Haunting the Cinema
Dec 20, 2012
It’s not a stretch to say that there’s a cinematic quality to Alan Palomo’s music. Writing and performing as Neon Indian, Palomo has released two albums of glowly electro pop (most recently 2011’s Era Extraña) that are vibrant enough to suggest specific times and places, but “chill” enough to leave their interpretation up to the listener.
It should come as no surprise then that the musician has a vested interest in the filmmaking process. Recently, Palomo and visual collaborator Johnny Woods teamed up for a short film called Outer Osmo Ghost Mode (out now via MOCA.tv). The haunting 10-minute animated piece details a romantic relationship, slowly breaking apart in the digital era.
We caught up with Palomo to get the details of his new artistic endeavor. He also told us about his film school, movies’ ability to immortalize music in a fickle industry, and why he might not always be so eager to release albums.
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): How did you get involved in Outer Osmo Ghost Mode?
Alan Palomo: I came home from tour with the idea that I wanted to write a feature-length screenplay. This really comes more from this very slow developing relationship with filmmaking. I had studied it in college initially, before I had any interest in making music. That’s definitely what I wanted to do. But I guess I had given myself this ultimatum of, “Well, it’s been roughly a decade since you had any vested interest in filmmaking in any incarnation. I think it’s time to find out if you’re capable of telling a story. If not then you should find other avenues that you’d like.” But I definitely started writing as an experiment. I got Final Draft and started putting something together. My friend Johnny Woods, who does all our visuals, he suggested “Even if you finish this, it’s still just a stack of papers until it gets made. Making it is its own high-stakes game. But if you have a smaller, more pragmatic idea, I don’t know how interested you are in animation, but that’s something that I’ve gotten pretty good at.”
So I decided to put aside the bigger idea for a moment and try to come up with some idea that would complement the visual format. Had I used the same thing it would have been like, “Why am I watching this serious movie with animation?” I tried to come up with something that would make sense, that you would have these strange, crudely animated SIMS characters and watching their exchanges. That’s where the whole concept came from. I guess I had been reading Snow Crash at the time, which dealt a lot in what now seems reminiscent of Second Life or some social networking site that allows you to create some kind of virtual avatar. But it’s funny, because I wanted to create a bigger arc of a narrative that I wanted to try to follow. I was going to divide Osmo into five or six shorts. Johnny and I were going to slowly make these over time. MOCA ended up presenting us with the opportunity to really produce it and to set aside time make these 10-minute shorts.
It’s funny, most people, when this was in the conversation phase, had the expectation of it being some kind of music video. It wasn’t until very late in the game when we admitted, “Yeah there’s barely any music in this. It’s mainly dialogue. The music that is in it is kind of an afterthought and more for mood.” But they were totally down with it, which I couldn’t have been more grateful for. For me it was finally just making something, regardless of quality or incarnation. I will say in terms of quality, I am very happy with how it came out. But it was a total swan dive, just kind of seeing what would happen in this three-month span of writing it. Honestly, from the time that I came up with the idea to meeting up with Johnny, to meeting up with MOCA to finally putting it up there in the ether, it must have been four or five months. In fact, I had gone to L.A. for a while, just to be in the same room as Johnny while he was animating. I would be working on music cues, and it was like watching someone sculpt polygons for days. Fucking days! It definitely requires a vested interest and an innumerable amount of patience, which I really commend Johnny for.
You said that you studied film in college. Did you make films in college or was it more of a theoretical program?
The funny thing is, any video experience that I had before Neon Indian, or any recent opportunities to integrate music into that sort of thing, was high school. I was in video tech. That was the only time that I had unfettered access to moderate quality video equipment to just go run out and film stuff. It was a really fun time. I couldn’t direct my way out of a paper bag, for sure. But it was fun to have a camera and try to make strange little movies with my friend.
Ironically enough, much of what happened with music came out of the frustration with film school. The program that I went to—at least how it was at the time—the first two years were solely theory. The way that a lot of the film program was structured; you’d have to take a lot of these prerequisite courses that were more for the intent of endurance. A lot of people wanted to study film. So one way to whittle down the program to the people who were really serious about it was like, “Well, are you willing to sit through two years of math classes before we let you hold a camera?” I guess it was more about the promise, which in hindsight I understand the logic, but for as much of an interest as I have in academia, I’ve never been a good student. At all. Wow. Interest in academia. That sounds really pretentious. But, yeah, I enjoyed the experience of school. I just couldn’t really gel in those environments. I know plenty of people who are immensely creative. But they don’t do well in a science class or an English class or something. I thought the purpose of college was to finally pare down your most vested interests and passions and put them into practice and some environment where those talents are being cultivated.
So I just decided that music is something that I can do by myself. There’s a very instant gratification to being able to write a song in a night or something. Film is the opposite. Film is a collaborative art. Film requires a lot of planning. It goes through very meticulous phases before you see the final product. I guess my own weird little way of rebelling was to start a band, and start playing synthesizers and be like, “Fuck college!” I did hit some fork in the road where I could either be a good student or a decent musician. I definitely couldn’t do both. So I took a semester off to really write a substantial sum of music. It ended up being the six months that I ended up putting together Psychic Chasms. Then I just never went back to school. It was pretty weird how it ended up working out like that.
I’m a film school survivor too.
Yup. I almost feel like you’re telling my story here.
It’s funny, about a year ago all my friends were graduating. I was having this parallel universe wormhole anxiety. What would have happened if I said, “Maybe I should wait until somewhere down the road to do music? Maybe I should just keep it on the hobby level.” I have no idea what would be happening at this time. But I do think in some weird way, music did sweep in as this deus ex machina, because I could have totally just crashed and burned and owed tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. [Laughs] There’s also that.
Which you would be trying to pay off by working as a PA on a set somewhere for $10 an hour.
Totally. There are those friends I know from film school who did have the patience to sit through those arcs of school. My favorite people in film school were the ones that had absolutely zero pretension about wanting to go into it and be the next Gus Van Sant or Quentin Tarantino. The people who were just like, “I’m really good at lighting. I’m going to go in and do just that.” Those are the people who managed to break into whatever industry they were trying to get into very quickly. I have a couple of friends who live in L.A. and make a pretty decent living. But I would have been one of those disgruntled grips, quietly judging the movie.
Instead you’ve now come full circle and you’re making your own.
Yeah. In my own strange way. I think as time goes on, to be honest, I love music but 10 or 15 years down the road I don’t see myself holding a guitar as much as I see myself holding a camera. I feel like as time goes on I’d be a lot more comfortable going into filmmaking.
As time goes on, I do have two very clear ideas about what I want with this VEGA record and the next Neon Indian record. Probably after that I want to shift gears and take a break from music and try my hand at filmmaking. In whatever incarnation that might be.
Do you find it easier to slip into a film headspace?
Honestly, yeah. I had a lot of fun working on Osmo, solely on the sound design level. Writing music for film actually came naturally. What’s more contrived than sitting at a piano and throw together some chords? It’s not always that you walk in with a story to tell. A lot of the time it’s difficult to find that narrative and to put it to some musical thread that can last the whole album. It’s amazing, and that’s when the album does happen. But there is something really wonderful about a pre-existing thing that you’re responding musically to. I think honestly, if I have to look at it from a more pragmatic standpoint, maybe music composition or sound design is an avenue that I could find myself working in. There’s nothing more tragic than a really amazing film with terrible music. That happens all the time. There are so many directors with a great eye and a really wonderful mind. But every quirky indie movie has this same xylophone, banjo soundtrack that drives me fucking insane.
Any favorite soundtracks?
There was something really amazing and refreshing about watching something like Drive, which is one of those movies that at the hands of any other director it would have been like Fast and the Furious or some goofy car chase movie. It’s one of those examples where the voice is everything. It’s a very placid, slow moving, tension heavy film with this very Tangerine Dream-esque music. And all these licensed songs that you would never see in a film. When I heard those bands, it sounded like they were influenced by a lot of ’80s movies. Listening to something like Kavinsky in the title sequence of Drive was mind-blowing. I remember hearing this and thinking that it was like listening to a John Carpenter film score. Suddenly seeing it in the context of a movie, I couldn’t think of a more amazing, modern example of a coup in Hollywood. It doesn’t always have to be shitty music. Maybe we can have stars in these really strange, abstract action movies in unusually refreshing choices in music. There is totally an audience and a climate for that. I can only hope to ever be in a position where I could tell my own story and incorporate my own music into something like that. I do think that the quality of the music will sometimes reflect the quality of the story in general. If the music isn’t that great, sometimes it’s because the narrative isn’t that great. It’s a culmination of mediocre things as a way to kill two hours on Netflix.
Without ranting too much, I also think when a certain song or something makes its way into the cinematic realm, it’s no longer susceptible to all the fickle or trendy time sensitive shit that goes into the music industry. I like that those songs are forever in like, Drive. That’s that film. That’s a very timeless thing. Otherwise electronic music changes every three months. People get so sick of their own variations on a concept. It’s kind of a shame. The narrative of an electronic musician isn’t the same as a dude with a guitar. A singer/songwriter can have the same aesthetic for a decade and nobody would question it. But if an electronic musician has the same sort of aesthetic over a decade, it’s sacrilege. “Why don’t you grow already?” It’s very weird, and I don’t think a lot of people look to electronic music for a timeless quality. Which is a shame because I hear many of those qualities in it. Maybe that’s part of what’s gravitating me to film too. It just enters another world. Who fucking cares if this is the song of the year or not? Or if this is the topical album of the month? It’s in a story. That is forever.
Are you currently working on VEGA or the new Neon Indian album?
Yeah. I’m working on VEGA first. I kinda want to do those records back to back. It’s one of those things—especially with the VEGA record—I’ve had the idea for so long. Ultimately I’m glad I waited, because I feel like I wasn’t musically capable of executing a lot of the ideas that I wanted to. Just because it was a little grandiose and out of my abilities, really. I’ve been obsessed with proggy, Todd Rundgren-y, ethereal space disco type stuff. There’s a lot of musicality that goes into it that I’m still barely being able to wrap my head around and figure out how stuff works and how to have those little happy accidents in the studio. But I definitely feel way more equipped to do it now than if I had done it when the first [VEGA] EP came out.