In their recent celebration of the 2010s, the website Pitchfork published a piece about the lasting influence of Chillwave on modern music. The genre, characterized by warbly, lo-fi, 80’s neon-lit synths, was popularized by bands like Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, and especially Neon Indian — who are making a stop at Victory North on their current tour — and has left a surprisingly indelible mark on indie rock and electronic music today.
Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo helped create the genre of Chillwave almost by accident when he released his breakout single “Should Have Taken Acid With You.”
“It was something I wrote with no expectations,” said Palomo. “I wrote it in a matter of hours, and I thought I would later take that song into the studio and really produce it and I even tried and it just didn't sound right. It felt like the sentiment...that was the song, that moment of expression, and to me, I was 20 at the time, that was a total revelation.”
The song’s gloppy synthesizers and decaying VHS aesthetic smeared the arbitrary line between professional and amateur production, generating an endearingly catchy, and laid-back vibe that came to define Chillwave.
“I think that was a big thing that hadn’t clicked until then, because if you listen to an album you sort of have this narrative in your head that, ‘Oh, they went into a studio with expensive gear and synthesizers,’ and you think that that’s the only way a record can get done, but it was really empowering at the time to use Ableton and one synth and basically do one pass of the song, no revisions allowed, and put it out,” Palomo explained. “I was a little skeptical and trepidatious about it at first because it sounded so amateur, but at the end of the day it ended up being a defining sound.”
Pitchfork may have praised the impact of Chillwave, but failed to include even one Chillwave song on their “200 Best Albums of the 2010s” list. Palomo isn’t discouraged though and is proud of his contributions to the music landscape.Get Savannah arts & culture news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning, afternoon and our Dine newsletters
“Synthesizers now come with ‘slop’ knobs and there are guitar pedals that are primarily intended to emulate VHS effects and tape warble, and I don’t think that really would have happened without Chillwave, so the proof is in the pudding there,” said Palomo. “Introducing something into the vocabulary of music production, I’m really tickled by it and I really stand behind it.”
Neon Indian’s debut album, “Psychic Chasms,” was released in 2009 followed by “Era Extraña” in 2011, and “VEGA INTL. Night School” in 2015. There has been a large gap since then while Palomo, who is a former film school student, focused on filmmaking and film scoring. Palomo appeared in two Terrence Malick films, produced the soundtrack for the film, “Relaxer," and directed his own short film, “86’d.” Palomo had already shot many of his own music videos, but this was his first attempt at a narrative film.
“That shoot was one of the most fun experiences of my life,’ said Palomo. “When I was writing [VEGA INTL.] it was very cinematic to me and there were certain visual components I thought were integral to selling the world of VEGA International. I got to do that with the music videos, but it wasn’t until ‘86’d’ that I was like, this is what was in my brain and I wanted people to see in conjunction with the album which has never really had a platform for it. It was a high priority for me. I was still enamored with those aesthetics, to tell a narrative story.”
Fortunately for fans of Neon Indian’s music, Palomo and his band are back on tour to road-test some new material for his long-awaited fourth album. The new songs are inspired by Peruvian 70’s psyche Chicha music and Cumbia, which Palomo discovered while traveling around South America with his brother.
“Part of the reason it has taken so long to complete this record is, my brother is certainly a lot more versed in playing a variety of Latin styles because he plays in a lot of those groups, but for me it was very much so like learning new chops, learning to play in a fundamentally different style and learning all of the patterns and tropes of Cumbia and Chicha,” Palomo said.
Neon Indian are known for their incredibly exciting live shows, with Palomo shimmying and dancing around the stage when he’s not twiddling out wild sounds from his rack of synthesizers. This will be the first time Palomo has tested material before finishing an album, which has been five years in the making. “I definitely sweat the details and I don’t want to put anything out that isn’t the best possible thing I can, so I’m taking my time with it.”
“At this point I’m ten years into the narrative of being Neon Indian, so why not try this approach and see what it’s like when they’re a fan of your discography, but you get to see their reaction in real time. You get to see the gears turning and see what’s working and what isn’t.”