Alan Palomo: Unfiltered American Pop

Sometimes it can be hard to see the need for a break to reflect on where you’re heading in life and to allow time to focus on the bigger picture. The tendency to focus on the minute details of where the mental blocks are coming from can often simply lead to further obstacles, culminating in burnout and a lost sense of why you may have started the project in the first place. For working musicians, having a break like this is what can produce some of the most imaginative and thought-provoking material of an artist’s career, and often they can return rejuvenated under a new guise or having undergone a complete reinvention.

For Alan Palomo, things have been a little different. Frustrated with not knowing where to take his Neon Indian project on its next full-length project after the widespread acclaim of VEGA INTL. Night School, it became a concern for fans that there would be an eternity before a new album materialised. In fact, he opted to shed the persona entirely and found himself in a place of comfort writing under his own name for the first time.

That isn’t to say that the ‘new’ Alan Palomo is exploring a totally new sound entirely, as the resultant World of Hassle feels almost like a sequel of sorts to VEGA INTL., except rather than situating itself in the seedy nightlife scene of its predecessor, the new record presents itself as an anthology piece that focuses on the weird characters within social cliques. His approach to world-building is unique in the way he immerses the listener into the surreal scenarios the song’s protagonists find themselves in, such as on standout track ‘The Return of Mickey Milan’ which focuses on a washed-up rockstar making a grand reappearance on the stage, or on ‘Stay At Home DJ’ which satirises the snobbery of self-described DJs. 

Taking inspiration from cult cinema, which has always informed Palomo’s work, as well as the complexity of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, World of Hassle stands tall as yet another adventurous chapter of his career. The glitzy synths that shone throughout VEGA INTL. are still a prominent feature of the record’s sound, often harking back to the sound of 80s sophisti-pop acts like Prefab Sprout, Tears For Fears and Daryl Hall & John Oates. The record is rich with curiosities to be explored, never revealing too much about itself at once, but once things begin to unravel there’s plenty to lose yourself in.

Speaking just before the release of the album, a mere few days after Palomo celebrated his birthday, Wax sat down to discuss the themes of the record, making a grand return to music, and what makes it into his home DJ sets.

First things first, we’ll get the most important item out of the way – happy birthday for earlier this week. What’s the biggest bit of excitement you’ve had since turning 35?  

AP: Well, the birthday itself was pretty wild. I tried to spend a little bit in San Antonio, hanging out with my family. My brother had a bottle of whiskey that was given to us by a cousin, so there’s some wild stuff about that. The exciting part about turning 35 is when you’re in your 20s, you’re still trying to form a narrative and create a body of work so people take those ideas at least seriously enough to want to collaborate with you and invest time into it. Once you’re in your 30s, it’s like, you’ve still got the knack – you’ve like developed some talent, and now people also are willing to listen to you a little bit more. It’s a nice feeling I gotta say. I feel like I was kind of precocious when I was younger, but now at 35, there seems to be a little bit more spring in my step in that regard. 

Do you feel a lot less pressure from the weight of expectation that’s placed on you as an artist as you get older? 

AP: I think the pressure subsides; it’s mostly internal and you want to continue to outdo yourself, so the records cost more and more time. It’s really strange. I wrote the first album [Psychic Chasms] in maybe less than a month, the second one [Era Extraña] in about a year and a half. The third one [VEGA INTL. Night School] took four years, and now this one took almost eight years. It wasn’t completely intentional. I mean, I scrapped a whole other record that got maybe 70% of the way there, and I just didn’t like how it was coming together. I think seeing editorial trends waning in the past decade and living in this post-genre phase of music, I think it’s actually really liberating because you can do kind of whatever you want. If it’s good and if you trust your ears and it sounds right, then it’ll resonate with somebody, or at the very least resonate with you. 

Even just shedding the name and deciding that I would take the gamble and realise that it’s a lot of work on the front end, because you’ve got your core group of fans, it maybe occupies 20% of people that know you by name and know all the songs, and then it slowly starts to ripple out into this gradient of people that know you more casually who maybe they saw you at a festival once. Finally, at the end, there’s like people that might know you because they know that one song that was in a video game. Finding a loud enough megaphone to reach all those people in the outer circle of it is just going to take some time, but it’s often something that feels more like a long term investment for me. As you get older, it starts to feel a little silly that the name that you donned when you were still a teenager still dictates the terms by which you interface with everybody. I want to get people familiar with just me, not stand behind the smokescreen of some pseudonym or moniker. 

I know for this record you looked at how other artists and the way that they went about their career trajectories and were just completely themselves, and you mentioned Leonard Cohen being an influence – the fact that he was 50 and still doing whatever the hell he pleased. How much did that motivate your transition away from being Neon Indian and just becoming Alan Palomo? 

AP: Yeah, I mean I always had this image in my head of me at that age – an out of shape, schlubby Las Vegas Neon Indian and still just kind of being like, “hey, you guys are a sexy crowd, here’s ‘Should’ve Taken Acid With You’”. It just seemed silly to me in that regard because I wrote those songs at a very specific time in my life. What was so refreshing about Leonard Cohen is that as somebody that’s always wanted to make these concept albums where you draw the focus to some kind of cinematic narrative and not necessarily make it about myself, I found it refreshing to turn the lens 180° and start speaking more directly. Listening to the songs ‘I’m Your Man’ or  ‘First We Take Manhattan’, I was like, “fuck, man, I sweat the lyrics, but never in this way”. It seems simultaneously effortless, and yet funny and profound. I’m not saying that I accomplished that, but it definitely shifted things into that direction. 

Was there a particular point in that eight year gap between VEGA INTL. and now where the tides turned and you saw Neon Indian fading out and it becoming more appropriate to be yourself?

AP: It’s funny, because I thought I was so happy with VEGA INTL. that I knew if the project was going to continue, it was gonna have to undergo some sort of aesthetic upheaval in order for it to remain interesting to me. It’s like, we get it; you love Italo Disco, you love YMO, you love Todd Rundgren, yada yada. I had said the things I wanted to say with that particular set of influences and aesthetics. After that, I found myself floundering a little bit – I tried to write a whole cumbia record and then something about it started to feel a little bit contrived, or I never quite found my version of it that I would have been totally satisfied with. There was a writing session in 2018, with my brother where he was visiting me in LA, and we wrote what eventually wound up being ‘Stay at Home DJ’. That was the first song where the lightbulb went off, and as a diehard Prefab Sprout fan, I was like, “oh, this is kind of a little bit more in that zone”. I kind of sat with it for a while, and we even played it on the last Neon Indian tour. It was still a very protozoic version of the song; it wouldn’t really find its last iteration until shortly before finishing the album, but that was the song that kind of kicked things off. 

It’s interesting that that track goes back so far, because to me the phrase ‘Stay at Home DJ’ brings up the idea of the pandemic when everyone was doing DJ sets from their living room.  

AP: I did tweak the lyrics. It’s funny, I had one verse and a chorus, and it used to be “everyone’s a DJ”. Then I think during the pandemic, I started cracking jokes that I was a stay-at-home DJ, and it just evolved from there. There was some reference to it, even if the original demo was started before that. 

I was going to ask this a lot later on, but seeing as you brought up the topic, what features in your stay-at-home DJ set? 

AP: Oh, man. I think like a lot of my friends, I tried to buy happiness on Discogs during the pandemic because I was bored. Every time the mail would come, I’d just be like, “oh, I think I’ve got some rare seven inch on its way”. There was this song by La Bellini called ‘Satan in Love’, which is a really tripped-out slow-motion disco track. There was this really beautiful Balearic cover of ‘And I Love Her’ by The Beatles, but it’s done by this Italo group called Fighters. Besides that, I was finding a lot of escape in old DJ Harvey sets and Balearic Beat-type stuff. 

Stuff to keep the mood up. 

AP: Oh, yeah, big time.  

Going back to World of Hassle on the whole, artists changing to their own name quite often suggests that it’s becoming a lot more personal, but I noticed that you’re talking about a lot of different characters throughout the album. Can you go into a bit more detail about some of the people that pop up on songs such as Mickey Milan? 

AP: The line ‘world of hassle’ I borrowed a line in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and the narrator mentions how unbeknownst to him, he was entering a ‘world of hassle’, and something about that resonated with me. It’s funny because the process of making the record wound up being this Pynchonian mess because I was trying to finish it at home, and my landlord started doing renovations in the building I live in. I was trying to record vocals at night to avoid the construction, but then there was a nightingale that parked itself outside of my window, so it was just singing all night and I couldn’t get clean vocal takes. I was Googling how to humanely get rid of a nightingale, and one of the things I found is that if you play it a competing bird song, you could psy-op it into thinking there’s some superior chat in its midst. It was the most Throbbing Gristle thing I’ve ever done – I just went outside with speakers and YouTube searched nightingale song, and it only made it sing louder. I could not get around this thing. Eventually I went to the studio at Stones Throw, but they have a bar so after a certain hour you could hear the sub bass. It was a ‘world of hassle’ to finish this record. 

As far as characters go, Mickey Milan is in a way a song about my dad. It’s a rally cry to seize the comeback moment. I’m always encouraging my dad to make new music because he hasn’t put out a record in about, I want to say 15 years. I tried to imagine the character of Mickey Milan as this late 80s, early 90s pop troubadour. The style is maybe more evocative of something from the 70s, but part of the lyrics were sort of formed by a love for that Ralph Bakshi movie, American Pop, which is about multiple generations of people trying to make it to success, and it winds up with the great-grandson becoming a rock star in the 70s. Something about that, you made its way to my brain when I was writing those songs. 

Were there any other things that kept cropping up that found their way onto the record? 

AP: ‘The Wailing Mall’ is kind of a surreal song about myself, but also this specific mall in Dallas when I lived there in middle school that was just this massive mile long loop. I tried to imagine in my head arriving in America and just walking into this giant Synecdoche, New York-style mall, where like the entire country is contained within it. It literally has a rollercoaster inside of it. I tried to tell the story of growing up in the US, inside of this weird, claustrophobic, capitalist wonderland. 

‘Big Night of Heartache’ – I got dumped, but it’s funny because that song title in part comes from this movie called Marty with Ernest Borgnine, who also makes a cameo in the ‘Nudista Mundial 89’ video. It’s basically about this guy who considers himself ugly, and he meets this teacher that’s also not a traditionally beautiful person, but they go on this date, and his friends are ripping on him because they think he’s dating a dog. To quote the movie – before he meets this woman, his mom’s trying to convince him to go out and meet somebody, and he asks “what’s waiting for me out there – a big night of heartache!”. I loved that line so much that I wrote it down, and then half a year later, I got dumped at this restaurant. I had to DJ immediately after and was trying to ignore what just happened, and I just kept thinking of that line. Eventually, when I got back to LA, I wrote that song. 

The other characters in the story are a little bit more impressionistic, ‘Meutrière’ is kind of based on the Shelley Duvall and Stanley Kubrick story where he pushes her to this breaking point, and ‘La Madrileña’ is, like the ‘Polish Girl’ is a real person that I won’t dox, just because it’s fun for people to speculate, at least in my eyes. She loves the song, so I can’t complain.

She’s from Madrid – that’s all we need to know.

AP: [laughs] Yeah, that’s all we need to know.

‘Meutrière’ and ‘Nudista Mundial 89’ both have a couple of collaborators on them in Flore Benguigui (from L’Imperatrice) and Mac DeMarco respectively – how did it come about that they appeared on the record? Are they people that you had long relationships with beforehand or did you just happen upon each other? 

AP: Mac is an old friend. I didn’t really get to know him until recent years when I moved to LA, but the way that came about was because I was trying to hunt down a Yamaha CP70 piano and my keyboord player mentioned that Mac had one at his studio. I’d seen the home studio when he first started building it, but I didn’t realize that he really, you know, put some time and effort into tricking it out. Mac was gracious enough to let us record there, and it wound up with him not only letting us use the studio, but engineering the sessions for a good like five days, and then he refused to be compensated. He was insanely generous with both this time and his talent. The night before the sessions, I was tinkering with that song, and my pitch to Mac was “they love you in Mexico, and they’ve never heard you sing in Spanish, so why not? Let’s make a ‘vamos a la playa’ style jam”, because we’re both Italo-heads, and that was kind of the result of that. 

Flore I was actually introduced to virtually during the pandemic by my friends in this band Pearl and the Oysters – they live in my neighbourhood and there’s a clique of French friends that all hang out together. I played them this song, and mentioned I was interested in having Flore sing it, and they wound up connecting me to her. I definitely had her in mind. I’d heard the L’Imperatrice record just before the pandemic, and it was pretty much the only new thing I listened to that year, maybe one of two or three albums. When I realised that was actually a viable option, I had to go for it.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your forays into film. You’re obviously a massive film buff and have made a few short films as well. I wondered whether the process of you building worlds in a visual sense links up with the way that you build worlds in a musical sense or whether the two are just completely viewed as separate entities. 

AP: I think there’s definitely quite a bit of overlap. The irony is, I started doing music while I was in film school out of frustration that I couldn’t rent any gear until my third year, so I knew that music was something I could do on my own. There was always kind of an intention. I think a lot of electronic producers have this idea in their head that they’re scoring this fantasy film that doesn’t exist, and I’m definitely no exception in that regard. I’m definitely always watching movies when I’m working on music and it always finds its way into the work. When I think about the kind of scripts that I would want to write for a feature, or even just shorts that I’ve done, there’s always some musical angle to it. Those two things are like inextricably intertwined for me. 

I did wonder because while I was doing research, I watched [Alan’s 2018 short film] 86’d and it was a really fun little collection of stories all happening in one place. It’s interesting that you talk about how music works its way into your films, because there’s the whole plot line in the film about someone re-recording the vocals for Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ because the tape gets wiped. 

AP: That actually happened to a producer friend who literally wiped a Lenny Kravitz song when he was interning at some studio in the 90s. Luckily for him they had a backup, but he thought for a solid two hours that he would never work in this town again. When you see that character trying to make sense of it, that was kind of my reaction. 

Is there any view to continue doing film and what sort of stuff have you been working on recently, if you’re able to say?  

AP: You know, this is the first record where there was actually a surplus of material. It’s not enough to be a whole release all by itself, but you can expect in the months that follow World of Hassle that there’ll be some additional tunes to drop. Now that I’m done with the last video, I’m just screenwriting until it’s time to go on to work – I’ve been waiting to do that for a minute. I initially wasn’t expecting to direct all the videos alongside Robert Beatty or Mickey Miles, but hey, it’s four new things on the reel. I’ve got the creative juices going, and I’m kind of ready to sit down and write something. 

You alluded to the fact that there will be a tour coming up – are you planning on coming to Europe at any point? 

AP: We’re still putting that together, but that’s why great gentlemen such as yourself are spreading the word. I’ve got to make up for lost time, man. It used to be so much easier to tour in Europe when the Euro was a lot higher. Also especially with a reboot, where I might have to pare it down, I can be somewhat of a curmudgeon in terms of how I present the live show. I want to do it with the sax player and some backup singers – the full gestalt of the live show. I’m trying to find the best way in which I can go out there and present something that I’m proud of, but that’s also economically feasible. I think one way to do it is also just to set up shop in Europe for a little while. There’s a part of me that’s flirting with the idea of just hanging out in Paris next year for a few months, and if that’s the case, I can always build something up locally and then tour in mainland Europe and make a stop in the UK. 

Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Daniel Everett

‘World of Hassle’ is out now via Transgressive. Stream and purchase the album via Bandcamp.

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