It’s a blazing August afternoon at Fuck Yeah Fest in Los Angeles, and for the first time in three years, Alan Palomo is about to play an American stage as Neon Indian. Dressed in a black-and-white suit that summons both David Lynch and Thin White Duke–era Bowie, Palomo prowls around behind the festival’s main stage, restless energy at full tilt. He takes a moment to confer with his brother and bassist, Jorge Palomo. A manager comes over and gives the signal. The Palomos nod to each other, and then make for the stage.
The performance will be something of a watershed for the 27-year-old songwriter and synthpop impresario. For anyone with even a passing interest in indie music, Neon Indian’s 2009 debut, Psychic Chasms, was a polarizing, nearly inescapable point of context that is still vigorously debated today. But this afternoon’s setlist is almost entirely made up of songs culled from his new record, VEGA INTL. Night School, out October 16 via Mom + Pop/Transgressive. It’s the first Neon Indian record in four years, and, aside from DJ’ing and some video game soundtrack work, Palomo has kept a low public profile. Today will be a test of the attention span of the blogosphere and hit-thirsty festival audiences.
The moment Neon Indian takes the stage, it’s clear the gamble has paid off. Years of absence vanish behind thwacking synth lines and disco dance moves, as Palomo smashes into Night School’s lead single, “Annie.” “I forgot how much I missed doing this,” Palomo tells the crowd as applause breaks over him.
Nearly two months later, Palomo is sitting down for dinner at his modest Greenpoint apartment, the same one on whose steps he infamously lost a laptop containing an album’s worth of songs after a particularly debauched evening. Tonight is tame: He has to play Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in the morning, and has prepped for the taping by spending the evening in a sensory-deprivation tank. Palomo’s eyes, already large and animated, widen to owlish proportions when discussing his new work. Much of the creative marketing for Night School is pulled from his own ideas, like a hotline (512-643-VEGA) that texts his latest single to your smartphone.
He’s just returned from Los Angeles, where he co-directed his first music video, titled “Slumlord Rising.” He put up five grand of his own cash for the video so he could have it budgeted to his vision. The four-year process of birthing Night School has carried that same idiosyncratic dedication. “I really wanted to make something that warranted its own existence,” says Palomo. “I didn’t want to make something that felt like what I had to do.”
Palomo was born in Mexico, but moved to the small North Texas city of Denton at age six. His father was a pop singer in Mexico, a guy Palomo describes as a “man’s-man Latino father figure.” Asked if he feels any obligation to make music because his father did, Palomo answers, “No, because I don’t think he had any obligation to be anything to his father. His father was a union leader in Mexico. At the same time, you can’t brandish anything as interesting as a guitar around the household without thinking some sort of influence [will] take hold.”
Palomo remembers his father’s profession fondly, saying, “Now, thinking about those times when he comes home in a suit late at night, with his guitar slung around his back, it’s hard not to imagine someone like Ben Gazzara or characters you’d see in a John Cassavetes movie.” Palomo often speaks in allusions to film. He plans to transition into directing features after this album cycle, and bristles with an almost professorial energy when discussing flicks. Bring up After Hours, Boogie Nights, or Terrence Malick and you’ll end up talking for hours.
After moving from Denton to Austin in 2007, Palomo enrolled in college, but school didn’t suit him at the time. He started bands like Ghosthustler and VEGA, the later of which still enjoys a cult following. “I would go to class just to use the Wi-Fi to check emails about South by Southwest,” he says. Shortly after starting Neon Indian, Palomo called his father to tell him he was dropping out of college to pursue music. “I remember him telling me, ‘You have my approval to do this,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘But don’t make a liar out of me. I’m trusting you to pursue this as vocation as you would anything else.’ ” Palomo says he felt a desire to do right by his parents, not out of some desire for paternal placation, but because of a responsibility toward their hard-won immigrant experience. “I realize it’s a really unhip thing to admit you care about your family, but the reason why I feel no shame in expressing that desire to make my parents proud is that when I came to this country initially, I was totally illegal for a few months,” he says, gaining a sudden intensity. “I didn’t earn my citizenship until high school. So when I left my college education to pursue this lofty thing, there was an element of, ‘We didn’t come to this country for you not to go to college.’ ”
Within months of dropping out, Palomo released Psychic Chasms. A record his dad cut in the Eighties was sampled on two of the tracks. Accolades immediately began to accrue: Best New Music on Pitchfork; an invitation to play Coachella; blogs clamoring for any snippet they might glean.
Of course, with popularity came detractors who said that this “chillwave” fad would be gone as quickly as it began. But Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan got it right when he wrote that the album was “eight or nine unforgettable songs and a few tantalizingly brief interludes, indelibly capturing the glamor and bleary malaise of being young and horny as an empire devours itself.”
College kids, music junkies, and self-respecting hipsters alike couldn’t wait for a follow-up. That work, 2011’s Era Extraña, yielded perhaps his most popular song, “Polish Girl,” but Palomo says he was only 70 percent happy with it. After releasing two records by the age of 23, he needed time to decompress from the dreamlike reality his life had taken on.
He DJ’d, scored films, spent time with friends and Jorge. When Palomo began intensive work on Night School, Jorge had signed a six-month contract to be the bassist of a cruise ship’s house band. The only way they could record together was if Palomo booked a couple of consecutive cruises, brought along an engineer, and set up camp in one of the cabins. He got seasick often and was told to either take medication or “just get drunk like everyone does.” The latter option seemed more appealing, so a bottle of Don Julio tequila was a ubiquitous presence during the recordings. “Imagine a scenario where we are in this confined space, rocking back and forth, I’m trying to make judgment calls about shit, equal parts nauseous, equal parts drunk.”
It would take a return to Brooklyn and various other sabbaticals to properly finish Night School. The result of Palomo’s marathon effort is a gorgeous, expansive record. Besides the fact that they are utterly danceable, the fourteen tracks are full of clever moments, like the one on “Smut!” where after the lyric “night school” a Spicoli-esque voice cuts through the synths and observes, “Hey, that’s the name of the record, man.” Palomo has said he wanted Night School to sound like a singles collection for a band that doesn’t exist. That’s spot on, but perhaps it’s a singles collection of what Neon Indian would have been had Palomo been interested in continuing the project for another decade. Palomo has done what he does best: synthesized the past and summoned his vision of the future in a way that feels entirely unlike anything else your ears might encounter. By canonizing a career that never existed, he has conjured one that is just beginning.
Neon Indian plays Webster Hall on October 14. VEGA INTL. Night School will be released October 16 via Mom + Pop/Transgressive Records.