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Surrounded by synths, Alan Palomo is teasing out a new kind of sound

Alan Palomo is in his element at L.A.'s Vintage Synthesizer Museum.
Christopher Intagliata
/
NPR
Alan Palomo is in his element at L.A.'s Vintage Synthesizer Museum.

Alan Palomo won't reveal what synthesizer he relied on for much of his new album, World of Hassle, except to say it's a Casio he bought for $500. He's afraid mentioning the model might popularize it and make it shoot up in price, as has already happened for so many of these treasured machines from the 1970s and '80s.

"Boomers had their Harleys and millennials have their '80s nostalgia," he says. Palomo, who is himself a millennial, shares this passion – and he reminisces about the 1981 Roland Jupiter-8 he used to own, which he calls the "holy grail" of synthesizers. "Like an idiot, I sold it," he says. "I tried to buy one again during the pandemic. They shot up to, like, $37,000."

For much of his career, Palomo has used machines like the Jupiter-8 to craft dance floor pop music, primarily as frontman for the group Neon Indian, which became a standard-bearer of the chillwave genre with songs like the 2009 hit "Deadbeat Summer."

On the day we meet, he's in full '80s nostalgia mode, because we're strolling through L.A.'s Vintage Synthesizer Museum. Palomo points out one of the elusive Jupiter-8s – it's easy to miss among the dozens of Moogs, Korgs and Oberheims, stacked floor to ceiling amid racks of effects, oozing with cables. The visual is that of an old telephone operating system, crossed with a 1970s mainframe computer.

A wall of sound(makers).
Christopher Intagliata / NPR
/
NPR
A wall of sound(makers).

"Aesthetically, they're beautiful," Palomo says. "There's a lot of incredible design that went into them in the era. And they're meant to be intimidating, but also kind of inviting."

Palomo looks more invited than intimidated, and trailing him around from machine to machine, you get the sense that he's a serious synth scholar. He drops terms like "subtractive," "oscillator" and "square wave," as he describes "scooping out frequencies" and "sculpting the sound." He does seem to treat these sounds a bit like ceramics, too – playing a few notes on the keyboard and then twisting dials and hitting buttons until he coaxes out just the shape of sound he's looking for.

Those efforts coalesce into a symphony of synthesizers on his latest release World of Hassle, with songs like "Stay-At-Home DJ" employing a full spectrum of lush pads, crystal-toned lead lines, squawky synths and rollicking digital conga drums.

Even so, Palomo says this new album, his fourth, marks a musical progression for him. He's using fewer samples these days, and focusing less on manipulating loops of music. Instead, he says he's approaching songwriting in a way that predates synthesizers and samples. He's writing at the piano – an instrument he bought during the pandemic.

"I'm like, 'OK, they know that you can program a synth. They've heard you do that for three records,'" he says. "'What haven't they really heard you do yet?' In my head, it was like, 'They haven't really heard you write a song.'"

The family drive

As we stroll through the museum, Palomo stops at a wood-paneled Oberheim OB-8, stenciled with retro-futuristic blue lines and space-age text, and starts hitting buttons and punching out chords. Ethereal strings, suitcase piano, pipe organ, flute. Finally he lands on what he's looking for: classic brass. "You can do very, like, Doobie-Brothers-type stuff on this one," he says, and launches into the keyboard riff of "What a Fool Believes."

This synth, he says, reminds him of the first one he ever saw in person. It was at a pawn shop in Texas, where he grew up, called Krazy Kat Music. On a visit there as a kid, with his dad in tow, Palomo spied a related model, the Oberheim OB-6. Price tag: $600.

"My dad saw that glint in my eye where he's like, 'He's connecting with the instrument.'" But when they returned later with the money they'd saved up, it was gone. "So it was like the synth that got away," he says.

Palomo (right) performs with Toro y Moi at Sundance NEXT FEST in 2015.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Sundance
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Getty Images for Sundance
Palomo (right) performs with Toro y Moi at Sundance NEXT FEST in 2015.

Palomo recalls that at times, his father had "Selena Dad manager vibes" – pushing him and his brother Jorge to practice piano, guitar and bass, and forcing them to learn Frank Sinatra standards – at a time when Alan was more interested in mashing buttons on his Sega Genesis. "I just wanted to play Sonic [the Hedgehog] 3, and was like, 'Leave me alone.' But he would be like, 'Let's sing this duet.'" Now, Palomo says, he's grateful that his father taught him a trade — allowing him to pursue music professionally.

Some of his father's musical ideas were a little more offbeat.

"I remember his craziest one was we were sitting in traffic in San Antonio and I remember he was just like, 'OK, I got it. We'll dress you up as clowns and you'll play cumbia and you'll be called The Payasonicos,' which is like a pun that means the Sonic Clowns." Palomo says he was mortified, and the idea didn't go far. "I think it started and ended at that red light."

The clown suits and red noses never panned out, but his dad's vision did come true, to an extent. Alan and his brother Jorge played and toured together in Neon Indian, and Jorge has several writing credits on the new record.

Leaning into language

The new album marks another turning point for Palomo. It's the first he has released under his own name – and he's left Neon Indian behind, for now at least.

"It's such a tried and true '80s male rock cliché to leave your band in your mid-thirties in a crisis, like, make a jazz record, you know? Bryan Ferry did it. Sting did it," he says. So is World of Hassle Palomo's jazz record? "Oh yeah. Like, it's time to start dressing it up."

Palomo performs in Neon Indian at Coachella in 2012.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Coachella
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Getty Images for Coachella
Palomo performs in Neon Indian at Coachella in 2012.

Jokes aside, recording under his own name is also a more direct reveal of his identity as a Mexican-American and native Spanish speaker. "I'm not hiding behind a moniker anymore. It's Alan Palomo," he says. "It's right there in the name."

Palomo was born in Monterrey, Mexico. When he was just five years old, his parents packed up the family and drove across the border to Texas. Riding in the back seat, he asked his parents if he'd brought along enough Lion King toys for the trip. It didn't dawn on him until he saw the empty apartment in Texas that they weren't going back.

Palomo wrote about his experience as an immigrant on the semi-autobiographical 2019 track "Toyota Man," in which he sings about crossing the river at Reynosa, learning to speak English from HBO, and the casual racism he encountered in the U.S.

Venimos a estudiar

Queremos trabajar

Y Aunque lo quieran negar

Todos somos Americanos

"We come to study," he sings, "We want to work // And although they want to deny it // We are all Americans." The video, which Palomo directed, features a larger-than-life papier-mâché abuela battling a piñata of former President Donald Trump. When Trump finally breaks open, he's full of green cards.

"Toyota Man" was Palomo's first song in Spanish, but his new record World of Hassle finds him exploring his native tongue even more, on tracks like "Nudista Mundial '89" and "La Madrileña." He was wary of it coming across as a gimmick though, "Of just sprinkling a little Spanish in there for, you know, for sauce, for texture." So he spent time digging into the books of contemporary Mexican writers like Fernanda Melchor and Yuri Herrera, to more deeply immerse himself in the language, eventually cultivating a lyrical voice that felt like his own.

"As a songwriter, it's like another lane in your arsenal, of ways in which you can express yourself," he says.

When the party's over

Palomo released his debut record as Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms, in 2009. The followup, Era Extraña, came out in 2011, and the third and final full-length, VEGA INTL. Night School, in 2015. Now, with World of Hassle out eight years later, he jokes that he keeps doubling the number of years it takes to put out a record.

"I can be a little bit of a perfectionist and I'm always trying to outdo myself. So I'm not the most prolific musician," he says. "So I'm telling people, you know, you can look forward to the next record 16 years from now."

Palomo coaxes out some sounds.
Christopher Intagliata / NPR
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NPR
Palomo coaxes out some sounds.

As Palomo has evolved as an artist and a songwriter, he's also wondering if it might finally be the moment to pursue his dream of making films instead. For years now, he's been gaining experience, by directing his own music videos – like the Leisure-Suit-Larry-inspired pixelated video game sequence in the video to "Nudista Mundial '89." Directing music videos is cheaper than film school, he jokes, and he's already talking with a producer about making his first feature-length film.

Listening to Palomo's lyrics on World of Hassle, it's not all that surprising to hear about his aspirations beyond music. So many of the songs talk about nightlife – but not the getting-ready-to-go-out part, or the losing-yourself-on-the-dance floor part. These songs are about what happens after all that, when the party's over.

"VEGA INTL. Night School was kind of about the nocturnal education you get, being social in your twenties and thirties," he says. "But now you're in your thirties and there is this sort of feeling of just, like, the party eventually kind of ends." On the slow groove "Is There Nightlife After Death?" Palomo sings:

Is there nightlife after death?

do heavenly bodies

find rest

from angels out after dark?

who street walk

through stars

Drift into a beautiful deep

The nightclubs closed

now the angels sleep

Palomo says it's a haunting image for him, imagining someone who's worked in nightlife all their life – including musicians, like himself – once the music stops, and the lights go up.

"I imagine this sort of person kind of at the end of their life, where you've been to all the parties, but what awaits you next, when the tab is closed and you're off to sleep?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.