Episode 04 Transcript: Alan Palomo AKA Neon Indian
Alan Palomo AKA Neon Indian & Danny Carissimi From The Sugar High Podcast
Danny: We’re in Alan’s room in Greenpoint [Brooklyn].
Alan: Slash synth-dungeon.
Danny: There’s a lot of synthesizers around here.
Alan: I hate playing into the cliche of myself. It’s like, whenever anybody else walks into this room, it’s like, “Yeah, this is what I thought it would look like.” And I’m like, goddammit.
Danny: It really does - and there’s like a weird drawing on a whiteboard that kind of looks like something Matt Damon would do in Good Will Hunting. Like, fucking equations on the wall or something.
Alan: Not equations! I was teaching somebody some principle of modulation thing; it was like a synth thing.
Danny: Like a weird first date?
Alan: No, no.
Danny: “Here’s the principles of modulation, come to my bedroom.”
Alan: [laughs] That’s how I curate my dates; a little bit of synthesis, subtractive, if you know what I mean.
Danny: Yeah. And prior to the release of this record, you and I were having dinner, and you were talking about how you’re going to be done with Alan. When is that going to happen?
Alan: That’s a hardball question. You know, this record, and what I kind of set off to accomplish and what the nature of it even was
Danny: You mean the project in general, or this album?
Alan: Um, you know, I think they’re intrinsically intertwined. I think there was definitely a completion of some arc, some like, trilogy. And now in my mind, I’m like, “Oh.” You know, I’ve already mimed the influences that have spoken to me since I was a teenager. And there’s other kinds of music that I’m really moving on to really enjoy and that I can appreciate; with still nothing but affection for the work that I’ve already done. But I think that if Alan were to continue, it would have to undergo some kind of aesthetic overhaul. The main reason why it seemed like such an ultimatum, is that it seemed like it really took time away from working on film projects, which is also very like -- you know, it’s funny, because you talk about it with the people you work with, or people you know in general, or people that you don’t know, like fans, who just kind of roll their eyes like, “Oh, yeah, you’re gonna be a director now.” And, totally, there’s nothing more obnoxious than someone using cache from one project to fancy themselves an auteur in some other medium. But, I mean, much of what I did with this record, and what I’m still kind of currently doing, is working with a lot of filmmaker friends, and people I really respect and trust aesthetically, and also getting to direct some stuff - which is very important to be like, first and foremost, the thing you can’t circumvent, is that you need a body of work in that medium. I’m slowly working on it. Had I graduated from film school, and got run through the ringer of like buying coffee for people on like, a Nissan Sentra commercial or something, you know, that doesn’t sound as appealing.
Danny: You could still do that!
Alan: I still totally could, and would actually learn a lot from it. The whole basis of even starting to get anything involved with film, or production stuff, there’s something to be garnered from just the experience of getting a bunch of people in the room together, and working their respective specialty. That’s actually how it was with the “Slumlord” video - that wound up just being absolutely bonkers, the amount of work that went into it.
Danny: I feel bad, I actually left the set. I was there, and I came to support. Alex - my girlfriend - and I, we came, we really wanted to do the video. And this guy, some lacky that was in charge, he’s sitting there, and I’m like, “Hey man, when’s my turn? When am I gonna film?” And he was like, “We’re not filming your part until like, 3am.” And it was like, 6pm.
Alan: It ran long.
Danny: I was like, I love you, and I want to be here for this, but I don’t know if I want to be there for like, another 12 hours.
Alan: It wasn’t 3am, but it was definitely late. But basically, we rehearsed --
Danny: Rookie manager doesn’t know how to manage his staff.
Alan: Oh damn, that hurts. That burns.
Danny: I think it’s cool now that you’re perceiving Alan, or at least this iteration of it, as artistically coming to a close. Because it almost seemed like before, you just wanted to stop doing it, or you just wanted to go straight to film.
Alan: I think the time management is a really complicated part of it, and then it really brings up questions about like -- you may or may not be able to pick it up from the microphones, but I wake up every day to jackhammers and 18-wheelers, and it goes until like, 5pm, and it really reconfigures my schedule so that the most productive time I can get stuff done is in the evenings. And that, you know -- I would love to be up with the sun. I’d love to be Jean-Claude Van Damme, doing the splits between two buildings as the sun is slowly rising. [...] But yeah, ultimately, the transition is really the question of like, how much of your social life do you want to forego, and really, how many decisions, how many compromises would you want to make in your musical career to do the other thing? And I think that there might be time for both, and I’ll definitely find out as time goes on, but you know, if given one or the other, I would totally rather rough it in film, because it’s something I would rather be doing for the rest of my life; as opposed to being in my 50s, holding a keytar, really waiting for that reissue money to come in.
Danny: It’s like, we used to talk about it, for no reason, you’d just be like, “let’s add a symphony.” Like, you’d run out of ideas and be like, “let’s just get an orchestra involved at this point.”
Alan: That’s like a coked-out idea, for sure. That’s how those things happen.
Danny: You know what’s always confused me about you, is that you were way too into cool music at too young of an age. I know originally you were from Monterey [California], but you were raised in San Antonio. And, look, I love San Antonio, but it’s not necessarily on the cutting edge of at least the type of culture that you were into. We’d be at like, tournaments and stuff, and you’d be like, “Have you heard of Joy Division?” Where were you finding this shit?
Alan: Well it’s funny, because I recently told this story on camera for the first time, but I remember in like, seventh or eighth grade, it was my birthday, and my mom got me a Discman for my birthday, and just like, a random sampling of CDs. It was like, the Tomb Raider soundtrack, and the second one -- which is not really a conduit for good taste -- was something like, NOW That’s What I Call Music whatever, and the third was Radiohead’s Amnesiac.
Danny: Your mom got you that?
Alan: Yeah, because it was just something that I had talked about.
Danny: You had heard it on the radio or something?
Alan: I heard it on MTV2. I saw the music video, and yeah -- you know when you’re watching a sequence of things, and it’s like, “one of these things is clearly not like the other one,” and for you, that’s a huge deal to make that distinction, to be like, “this is something I like,” versus “this is something I don’t like.” But also, I had friends in high school who were also checking out cool shit, and we were all discovering the Internet at this point and we started going on message boards, and like, that’s the thread that undoes the whole sweater. Then, next thing you know, you’re going to Austin to check out shows, and then you’re going to Waterloo Records, and this is maybe like, the very last of that generation of like, record store clerks that make a recommendation. You know?
Danny: Yeah. When I’ve gone on tours, they’ve occasionally gone to San Antonio, and the crowds are usually very enthusiastic. And I’ve found that there’s a very -- and this might just be the demographic, the makeup of the city -- a lot of the alternative kids, there’s a huge Latino population, and they are really super scene kids. They come out together to the shows, and it’s the same thing when I go to Mexico. They’re so enthusiastic about it. Were you kind of a part of that at all?
Alan: Well I mean, I would say like, by the virtue of being a Mexican-American going to shows. But in San Antonio in particular, it’s funny.
Danny: They seem very into metal and punk and stuff.
Alan: Well, yeah, Mexican punks is definitely a thing in San Antonio. And it’s funny, because like, I can see the parallels of like -- you know, there’s certain artists that like, as a Mexican-American that I’m completely a fan of, but also that the Mexican punk culture in San Antonio really subscribes to; one of them is Billy Idol, and the other one is Morrissey. I used to think that the Morrissey thing was something that I had made up. But then like at BAM maybe six months ago -- now it’s like a series -- but there was this Mexican tribute to Morrissey. There were all these bands, all these Mexican artists doing all of their own interpretations.
Danny: Why is that?
Alan: You know what, I’ve really thought about it for a while, and I think it’s because he’s kind of this like -- he’s a troubadour. You know, he writes narrative, dramatic songs, and really has this airy voice that could almost be like, visente fernandes. That’s a stretch, but I think that we appreciate that kind of showmanship.
Danny: The showmanship in Mexico, I think, is maybe the best in the world. I went to Mexico City for the Corona Capital Music Fest, and we went to this amazing area of town, where you can go and hire a Mariachi band. There’s all these Mariachi bands, and they’re just kind of waiting, and you can kind of pull up to them in your car and be like, “Hey, I’m having this party -- how much?” And you can kind of haggle with them and have them hop on in, and you can drive them to the party, and then drive them back. Then in the center of this area, there’s this little carnival, and then they’ve got like, this concert with the worst PA of all time, but there’s great food, and nobody really cares. Then we went into this room, and it’s these guys, and they’re performing almost in the round. They’re surrounded by people, and it’s a square dance floor, and people are eating dinner, and they’re drinking, and these guys have got on these beautiful white suits with these huge white sombreros. And at first -- I was there with a Mexican -- I was like, I thought it was like, a joke or something. It’s comedy, or something.
Alan: There’s always a little bit of an air of that, too.
Danny: Exactly. And then, like, people would laugh, because, they were like, calling out the States, being like, “if you’re from here, do this!” But then there are parts of the show that are like, super dramatic. He was like, talking about his lover, and the whole crowd was sort of leaning back and singing with him and stuff. I’ve never been to a concert experience like that. And also, like, the guy is alone. He’s just there. There’s no band, the band is just in the back of the room, kind of like in that bar they go to in Star Wars. They’re just there in the background playing, and he’s just there -- it was just a very dramatic performance, is what I’m trying to say.
Alan: It’s definitely a very romantic culture in that sense, and especially with entertainers. I find that over there, if you have like, a catalogue, you kind of just have lifelong fans.
Danny: Right, right. You know what I remember -- so like, we graduated from high school, and I’m a year older than you, and then I went to UNT for one year, and I think you called me up about going to UNT. We talked about it. And I was living at home at the time, so I remember being like, “Man, the college life is great.”
Alan: Once I got there, I remember you had already moved to Austin, and you told this story about how you went to Hayley’s on 80s night in a “Thriller” jacket.
Danny: I was desperate for friends, so I went to 80s night, and my brother had gotten this “Thriller” jacket for me for Christmas. So I was like, “Well, I’ll just go to 80s night, and I’ll make some friends.” You know? And I went, and I had been -- this is horribly embarrassing -- I had been faking an English accent with this girl, and it had been working. So I told the girl, “Hold on one second, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” So I walk to the bathroom, and then I run into someone I know, this girl from my high school, and she’s like, “Danny, oh my god! You’ve got to meet my friend!” And she brings me back, and it’s the girl I had been faking the accent to. So I just went, “Hold on one second.” And I just left.
Alan: You just ran home.
Danny: And then I ran home. So, cut to you and I on the phone, and I’m just like, “Dude, it’s amazing. I’m meeting so many friends, and having a great time!” And then we ran into each other at South by Southwest, and you were suddenly like, “I’m in Ghost Hustler now.” You suddenly had on skinny jeans.
Alan: They were probably purple, if I remember correctly. Purple or white.
Danny: Yeah, they were purple or white. You know, you had an afro now; you had your new ‘do, you were in a band now, and I was like “What the fuck, this is crazy.” But what I never knew was like, how did Ghost Hustler come about?
Alan: So I had made some friends before I’d even moved to Denton, when I spent a weekend just like checking it out, and there was this girl who i just had like, this inconsolable crush on, and she hosted me for that weekend. And I remember she took me to a house party, she took me to a few house parties, and like, to a high schooler that’s a huge deal. So there was literally like, a party every night, but it was just like, the same group of people, so I just got to know them better. So by the time I got back, I remember I just stopped by, and they were like, “Oh well dude, we’re having a party tonight.” And that wound up being like, some of my closest friends. I remember I met Grey and Shane at those parties. I met Shane first, and then eventually through him I met Grey, and like, we just started jamming out. You know, we’d be hunched over a laptop just like, trading songs, and that was like another fervorous and creative time.
Danny: But you didn’t really produce yet.
Alan: I definitely did not have it figured out at that point. I had started messing out with Reason a little bit, but it wasn’t very substantive until we started hanging out. And then I think, you know, amongst the three of us, we really started making more and more music, and then from there I met the rest of the people I had mentioned from the earlier bands in Denton, and then that all came together in this pretty spectacular way. You meet the people who are going to give you a skill set that will become like, invaluable as time goes on, you know? And we all lived in that house, and there were no doors, which sucked. It was kind of a nightmare after a while. I didn’t live there for too long, but you know, for that reason, it was just this like, communal, like, “we’re just gonna get a 4-pack and sit here and work on music.” And originally, Ghost Hustler, I did that first track, and I thought it was just going to be like, a solo thing; but it slowly mutated into this band. And yeah, we had our one-year run, where I definitely learned a lot, you know, just about playing live and songwriting.
Danny: You’ve always been an ambitious guy, and I’m wondering if, were you kind of telegraphing it at that time? Kind of like, “this is going to be my entry into my career in music.” Or were you just having fun?
Alan: I mean like, you know, I’ll definitely get a pie-in-the-sky dream pretty quick. But that’s just kind of the nature of, if I want to do something enough to warrant its existence, and that has never stopped exciting me. It’s almost kind of like, maybe sometimes you have to find the gumption to do a project that maybe doesn’t immediately -- where you don’t totally understand sort of why you’re stepping in, and it sort of reveals itself to you as time goes on. But you always have to have that gumption of like, “I’m gonna do it,” and just see what happens.
Danny: Right, but I think things changed pretty dramatically when the video for “Parking Lot Nights” came out.
Alan: Yeah, you know, that video -- it was right time, right place, right concept, right song. And even in hindsight, it didn’t spike the dial in some insane, crazy way, where someone’s like, showing up at your house with a briefcase full of money and just kind of like, “See your name on the big bright marquee!” or anything like that, but it garnered some attention to the extent that we could start playing shows, and then we were doing press…
Danny: There was a lot of momentum around that band.
Alan: To have never done anything before, and then to have done that and to suddenly see some results from it -- or, not even to see results, because that wasn’t even really the intent. Obviously, you know, at the time, listening to a lot of French House stuff, we were like, “we just wanna make some music!” Like, “Oh, I want to do some of that stuff too!” There was a real kind of fuck-you punk attitude about it, because so much of dance music is very elitist, and I kind of liked a lot of that. Especially when you’re 18, and you see something that exciting and you just chase it to no end.
Danny: To everyone around you, it was like, “Ghost Hustler is going to blow the fuck up.” You know, you’re going to get a record deal; you’re gonna leave this stinkin’ Denton town; you’re gonna be off. And then, I told you I was going to New York for an internship at Warp Records, and you were like, “Yeah well, I want to quit Ghost Hustler and I want to go.” And I remember being like, “Why?” I trusted your instinct there, but like, why did you decide to leave Ghost Hustler?
Alan: With respect to all the members, I think we all just had very different ideas about what the expected outcome was, what the direction of it was going to be, and I just saw that -- I’m very compulsive, creatively. I just want to get it done, and I want to keep moving forward, so when we were just like, laboring, just stewing over these songs, festering, pretty much -- I think it got to a point where we had maybe seen the arc of what the band had to offer.
[Fast forwarding the story: Alan left Ghost Hustler and started a solo project called Vega. Vega did okay; it had a little bit of buzz. Eventually he started writing songs that didn’t really fit in with Vega, and he ended up calling this new project Alan.]
Danny: And I was thinking about it, this Alan stuff, and it’s funny, because I remember I would be in my bedroom, and you would come in and take the guitar. Then I remember you were like, “Yeah, I wrote ‘Should’ve Taken Acid With You.’”
Alan: If you remember, I was financially struggling, but yeah, like, between that and realizing that writing the whole Vega record is gonna be a colossal undertaking. And dance music production is just like, super tedious; I realized then that this was going to be a pressure-cooker boiling of work. So, when “Should’ve Taken Acid With You” happened, I remember I wrote it, and I kept thinking that I would rewrite it as a Vega song, but then I was like, “Dude, fuck Vega. Write more songs like this.” So it was a real creative breakthrough, because I was less focused on trying to fit into some paradigm. By that point, I realized I was kind of outgrowing that set of influences, and I was just kind of like, I just want to do something else. It’s not speaking to me in the same way, and it’s taking a lot of work to get it done. So instead, Alan kind of became this weird creative exercise of like, “You’re going to write a song every day.”
Danny: That project really seemed borne out of frustration, and I remember at the time your dad was like, “Are you going to college or not?” Your parents are immigrants, and that was a big deal to them, for you to go to college. And you were basically like, “I’m not. I’m not going to go to college, I’m going to be doing this music thing.” And that seemed to be weighing on you at the time.
Alan: Yeah, and I remember at the time, talking to my dad and him literally being like, “Yeah, I’m going to let you do this, but don’t make a liar out of me. I’m allowing you to do this because I’m trusting you.”
Danny: Those are pretty powerful words from a parent.
Danny: His dream was to have you guys come to the U.S., and go to school.
Alan: Too bad he raised a couple of artists. But, that being said, if Alan hadn’t just become this like, crazy animal in terms of like the amount of work that went into it and the time it demanded from me, there was definitely a possibility of me continuing school. But, you know, it’s ironic that the things that you put the least amount of thought into, become the things that define you the most. That was something that I had made, to be like, I’ll just do it because I need some outlet to write these songs, and I’m very excited about where it’s going, so let’s just do a whole record of that.
Danny: Did you envision at all when you wrote “Deadbeat Summer” that it was going to be that crazy?
Alan: No. You know, I think that when you write something, and you feel very -- I mean, obviously, you know, there’s an ear that tells you, “Oh, this might be a single.” But also, there’s this component of, to me, it just felt very satisfying in the same way that watching those movies felt like, “Wow.” They’re such perfect little statements of what they’re trying to get across, and that song, for me at least -- by any means, it’s not a perfect song, but for me on a personal level, it felt like I had communicated some sentiment that felt very sincere to me. To me, there’s no greater feeling than when you write some song that really feels like you’ve successfully translated some concept from within yourself onto some external medium. That’s like, a rare thing, because it rarely ever happens. If I write a song, I’m usually like, “Well, enjoy it’s death, because you’re never going to write it the way that it sounds in your head. You’re not going to find those sounds.” So there’s a lot of disconnect there, but “Deadbeat Summer” was one of the few ones where it was like, that’s about what it should have been.
Danny: I’ve always thought that sometimes with some of your things, you would bring up like, song references and stuff. I know at the time you were talking about Ariel Pink, and the first Wavves EP, along with older stuff -- and especially with older Ariel Pink, it’s really abstract. And also with older Animal Collective stuff, that was a reference as well. To me at the time, it almost seemed like you wanted to make music like that, but it came out more poppy. It had more of a pop tinge, just kind of naturally to it.
Alan: Sure, and I’ll just say, I can’t help it.
Danny: Can’t help but write hits.
Alan: No, no -- I will say, I do use it as a crutch sometimes. Like, one of the faults I talk about with Vega, is that it seemed more inclined that my musical ear could write a three-minute pop song, in terms of like, the structure, and in terms of like, where the chord arrangements are going. And it’s gotten a little more complicated as time has gone on, because you know, just out of necessity, to remain interesting there has to be growth. At the time, it was just kind of like my solving the Rubik's cube. It was always just like, the thing that I do. I was like, I’ve got this thing in my head, and I want it to be within that structure.
Danny: Yeah, and I was having this conversation earlier today in one of my other interviews, and they were like, “We purposefully made this song to be a hit.” And it seems to me like that’s a bad idea. Like, to have that mentality -- you know, maybe it’s probably worked out…
Alan: You know, it upsets me, because it assumes a certain kind of stupidity from people. It’s like, fans are smart, man. People know when something’s coming from a sincere place, and I think you should connect with that.
Danny: I agree, strongly agree.
Alan: You know, I think that a lot of bands, if we’re going to talk about it in terms of like, “taking off,” or having some hit, I think that most of them, or at least from the people that I admire, it didn’t happen like that. There was no willful effort to sound like anything. It was more like, they get together, and that’s what they sound like. And I think that there have been gestures, of someone who like, tries to willfully make some record, and you can just hear it. You can just hear the compromise in it. But you can hear the compromise not even necessarily from like, the label’s standpoint, but from the artist within themselves. You can hear those decisions being made. It’s important to be operating under the assumption that A.) this is for you, and if it’s not fun, don’t do it. Do something else. That’s another big lesson; like, I did the two records kind of back-to-back. With those first two records, it was done very Led Zeppelin-style, in hotel rooms, on the road, between tours.
Danny: In Helsinki.
Alan: In Helsinki, of course; which was like, a dumb 22-year-old move. Actually, no -- I made a lot of great friends there, and it was definitely a very interesting experience, you know, and I probably haven’t done something like that since, but it definitely was a bit excessive.
Danny: Do you look back positively on the record?
Alan: Oh, of course. Absolutely. I mean, I just think that it’s like, a weird exercise in creative sink-or-swim. If you’re in a scenario where you can only write music only because of the available timeframes, can you swim? And the answer was yes, but I just don’t ever want to be in a situation where I have to make music like that; which is what is so refreshing about Vega International Night School. It just very slowly started coming together, and maybe somewhat gratuitously.
Danny: Do you think it was almost a case of, things only take as long as you give them?
Alan: Well, when we set a mastering date, it was like, “You can always push it back a day.” But it was like, no, we said that was going to be it, and now we’re literally gluing things together. It’s like, Annie Hall came together in the editing room. The movie completely transformed and became this love story in the editing room. It’s amazing, when you shoot a surplus of material, and you suddenly find the narrative somewhere where you didn’t expect it to be. That’s kind of how the beauty Vega International Night School came together for me; in the eleventh hour, being like, this is the track configuration, and these are the songs, and these two songs actually go together, so why don’t you glue the verse from this one and the chorus from that one, and it now fits into your whole weird non sequitur collage concept.
Danny: It’s interesting watching your career, and talking about it now, removed. You know, I was so intimate in it, and it’s so interesting to hear about this stuff from that perspective. We had a little falling out; it happens. And when I look back on that, it was so much youth involved at that time.
Alan: Totally, and it’s funny, like, looking back on it now, it’s crazy how everything came together. What an insane series of events.
Danny: It really was. Just kind of like, it blowing up, and then like, we didn’t talk for what, like, a year?
Alan: I think so. But like with any working relationship, when you stop working together in any capacity, it’s like, yeah, we probably needed some time to look at it from a different context, before we could be like, “Okay, let’s be friends again.”
Danny: Yeah. It felt like a breakup. It was a breakup for a period of time -- you know, I’d take long walks, turn on the TV and, “Fucking Alan’s on TV again?” Can’t escape it. There’s a billboard of you, and I’m just like, ugh. But it was good because we then reconnected at...Glasslands.
Alan: Oh, yeah. It’s cool because a lot of those shows are going back and forth between venues.
Danny: I remember talking to Marcus, who’s a mutual friend of ours, and it had been some time since we had spoken. And he was like, “You know what man, I saw Alan, and he was like, ‘I think we need to reconnect.’” And I’ll be honest with you, when we met back up at Glasslands, it was fucking awesome.
Alan: It was like old times, man.
Danny: It was, it was. They had Lonestars. Or Shiners.
Alan: They did. But dude, I absolutely remember that. You’re always going to be an OG homie, Dan.
Danny: I know. But you know what’s funny, is that I never intended to be a manager, or a tour manager. The only thing is that I saw, like, that this is exciting, and this is a way out of Texas. And then it actually happened; then we left. And now, I’m still tour managing. You fucking bastard.
Alan: You know, everything on a long enough timeline becomes a vocation, because you start looking at it from some serious perspective, because it’s like, it’s obviously occupied way more of my time than it being like, “this is just my fun hobby.” It’s a commitment. And obviously, it’s something I feel incredibly passionate about; at least just having some outlet. But you know, the vocational weight of it, it’s always going to be there; anything that you do, whether being on one end of it or the other, there are moments where it’s a long marathon race.