and dispute with Crystal Castles. The incident sparked some somewhat bizarre behavior from the top tier music sites -- it was as if they all briefly went into TMZ mode, trying to get to dig up dirt on both ends of the argument. Was this style of coverage at all strange of difficult for you to deal with?

Like Tiger Beat or something! [laughs] You know, it's kind of interesting, because I sort of feel that it is now [all part of] the modern vocational aspect of being in a band. You are starting to see all these other facets of it that are being constructed around the music -- and not just around the music, around yourself. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable or anything, but it is pretty bizarre. It’s very interesting when people sort of take it to this level where they are tremendously curious as to what happens in these situations, and sort of how you handle it.

It is odd -- I never really thought people would take this kind of interest, or that it would be a foundation from which people would be exposed to VEGA. There was this whole two page article about this argument with Crystal Castles, and then at the bottom of it was an mp3 link to “No Reasons.” I always thought that was kind of funny -- "by the way, if you like how they handled this situation then you should check out their music!"

While I found the obsession with this incident a bit disappointing, I am a not-so-secret-fan of Hipster Runoff, the satirical music blog that seems particular fond of discussing your music. Do you ever check out the site?

I definitely check Hipster Runoff every now and again. I always find it kind of funny, but I guess I am the butt of a few jokes. [laughs] It’s funny, I have met Carles [the elusive Hipster Runoff founder] -- I’m not going to deviate too much into it, because I know where this conversation might go if I say too much. [laughs] But I will say that he is a cool guy -- he is a pretty “Chill Bro.”

While Hipster Runoff is at its core meant to be a humorous commentary on this sort of Pitchfork culture, it is starting to have a surprising impact in the mainstream press. In recent months, both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have put out articles discussing chill-wave, a genre Hipster Runoff's Carles sarcastically created last year to describe the sound of Neon Indian, along with a handful of other artist. While it was initially meant to be a joke, it seems that many are starting to look at this as a real musical movement. Do you see this as a true genre, or do you see any commonalities with the other acts you frequently get lumped together with here?

Well I think something the press has negated is that we are all just brothers, and we have been reunited through our bands [laughs] – no I’m kidding, I’m kidding! I have only recently met those guys, and I don’t know -- I think it’s funny that people have lumped it together into this genre. Where as before, a musical genre or movement could be put together by a group of people with a similar artistic objective, perhaps within a city or centered around a particular venue -- this specific place in time. Now all it takes is a snarky blogger to kind of throw a few band names together and call it a movement. But I did meet Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, and they are really amazing dudes – very laid back. But I feel like we bonded more over the idea that we have a lot of musical ideas that we want to execute, as opposed to these projects we have done.

But it is very odd. I read a review of Tori Y Moi’s Causers of This, and so much of it was being reviewed in reference to myself, Washed Out and Memory Tapes. It was like -- “so it's kind of like Neon Indian, but more from the production side, with less hooks” or “Memory Tapes is to Washed Out, as Neon Indian is to Toro Y Moi.” And I found it somewhat debilitating -- It felt like the review was coming from a lack of ideas. And if you can’t really articulate where some of these influences are coming from – I don’t know, I feel like it is lazy journalism, and I find that is coming to be more and more the case now.

I mean at the end of the day, Hipster Runoff is a satirical blog. It’s not meant to be a taste-maker -- it’s meant to be a humorous commentary on opinions that are being formulated at that very moment. And I found it kind of surprising that people could take a joke like that, and run with it so deeply that it becomes the only way to articulate a genre of music. I don’t know -- I find it very odd, and I am surprised that people haven’t gotten really sick of using that term.

Not to dwell on it too much longer, but in the rather lengthy Wall Street Journal article on the topic, they claim that the lo-fi backbone of so-called chill-wave artists is "partially a response to the over-produced Italo-Disco and French house records of recent years." Despite your apprehensions with the moniker, do you see any merit in this statement?

I think that everyone wants to rationalize a chronology of the way the genres move. But at the same time, I can see the commonalities there. You get a lot of kids from 2006 and 2007 who kind of felt that electro was the new punk rock. So instead of buying a Fender and a little stack amp, they bought a laptop and a copy Ableton live, and that was the new way of making music. Obviously that whole genre and scene imploded, but you have all these concepts and production chops that you created from that. So you sort of reference back to older influences, and are articulating them in this new way. And yea, I guess that would make sense.

But you know, it is one of those things. I had this hour long interview where every question was riffing on chillwave. And I remember the interviewer said “we think its something about the south that breeds chillwave artist.” And I was like, "I don’t know, maybe it’s the hot weather and all the weed! Is that what you want me to tell you?”

In an interview with Pitchfork, you expressed some concern that the overall lo-fi aesthetic and production techniques you described could quickly become another "electro disaster." Could you elaborate a bit on what you meant by this?

Well in the same way that electro – or really in general, there are a lot microcosmic genres that sort of proliferate too quickly, and have to constantly exhaust every variation of the sound in order to maintain relevancy for another week. And I think that is definitely true. But at the same time, I don’t feel very married to it -- there are a lot of different ideas that I want to execute.

But you know, lo-fi is definitely a component of what I love. I mean absolutely do I love those raw, rough recordings that kind of grow and create their own narratives through the very nature of the way you are hearing it. I think that’s really awesome, and really important. And you look at a band like Boards of Canada, that have been doing that for almost two decades. It's still just an airtight an aesthetic as anything else, and it doesn’t feel transient, because they are doing it the right way.

While I know it is the most generic of interview questions, I would love to pick your brain a bit as to what you are listening to these days -- any albums that are particularly exciting you right now?

I have been really into Bill Nelson's Sounding the Ritual Echo, which is this pretty ridiculous little early 80s little ambient record that has some of the weirdest, most esoteric Polymoog sounds. I’m not even really quite sure what he uses to make those, but have been really into what he does. There are small handful of pop singles that are pretty amazing too, but have pretty much been on a big Bill Nelson kick.

I have also been re-listening to Neu! 2, which is one of my favorite albums. I feel that a lot of the weirder tape warp sounds of Neon Indian are almost a direct reference to a lot of the stuff on that record. So that’s a definitely a big one, and I have been sort of re-exploring some of the aspects of it.

Beyond that, I am still exhausting that Toro Y Moi record from any angle possible. [laughs] I love it so much -- I think Chazz [Toro Y Moi] is such a talented do, and love that he is already setting up to put out another record relatively soon. I also heard this band Braids on the road that I am really into. We played with them in Canada, and I think they are pretty amazing. Its weird -- the vocals have this sort of female Panda Bear approach to it that is very exciting to listen to within the context of that music. And Dam Funk -- absolutely Dam Funk. I have been blasting that pretty much non-stop on the tour van.

That gets me really excited for your scheduled DJ performance in San Francisco -- can you tell us what we can expect from your set?

These days I love that I don’t have to cater to the top hypem remixes of the month or anything. [laughs] I am pretty stoked that I can sort of play this chronology of dance music that I am really into. And there is a lot of really interesting stuff in there. I am really into these like electro-funky kind of sounds, and love trying to find something from the mid 70s that might have that appeal to it. The best way I can describe it right now is as a funky, ethereal, sonic cluster-fuck. [laughs] So I will have to just call it that right now.

And one last question. You are scheduled to play Todd P's MtyMx Festival in your once hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. Are you particularly excited about a big show like this making its way down to Monterrey?

I think its pretty amazing. You know, my extended family has never seen me perform and I actually haven’t been back to Monterrey in a little while -- once touring started, it became really tough to just sort of get down there. And it's really great to be able to come back not just to catch up, but to sort of show them what I have been working on – just expose them to where my sensibilities and my passions are right now.

You know, I see that a lot of acts don’t even bother with the notion of touring Mexico, but I think bands will be really surprised at just how receptive the Mexican audience is. It is almost a direct response to how much the internet has decentralized the notion of what cool is supposed to do. You can find that anywhere now, because everyone has the same resources now. I think it's really awesome that that you can go down to Mexico and find people that are just as passionate and well informed about the music that you listen to.

[editors note: While transportation issues forced many scheduled acts to cancel, Neon Indian was able to perform as expected Monday (3/22) evening. It was reported to be one of the festival's true highlights.]