The world of VEGA INTL. Night School is splattered in neon and grime. Its protagonists search for missing women through shadowy alleyways and pornographic video stores; they dance and drink and toke until they can’t anymore, flourishing in the scuzzy glow of streetlights. At times, the album evokes the shadowy mystery of film noir. At others, it wallows in the garish voyeurism of an adult movie theater. It’s the underbelly of city nightlife, painted in chintzy technicolor.
As it turns out, it’s fitting to describe the album — the third by electronic band Neon Indian — in such visual terms. “When I’m getting ready to work on [an album], there’s always a specific set of films that I’ll be watching,” says Alan Palomo, the band’s primary creative force. “With VEGA INTL. Night School, it was about how New York City in particular has been mythologized by a lot of directors.”
He lists off a range of examples, revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of film that extends from the well-known (“a lot of Spike Lee movies”) to the progressively more obscure (Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 and Fear City). “Everybody has their own interpretation of what New York means to them. For me, I wanted this record to be this cartoonish reimagining of my years in New York, partly true and partly fiction. And in that sense, New York is very eclectic. There’s a reason why everybody can have a chunk of it that feels like its own isolated aesthetic place.”
The aesthetic corner that Palomo explores on VEGA comes from the scene he frequented when he first moved to the city, populated by those who he labels as “transplants… all these people that are moving in, fresh out of college [who] don’t really know how to carry themselves in a nocturnal social environment.”
“I think that New York’s getting cleaner,” he says, “but the people remain lurid.”
“And really, what does anybody go out and stay out for, if not get altered or to get laid or to get drunk?” he adds. “In that sense, [nightlife] makes people a little more honest and deliberate in their intentions. For me, it’s fodder for not only complete hilarity, but it’s also just fodder for songwriting.”
Firsthand experience with that aspect of the city directly informed the creation of VEGA. In 2012, after finishing the tour for his previous album, Era Extraña, Palomo drunkenly locked himself out of his NYC apartment. He fell asleep on his stoop; when he woke up, his laptop — and the two years’ worth of demo material for his third album that was on it — had been stolen. That loss led to an extended between-albums hiatus as Palomo reassessed his musical direction, eventually setting out to make what he describes as “an M.O. of what Neon Indian had set out to be.”
“With this record, I really wanted to come back to this idea of, ‘I make music for me, whether anybody’s listening or not, and at the end of the day, I should be satisfied with it,’” he says. “And that’s where the collage-y aspects started to come into play.”
VEGA is an eclectic collection of samples and synths, an often chaotic bricolage of pop, funk and electronica that Palomo describes as “a sort of Frankensteined assembly [that’s] a celebration of the things I love.”
The approach was influenced by time he had spent DJing in college, as well as by postmodern media theory such as Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. “It’s not so much about wanting to make art for the same of some false idea of what originality means,” he says. “Because really, you can’t escape reference. Creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
“Everything is becoming a twist or a spin on some pre-existing concept,” he adds. “And I think it’s perhaps always been like that, to some extent, but I think it’s more pronounced now because we really are running out of those gestures. So for me, instead of trying to dupe anyone into thinking that I’m something completely original, I wear my influences and celebrate them… There’s aesthetic and creativity in the assemblage of these pre-existing ideas.”
Palomo’s keen awareness of his own influences made early critical labeling of his music as “chillwave” — a micro-genre populated almost entirely by himself, Toro Y Moi and Washed Out — particularly frustrating. “I think what’s kind of strange to me is that it used to be that a genre was dictated by a geographic place with a community of musicians that have similar creative goals. And now, a couple of snarky bloggers can throw together some terms and a couple of bands they’d like to put together in a CD mix or something or call it a genre.”
The descriptor eventually fell out of critical favor, which Palomo says he “couldn’t have been more happy about.”
“It just gave me carte blanche to just make music, to just make music for myself and not really bear the weight of some [expletive] narrative that has nothing to do why I started making music,” he says, though he notes that there are still occasional attempts to faddishly categorize his music. “If then it was chillwave, I guess now a lot of the comparisons I get are ‘vaporwave,’ and I don’t even know what that [expletive] is,” he laughs. “It just sounds like DJ Screw but with a lot of Japanese new wave… It felt arbitrary then and it feels arbitrary now.”
After his tour behind VEGA INTL. Night School wraps up, Palomo anticipates a massive reshaping of his career. “I feel like, if Neon Indian were to continue at all, it would have to undergo some aesthetic overhaul to remain interesting to me,” he says. “I very intentionally didn’t want any my records to sound alike, because the redundancy of music just to keep people entertained and to go back on the road and make a living off that just didn’t seem nearly as interesting to me as having an idea for something and waiting until that idea was worthwhile and making something that warranted its own existence.”
Palomo plans to start exploring realms outside of music. He recently filmed an appearance in an as-yet untitled Terence Malick film — an experience he describes as “surreal” and “an insane honor” — and he’ll be scoring a science fiction film later in the spring.
“I have certain ideas musically of what I potentially would like to work on next, but I think before that I’m more excited [for] some of my own film projects,” he says. “I’ve been very patient about finishing the work with music and then being able to set aside some time to do this other stuff, too.”
Neon Indian will perform at Saturn on Wednesday, April 13. Xenia Rubinos and DJ Coco will open. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $14. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.