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Former Film Student, Neon Indian, On How Making Albums Is Like Making Movies

Co.Create talks with indie music star Neon Indian about how movies and music mirror and inform each other.

Former Film Student, Neon Indian, On How Making Albums Is Like Making Movies
[Photo: Luke Lanter]

The third Neon Indian album was meant to come out years ago, but it’s only just now seeing the light of day. Impatient fans should be thankful, though.

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“I was not gonna make another Neon Indian record until I felt like there was a need for one,” says the musician, whose given name is Alan Palomo.

Strangely, Palomo didn’t feel the searing desire to make more music following his second album, in 2011, until he took some time to rekindle his other, abandoned passion: filmmaking. In doing so, he finally realized how much the two artistic mediums informed each other.

Before Neon Indian existed, Palomo was a film school student with a dance music side project called Vega. As a creative exercise, he started freeing himself from the strictures of pure dance tracks, turning the clean synth lines way smudgier. He focused less on production bravado and more on song textures, and emerged with the debut Neon Indian album, Psychic Chasms, a trippy, catchy concoction whose oddball melodies have their own internal logic. He put the album out in fall of 2009, and tastemakers like Pitchfork immediately seized upon it. At the same time, he split town to make music with a friend in Australia. While he was gone, Neon Indian took on a life of its own.

“The things that you put the least amount of thought into are sometimes the things that come to define you the most,” Palomo says.

The whole time he was gone, emails accumulated, essentially informing him that the moment he got back in the States, he would have to figure out how to be a post-digital indie rock star, whatever that means exactly. He spent the next few years on the road and in the studio, doing just that—being a part of an industry he was increasingly skeptical of as he worked to crank out the more streamlined sophomore album, Era Extrana.

Not too long afterward, he crashed.

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Era Extraña

Palomo had already started writing songs for his follow-up to Era Extraña while still touring behind it. It was almost out of compulsion, wanting to spend his time on the road productively again—because that’s how modern album cycles work. Soaring synth riffs turned into demos, and demos turned into more fleshed out material prepped for LP3. At the very end of the tour, however, the nightmare of every artist in the digital era came true. Palomo’s laptop was stolen after a Terminal 5 show in New York. The new Neon Indian album was gone.

“I had to do quite a bit of mental gymnastics to coax myself into believing that it was kismet and it was probably better to start from nothing,” he says. “But then I think the most liberating thought I had was just kinda, like, ‘Well, you could always just go back to film school.’ Like, it never occurred to me that this was the only medium by which I could or should express myself. So I was just kinda like, ‘Well, fuck it, I’m just gonna do something else for a little while.’”

VEGA INTL. Night School

Palomo co-directed some shorts, like the 3-D animated Outer Osmo Ghost Mode, commissioned by the MOCA Museum. He wrote a sci-fi horror screenplay he hopes to get made. He scored a film. And all throughout that period he was writing for another album. But only during the past year when he spent a magical winter on a Carnival Fantasy Cruise ship with his brother, who played in the ship’s house band, did Palomo’s creativity kick into hyperdrive, and coalesce into VEGA INTL. Night School, his most expansive album yet.

If the new album has a more shimmering, cinematic sheen than the previous Neon Indian records, it’s probably due to Palomo’s recent immersion back into film. However, there are some other long-standing parallels between the two mediums that the artist has always experienced. Co.Create recently caught up with the former film student, as he embarks on his latest tour, to talk about the mirroring of movies and music.

Filmmakers And Musicians Both Remix Their Influences

“In film world, someone like Tarantino, who is a very postmodern filmmaker, can literally rewrite history or take tropes from certain genres and deconstruct them. You don’t see as much of that in music. You do see a sense of revivalism or an aping on certain aesthetics. I think it’s most fun when you’re creating this weird, anachronistic thing, picking out your favorite moments from your favorite eras and bringing them into now.”

It All Comes Together In The Editing

“So much of the process of making music, to talk about it is totally always post facto rationalization. When I’m making an album, I’ve got pieces and chunks and it’s very much a thick broth that I’m just stirring until it starts to resemble something. And obviously the best that I can do to set up for that is to absorb and consume as much content as possible and be like, ‘All right, I’ve got this new skill set and I want to write this love letter to the things I love and not one thing in particular. So hopefully I land at this synthesis of all those things.’ The sequencing was changing every day and once again it’s analogous to filmmaking. A lot of movies happen in the editing room and everyday I was just chopping it up, just being like, ‘Okay actually the bridge from this song works. The rest of this song sucks, but take the bridge and glue it to that other song.’ It was very much a collage.”

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Music Can Be As Image-Inspired As Movies

“This record probably was the first time that I would be watching movies and thinking about my record. And finding that it can be equally as useful and gratifying to look at it from the other end. There was a crosswiring where the images would spark some kind of sound inspiration. Also, my jump off point for the themes of the record was something that came from movies. A lot of directors have had their own re-imaginings of what New York City is, through their own fucked up lenses. You look at Abel Ferrara and Martin Scorsese, and they have their own versions. That’s what Night School is, to some extent–I wanted to make my own kinda cartoonish distortion of my time in New York and make it partly truth, partly fiction. And if I couldn’t do it through filmmaking then I would do it in music.”

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