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ALAN PALOMO

Alan Palomorgb

Upon the release of 2009’s Psychic Chasms, the music blogosphere was enthralled by the hallucinogenic soundscapes of Alan Palomo, FKA Neon Indian. Casting missed acid trips, dog-day summers and post-recession ennui through a hypnagogic, faintly unsettling haze, Palomo was at the helm of a sound that would earn the label of chillwave. Coined pejoratively by blog Hipster Runoff, chillwave has nonetheless maintained an outsized influence on the following decade of DIY music, from its sister genre vaporwave to the druggy expanse of Soundcloud rap. By his third record, 2015’s Vega Intl. Night School, Palomo’s smeary hermeticism had been replaced by bright, clean synths reminiscent of Prince at his most pop-leaning. Eight years and one shelved album later, Palomo has released World of Hassle (2023), his first release under his own name and featuring some of his most nuanced songwriting yet. An ode to the anodyne-smooth sounds of 1980s sophisto-pop, the deceptively breezy World of Hassle is haunted by an undertone of encroaching dread. It is a lateral move for an artist who has always understood the jagged edges underpinning the decade’s gaudy sonics.

Interview by Matteo Pini
Portrait by Daniel Everett Patrick

MATTEO PINI World of Hassle had a protracted creation. When did the project start for you?

ALAN PALOMO It came off the back of another record that I had to shelve. In 2017, I started writing what I thought was going to be a fourth Neon Indian album. I concluded after the third record [Vega Intl. Night School] that I had a nice trilogy, and I wanted to stop there. If the project was going to continue, it would have to undergo some major aesthetic overhaul. I got 70% of the way there and didn’t love it, and by the time I got around to trying to complete it, Covid-19 had just started, so I set it aside. Everybody had a Covid-19 pet project, something to do with all this free time, so I bought a piano and I started learning how to sight-read. It completely transformed the way I write music: for the first time, I was programming drums by ear and building out the arrangements from there. It’s such a 1980s male rock cliché to leave your band in your mid-thirties and write a sophisto-pop record: Bryan Ferry is the king of that, Sting had Bring on the Night. I’d always been a big fan of Prefab Sprout and the Blue Nile, but I never really found a lane in which it could work its way into my music. Starting with a piano felt like the perfect time to implement some of those influences.

MP There are a few Leisure Suit Larry-style figures inhabiting this record. Did you have any specific people in mind while you were writing these songs? 

AP There’s definitely a texture to the lyrics that is informed by an attempt at worldbuilding. It’s right there in the title. There’s stuff that’s in the gatefold speaking specifically to the arrogance of the 1980s solo frontman, where I write a pan review of my own record as a New Jersey rock critic. When I was working on the record I was doing some recording at the studio that was in a house that my friend Dan [Lopatin, AKA Oneohtrix Point Never] was renting. He showed me this really incredible documentary with Sting from around the time he’s leaving The Police. He hires Miles Davis’ band to rehearse in some 17th-century chateau outside of Paris. He’s so up his own ass, but it’s also what I love about it. I wanted to explore the idea of this ageing popstar from the Interview magazine days of yore, imagining this glory that’s faded, waiting for the right song to make his comeback. You always write what you know, and to some extent, there are notes of my dad who was a popstar in Mexico in the lyrics. I have a premature fascination with ageing.

 

We’re in the ouroboros of nostalgia closing in on itself

 

MP The title of the album comes from Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, right? 

AP The complete line is, “Unbeknownst to him, he was entering a world of hassle.” It perfectly encapsulates the Pynchonian protagonists who are always at the bottom of some mysterious entity’s joke, trying to make sense of it and feeling like things are slowly spiralling out of their control.

MP You’re now singing a lot more in Spanish. What motivated that change?

AP My brother grew up playing cumbia and he was very versed in that genre. I had an insecurity about my lyrics in Spanish and my approach to it. I was responding to the fact that around 2017, there was this big surge in Latin artists in the indie sphere. It was really refreshing but as a native speaker, I could tell who were the ones that were just peppering in a little Spanish dust for credit. I didn’t want it to be a novelty. I was reading a lot of contemporary Mexican novelists like Fernanda Melchor, and I was trying to get into the headspace of what my lyrical style would be if I were to approach it in Spanish.

MP And as for the name change, did that stem from the same place?

AP The first three records are very textural. For this album, I wanted to sit and sweat the composition and put the voice first. The opportunity for reinvention was too tempting to package it as another Neon Indian album, especially given the rise of indie sleaze and the recent nostalgia for the late 2000s. It would have been a great time just to milk another record that capitalises on the nostalgia of where we were a decade ago, but I wanted to fly in the face of that. 

MP As someone who was at the forefront during that era, how do you feel about the post-hoc celebration and reclamation of those times?

AP I thought when I arrived in 2009 that I had missed that wave: Justice had just happened, Ed Banger had just happened, blog house was slowly waning and on its way out. To get lumped into this nebulous eight-to-nine-year period is a little confusing as somebody who was there. We’re in the ouroboros of nostalgia closing in on itself. I love all that music so I’m glad that a new generation is discovering it, but in the era of the algorithm, it all becomes this soup where there’s not as definitive an account of the linear progress of genre. The one positive I’ll say about the era of streaming is that we’ve entered this post-genre phase where it doesn’t matter what you’re making, it’s more about the quality of it. I like that I’m sitting in my little attic, chipping away at building on the work that I’ve already done, as opposed to falling into the trap of trend-chasing. You’re labouring your vocation, which inevitably requires the recapitulation of everything you already knew, plus the new things that you’re trying to bring back in. 

MP Were there any direct influences of city pop on the record?

AP Big time. One of the biggest influences on the record, and much of the reason why I borrowed a LinnDrum from Mac [DeMarco] was the record Awakening by Hiroshi Sato [1982]. It was not only a really great blueprint in terms of chord changes and songwriting sensibility, but it also has the funkiest LinnDrum programming I’ve ever heard. My favourite Yellow Magic Orchestra record is Naughty Boys [1983] which is their sophisto-pop one. What I always liked about the French and Japanese approach to disco is that they took it to the next level. After having put together the band for my 2015 Vega tour, where my brother played bass, I realised that I had to get people that could speak his language musically, because he was a Berkeley guy. Suddenly, I get a Berkeley piano player and a Berkeley guitar player and I’m the least technically adept person in my band. It was great because every night, we could just be like, “Guys, we’re gonna cover The Style Council’s ‘Long Hot Summer’.” I wrote this record with them in mind: I wanted to make something that would be a musical step up, but that would keep them on their toes once we took it on the road. 

MP You can sense that heightened ambition. I was also interested in the idea that eighties music is often conceptualised as bright, shiny and happy, with lots of Fairlight synths, but at the same time, it possesses an intense undercurrent of anxiety and foreboding. Would you say that’s the case for World of Hassle?

AP  Some of that was the influence of I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen [1988]. He was always seen as a purveyor of doom and gloom, but what I love about I’m Your Man is that suddenly everyone realises he’s had this incredible sense of humour all along. He’s joking about these very drab and sad things, but he nails the punch line. 

World of Hassle

MP It’s been 14 years since Psychic Chasms. How do you view it in retrospect?

AP I still view it very lovingly. Something that I wish I still had from my approach to that record is the lack of self-questioning. They say you have your whole life to make that first record. Once I really found an idea that worked, it was a creative exercise in doing a song a day. I finished that record in less than a month. My brother always says, “You can’t help yourself ten years ago, that guy’s gone, but you can help yourself ten years from now.” Bravo 20-year old Alan, you made a career in the arts. That’s almost impossible to do. ◉