Pumping synths, off-kilter samples, and a touch of nostalgic melancholy and teenage longing have helped Neon Indian become the psychedelic lion of the slow-burning low-fi movement. Alan Palomo, the band’s eccentric leader, recently returned from Helsinki, where he traveled for six weeks of darkness to put together the band’s second album, Era Extrana. We caught up with him ahead of tomorrow’s release at Five Leaves in Brooklyn to ask about laptop music, blacking out on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and creating new sounds that give him the “chilly willies.”
Do you consider yourself a “laptop artist”?
I don’t know. It’s so strange that software has integrated itself into how I write music. I didn’t want to write just another straight-up low-fi record because it wouldn’t have felt very honest or representative of where I’m at.
I purposely didn’t call you “chillwave.”
It’s cool. “Laptop artist” was an interesting way to circumvent that.
It’s a broader term.
I mean, it’s still sort of synonymous with a dude with a delay on his voice, hovered over a midi controller and laptop. [Palomo orders a tequila drink and a kale salad.]
Why do you think music software has become so popular? It seems like every one is using it.
I don’t know. At some point around 2007 or 2008, it really struck me that the new punk rock wasn’t a shitty guitar and an amp, but a laptop and a copy of Ableton, you know?
Jimmy Fallon has said he’s a fan, and you played on Late Night this past year. What’s it like to have someone like that be all over your album?
I don’t think I could have ever, you know, sat down and written if I knew this outcome. I mean, that was kind of why it took me going all the way out to Finland for a little bit to try and recharge my batteries — it’s a really sort of eerie, surreal feeling. As it was happening, I was completely unaware. It was wonderful, but I kind of blacked out for it. I remember [Fallon] holding the record and they come back from the commercial break and then it’s just like, “And today we have Neon-ooon-oon-on [he imitates a slo-mo record].” When I came to I was in the hallway like, “Do we need to do that again?”
When you were writing this album, did you have any influences?
There’s this weird tone in a lot of post-punk writing, especially when they’re talking about teenage narrative, that is always really sarcastically narcissistic. You know, things like Eric’s Trip or the Living End, which I always thought of as a really brilliant kind of framework for lyricism. And I was trying to tap into all these styles of songwriting that are really more guitar-driven, but I tried to surgically remove the guitars and replace them with these synth sounds that, to me, seemed just as angular or distorted.
Do you think that drugs are still a necessary part of psych-pop?
Well, it’s funny. Because I think before you could just throw some delay on a voice or on a guitar and that would completely blow your mind and be so psychedelic that you just had to bend over and puke at a festival or something. I mean, you have this image of what must have happened the first time somebody started constructing tape loops. In a weird way, I’ll write a song and just sort of feel like it’s not inducing that weird nausea enough, and by then it’s literally just an LFO going up and down with a guitar drone in the background of it.
As much as you love the preprogrammed synth software, you still love analog oddities as well. When your keyboard just does something weird, is that fun or do you want to kill yourself?
It depends. I’ve really had to coach myself into accepting happy accidents for better or for worse in dealing with some of these instruments. And there was a weird little paradigm shift after familiarizing myself with the same set of instruments for such a long time: It used to be like the instrument surprises you, and now I have to surprise the instrument. You have to get resourceful in a way to create a sound that could give you that same kind of, for lack of a better term, the chilly willies, or something. I think it’s so invaluable to try to carve your own aesthetic out of wood and really self-generate those sounds. It’s kind of sad when you buy a keyboard that you know all your favorite musicians from a certain era were using, and you flip it on and you turn on preset four, bank three, and you hear one of the most iconic bass sounds of the eighties. It sort of defeats the purpose of what you imagined when you were hearing that song, which was not somebody who could afford the toy, but somebody who knew how to surprise you with it.
I think a lot of people end up buying synths thinking, Oh, well Coldplay’s using this so I’ll go buy that keyboard. Then you’re like, Now I sound like Coldplay. [Palomo starts choking on his kale salad]. Sorry.
Well, I mean, from the get-go [Palomo coughs] — I still have bits of kale in my throat, sorry — [raises hands] Cooooldplaaay!
If you’re going to laugh at Coldplay’s expense, how appropriate that you’re choking on kale.
Is this going to be the truffle fries of this interview?
Yes, this will all be in the headline.
“Alan chokes on kale while belittling Coldplay.”
Well, take a band like Radiohead. That seems like the ideal, where you can just do whatever you want and your fans will follow, right?
I mean, that’s kind of what it felt like hanging out with the Flaming Lips. They’ve completely created this band model around what they do that’s just — Wayne [Coyne] … or any one of them just wake up one morning and it’s just like, [In a deep, mock-serious voice] “And today we do this! And it involves a gummy fetus. Or it involves a feature-length film.” To be able to, in so many words, ignore the sort of annoying hum of the machines and just focus on making music or making art that makes you excited to be alive? That’s everything anybody could ever ask for.