Neon Indian on Mexico’s Love for Morrissey and Breaking Free of Chillwave

Photo by Ben Rayner

Alan Palomo, who is best known as Neon Indian, didn’t always think he was going to end up being a musician. Despite growing up in a household with Mexican pop star Jorge Palomo as a father, his main interest was cinema. While in film school, he discovered a passion for music and decided to drop out in order to pursue his career. The rest is history.

After taking a four-year break from releasing new music, he made his long-awaited return last year with VEGA Intl. Night School, which references Palomo’s pre-Neon Indian project VEGA. That album shifted from his chillwave beginnings and experimented with cumbia, 80s pop, disco, and even reggae. Neon Indian’s music may not read as traditionally Latin, yet his Mexican roots come out subtly in his new album, especially in songs like “61 Cygni Ave.” He grew up in Texas and was mostly influenced by American and English bands, yet he remains in touch with his Mexican roots.

These days, Palomo is focusing more on doing his own thing rather than depending on the formula that indie artists follow. This doesn’t apply just to his music, but also his production style. Instead of following the routine of releasing an album, heading on lengthy tours in support of the LP, and toiling away in the studio to quickly record an album to appeal to the masses, he prefers to focus his energy on making sure the final product fully represents his vision. His dedication to perfecting his work shows off, as VEGA INTL. Night School garnered critical acclaim and favorable responses from fans who have been following his music since his debut album Psychic Chasms.

Now that the album’s out, instead of planning a new record, he’s focusing on going back to his cinematic roots. Before starting his new film work, he’s heading on tour, including the Dominican Republic’s new music festival Isle of Light. It’ll be his first time on the island, playing for fans who have been eagerly awaiting his performance.

We sat down with Palomo to talk about VEGA INTL. Night School, the Monterrey music scene, and Isle of Light.

You’ve talked extensively about having a father that was a pop star in the 80s, and “Annie” has a little cumbia vibe to it. How have Mexican genres have influenced your sound, if they have at all?
When I set out to work on the project as Neon Indian, I guess my Latin upbringing hadn’t really come to mind in terms of influence, only because for me the aesthetic and energy didn’t need to necessarily represent my ethnicity, more so just represent myself as a songwriter. I think as time went on, and with the influences that my brother and I were sort of starting to explore – which definitely went a little more Balearic, more emphasis on the upbeat – I guess it could catch on to quite a few different genres, whether it be reggae or calypso or absolutely cumbia or Tejano. I guess it sounds like a funny irony, but we were starting to tap into the things we might not have really internalized when we were young, but that we definitely grew up around.

You’ve mentioned before that where you were born in Monterrey, there was a larger audience for synth music. Could you speak a little bit about artists from Monterrey specifically who have inspired you?
As far as inspiration goes, I draw influence from a lot of things. I’m a pretty avid record collector, but I would say it didn’t initially click. When we [Alan and brother/Neon Indian bassist Jorge Palomo] were coming back with something like “61 Cygni Ave” – it sounded a little like Maná on acid. We understand the concept of that music, in terms of its Caribbean influences, but I’m more inspired by what’s happening in Mexico as a whole, just in terms of the kind of people you might find in Mexico City, like NAAFI, or some Mexican-represented artists that you might find on a label like Cómeme, or even the kind of collectives that are popping up like NRMAL in my hometown of Monterrey.

“’61 Cygni Ave’ sounded a little like Maná on acid.”

A long time ago, you talked about reading a book called Transparency of Evil by Jean Baudrillard. In that interview, you talked about how art is becoming this speculation-based currency, and to proliferate art it has to reference itself faster and faster. You made an analogy with that idea in terms of the way the media has characterized your music, and how you’ve been beholden to the whole chillwave movement. Now that you have distance from that, do you feel free from that label? Or do you feel that there are still expectations for your music?
You can’t account for the stupidity of the Internet [laughs]. There’s always some blanket term for electronic music. If it was chillwave five years ago, it’s vaporwave now. I don’t even know what the fuck vaporwave is. It just continues to evolve. I’ve had more hang-ups at the beginning, wanting that control over a narrative because I felt a little bit miscategorized. You can’t control those things, and if it helps somebody organize their iTunes better, then I guess that’s what it’s there for.

You’re playing Isle of Light on March 5. Do you have any expectations for Latin American audiences when you play there?
It’s unbridled enthusiasm; it’s the one constant. The other week, I was talking to my friends about why Morrissey has such a huge following in Mexico. I was trying to theorize about it and the closest thing I could come up with is that in some ways, he invented the troubadour in the traditional sense of the word. He’s a very dramatic performer; his songs are typically anecdotal. There’s always a story line to them. There’s a symbiotic relationship with Mexican audiences. If you bring the drama, they will return it in kind. That’s what kind of makes it my favorite market to play. Everytime we play in Mexico, people lose their shit, and it’s really fun to do. It’ll be fun to do that at this festival.

“You can’t account for the stupidity of the Internet.”

You’ve also talked about how going to film school has influenced your approach to making music. Do you have any film projects you’re working on right now?
I’m actually scoring a friend’s science fiction feature, which is really dope. Obviously, there’s a tremendous time commitment. As much as I would love to hit the ground running with films, right now I’m trying to figure out exactly where in the year I could do it. But I would love to make two short films. That’s my goal this year.

Are you focusing more on film projects than your music right now?
I think so. I mean the last album took four years to make. It’s a pretty tall order.

Can you speak a little bit about that gap between the two albums?
The way the music industry works now, the band is expected to write a record, tour for 15 months, and go into the studio in six months and do it all over again. At some point it just occurred to me that I don’t want to spend my twenties doing that. It’s just not interesting to me. I like performing live, but I’m more so a studio rat by nature. I want to be working on stuff instead of traveling. So I think on a long enough timeline, it can get a little bit grating. You realize, once you start doing music for a living…just how little music you actually get to make, because the moment you finish something, you’re just expected to just go present it in front of people for the next year. If I put out another record out now, that’s like, another two years of touring. I only want to do it when I’m ready for that kind of commitment.

Do you feel like this is the end of an era for Neon Indian? Or do you see more projects in the future?
There’s a good little trilogy in there as far as what I was trying to say aesthetically when I started the project. Should it continue to be on this coin, it’s definitely going to require some aesthetic overhaul in order to remain interesting to me, otherwise…you’re writing music just to pay the rent.

Additional reporting by Isabelia Herrera