An Interview With Alan Palomo , International Man of Mystery

Miguel Otárola speaks to the electronic producer originally behind Neon Indian about his new album World of Hassle, the organic process of making a Spanish record with Mac Demarco, hunting for new...
By    September 18, 2023

Image via Daniel Everett Patrick

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Miguel Otárola says that living a less carbon-intensive life sometimes just means staying home and watching a movie.

How does an artist whose name has become synonymous with a sound and genre of yesteryear break out of its confines?

If you’re Alan Palomo, the electronic pop artist formerly known as Neon Indian, you start by ditching your original moniker. You work on improving your musical chops and lyrics. You read contemporary Mexican novels. You grow a mustache.

Then you take everything you’ve learned over the last eight years and sculpt it into a shimmering, standalone record. For Palomo, that album is World of Hassle, his first under his given name and a masterful re-introduction to the indie-sphere.

World of Hassle arrives 14 years after Palomo’s first record as Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms, defined the warped, sun-bleached electronics of what we fondly recall as chillwave. Between the hits “Deadbeat Summer” and “Should’ve Taken Acid With You” is an album crackling with analog synths, Doobie Brothers samples and thick, strutting funk grooves. Palomo wasn’t just presenting an aesthetic — there was a beating heart and a pulse behind these songs.

Chillwave’s moment was short but curious, and Palomo continued to explore the micro-genre’s possibilities in 2011’s Era Extraña. Four years later, he followed it with VEGA Intl. Night School. Here, Palomo expanded his musical range into reggae (“Annie”) and disco (“Slumlord”), and sang in a kinky falsetto that reinvigorated his trademark synth-pop (“The Glitzy Hive”, “Dear Skorpio Magazine”).

Palomo attempted to follow up VEGA Intl. with a fourth Neon Indian album, cutting it between tour stops before ultimately scrapping the record. No longer the fresh-faced kid who started Neon Indian, the decision led him to refocus his artistic career. In 2019, Palomo released “Toyota Man”, a cumbia-influenced track about his family’s move across the border to Texas. Singing in Spanish about an experience both personal and universal, the track was a peek at what was to come.

“Some would say that the last eight years have been a break,” Palomo told me over Zoom during an interview about his career earlier in September. It’s difficult to believe that given how detailed and cohesive World of Hassle is. Released under his government name, World of Hassle emulates the synth-pop and city pop that spanned the globe during the 80s, including in Palomo’s native Mexico. Donning an oversized blazer and a mischievous grin, he embodies the persona of a globe-trotting ladies’ man whose only real companion is the sax player that blares solos between his verses.

Palomo’s no stranger to this swanky lifestyle; his father, Jorge, was a nightclub singer in Mexico with a “closet full of suits that smelled like cigarettes,” he said. World of Hassle standout “La Madrileña” once again features the younger Palomo writing and singing in Spanish.

“I thought a lot about Luis Miguel,” Palomo said from his Los Angeles living room. The chart-topping Mexican pop singer “was definitely someone I grew up listening to with my family, and he was kind of known as this importer of funk into Mexico and the Latin American world.”

This sensuality is something Palomo flirted with on VEGA Intl., and World of Hassle sounds like the product of a meticulous producer wringing every drop of emotion out of his instruments. Perhaps this is why his collaboration with Mac Demarco on “Nudista Mundial ’89” works so well. Both are studio obsessives with an ear for pop songwriting and eye for cheeky characters. Of all the songs on World of Hassle, this is the one most likely to remind listeners of the chillwave days of yore.

During our interview, Palomo said he’s working on an EP to follow World of Hassle next summer. He also told me why he thinks a reissue of Psychic Chasms is long overdue. Our condensed conversation is below.

I heard [World of Hassle] and I hear all these different influences that are coming into it. You’re singing in Spanish, you have Mac Demarco singing in Spanish at some points. How did you manage to put all these international influences together into one record?

Alan Palomo: It’s kind of a reflection of my general practice as a DJ. In between records, it’s not only what keeps me afloat, but on top of that, it’s kind of a necessity in the creative process because it keeps me in this place where I’m voraciously always hunting for new music. I kind of go down these rabbit holes on this record. There’s definitely some Sophisti-pop stuff and some city pop-type chord changes and things like that. During the pandemic, I think like a lot of my friends, I was just trying to buy happiness on Discogs and buying up all these French disco records. It inevitably just makes its way into the work.

As far as the Mac collaboration goes, I mean, that was something that was just more organic, spur-of-the-moment. I was looking for a Yamaha CP70. I own one now, but at the time I was trying to record on one. My keyboard player Drew told me Mac has one. So I texted him, and he wound up engineering a week-long session with us and refused to be paid, which was kind of insane. He was a very generous dude with his time and his talent.

How do you feel your two different musical backgrounds and your styles sort of came together?

Alan Palomo: Well, it was just a real “Chico and the Gringo” kind of vibe. I imagine the Mexican guy and the gringo going to Spain and Ibiza. I came up with these very hammy, Jimmy Buffett-style verse lyrics for him — the dos cervezas, for favor [line].

As far as the international components of the album, I wanted to start expanding the palette of what I haven’t done yet. They’ve heard you make synth records. What haven’t they heard you do? This time around it was very much more songwriting focused. The vocals have never been front and center, and with that comes a responsibility to write some lyrics that are worthy of singing. Having the ability to sing in Spanish but not having really fully explored it outside of just a single, that was something that I was definitely hellbent on.

You grew up in a Mexican family. Was this kind of music that you’re so in love with and doing on this record something that you remember growing up with?

Alan Palomo: To some extent, yeah. I’ll put it to you this way: I noticed there was a wave in 2017 of a lot of Latin artists in the indie-sphere. I could tell as a native Spanish speaker who were the ones that were expressing themselves in their native tongue and who were the ones that were just kind of peppering a little bit of Spanish in there for cred and sauce. And I just knew for myself, I didn’t want it to be a novelty.

I decided I would wait until there would be another record to really find a lyrical lane. The one thing about “Toyota Man,” which was my first single in Spanish, is that I felt like it really connected with Chicanos and Latinos in the US because it’s a song about that journey. But then on the other side of it, in Mexico, they might get it, but it might not necessarily be for them in that regard where they might not connect with it the same way.

With this record, I wanted to do stuff that would pop off anywhere in Latin America, in the sense that this is just a fun song in Spanish. Part of that for me was also just getting comfortable enough with writing lyrics. The way I combated that was just reading contemporary Mexican novelists. I read some Fernanda Melchor and this guy Yuri Herrera. Some classics too, just to get my brain loosened up.

You mentioned earlier on Instagram the reasons why you wanted to move beyond the Neon Indian name and go into releasing a record under your own name. You mentioned that you’re not the same person that you were when you first started recording with the name Neon Indian. What are some of the biggest changes in your life in these last however many years that you’ve been making music?

Alan Palomo: Oh, man, that’s a really great question. There’s certain pragmatic things that just come with adulthood. I got an early start. My first band, I started when I was 18, and we were lucky enough to get a Pitchfork writeup. So there was always this kind of conversation even before Neon Indian, but there was the possibility that it could be upstream and that you could potentially make enough of a splash to then make a living off of it. The fact that I did was something that was such a shock that I kind of accomplished a lot of what I had wanted to accomplish in music, really just within that initial seven-year run of Neon Indian between Psychic Chasms and Era Extraña and VEGA Intl. Suddenly you’re like, Oh, f*ck. In ten years, I’ll be in my forties. It becomes a different conversation about how you want to represent yourself.

The best way I could describe it is that when you first start out — and so many electronic producer friends have this, people I’ve met along the way — where they get a little bit of luck, they get some nice write-ups, they start getting some press, and they look at what they do as this gift that they don’t want to tarnish. It’s like, No, no, no. I don’t want to learn any more about music. I don’t know what I’m doing. That’s the whole point.

I remember I dated somebody that made that point to me. She had grown up doing ballet, and I was like, “You should take this as serious as you did that back then.” This is a profession. It’s a vocation. Eventually, you will get to a point where that novelty of I don’t know what I’m doing wears off and you just start going stale. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in a place where your hands can’t keep up with your ideas. The only way to bridge that disparity is to, sorry, become a musician. That was kind of a hard lesson that I had to learn.

I’ve always loved the Magnetic Fields and lyricists that tell you these contained stories. The Clientele, that’s another great band that has great lyrics. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man era, was a huge influence on this record. Just a sardonic, Jewish zaddy. He’s 50 years old, he’s wearing black suits, and he’s kind of doing everything tongue in cheek. I’m just like, that’s where I want to be.

I feel like you were headed in this direction in the previous record. I think VEGA Intl. does remind me of a sort of prequel to what you’re doing now.

Alan Palomo: It’s funny: That record ends with “News from the Sun”, and that’s the song that would probably fit the most on this album. I remember thinking at the time, This is a good way to end it, because I feel like this is maybe a sign of things to come.

It’s almost been 15 years since Psychic Chasms came out. Have you revisited that record? How would you look back on it?

Alan Palomo: I mean, I love that record. Ironically, this would’ve been a perfect time to put out a Neon Indian album because of “indie sleaze” and the late ’00s nostalgia that we’re kind of prematurely walking into. But it also, for that very reason, feels like a perfect opportunity to walk away from it or fly in the face of it. I don’t have any ill feelings about any music I’ve done. I think maybe there was only one — there was a single that I had done for Mountain Dew or something.

I think that Psychic Chasms — I mean, you have your whole life to write that first record. It happened in a month. It was this fluke. It was a creative exercise where I didn’t think about it too hard. The goal was literally to write a song every day for this whole month. But I was also working with samples. I was working with that kind of cocky, beginner’s luck hubris that sometimes makes its way into those first records, where there’s no wrong way to do it, so you’re just letting it fly. I look back on that record very fondly. My only regret is that I don’t have a copy of it, because I gave all my extra copies to friends who would ask for one. Then I suddenly realized I didn’t have one.

When is the reissue happening?

Alan Palomo: I’ve been talking to the label about that. It’s funny. An original Lefse [Records] copy, they go for like, 150 bucks on Discogs. I’ve thought about just buying one.

I think about the word “squelchy” from Psychic Chasms to now with “Nudista Mundial,” which has the squelchiest synth I’ve ever heard in my life.

Alan Palomo: I’m a squelch connoisseur. I’m searching the world for the squelchiest of sounds. I imagine them like tomatoes on a vine. You’re like, No, it’s not quite right yet. Then you find the right resonance and right filter type.

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