Alan Palomo on “World of Hassle” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, March 4th, 2024  

Alan Palomo on “World of Hassle”

Leaning Into Schmaltz

Oct 20, 2023 Photography by Daniel Everett Patrick Web Exclusive
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The sleazy— but oh so likable— lounge lizard felt as if he were trapped in a glitzy prison. Or more like a big box purgatory. Indeed, “The Wailing Mall” is the stunning opening track of the new album World of Hassle written by retro-indebted indie pop songwriter Alan Palomo. Its nightlife noir protagonist is a compelling homage to crime novelist Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. It’s also an ode to Palomo feeling lost in a slick, consumerist America as a young immigrant from Mexico, long before he became a poster boy in the 2010s for the chill wave indie rock sub-genre with his band Neon Indian, which doubled as his stage alias.

Although that niche is enjoying a resurgence, Palomo decided to go a fresh route for his comeback. Instead of chill wave, World of Hassle taps into ’80s sophisti-pop, and late career Leonard Cohen for “Wailing Mall,” a wry dismantling of capitalism. It’s also the first album he has released under his own name.

Below (as his tour for the new album kicks off), Palomo tells us more about dropping his Neon Indian persona, working with fellow indie rock legend Mac Demarco on one of World’s of Hassle’s best tracks, and his dreams of one day directing a movie. Who knows? Maybe it will be on par with the film adaptation of Inherent Vice.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): You’re about to start a tour, hitting several cities in California and Texas. What are you looking forward to most?

Alan Palomo: I’m looking forward to the food. As you get older, touring just kind of becomes knowing which restaurants you want to hit in a certain city after sound check. But honestly, I never thought I would miss the road, because we had toured the last [Neon Indian] record so extensively. We went to Asia, we did South America, a couple dates in Europe. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I started having dreams about it, and realized that I really wanted to get back out there.

But of course I needed a new record to do so. So, when I was starting to write World of Hassle, that was on my mind. Because usually when you write an album, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to interpret it live. Then you wind up kind of becoming a cover band of your own songs, because you made them in one very specific set of circumstances.

So you have to reinterpret it with musicians. But this time, it’s actually a record that my band participated in quite a bit. My brother Jorge plays bass, and we co-write a couple of the songs. Max Townsley played guitar on a lot of the album, along with Ian Young, our sax player. So I wonder if it’ll feel more familiar or more comfortable for them, as opposed to taking the [Neon Indian] synth arrangements and trying to interpret them with their instruments.

How might that affect your performing style?

Well, with the last album, there was a revamp of the live show. When my brother joined, I wanted to find people that could kind of speak his language musically. And I was lucky enough to know two friends from Texas that had gone to Berklee that were trained session players. The deficit in my skill never really dawned on me. Not until you get real shredders on stage with you. It motivated me, like: “Fuck. I gotta start practicing.” This record was somewhat affected by that. As a result, there are some chord changes and things that would make you think of sofisti-pop, or dare I say Steely Dan. Though maybe getting into that is just something that happens in your 30s.

But yeah, I feel like I’ve spent the last decade ogling these live shows, of like, you know, Sade at Montreux Jazz Fest in 1984, and Bryan Ferry at Live Aid and him touring with Roxy Music during Avalon. And especially Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. You know, where he has the two backup singers and a sax player, and he’s playing his little Casio arranger synth. That is really the vibe that I’m trying to lock into this time around. We’re going to have backup singers, and a sax player. It’s definitely gonna be a little hammy, which I look for in a live show. Because the record certainly doesn’t take itself very seriously. I want to lean into the schmaltz, and just have gratuitous sax solos, and backup singers, and shoulder pads, and stuff like that.

I’m happy to hear about the Leonard Cohen influence. Because when I was reading about the album, there’s a lot of focus on other sofisti-pop muses, but I heard echoes of him on “The Wailing Mall” especially.

Yeah, for some reason I had snoozed on I’m Your Man. I mean, who doesn’t love “Suzanne” and the early folk stuff? But the rest of his catalog was a blind spot, I don’t know why. Then I came across that song specifically, “I’m Your Man.” It just was like a revelation, because this time around I wanted to focus more on the composition and the songwriting and the lyrics. It occurred to me that on the last three Neon Indian records, everyone heard me program synths, and heard me make textures, and do these very dense records. So I thought: “What haven’t they heard you do?”

And it’s always a gamble, because for some of us, it’s like you either got it or you don’t. I see electronic producers transition to more vocally oriented stuff. Sometimes it feels more boring somehow. I was very aware of that, but I was trying to find the lane in which I could turn up those vocals, have it be front and center, and think about what I would sing, and then what tone I would sing it in.

There’s just something about that Cohen album. Because it’s him showing everybody a sense of humor that had previously been missing in his work. And it was also such slick music, even though he’s making it on a little Casio. “The Wailing Mall” was really an homage to “First We Take Manhattan.” He made that record after the one with “Hallelujah” got shelved by his label. I think the label said, “We all know you’re great, Leonard. But I don’t know if you’re any good.” That must be so heartbreaking, especially when you’ve made what you know is your best song. Then, for it to have this other life a decade later, you know, through another artist who covers it, is just amazing.

But yeah, that was kind of the intention. Though I’m 35, not 50. But Cohen’s ability to reinvent himself at that age was something that I really admired. It was such a thorough, aesthetic overhaul. And in a way, I think I just panicked about the fact that Neon Indian had started when I was 20. And suddenly I’m 35 now. I thought: “One day you’re gonna be Cohen’s age. So let’s just put in the groundwork now, and make the kind of record that can be the foundation for the aesthetic to come.”

It sounds like you did a lot of soul searching to shed Neon Indian and perform under your own name.

It’s not that I don’t love the Neon Indian stuff. I mean, we’re definitely going to be playing a lot of it live, just because I don’t want to completely alienate the fans. And honestly, the name change has been a royal pain in the ass. Just in terms of the algorithmic side of things, and the way that the music industry works now. But I knew it was going to be an investment, and I didn’t necessarily expect it to pay off right away, in terms of hitting the same streaming numbers. Neon Indian was a body of work and multiple records. Honestly, it’s ironic because this would have been a perfect time to put out a Neon Indian album, what with all the 2000s era nostalgia around indie sleaze. But it just felt too fun to fly in the face of that. And I’m only 35—it’s not like I’m trying to cash in on nostalgia.

I have things I want to say, and music I want to make. I want to be able to look forward with it. But I’m aware that the fetishism for the ’80s was strong in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Then that moved away. So now it’s 2023. What should I do? Buy a bucket hat, and wear a tight top and baggy jeans, and make trip hop? Or mix pop-punk and shoegaze? I had all these questions in my mind while seeing where the cultural conversation was going, but I just didn’t have an interest in doing that as a lark or a novelty. And I already DJ disco and funk records, and I loved sophisti-pop all throughout my 20s. So I decided: just make the record you want to make, and if it’s good it’ll translate either way. It doesn’t have to be riding some kind of editorial wave.

That’s usually the good rule of thumb, right? Not making the record you want can look like you’re cynically chasing something.

One hundred percent. Your fans are smarter than Spotify lets on. They can hear right away if you’re doing something insincerely. I’ve seen friends, without doxing anybody, who write records that they think the industry wants them to make, and it kind of falls on its face. Then there are bands who stick to their guns, and maybe naturally have an affinity towards pop writing, that could potentially have a very large audience base. And it just happened because they were being themselves. I’d rather play that game, even if it’s a potential financial detriment. Because starting over with a new name is tough, man. I’d shop around for a publishing deal, but I have to explain it’s not another Neon Indian record. My brother always says, though: “You can’t help you from 10 years ago. That guy’s gone. But what can you do to help yourself 10 years from now? What is that guy asking you to do right now?” So this feels like an investment for the kind of career I want to have.

The industry you’re talking about just now is very different than the one you wrote about on this album. It sounds like an alternative reality you’re creating, in terms of tone and what you’re alluding to in the lyrics. Then there’s the album cover, which satirizes old music magazines.

Yeah well, the title World of Hassle is a line from Inherent Vice, the Pynchon novel. I think the full sentence was:“Unbeknownst to him, he was entering a world of hassle.” And honestly, I kind of felt that way, going into COVID, and being in this heightened state of paranoia while writing this record. But also feeling like, suddenly I’d been granted this sort of asylum to just sit and work and not think about touring, not think about feeding the machine that Neon Indian had been up until that point. I’d been so busy writing records, I hadn’t even thought about working on my craft. I haven’t really practiced piano. And I still don’t know how to sight read. I mean, I just wanted to find a piano, and that was kind of a lot of how the aesthetic of this record worked out.

But I do feel the artwork Robert Beatty [who also designed the covers for Tame Impala’s Currents, Kesha’s Rainbow, and the limited-edition artwork for The Weeknd’s Dawn FM] and I came up with captures how “world of hassle” sounded like a publication, at least in my head. I was kind of trying to make sense of the place we’re in, as a society. A lot of its references were a reaction to the irony that the same problems we had back in the era of I’m Your Man, the height of the Cold War, are the same problems we’re having now. I kind of wanted it to feel like some sort of weird period piece, with all these really bizarre little side characters and subplots.

So it’s a mirror of now. The paranoia’s always there. Doomsday’s always lurking around the corner. But it also feels more prescient and much like a Pynchon novel. His protagonists always feel like they’re the butt of some joke. Some external power they can’t see or find, that’s fucking with them. It’s like we’ve been reintroduced to that world. Or we’re in some Adam Curtis dystopia. So a lot of the songwriting here, and the comedy in it, is just me trying to make sense of it.

Even just your delivery of the word “sprawl” on “The Wailing Mall” made me think of all kinds of things, like the economic difficulties we’re all having and rampant consumerism over the years. Can the choice to phrase a particular line or lyric that way be very deliberate, and also very effective for a musician? Because I think that is powerful on that song.

Oh, well, well, thank you. It definitely sounded like a hook in my head. But it also was a literal sprawl. The mall I’m alluding to in the song is the Grapevine Mall, just one of these big gluttonous landmarks in Texas. A mile long loop, and anything you could possibly dream of is available. I imagined this mall as the entirety of America, and getting lost in it became the metaphor for when I arrived in the States. Because, you know, any kid’s worst fear is losing their parents in a mall.

And as the years go on, and you tour, you see the homogenizing of capitalism growing into other parts of the world. I mean, even going to my hometown Monterrey, just a year ago, they had McDonald’s and Burger King and Carl’s Jr. There’s something a little sad about it, because you want to think you can get out of the mall and go somewhere else. And you’re like, “Fuck, it’s exactly the same!”

Then, with other songs on the album, you’re using very different sorts of deliveries. “Nudista Mundial ’89” has all these silly ad libs. What was it like to work on that with contributor Mac DeMarco?

The night before we were in the studio, it just popped into my head that they love him in Mexico. He opened for The Strokes there not too long ago. I told him, “They’ve never heard you sing in Spanish, and I think that would be really fun. And I can walk you through it.” We recorded the vocals at his spot. I loved seeing how he accessed different styles of delivery, how he goes into his falsetto. Also, he showed me all these tricks you can do with logic that I wasn’t aware of. It’s always a good hang with Mac, because he genuinely is just like a lover of music. So even if he’s recording somebody else, I think he just gets a kick out of it. And he refused to get paid. I tried! But he told me not to worry about it.

As far as the ad libs go: I knew I wanted little moments of narrative. I love the Frank Zappa approach, where you’ve got skits within the song, or just things that give it a helium-like silly quality. I gave Mac a bunch of different lines to try. I told him his voice sounds like Duke Nukem when he reads those lines. I could make a little sound board of just him going, “Oh yeah!”

That’s great to hear, because his persona certainly makes me laugh.

Yeah, but he’s very chill. You don’t get the sense that he’s “on,” or trying to willfully make you laugh. But there’s a lightness about him that’s really disarming. It makes it very easy to work with him in the studio.

So between having him on that song, and “Wailing Mall,” there’s a spectrum of styles on this album. Another, very different, song that really stands out for me is “Alibi for Petra.” Though we were talking about “First We Take Manhattan,” and Cohen earlier, “Alibi for Petra” reminded me of Bowie in Berlin. Maybe “A New Career In a New Town.” Can you tell me more about working on that song?

It comes at the midpoint of the record, where it shifts to a laid back, sophisti-pop vibe. And the reference points were more rooted in the types of films I’ve been watching, compared to the other songs. During the pandemic, I was watching a lot of erotic thrillers, filling in these blinds spots. I hadn’t watched a lot of Adrian Lyne. I’d seen later stuff of his, like Jacob’s Ladder, but I never watched Fatal Attraction, or 9½ Weeks. I mean, they’re silly movies. But vibe wise, he has such a distinct aesthetic, especially in terms of how he interprets New York and how he shows it on camera. I mean, there’s a scene where they’re fucking in a clock tower to Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love.” So there’s definitely a lot of sophisti-pop on the soundtrack.

I was also imagining this late ’80s digital New York film score. The kind that are on Ridley Scott’s weird ass smaller movies. I like to call them Ridley’s Believe It Or Not, because you watch and wonder “Why did he make this?” One of them is a really funny Michael Douglas cop movie called Black Rain. Hans Zimmer’s score for it is basically a Ryuichi Sakamoto impersonation. I guess because it takes place in Japan. I looked at the poster for the movie first, and wondered what the soundtrack was like. Then I wrote “Alibi for Petra” and compared how close I got. And I wasn’t that far off, honestly. All I had to do was look at Michael Douglas’ black leather jacket and aviators, and the Tokyo lights in the background, and I was like, “Yeah, I think I know what they’re going to go for.”

Yeah, it’s easier to take Michael Douglas seriously as a sleazy Wall Street guy than a cop in Tokyo.

[Laughs] That’s true!

Have you worked on soundtracks? Is that something you’d like to do in the future?

The films I’ve scored are very small. I have a lot of filmmaker friends. And I studied film in college, but I started doing music out of frustration with the program being so heavy on theory. Because what if you’re ill equipped for academia, but you’re potentially a great storyteller?

But music? I knew I could do that on my own.

But the older I get, the more I want to return back to film. Between this album and the last, I did a short film and it had a fun little festival run. It was my first taste of trying to really do something narrative. I also realized, on my last record, that I was 27, and Paul Thomas Anderson was 27 when he made Boogie Nights. Like, “I’ve been wasting all this time!” But I do have a complete other career with a body of work. So I was trying not to get too down on myself. But I pushed myself to figure out a short film. I’ve also been directing all my videos. Any opportunity to be on a set always gives new things to learn. And hopefully a person can get more comfortable, so that eventually when you take on something like a film project you know you don’t have this imposter syndrome.

I’m slowly getting there. I have a producer that I’ve worked with now for a few years. He’s very talented, and has worked on a lot of features. We’re trying to figure out what a first, very modest, indie feature looks like for me. I’ve written scripts, but every time I do I’ll have helicopters and houses on fire, which would just amass thousands of dollars in production. So you know, it’s the first time around, so I’d want to work within the restraints.

Alan Polamo’s World of Hassle tour begins today. To see his dates, click here.

Also read our 2015 print article on Neon Indian, as well as our 2015 bonus digital mag Q&A with Neon Indian.

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