Astute music fans have probably heard of the genre known as chillwave – a blend of 80s synths, psychedelic rock with liberal amounts of distortion – a label bestowed upon acts like Memory Tapes, Toro Y Moi and Nite Jewel. The band most closely associated with that term though is Neon Indian whose debut Psychic Chasms, genre defining or not, is an LP of considerable merit. True the vocals are barely audible, bathed as they are in bleeps, blips and distortion but the disc has also a knack for melody and solid song structures dipping its toes into 70s rock and disco, 80s new wave with healthy sampling of Todd Rundgren to boot. In short it would be great soundtrack for a techno porn film. Tron does Texas perhaps?
Neon Indian main man Alan Palomo, who also goes solo using the VEGA moniker had a chat to Chris Berkley recently in London about the c-word, the beginnings of the Psychic Chasms, Yacht remixes, his collaborations with Australian dance merchants Miami Horror, he forthcoming Australian tour for the Texan group and basically how he loves to mess with people’s heads.
Are you a bit road weary by now with Neon Indian or are you taking it all in your stride?
I think stride is definitely one word for it! I think the fact that we’ve all performed the songs so much, literally there’s a point where at least the recording of “Deadbeat Summer” has kind of become like a white noise to me. Might as well be elevator music.
Do you do that thing sometimes where you can’t remember singing some songs in a set now?
Yeah, or just literally it’s almost in order to keep it interesting for me my brain tricks me into thinking that I might not know the lyrics. It’s so funny, we reach this point at some certain show or peak where it was kind of like we knew the material well enough so that we could start trying to deviate from it in fun and interesting ways
The sound of Neon Indian must have changed, performing them out, especially from the way they initially existed on Psychic Chasms. That record is almost a year old now and I presume that, when you are making those songs, it was pretty much on your own in your bedroom with no concept of ever having to play them live; is that the way the album was created?
Absolutely. It’s funny that particular place in time I think the least thing I had any expectation in my life was Neon Indian. It was kind of more of this creative outburst and it definitely felt like the most honest and transparent thing because of that. I wasn’t trying to tap into some kind of community that was already there.
Were you that kid that grew up making home recordings? Is that how you got into doing music, were you whiling away in your bedroom making music you didn’t necessarily know other people were going to hear?
A little bit, yeah. I think that eventually happened in high school, but before that I always tried to do a little tangible, a staple of creativity for that particular month or year or whatever. I was always trying to create something but it was very interesting because Psychic Chasms was the first real fully actualised concept that was full enough to be able to actually perform or to really be like a statement or a narrative that somebody could follow. Anything before that was just little three and a half minute instances or ideas.
As these songs have sort of taken on a life of their own as you’ve been doing them live were you ever kind of worried that the low-fi or cassette quality nature of some of the songs on Psychic Chasms might have been part of its charm or identity. Were you worried that the songs would lose something the more you performed them out live and the way that they kept evolving?
Well, I almost kind of felt that the approach would be to try to detach myself as much from the recordings as possible just so that it could be a new and completely palatable experience for someone who might have never even heard the recordings. I could have gone up there and tried to replicate all these tape sounds but it would just sound really shitty for lack of a better word. You know, coming out of PA speakers at a festival somewhere,
Does that mean you have backing tapes of tape hiss just waiting to play?
(laughs) That was one of the first ideas. I actually I remember Ariel Pink the first time I caught him he was just performing with a cassette player and a microphone which definitely has it’s charms as well, but I was looking for more of an experience because either way, what are people really looking for when they think about a cassette recording? It’s always associated with a certain time and a place and for me I’d rather create that time and a place in a real actual environment for someone and create that intimate experience that they can look back on as that sort of muddled, degraded experience through memory.
If you’re playing at some of these festivals, a lot of your fans are going to be in a muddled state anyway so they’re not going to remember.
Absolutely and that’s kind of been the other aspect of it, is to bombard them with as much psychedelics as humanly possible! (laughs)
Was a lot of that stuff on the album deliberate? I mean the distortions on the track like “Mind Drips”’, were you conscious of putting that on the record? Or was that just the way as a happy accident they turned out?
I was definitely conscious of the medium to a certain extent, but a lot of the little eccentricities and “happy accidents” for lack of a better expression were definitely just a result of being able to tinker with something. It was more the fact that I’d already had all these failed attempts to execute these ideas in projects like VEGA or Ghosthustler and it was just like “man, this is way too weird”. I mean it would not make sense in the context of the song and I guess seeing as how I’d tried to execute them so many times before it almost seemed natural for it to just occur. And literally whatever would happen would be the results that I wanted anyway, you know? I kind of wanted to be surprised a little bit at what I was capable of in that sort of environment.
So inversely what you’re saying is that the harder you tried to not make it commercial has been the biggest successful commercial things you’ve ever done.
Ironically enough, yes!
Strangely enough as well, with that kind of success that I guess has been the burden of apparently inadvertently creating a genre which is the dreaded c-word, not that c-word but the chillwave word. Have you found that much of an albatross the last twelve months to have people band that phrase around?
I think initially. When I was first trying to very consciously create an aesthetic, a fully actualised one for people with visuals and other things that they could associate outside of just the recordings, it might have seemed maybe mildly threatening at first because it wasn’t something that I had a hand in. I mean it’s such a cheesy word! At least these days it’s really hard for me to really dwell on it, especially now that I already have a lot of recordings for the next album and how it’s not necessarily full departure from low-fi recordings but definitely has a little bit more dynamic. I don’t know, at the end of the day it’s just a two syllable statement that some snarky blogger put together.
Because it seems like some of your contemporaries like Toro Y Moi, the new stuff he’s done is more band type recordings. So are you conscious of moving on from it ?
I think that wanting to make a statement that would be a complete reaction against it would be just as childish as continuing it for the sake of being chillwave. I think as far as chillwave is concerned I’ve never seen a genre that has been approached with so much apprehension but at the same time wanting to expose it as much as possible. It’s like I’ve never seen so many articles that kind of use it in scare quotes yet try to inform you about it, it’s odd. It’s like it never really found its footing but that’s why people are referencing it so much. We’ll see, maybe more ‘coldwave’ than ‘chillwave’, or ‘frostwave’!
Well you’re breaking down some other genre barriers as well, especially in Australia because since you’ve been there the Miami Horror album has just come out, and you were all over this thing; three tracks that you’ve done. So tell us about this secret history that you had with Ben, which has finally been revealed down there.
Totally, well you know what’s funny is that I remember the final last little touches of Psychic Chasms, in fact the title track “Psychic Chasms” which was the last thing I had to do to finish the record were finished at Ben’s place. Back then VEGA was more of my focus and I was really just waiting to see what would happen with Neon Indian and I went to Melbourne and I spent a while month there in June of last summer and we pretty much just hashed out a couple of ideas that he had already sort of made instrumentals for and I lent my vocals and “Soft Light” was the only one that was a little bit more of a collaborative type track as far as the arrangements and the vocals, but it was pretty fascinating that it’s barely coming out now, and within this time the VEGA EP has come out, Psychic Chasms has come out….
We work slow in Australia, it’s pretty laid back. It almost makes you look opportunistic when in actual fact you guys were buddies from so long ago.
Absolutely, I’m just glad that those tracks have finally seen the light of day. It kind of reminds people that there was content before chillwave and maybe it already starts putting people in that mind frame of what’s to come with the VEGA record and with the next Neon Indian record as well.
Well you also are, I guess, re-contextualising a lot of the songs off Psychic Chasms because you just had a whole load of remixes done, including the Yacht reworking of “Terminally Chill”.
I finally got a chance to meet them in Copenhagen just a few days ago and it’s funny how, you’ll notice in the song that they kind of reinvent the lyrics in their own sort of strange ways and hearing about how they recorded it was like “Yeah it was a sick day, we were somewhere in….”, in fact I think it might have been in London in a hotel room. So it was kind of cool knowing the back story that this was like their chicken soup, covering “Terminally Chill”!
Interview broadcast on Static on 14/10/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).