Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo lost what was originally supposed to become his third album. Actually, he didn’t lose it per se; it was stolen from him three years ago (vis a vis his laptop) after he drunkenly fell asleep on his own Brooklyn stoop while locked out of his apartment. It’s a story that, when I bring it up, Palomo seems already exhausted of telling, but he’s quick to point out that there’s actually a happy ending. “I don’t advocate passing out in public,” he says, “but I can see now that losing that stuff was, in the bigger picture, actually a good thing. I wouldn’t have ended up making this kind of record if I’d kept on going like I was. I needed a real break.”
The record that Palomo ultimately ended up making—VEGA INTL. Night School, out next week—is a remarkable leap forward from 2011’s Era Extraña and an even bigger cosmic leap from his early chillwaved roots. Drawing on a large cast of players (and recorded, at least in part, on a cruise ship alongside his brother), the new record is easily the most overtly dance-oriented thing Palomo has ever made, and also maybe the weirdest. As evidenced by one of its singles—a bit of shimmery italo-disco funk called “Slumlord”—the record is a kind of psychedelic pastiche of space-age synth blasts that plays like the soundtrack for the world’s sexiest sci-fi movie. Like so much of Palomo’s best work, it’s a record that exists almost out of time—sounding alternately like a lost classic from a cokey ’70s discotheque or some slick dance-inducing missive from the future.
Your record isn’t out yet and you’ve already hit the road. Do you enjoy being on tour?
ALAN PALOMO: I see it as a necessary part of the process. I've encountered both extremes via previous band mates that I've had. I’ve toured with people who absolutely love it and consider themselves road dogs to the fullest extent. I've also encountered people that, after about six months of it, just absolutely had their fill and couldn't wait to get home. I feel like I live somewhere in between, ideally I feel like I'm more of a studio rat by nature, I'd rather be making than performing.
This new material should go over well in a room full of people anxious to dance and have a good time. What is the iteration of the live show? How many people are you playing with?
It's a five piece. My brother is now in the band too, which is awesome. He was pretty instrumental in putting together the album itself. We co-wrote a good four or five songs together. For the first shows, we also had our friend Miguel, who's a percussionist which is pretty rad. You don't think it would make a huge difference but when you're on stage and someone's playing the bongos, you really connect with that energy and channel it in your performance.
Bongos make everything better. You can’t not dance when that is happening.
To some extent, I don't know if my Mexican upbringing has made me a little bit more sensitive, or receptive, to that kinds of syncopation. My brother and I totally caught ourselves suddenly channeling the music we grew up around in Texas. There definitely was a little bit more of an awareness that we were playing with these styles of music that had always sort of existed in the proximity of us growing up but that we hadn't necessarily willfully engaged with. There’s the obvious italo-disco influence, but you can also hear cumbia and stuff like that.
After having your computer stolen and losing an entire album’s worth of material and then coping with that, how much did that experience influence what this record eventually became?
Honestly—and maybe I just say this as a coping mechanism for the acknowledgement of the lost record—but I don't think I had the skill set then to execute the kind of record that I wanted this to be. I think I would have been tied by these ideas that already existed and that just out of the necessity of completing them, that would have had to have been the primary focus. Weirdly enough, the only songs that I was able to recover where the ones that I remembered, the ones that were already compelling enough ideas to begin with that if given the opportunity, I could reconstruct.
The first song that I wrote—I wrote it on the Era Extraña tour—was “Street Level.” That was one that particularly hurt because there was a lot of chopping up involved and it wasn't just like the song that I could just sit down at the piano and recall. Maybe like a couple of years later, I found out somebody had uploaded a DJ set of mine on YouTube. It just so happened to include that one demo. It was the only time I've ever played something like that out because I wanted to see what it sounded like on a system. I was able to rip the audio from that video and start rebuilding the tracks around it.
That's so wild. Isn't it amazing?
It's bizarre. To some extent, it was puzzle putting this together and it only made sense like, all right if you really want to reach into the past, then you're going to have to investigate a little. Everything else was kind of like these songs that underwent a couple of different permeations and involved different studios and different geographic locations. It wasn't something that I did with some willful intent to romanticize the record, but because I wanted it to feel more like a production, and because I wanted there to be more collaborative elements where I could try to go at it in the Steely Dan approach where I've got these compositions that involve a lot of players and parts. Orchestrating something like that just took a lot of time and consideration.
“At some point I realized that I never wanted to make anything that didn’t warrant the effort and the sacrifice.”
I know that you worked on part of this record on a cruise ship? Cruise ships make me think of either The Love Boat or The Poseidon Adventure…and I’m guessing it wasn’t like either.
Previous to that experience, my only reference point to what it must be like to be on a cruise ship is Speed 2 or that other movie with Pierce Brosnan where something's gone terribly wrong on a cruise ship. There was a certain moment in Hollywood when that was an interesting disaster scenario to envision is what happens when you came for the fun but you stayed to drown. Something fucked up like that. I feel like if you surrender the idea of being on the boat, it can be OK. I remember thinking that if I were on board with a bunch of my friends it would actually be a lot of fun.
There is a certain grotesque quality to the experience. For example, I can say that all the cafeteria food seemed like it was created by Guy Fieri. There was tons of gambling on the boat but like in some weird removed abstraction you would get a receipt which would give you the chips. You're never actually handling money at this point. It just feels like this grownup laser tag arena where people are wasted and walking around and finding someway to entertain themselves for the next 20 minutes.
With that in mind, it was definitely pretty fun after a while. The way that it came about was my brother and I hadn't wrapped up his contributions to the record. Out of necessity, he took a six-month contract on this Carnival cruise ship playing bass in the house band. The only way that we could continue recording was if I brought along an engineer and set up a small studio in one of the cabins, which is what we did. It was crazy because I started to get seasick, and they tell you that the only way in which you can deal with it is to either take the pills, which have their own bizarre side effects, or to just get drunk. So my brother would be buying these bottles of tequila from the duty-free store and we would just be sitting around this room passing around some Don Julio and trying to lay some bass tracks down. In the midst of this rocking ship while I'm wasted trying to instruct him and the engineer's doing his best to keep up with it.
Years from now when you look back on this record, you'll remember that its the one that was partially recorded on a boat. That's cool.
It's a shame that I didn't write like a “Margaritaville” or a “Pina Colada” song while I was there. I feel like there needed to be some novelty song about an alcoholic beverage that I completely missed the opportunity to write.
It's been a while since your debut, Psychic Chasms, came out. Do you feel like your way of working has changed radically over the years?
I wouldn't say it's entirely changed so much as I've used it as a foundation to build a different set of ideas about how to go about writing songs. This record seemed to touch on the various data points, not just throughout Neon Indian. I feel like I had to utilize all the tricks in my bag to execute this album over the course of a few years.
It's hard to reference these different decades of music that ultimately were a lot more about opulence. I looked at a lot of these classic albums that have inexhaustible resources in terms of what they could accomplish and tried to figure out how we could replicate that in our own way. You hear the stories about exorbitant amounts of money being spent on drugs and lavish studios and obviously that's where the mythology of so much rock music comes from. When you're doing that on a far more microcosmic scale, it’s hard. I definitely did go all in as far as what I had available to me to make the record. I followed that to its end. That was my own sort of foray into irresponsible album decadence. By the ’70s standards, it was peanuts.
What will the next year be like for you? Do you anticipate just like touring this record forever?
I definitely want to commit myself to this cycle extensively, as far as it will take me essentially. If only because I don't necessarily foresee another Neon Indian record at least not anytime soon. If the project continued then I think it would need some kind of aesthetic overhaul which would take time to figure out what would be interesting to make next.
There are things, looking back, that I wouldn’t want to do again. When I started out I think I was kind of fed this narrative at the time that if I wasn't feeding the machine that Neon Indian was becoming, that interest in it would wane. At some point I realized that I never wanted to make anything that didn't warrant the effort and the sacrifice. If it took a long time to figure out what that next statement would be then so be it. Which is why I just occupied my time with other things—DJing, film—for the past few years. At the time, it just seemed like fun palate cleansers.
When you say that the album touches on a lot of different sort of decades, that was what I wanted it to feel like. I wanted it to sound like a singles collection for a band that doesn't exist. I wanted it to feel like it was spanning different times in the narrative of said band and make something that would be more akin to my DJ sets than to like 10 variations on one idea, which is what I feel like a lot of albums are.
It's good that you had the wherewithal to recognize that because I feel like so many young artists get thrust into this position of notoriety and then immediately get put on this treadmill of 'I've got to make another record so that I can tour, so that I can make money.' They forget that you need to somehow recharge your batteries and live some life. Being able to press pause and do something else for a little while is so valuable and a lot of people don't either have the forethought to do it, or they're just stuck in a scenario where they can't do that. The work usually suffers as a result.
Sometimes bands are looked at like horses to bet on. It’s like, we're going to put you on the track and you're going to take off and we're going to see where it goes. Next thing you know, you've pretty much run the gauntlet of what it means to work an album cycle, which is to make the record, to tour it for 18 months, and then you take 6 months to write the next one and then you do it all over again.
At some point, I realized I didn't want to spend my 20s in a van. So I occupied my time with other endeavors, film being kind of the bulk of it. I took some time to write a screenplay, worked on a couple of short films, and then wound up scoring this movie that just premiered. During that time it didn't necessarily feel like I wasn't participating in Neon Indian but I realize now that all of those experiences were all essential components in arriving at a point where I was ready to make music. I’m glad it happened that way.