Near the end of “Slumlord,” the second single from Neon Indian’s third LP, VEGA INTL. Night School, the song’s whirling, hypnotic synth line fades away, drowned out by the sound of applause. A club announcer roars at the crowd. A party is taking place, “sometime in 1992, somewhere in Italy,” says Alan Palomo, the band’s 27-year-old frontman and creative force, who’s sitting in his tour van. He and the rest of Neon Indian’s touring band are riding to San Antonio from Austin between a small slate of pre-album release shows. I joined the band in Austin the day before, right as they were setting up to play at J. Lorraine Ghost Town, a kitschy Old West tourist attraction 30 minutes from the city. It was Palomo’s first Austin show in three years, promoting what will be his first album in four years.
“To this day, because I don’t speak Italian, I only have a vague grasp on what he’s talking about. I really hope it’s not anything awful,” Palomo says, laughing. “But whatever that party was, I’d rather exoticize it and make it feel like a mystery to me. Like, ‘What is that party?’ I’d say wherever it happened, that’s where the record happens.”
These sorts of scenes exist all over Night School, a turbulent, funky, and eminently danceable record that is one of the year’s best. In it Palomo sings about the nocturnal inhabitants of a neon-lit New York—or something closely resembling the city at night, alive with color and possibility. Occasionally, it plays something like a Dashiell Hammett story, where the narrative is activated by eyes, hearsay, and implication. He finds “those little moments of satisfaction where you actually find reciprocation” with someone, along with “all the shit in between.” It isn’t a romantic album, per se; rather, it focuses on people who desperately want to find romance, all set to the tune of 1980s funk, italo-disco, acid house, latin cumbia, blue-eyed soul, and more. It’s a studied, intricately composed, highly referential piece of work; not precisely collage, but certainly complicated, and never a cookie-cutter reproduction of synth-pop’s rich, endlessly playable riffs that are so often dulled down to flat, predictable artifice.
Night School’s elaborate, filmic details aren’t a new development for Palomo. Since his debut album as Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms, he has blended sounds and samples together with vivid, picturesque capability. He’s a former film student and a lifelong movie junkie, an inclination he received from his mother, a former Telemundo news anchor in San Antonio. Palomo remembers her suggesting that he watch Stanley Kubrick after the celebrated filmmaker passed away in 1999. So as an 11-year-old, Palomo devoured Kubrick’s oeuvre on Cinemax, where a retrospective of his work was airing. As a self-professed “culture vacuum” Palomo has never suffered from an anxiety of influence, but Night School is his first record where his head seems to explode out at you. It’s unquestionably his most realized and accomplished effort to date.
“I just completely lost
And it almost never happened. After releasing his second LP, Era Extraña, in 2011 Palomo had set out to make an album under his VEGA moniker, the name he had used for 2009’s Well Known Pleasures EP, a house and disco-oriented record that sounds spit-shined and polished compared to his dense, hazier releases as Neon Indian. Alas, his laptop, which contained the early makings of the next VEGA record, was stolen one night in May 2012 after Palomo drunkenly passed out on his Greenpoint stoop.
Palomo didn’t start writing Night School until the following spring. Even then, it took another year for the album to fully take shape. He’s been busy between now and Extraña, away from the album cycle out of necessity. Dark and “about as goth-y as it gets,” Extraña was a departure from the warm, kaleidoscopic appeal of Psychic Chasms. While Chasms sounded and felt like a goofy, summer daytrip, Extraña was smothering, isolated, and heartbroken. Written and recorded in Helsinki, Finland, the album was Palomo’s studio debut, the first record he made as a part of what he now refers to as the “machine,” the churning, factory-like apparatus of the modern music industry. He still loves Extraña, but its conception was markedly different from anything he’d recorded up to that point, and what he has now produced with Night School.
“It was made very Led Zeppelin II-style. You know, kind of, like, written in hotel rooms, in between tours. I was trying to juggle the perpetuation of this new machine that I was now responsible for maintaining, while also trying to be creative. To go from this one place, and just making music for yourself with no expectation, to now having a team that kind of assembled itself around you and that you now have to vouch for, it definitely kind of fucked with my head a bit,” he recalls. “I feel like it’s more indicative of where the music industry’s at now. You write the record, you tour for 18 months, and then you take six months to write the next one, and do it all over again. I just didn’t want to feel like a horse to bet on.”
Worn down by the stress, and the cold, dark Helsinki winter, he admits, “I just completely lost my mind.” The popularity of tracks like “Polish Girl” and “Hex Girlfriend” helped the album land at no. 74 on the Billboard Top 200. Still, after the album was released and a 42-date tour had ended, Palomo knew that he needed a break.
He wrote a screenplay. He scored films. He appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. He delivered a TEDx Talk titled “Auteurs in the Ether.” He even went on a cruise where his brother, Jorge, was playing for the boat’s house band. While Alan fought seasickness, the two of them spent a week working on “Slumlord” and the beginnings of Night School’s first single, “Annie,” along with more material that didn’t make the final cut. In all, Jorge is credited for performing on five of Night School's tracks, and co-writing four of them. Their cruise-ship recording sessions were fruitful, among other things.
“They tell you, you can either take the seasickness pills, which have their own onset of side effects, or you can get fucking wasted, which is what a lot people do,” says Palomo. “So my brother would just buy a bottle of Don [Julio] tequila from the duty-free shop, ’cause he had the employee discount, and we would just get pretty lit and try to work on the songs. So if you can imagine, I’m super sloppy trying to coach performances while the boat is rocking. I’m trying to listen while, also, like, not vomit. It was kind of all over the place, but it was a complete blast at the same time.”
Oh, and the buffet, Palomo says, was curated by Guy Fieri.
But, perhaps most important, Palomo returned to DJing, a passion of his that he frames as a sort of jump-starter for his musical impulses. In part, it’s where Night School’s non-sequitur, referential nature sprouts from, a record better heard as a set than as 14 tightly wound, individual songs. With that mindset, Palomo felt freed to make something looser, funnier, more energetic. “Even if it’s not something you have in the lyrics, a song can be about something, and the record as a whole can tell it as part of a larger story,” he says. “I really wanted to create my own grotesque, cartoonish reimagining of what my time in New York has been. And if I couldn’t do it in film, then I could do it in music. There was the intent to create some kind of universe.”
“I really wanted to create my own grotesque, cartoonish reimagining of what my time in New York has been. There was the intent to create some kind of universe.”
Night School’s universe is self-aware, scattershot, and enmeshed in the language of popular culture. It takes the character of pop music and places it in a funhouse, distorting it, reflecting upon it, seeing it from many different angles. You’ll inevitably hear Ariel Pink in it, along with Prince, Hall and Oates, Kraftwerk, and a slew of other influences, some of whom you don’t even know you’re hearing. When I ask Palomo whom he had been listening to while he was making the album, he mentions Yellow Magic Orchestra, Willie Colón, Tito Puente, J. Dilla, the Avalanches, the Parliament, Nu Shooz, and throws in Martin Scorsese's After Hours and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. And this isn’t even the half of it. Palomo’s knowledge of music and film is so encyclopedic that I get the sense he’s merely listing what he can remember off the top of his head.
“It’s funny because that’s kind of when I’m happiest is, like, just being a culture vacuum, watching movies and listening to music obsessively,” he says. “So, by reconnecting with that, I’m almost kind of glad the laptop disappeared, because I don’t necessarily think I would have had the skill set then, or inspiration, to actually follow through with the record that I made.”
Palomo has always been upfront about his limitations with music. He comes from a musical family. His father, Jorge, was a Mexican pop star in the late ’70s and early ’80s, while his brother did a stint at Berklee. But his own approach was far less studied, having birthed his first project, Ghost Hustler—then VEGA and eventually Neon Indian—out of frustration with his film school’s strict, methodical track. As a student at North Texas, he was prohibited from touching any filmmaking equipment until his junior year, so in the meantime, he decided to make music on his computer. Since then, he’s always learned about music on the fly, experimenting with new equipment from record to record. After using microloops to record much of Chasms, he used a modified Commodore 64, a Voyager 8, and a Korg MS-20 on Extraña. On Night School, he credits a Korg PS-3100 (which appears on the album cover), an Emulator II, and a finicky MemoryMoog for helping him capture many of the sounds that appear on the record.
Onstage, Palomo tours with his brother, who plays bass; his drummer and long-time collaborator, Jason Faries; and Drew Erickson and Max Townsley, of Explorer Tapes, who play keyboard, synth, and guitar. During the shows where I catch them, the band plays little from their back catalog, performing one, maybe two songs from Extraña (always “Polish Girl”) and two or three from Chasms (always “Deadbeat Summer” and “Terminally Chill”). Otherwise, their focus is firmly ahead of them. And when you hear the new record and see them play it live, it’s not hard to understand why. With Night School, the band becomes a different onstage act. Palomo is livelier, the arrangements are more dynamic. This isn’t to say that the earlier songs drag, but there’s something distinctly more contained in their performance. Palomo just looks happier to be playing Night School. He dances and shakes (though, he says that he’s way more Paul Simon than he’ll ever be MJ or Prince), claps with the crowd, delivers a few lines between songs, and gives his thanks.
Aside from one concert-goer in San Antonio, who, unsatisfied, screamed “Psychic Chasms!” in the middle of the band’s set, the crowd has been totally welcoming of the new material. The four-year wait has been long for many. The night before, at J. Lorraine Ghost Town, the band played their set outside the local “saloon” as a part of Fun Fun Fun Fest. The show was cut short due to a 10 p.m. local curfew, but Palomo graciously answered his fans’ request for an encore by instead holding court off-stage, signing autographs, taking photos, and humoring some of his more dedicated admirers. He stood on a beat-up porch, haloed by the yellow glow of evening lamps as a growing crowd of people encircled him. Some had just heard him for the first time. Others were long-time devotees. Either way, their praise was effusive. One kid brought up a painting he had made of Era Extraña’s dusky album cover, asking if Palomo would sign it. After Palomo happily agreed to do so, the kid lingered for a second longer. “Can I have a hug as well?” Palomo obliged. The kid was nearly floating when he stepped off the porch, making excited, Zoidberg-like noises as he triumphantly returned to his friends.
And now, here we are, the morning after the show, a little under three weeks away from the album’s release. Palomo is slightly hungover while sitting in his tour van en route to San Antonio, where he and his band will be playing at Paper Tiger. He wishes out loud for Pedialyte and worries that he may need to cut “C’est La Vie (say the casualties!)” from tonight’s setlist, as its falsetto would be too demanding. Since Pedialyte isn’t readily available, he settles for a bag of almonds.
He is friendly, effusive, funny, and still sharp in spite of the hangover. As we talk, I glean that he, like many of us, has probably worked through more than a few regretful mornings-after. In a press release, Palomo said that what he’s learned “about human nature in my 20s has happened after dark. People are just kind of more honest then. More deliberate. I like to call the places I go to ‘Night Schools.’” Here he expounds on that: “Why I would say that the places I frequent, that I could call the ‘Night Schools’ in this tongue-in-cheek sort of way, you have all these people that, like, move to New York, and they’re either just starting college or just getting out of college, and they don’t really know how to carry themselves in a real-life scenario,” he says. “So, you go out at night, and you see all these people that are these different mutations of what they want to be versus who they are, and all this shit. It’s kind of amazing to witness this soup of schmoozing and fucking and boozing and all that stuff.”
You can hear all of it in Night School: the creeping paranoia, the hysterical laughter, the romantic posturing, the nebbish desire, the private eyes. Night School is completely madcap, bursting at the seams and getting into trouble, and with it, Palomo has made New York in his vision, building the city around the complicated and often frustrating enterprise of growing up. I think that’s the greatest part of this album, and I write this with as little of the insightful stoner’s inflection as I possibly can, but Palomo just gets it. He’s been here. He’s learned. He knows all about the insanity of our 20s to the nth degree. It is such a fucked up and exciting thing to be young, and there are few albums in 2015 that manage to portray this experience with such total vision. While so many reproductions of ’80s synth-pop offer us cheesy, rose-colored love, Palomo fleshes out something more profound. This album isn’t after the ever-elusive perfect song, the one that wins a heart. It’s about “the process of deluding yourself into thinking that you could [make one], and hoping that she knows it’s about her.”
Night School moves seamlessly in this direction from track to track, pacing through this seemingly endless night as dance parties erupt, lovers are tailed, and word spreads. “Annie,” which the band brought to the Tonight Show this past week, is humming, Balearic magic. “Slumlord” is a thunderous blend of italo-disco and funk, while the reprise “Slumlord (Re-release)” is like watching smoke seep in underneath the door—it seems to signal the arrival of something more ominous and foreboding (though, these fears go unfounded when we’re instead greeted by the warm, enveloping club glow of “Techno Clique”). On “Street Level,” “Smut!,” and “61 Cygni Ave,” Palomo never lets the song settle, taking synth riffs that some bands would die for and then teasing them, warping them, twisting them into several permutations.
Palomo’s songwriting and composing instincts are at their peak. But after four years away from his last album, what type of progress does he expect, commercially? Crossover success? Regardless, it’s a secondary concern for him.
“Crossing over from what? Chillwave?” He laughs. It’s, admittedly, a baiting and unnecessary sort of question. This album doesn’t need an ascendant narrative to lift it up. It’s good enough on its own. It’s a record about our nightmarish fantasies and nighttime mishaps that, on the album’s closer “News From the Sun,” finishes with, fittingly, another round of applause. The long and winding night comes to an end. The set’s done, party’s over, school’s out.