Neon Indian: "Around the time I start to write a record, I stop listening to new music altogether."
Neon Indian (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater) got a boost early in its career by online media, and by the time of the act's first album, Psychic Chasms was released, there was a pretty big buzz around his blend of synth-driven, R&B inflected pop songs. Alan Palomo and company went on to tour with the likes of Flaming Lips (with whom the outfit recorded an EP), Massive Attack and Prefuse 73.
For the follow-up to Psychic Chasms, Palamino took a handful of musical ideas and plenty of confidence in his ability to sort his way through the creative process and commenced to writing during a stay in Helsinki, Finland. From there, he went to work with David Fridmann, and the result was the more sonically-adventurous Era Extraña, a record with a more downtempo mood and richer atmospheres. We recently spoke with Palomo about the teenage narrative, the PAL198X, Boards of Canada and what he learned from Flaming Lips.
Westword: You probably could have picked any relatively isolated city to work on and record an album away from familiar surroundings. Why did seeing Night On Earth influence your picking Helsinki?
Alan Palomo: I've been there a couple of times on tour. There was no specific rhyme or reason to it. It's a really beautiful city, and I hadn't really given myself the time to digest that happened around the release of Psychic Chasms, so I was really just looking for some privacy. I didn't even necessarily go there with the intention of writing the record. It just kind of ended up that way.
In a September 2011 interview with Pitchfork you said, "the teenage narrative will always echo, regardless of time and place." Why do you feel that 's true?
Just because I think that it's completely and inherently innate. I think it's something kind of beautiful, the idea that even in some fictional, post-apocalyptic scenario, you would still have people doing the same goofy shit they would be doing in any other time, place or situation. It's part of our wiring. I feel like it's what makes sort of timeless teenage films and that time in our life is shrouded in mysticism and it seems to be such an emotionally evocative time.
Who came up with the name Static Tongues Industries?
That was myself. [The name] just sounded good.
How and why did you go about getting that look for making your ad for the PAL198X? It looks like an early Gregg Araki or John Moritsugu movie.
Totally! Well, actually, I collaborated with my friend Johnny Woods. At this point, he's started doing a lot of visuals for us. He's always doing some pretty heavily VHS-treated stuff. Much in the same way with the first record, for me, I kind of liked purposefully glitching-out the tape deck, or sort of trying to play it like a whammy bar and some sort of musical instrument. I feel like he's always working at visuals the same way.
I wrote the script for it pretty quickly. Over the course of a day, we kept bouncing ideas back and forth over exactly what the feel of it was going to be. We definitely wanted it to be somewhere between a public access demonstration video and...we kept watching the same, absolutely terrible fucking Atari company promotional video from the early '80s, where they're introducing the entire crew and they have the same fourteen second loop of music that keeps playing throughout the whole thing.
It's the only thing they have to go off of. At some point it just starts sounding droney and creepy -- the same fourteen second metal guitar lick is going on for nearly twenty minutes as they're introducing, "The software department." And it's just these three dudes who look like they haven't seen the sun in a few years. I don't know, I really liked the idea of it. Static Tongues will eventually evolve into a more autonomous entity that I'd like to operate out of for different projects and releases. So it was a good opportunity to iterate some of the potential within it.
How did it come about you worked with Dr. Bleep on that synth?
I hit up John-Mike over an email, and he got back to me within the hour. We had a lot of mutual friends, so it was really the culmination of like twenty minutes on the phone. "It'll have this; it'll have that. We might base it off of some of the circuit boards for the PicoPaso." The turnaround time on the first PAL was like two weeks. I think both of us were really excited about it.
For me, right from the get go, I wanted it to be potentially hackable, and he already had these ideas for these interchangeable screw terminals. I think we were both kind of inching toward the same concepts before we had talked to each other, so it made sense that this was going to be the right project for that to unfurl.
I haven't told anyone, but I made them available on this last tour partly because I'm going to have something that's going to have the participation of everyone that's bought one pretty soon, but I can't say just what the details are yet.
The name says "PAL198X" is that a way to just plug in a number to indicate a year there as in it is related to the aesthetics of that decade in general?
Yeah, to some extent. Even with the video, when I think of reference points and visual schemes aesthetics, at some point I'm liable to talk to Johnny or John-Mike about the movie C.H.U.D. or Terrorvision or Nightmare Weekend or any of those wonderfully awful '80s tech horror [films], which is something I'm really in love with.
Videodrome is one of my favorite films. I always leap at the opportunity to give a nod and a wink to something like that. As far as an original product that could live in that universe of weird, tech, sci-fi stuff it just kind of clicks.
For "The Blindside Kiss," it sounds like you sampled and then looped layers of eight-bit sound for the beginning of the song. What is it about that sound that appeals to you?
I made that with...I have a Commodore 64 that's been wired to be a fully-programmable synthesizer, and I have this thing called the Synth Station, which uses the Atari 2600 soundcard. So I have a bunch of sequenced stuff. There's something wonderfully raw and textural about that. For me, it's such a primal basic paint that I can conjure a lot of interesting textures out of. I love listening to chip tunes, but I don't necessarily subscribe as much to video game culture. I did grow up with them, but when I hear them, the music is not as novel to me. It doesn't necessarily make me think of Super Mario or something.
It just taps into this base level of my brain. I like the fact that it's so easily stackable. All the eight-bit stuff I use on this record are laden with delays and multi-tracked over each other. It's a really good tool. Most synths, you make a sound, and it just kind of lives in the mix there. But eight-bit sounds, or oscillators, are good either way. They just have a simple sound or they sound great with twenty stacked on top of each other. It's very malleable.
All across Era Extraña you explore a number of different sounds. For "Future Sick," it sounds like you've brought together a bit of that IDM sound sometimes used by Boards of Canada with a hint of Bernie Worrell-esque synths. What musical or aesthetic interests in general do you feel like you pursued in writing that record that you hadn't so much with your previous efforts?
In my mind, I had this middle ground where I... I don't know if I executed this concept successfully, but I think Era Extraña turned out being whatever it was that happened in those months. I remember walking into feeling like I wanted to write an eight-bit shoegaze record or something that was a middle ground between a lot of the post-punk records that I really loved in high school, that I was revisiting at the time, like Bad Moon Rising or the You Made Me Realize EP. Whether eight-bit or IDM. Early Warp stuff, which actually deals in a lot of that proto-synthesis.
One of my favorite things about Boards of Canada is that they're one of those bands that can have synth-generated drum sounds and not have them sound cheesy. On so many occasions people make that, and it just sort of sounds like masturbatory, modular synth music. Which is totally cool and there's a genre of that that's totally rad. But I feel like Boards of Canada, as much as you can understand where the sound might have come from, there's still something alien and anachronistic about it, and "Future Sick" definitely... just to be pretty blunt, when I wrote that initial little line for it, I did suddenly have that moment where I thought, "Man, this kinda sounds like 'Kaini Industries' or something."
They're a massive influence. Even just conceptually, not necessarily just their sound palette. I love the idea that they write music that's difficult to pin down to a time and place. It doesn't sound like the '90s, and it doesn't sound like the early 2000s. I think it could come out today and still sound just as innovative.
You did an interview with Contact Music last year or the year before, and you talked about how Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine were influencing the direction of your next record. How would you say the sounds of those two bands eventually did find their way into informing what you did with Era Extraña?
It's tough to say exactly what it is. Right around the time I start to write a record, I stop listening to new music altogether. You create the sort of gold standard in your head from all the stuff that you're currently listening to, not necessarily mining for references. It's not necessarily going into it with "I'm taking My Bloody Valentine ideas and combining it with these other ideas."
It's more that My Bloody Valentine is what I'm listening to when I'm not recording, and it just suddenly becomes what music sounds like to me. Or it just suddenly becomes an idea to deviate from the same way that I heard something on the radio that would give me a context for what music sounds like now. I think that if you suspend your disbelief for a moment, suddenly listening to Slowdive at 4 a.m. or something becomes "What everybody must do when they listen to good music." It's one way to at least conjure directions.
It's funny, because I had this conversation with [Dave] Fridmann when I started going into the mixing phase. Everybody goes into the studio with some idea of what they want, and it's never going to be that record. That record might almost suck if you actually went into it and executed it exactly the way it was supposed to be. At least have a couple of rough ideas, and your mind will teeter into whatever direction, and you'll discover what your voice is through that process. I wouldn't necessarily want to write a Slowdive record, but I'm glad they were definitely on shuffle when I wasn't recording.
How did you come to work with Flaming Lips and what did you learn from those guys and that experience?
It was a show that Wayne [Coyne] and Ariel Pink had come to see out in Portland. And Wayne was just, "Hey, Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips. How are you doing?" He was very animated in a way that makes you excited to work with him in whatever capacity. Off the bat he was like, "We should work on something. We should play some shows or something." We didn't know what it was going to be just yet, but we definitely kept in contact.
I talked to the Lips guys about working with Fridmann and kind of got a feel for it, and the next thing you knew, I was there at the studio. They had some overlapping time on the calendar dates, and I decided to stick around for an extra two days, and sure enough, we recorded that whole EP during the course of two and a half days.
At some point I was getting this paralysis because I realized I was writing a very different record from Psychic Chasms, and I had to come to be comfortable with that idea. Part of what allowed me to complete was taking that time in between and recording with the Lips. Those are some dudes that walk in with an idea or a general concept of what they want to do. Not only immediately but excellently.
They have so much faith in what they're doing, and it was really inspiring just being around them and seeing this thing take hold that felt like just as much of a production as their live show. Everybody breaks off into teams and takes on these different roles. I feel like it liberated a couple of things in my mind as far as what making music needs to be about.
That song "Alan's Theremin," I don't think I would have never been able to stumble across the impulse to just write an ambient piece of music like that if it hadn't been for those dudes. I had never been in a band band. I had never been in a situation where everybody shows up and we all just play our instruments and someone hits record and that's the album. So it was interesting to be in that scenario.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.