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Unrealistically Romantic: Neon Indian's Alan Palomo Grows Up and Dances On

We attend 'The Tonight Show' with the man behind one of the best dance records of the year.
November 7, 2015, 4:52pm

The main artery of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is a single, narrow hallway on the 6th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The size of the space is discordant with the constant flow of recognizable faces and iconic images crammed inside. Walking into the studio is a bit surreal—the elevator doors open feet from The Root’s dressing room. On a recent October afternoon, I’m walking down this hallway to meet up with Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo, who’s the show’s musical guest for the evening. It’s a few hours before showtime and Studio 6B is a swarm of activity: wardrobe designers put the finishing touches on costumes while NBC pages scurry by. There’s a lot of goddamn hairspray.

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Neon Indian’s green room is the last door in the corridor. To get there, I sidestep Questlove and pass doors labeled “Clive Owen” and “Gabrielle Union.” Union glides past me with a squad of handlers. A.D. Miles, The Tonight Show’s head writer, walks behind two staffers carrying a zany set backdrop. I’m basically in a parody of 30 Rock.

Behind the door the marked “Neon Indian” is a crowded room that smells of unlaundered clothes and tequila, a bottle of which sits open on the table. The band’s bassist Jorge Palomo, a Texas boy by way of Mexico like his brother Alan, shares a glass with a Mexican American novelist. Guitarist Max Townsley is all smiles—he recently got engaged and his fiancé is watching from the studio audience. As Fallon’s opening monologue beams in from a flat screen over a piano, more tequila is poured.

Alan Palomo—the face, songwriter and primary creative architect of Neon Indian—watches the bits in his usual state of motion, somewhere between manic pacing and a directorial calm. He’s dressed in all white, springy hair and baby-face still intact despite years of what refers to as a “nocturnal lifestyle.” During the guest introductions, Fallon gushes over Neon Indian’s new record, VEGA INTL. Night School, out now on Mom+Pop/Transgressive. Even his publicist is surprised by the screen time and lavishments—and Palomo smile widens. The band has been at 30 Rock since eight in the morning, soundchecking, running over endless particulars. In a few minutes the 27-year-old synth pop wizard will make his return to the public eye, performing “Annie”, the lead single off his first record in four years.

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Palomo's 2009 debut Psychic Chasms was one most heated talking points in indie blogosphere history. In some circles, the musician was quickly and pigheadedly classified as the standard-bearer for the much debated, and often maligned, pseudo-phenomenia “chillwave” (See also: “glowfi”; see also: Hipster Runoff). He followed up with an impressive sophomore effort, 2011’s Era Extraña, but the nearly half-decade interim has been tumultuous. During this time, he managed to lose a record worth of material in a blackout, cut tracks on cruise ships hammered on tequila, and smash his face open while moving a synthesizer. But rather than continue his absence or skate the nagging question “does anyone still care about my music,” Palomo has opted to double down, releasing an ambitious two-disc LP.

Palomo spends the last minutes before the performance warming up his voice before The Tonight Show’s booker makes the signal that it’s time to go. A few minutes after the band departs, a charming NBC page brings the rest of the crew into the studio. We watch as Palomo smashes into “Annie” with some dance moves that recall Future Island’s baroque Letterman performance from 2014. Fallon grooves shamelessly in his chair. When the music cuts, the host bounds onto the stage with even more of his trademark schoolboy enthusiasm than usual. He and Palomo embrace like old friends.

Later, over tacos at a bar near Palomo’s apartment in Greenpoint, he tells me Fallon joked with him onstage about the time Palomo’s mother came up to him at Universal Studios: My son is going to be on your show this week! “But he also said something else to me,” Palomo says, sipping a Pacifico. “He told me, ‘We’re all grown up now.’”

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In a way, Neon Indian’s career did grow up alongside Fallon’s. Palomo first appeared on Late Night in 2010, 21 years old, mop-haired and fresh-faced. Psychic Chasms had just been released and online indie world was having a field day trying to figure out how they felt about it. Pitchfork gave it “Best New Music” and called him a “a low-rent Daft Punk.” Others took up arms against what they saw as the evils of appropriation. He was included in Maisonneuve’s “Music We Hate” column, with the damning quote “Neon Indian… trades in hollow revivalism. The songs on… Psychic Chasms add up to a smug, kitschy, Ray Ban dress-up party.” I was in college in California when the record came out, and music junkies and party people alike admired it. Most people I knew didn’t know or care about the blog-noise surrounding the record, they just danced to it, and fucked to it, and bought tickets when Neon Indian came to town.

Palomo appeared on Late Night again in 2011, in support of his second LP Era Extraña. Fallon introduced them by saying, “They are doing stuff that no one is doing out there…You are going to freak out, you are going to love the music from this band.” But not everyone shared Fallon’s giddiness over the release. The album produced “Polish Girl,” likely Neon Indian’s most recognizable song, and got solid reviews, but it didn’t carry the same quick fire sneak-attack into cultural capital that Chasms did. For many bands this wouldn't have been a disappointment. But Palomo says he was never completely happy with the release. He is someone who, in my estimation, sees himself as competing to be a canonical artist; in whatever medium he chooses to play in. Although he gave a Ted Talk in 2014 about the “myth of the auteur,” he is almost obsessively concerned with every aspect of Neon Indian’s visual aesthetic, sound, and idiosyncratic persona. He dresses like Wes Anderson might have if he was on a bender in the summer of ‘84. He is, to use the obvious analogy, the superintendent of his very own Night School and he’ll be damned if his class isn’t going to ace the test.

Back at the bar in Greenpoint, we finish our beers and head out into the death rattle of summer. Palomo has rented out a swanky art space near Madison Square called NeueHouse to screen The Tonight Show. At the ridiculously opulent space, animal skins, rare books, and music industry gossip lines the walls. During the commercial break before his performance, Palomo stands before the strange assembly of goth kids, poets, publicists, label heads, and scenesters and tells how thankful he that the massive crew that worked on this record is here. In a few days Night School will be awarded “Best New Music” on Pitchfork, with the tagline: “Palomo acts a gracious host, delivering the most deluxe, comprehensive Neon Indian album yet.” That same night, he’ll play a packed and raucous show Webster Hall. The party won’t stop for days.

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Back in March of this year, however, this celebration seemed unlikely. In the dead of one of the most brutal New York winters in recent memory, Palomo was in the midst of trying to finish Night School, with varying degrees of success. On one of the coldest nights of the year, he came back to his house after a long night of tequila sipping and realized he had to be on the road to Atlanta in a few hours to record with Ben Allen, Deerhunter’s longtime producer. He began moving synthesizers around in an effort to try and get ready. His roommate heard a crash and came down to find everyone screaming and Palomo covered in blood. The glasses Palomo was wearing smashed into his face by a loose piece of equipment. He lay on the floor while his girlfriend at the time called a cab. The amount blood pouring out his head frightened everyone.

It was daylight when they arrived at the Williamsburg emergency clinic. The doctor who stitched up the gash was a mild mannered man from Alabama. “I’m pretty sure he was wearing cowboy boots and had just come in from brunch,” says Palomo. His girlfriend held his hand while nine stitches went into his eyebrow. The doctor joked that he should be put in the album’s liner notes. Palomo deadpanned back that there had to be an album first. When I ask Palomo if he was concerned about the effect of the injury on his upcoming sessions, he says, “I think I was in shock, more concerned if my face was going to be permanently disfigured,” he says. “The reality didn’t sink in until later.”

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After leaving the emergency room, Palomo cabbed to an off-brand pharmacy in Greenpoint. Dildos and pocket pussies were draped over strange mannequins. Palomo paid for his Percocet and bandages while a customer bought three bottles of lube. He was on the phone with his manager constantly, trying to figure out how to be on the road as soon as possible.

Palomo returned to his apartment to find the steps covered in ice. A shovel borrowed from a neighboring bar proved fruitless, so he had to break them up with a hammer. The side-effects of the Percocet began to make him extremely nauseous, and he had to go inside and puke several times. “It wasn’t until I was throwing up everywhere that the nightmarish quality of the last 24 hours came into focus,” he says.

Palomo would eventually make it into a car and get on the road to Atlanta. But he wouldn’t leave Georgia with a finished record. That would require returning to Brooklyn and working with another round of collaborators. No more injuries occurred, and the resulting record is worth every scar. It’s a mature effort that transcends both low-fi bedroom pop and hype-driven festival appearances. By ignoring every expectation and putting faith in a concept album that could have come off as ridiculous, Palomo crafted the best single body of work of his career.

Perhaps the single best representation of the record’s ethos is the music video for its second single “Slumlord”, which Palomo co-directed. In it his brother Jorge is dressed in a gimp suit and paraded around a nightclub. It’s visual portrait of Neon Indian does best—one part nostalgia, one part drunken bathroom blowjob, one part deadly serious auteur-hood. Palomo shows me the video giddily on his iPhone at the bar next to his house a couple days before he is set to go on tour. We spend the day talking about the marathon process of making Night School, love, and dance music’s paradoxical elitism.

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I suppose we should start with you losing you laptop with a record's worth of songs on it. Take me through that night.
I had just played Terminal 5. We set up a little after party in Le Baron in Chinatown. I had my laptop on me because I was DJing. I had my passport, my glasses, everything in the the laptop bag. We’re drinking well into the night, it’s four in the morning. I’m racking up with bill I’m totally unaware of, but I order a third bottle. They are like “you are aware these are three hundred dollars each and you've already racked up a nine-hundred dollar tab”. It was complete havoc. I venture out to some other party and blackout for awhile. Vaguely remember dancing with a girl on a catwalk. When I come to I’m planning to best into a bottle of tequila with my friend Rambo. But we can’t get into my apartment. I’m way too drunk to, and I pass out on my stoop. Four hours later I vaguely remember someone being like are you okay? For some reason I was like “Yeah I’m sunbathing.” It was a guy and his son. It was noon and someone had stolen my laptop while I was sleeping.

There is a famous anecdote about Hemingway’s first wife leaving all his early work on the train. Was it cleansing at all?
I was surprisingly zen about it. It was gone there was nothing I could do. Whoever had taken it probably pawned it. But had I used that body of work as the record it would have been totally different.

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It’s a ghost record.
It’s funny though because, the key thing that has transformed what the eventually become was DJing during that lost time. Back when I lived in Texas, I had this night with my drummer where we would play a lot of Italo Disco. Because it was my only real vocation aside from my job as a sushi waiter, it was my main source of creative release. I had to have new things to play every week and I was aggressively seeking new music. So Night School is the first time I’ve gotten back to that. I wrote two records back to back with no new set of influences. I was so caught up in the narrative of what I was doing.

Did living in New York help that process? If we’re talking the linage of dance music, New York is one of the original capitals.
I can’t negate that my nocturnal social life has been entirely intertwined with New York’s dance music culture. New York was the epicenter of dance music, and of disco and early house with places like Paradise Garage, and the irony of it now is that we have mutated into a place where dance music is, to some extent, exclusionary. There is a certain elitist narrative that permeates in Brooklyn. We’ve reached capacity at the party and we just keep filling it up.

So it’s both elitist and saturated?
It’s so densely saturated with all the varieties of music, but if you don’t make the popular subgenre of electronic music you don’t get to hang out. That, to me, seems like a very new paradigm because when I was growing up in Texas we had all these people who had their specific focuses but were banded together under the idea that we just liked fucking around with keyboards.

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Speaking of popularity, did you feel like you like this record was pressured by any sort of perceived lack of success of the second one [2011’s Era Extrana]?
Like I had to come back from something?

Yeah, in a way.
Look, obviously people talk about the sophomore slump. It’s difficult to contextualize that scenario when it’s happening to you. I made that record and I love that record, but I love it for different reasons than I love the first. It was definitely made a little bit under the the gun. I think for a moment I was fed this narrative by the people that I was working with that if I didn’t strike while the iron was hot everything I worked for would suddenly go away. Before I even had a chance to evaluate how true that was, I had to just start making music again. Even though I came out of it with something that I really loved, I told myself I never want to make music under this set of circumstances again. The most liberating aspect of writing this last record was, I could go back to film school, I could just do something else. It never occurred to me that the only medium through which I should express myself was music. To some extent I still don’t entirely construe myself as a musician.

I’ve never really viewed you as a musician in the traditional sense.
I can play my own songs, but I’m by no means technically astounding. I’m actually glad that in modern electronic music the word “producer” gets thrown around a lot. Because that word implies making art is a production, the same way film is a collaborative medium. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of people involved. This record was kind of treated in the same way, obviously to a much smaller scale. And at some danger to my personal life, because I don’t have an inexhaustible budget. There was a lot of navigation happening in this record where I wanted to try and handle that level of directorial responsibility. To go from being a grown man-child to being a grown-ass man.

Apart from being dance music and directorial art projects, Neon Indian songs have always been about longing and love to a lot of people. Have you ever been in love?
I feel like most of the love I encountered when I was young was unrequited. And that has made me slightly more reticent of putting my feelings out there. And New York dating life is so sociopathic. You’re having dinner with someone and they just want you to demonstrate your value. That’s not how I get to know someone. That’s made me guarded to finding real love because I think it's a special thing. You just don’t want to give it to anyone who is going to mess with it. And it think that’s what I think I might have done when I was 18 living in Denton.

What was your first experience of unrequited love?
The girl who took my virginity. We couldn’t properly date and because she already had a boyfriend. I was flustered into complete infatuation and all the things that come with having sex for the first time, but then being taken out of it because it wasn’t going to work out. There were a lot of mental gymnastics that had to be done. This was amazing but also very brief. And that was just the reality. There was also a formative breakup in Denton. At this point in time when you are with such a small group of people in Texas the possibilities seem very finite, and that first love defines beauty incarnate to you. In this case this person was vindictive. Neither of us had a grasp on our lives either but she certainly didn’t mind messing with mine.

How so?
I’d never met someone who was capable of that kind of cruelty. Essentially, she fucked some guy at a Halloween warehouse fetish party in front of all my friends. Super fucking bizarre. That was one thing where I was like, Jesus Christ I was not aware this isn’t something someone could do to you.

Do you still have love for her?
No, but by virtue of being one of the first people I fell in love with she might be a type I gravitate towards. Some construct of what I interpret beauty to be. You can’t escape that, it is what it is. Obviously that is a person I don’t have any interest in knowing anymore, and I haven’t for nearly a decade. But I can’t deny that these realities have shaped my disposition.

So what does love mean to you now?
There is a part of me that is still unrealistically romantic, but it is closely watched, policed, and mediated by the more logical shades of myself. It’s complicated, people don’t change, you just aggregate more shit into the equation. My romanticism never went away, it's just lost in these other knee-jerk reactions to infatuation. But we’re still all after that idyllic first time. But in meantime you can still have fun, meet people. That person informs your idealistic type, but that’s bullshit. Now I would rather be surprised by love, instead of being like, I finally found her and she looks exactly like I thought she would. Predispositions are what get people in trouble. None of that is grounded in real experience. That said, I don't mind being a little pornographic at times. I like stockings and bad cliches. But I reserve the right to also know there is a romantic in me that is waiting for the right opportunity.

Kai Flanders is a writer based in Brooklyn.