NO ONE QUITE expected the breakout success of Neon Indian, least of all the outfit’s 22-year-old creator, Alan Palomo. Stepping away from the din of a UK pub just outside of Stonehenge, where the band is celebrating the European release of Neon Indian’s debut, Psychic Chasms, nearly a year after the album became the indie-electro soundtrack to summer in the US, Palomo is still amused by the project’s popularity. “Obviously everything that I have to say about the record, or about life around that time or how Neon Indian came to be, is really just very much ipso facto rationalization, ideas that I just sort of explain to make it palatable for people to read or something. But really, everything was just circumstantial,” confesses Palomo with a laugh. “It’s bizarre, because Neon Indian was the thing that I had the least amount of expectation in with anything that I had been involved in.”
Palomo’s musical path has always cut against expectation, though. Having gained attention with the skuzzed-out beats of Denton-based Ghosthustler, Palomo’s next project, Vega, seemed poised to break behind the ’80s-inspired synth-pop rave-ups of spring 2009’s Well Known Pleasures EP. Both bands seemed an improbable product of the North Texas music mecca, best known for spawning talent like Midlake, Doug Burr and Sarah Jaffe. Flailing his wild tangle of curly hair in unself-conscious, groove-possessed exuberance behind his keyboards, Palomo seemed the antithesis to the Denton scene.
“Being able to create some kind of music that was almost completely reactionary to that community in some ways facilitated it even more because it brought this decidedly different element,” Palomo reasons. “And I don’t want to say that Ghosthustler was the only thing in that region, because if anything it brought me a lot closer to the other synthheads in Texas. But there were definitely a lot of kids up there, and different bands that could have bordered on electronic, but that still had all the rooted sensibilities that exposed me to a lot of really crazy shit that eventually helped facilitate ideas like Ghosthustler. “When you meet a small community like that, it really brings you into a situation where you really want to try to make something. And there’s something really creepy about that, too, that sort of creative atmosphere. It really spawns a lot of crazy, irrational, erratic behavior. I can’t tell you how many friends had sort of psychotic episodes living there, because it is its own odd little bubble. But that’s sort of the point of the whole experience.” Pursuing his prospects with Vega, Palomo moved to Austin in August 2008. Yet even as the trio of synth, guitar and drums began to spark dancefloors and blog buzz, Palomo was often shuttered in his apartment bedroom writing songs for what would become Neon Indian. Starting with the literally titled apology sent to a friend, “Should Have Taken Acid with You,” Palomo began constructing lo-fi loops and sampled rhythms rising through waves of distorted effects, producing smooth narcotic grooves that wash entrancingly in synth-heavy sighs.
Neon Indian tracks began to leak to major blogs, but Palomo initially kept the project anonymous, which only fueled the speculation and hype surrounding the songs. As the summer pulled to a close, Neon Indian had eclipsed Vega and Psychic Chasms was becoming one of the most lauded releases of 2009, despite Palomo’s insistence that the project was primarily a personal endeavor. Perhaps even more bewildering to the artist was that as critics clamored to define Neon Indian’s sound and appeal, Palomo found himself the unassuming champion of the new movement of “chillwave.”
“It’s really bizarre when someone takes something that you’ve created that was completely intimate and transparent and introspective, and re-contextualizes it as this ‘thing,’ this statement or this movement,” says Palomo, who currently lives in Brooklyn and is already recording follow-up albums for both Neon Indian and Vega. “It doesn’t really mean anything to me, and the term itself is really kind of flippant. I try not to get in that state of mind because I think when you start buying into it is when what you create really starts hurting for it. If I was too conscious of anyone construing me as something like ‘chillwave,’ it would sort of throw me in a loop that would defeat the purpose of why I made that music to begin with, which was to completely depart from anything else that I was involved in and just make something for me.
“It’s very ironic that Ghosthustler and Vega were very referential and very conscious of the set of peers that I had in a musical synth-pop or electro genre, so then to just completely detach from that and want to just make something that’s based on music that I just personally enjoy, and then have a lot of people create a title for it that once again throws me back into a community of peers is really weird, and kind of just makes me think that it’s completely inescapable. But whatever could have tied Psychic Chasms to ‘Chillwave’ to begin with, I don’t think the second record is really going to sound anything like that, or at least in my mind.”