Neon Indian: An Oral History of VEGA INTL. Night School
Words by Frannie Kelley | Photographs by Amy Harrity
The story of Neon Indian’s VEGA INTL. Night School album opens on a loss. Its saga is below, in the form of a letter from one Alan Palomo to the editors of Skorpio Magazine, a long gone Italian thirst trap. I’ve been asked to not give too much away, but please believe that rock bottom was just the beginning.
From there we cede the floor to 15 people who touched the third Neon Indian album as it rose from the ashes: engineers, roommates, his brother, guitarists, drinking buddies, drummers. People who are impressed with Alan, people who are a touch envious of what he’s pulled off here, people who really think Jorge is great, people who break bread with him and ride for him and are very proud that they made the album, but also of him.
Dear Skorpio Magazine,
I’ve been writing your publication for well over a year now but to no response … Though some months back I learned that your magazine went de facto out of print in Italy many summers ago, I still find myself writing to you out of habit. I don’t own a diary or keep film handy. In fact, I’d say posterity isn’t a priority for me. And, hey, I’ve never been to Italy, but I used to work at the Olive Garden. They had a little saying there: “Hospitaliano.” Which my manager, who had never left his hometown, explained meant, ‘When you’re here you’re family.’ I guess I never knew what that meant until now. I tracked down a stack of your magazines from a swarthy, reptilian clerk at the 757 Paradise primo porno emporium in Sunset Park. The credit card statement was cryptic to say the least but the money didn’t lie. A few weeks later a crinkled cardboard box with a stain like a birthmark showed up on my doorstep. These issues were mint. Remember Vivien Vee? I do. Miss Summer of ‘84? I never forgot. To say I need you today is both redundant and necessary, like a heartbeat. I’m an emotional house of cards.
The story goes like this: We filed out of Terminal Five and onto the avenue’s yellow riot. After haggling a limo driver down to 40, he agreed to chauffeur our goon squad to Le Baron’s basement in Chinatown. We packed in five bandmates, six besties, and one very important bag. Its contents: seasoned passport, prescription frames and laptop nesting on a bed of used boarding passes. The laptop’s contents: two hours of pure, unadulterated demo. Upon arrival, our Parisian host inquired about the evening’s boozing. I held up three fingers and said, “Tequila.” Presuming I meant bottles, he darted his eyes at the cocktail server and curtly chortled, “He’ll have two and the first one’s on us.” A chintzy mirror ball went into orbit over the star-peppered black. My friends and I were cartoons. High on Italo vapor, I spun Valerie Dore hits into cotton candy.
Once Mondanile took over the decks some hours later, I stumbled over to the host. “Can we get another bottle?” I asked. “You’ve had three and each one is $300. Your tab has clocked in at a little over a $1000.” The blood in my head went high tide under the mirror moon’s rotation. I gave him the band credit card and I thought, simply, “I’ll deal with this later.“ Noticing my roommates and ride home were MIA, I consulted with my bud Rambo, who claimed he had a lead on an SNL after party in Midtown. I took the French exit. Like a shaky fighter pilot botching the escape, I blacked out watching the street numbers accrue and accelerate. And there I went; sluiced in tequila and obfuscating blindly through the night like some beautiful wet dream.
What I recall: Dancing largo on a catwalk. Tripping into the bosom of a blonde Swedish vacationer. Nearly pissing myself at the urinal. Being an all-around persona non grata.
I came to at dawn, watching the street numbers deplete and decelerate now from the passenger window like my credit card balance. Miraculously, I still clutched my bag. I slurred to Rambo that I had another bottle of tequila at my house but couldn’t find my keys. He threw a twenty at the cabby and rang one of my roommates. Nothing. I pulled out my phone and started ringing the other. Zilch. I pounded on the door. Rambo bellowed at them through a window. He offered to wrap his shirt in his fist and break it. I politely noted that was maybe a touch too gauche. After he split, I wandered down the block to my old place and figured I’d ring the buzzer and crash with nearby chums. No dice. Out of options and post show adrenaline, I sat on the stoop and attempted to corral some cohesion. Light couldn’t help but spill over the damming buttress now. My inner monologue was saxophone scronk. I chased a malformed morsel of thought into a dream. I was gone.
Hours later, a disembodied voice asked if I was alright. Still sluiced, I explained through closed eyes that I was sunbathing. I drifted back into black. Suddenly, a hand in the dark clutched me and demanded to know if I was alive. After prying open the encrusted mucous between my lids, it was noon and I saw a man with his son standing over me. And there I was; laid out like a murder tableaux on someone’s work commute. In full show garb, in-ear monitor receiver still clipped to my belt. Arm partly embanking a gasoline rainbow wavelet. They helped me up and I immediately sensed the missing weight of my bag. “It’s gone now,” I thought. And who could care after a morning of immolation on New York City pavement? Worse things have happened to someone sleeping on a sidewalk.
I ran to the door and knocked. My roommate opens the door in a bathrobe, grinning with his coffee. “Where have YOU been all night?”. I gurgled, “Sleeping on the fucking sidewalk.”
Marcus Webb — roommate, Greenpoint, Brooklyn
“I’m the passed out roommate. And the reason I’m passed out is because he gave me way way way way too much tequila and I had to Irish exit.
Alan wrote pretty much all of that stuff in the apartment and I literally spent two years falling asleep listening to him, sharing a wall with his studio. It was a pretty debaucherous three-year span for the both of us. When I moved up here, which was late 2011, that was hitting that high point of 285, and Alan was really good friends with all the people who did all the programming and booking there. We were hanging out there all the time, and that was a crazy, crazy environment and we were just getting mad hammered. That was kind of this early period where he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m writing some songs. I should definitely be working on it a little bit harder, but I also kind of want to mess around with Vega.’
Vega is intended to be really just dance music. Just true, one-speed — a clean, solid version of poppy, dance electronic music. It’s gonna have more groovy bass lines, more straightforward drums. There’s a lot of love for French house in our formative friendship. Neon Indian is more psychedelic, like supposed to be messed-up. That aesthetic is more difficult to capture, because it takes a lot more experimentation, and mistakes, trying things that don’t necessarily work out.”
Jorge Palomo — Alan’s brother, bass, guitar
“In 2012, the bass player position at Six Flags opened up. I got a chance to do the whole theme park thing; it was all very by the book. And in the meantime, like little bits and pieces, I had been going up to New York to go and record with my brother. The cool thing about that was, because my brother was always traveling, the only chance that I ever really got to see him was Christmas and every now and then when he would have a DJ set or a show in Austin. It was very, very rare. It wasn’t that we weren’t close, it was just that we never really got the chance to hang out a lot. So when he started talking to me about possibly being part of the next album, I got super excited because not only was it gonna be a new experience, but also I was like, ‘Man, we’re finally gonna get to chill together for a while, and hang out and do the brother thing.’”
W. Andrew Raposo — engineer, Midnight Sun Studio (Midnight Magic)
“The most lasting image in my head has got to be him and his brother on the couch in the studio and the two of them just laughing. There’s something that comes out in siblings — or in what they can bring out in each other — I don’t think even the closest of friends can have that kind of effect on another person.”
“The first time that I went up it was during the summer. I got to see where he lived. I had never worked with him before, ever. I was curious to how it was gonna go, because we have very different musical — when we found our musical identity, it was complete opposites. I kind of fell into the metal, progressive rock world. Very jazz, when I came back from Berklee. My brother was definitely more on the synth, electronic, indie side. Which I enjoyed listening to, but for me, being more of a technician — my brother’s a straight up artist.”
W. Andrew Raposo
“I’ve never so genuinely had to come up with a slap sound that you would find on, like, a later ’80s Michael Jackson record. Me being like, ‘Hey, are you sure about this?’ As a guy who came out of punk rock music and rap — ‘15-year-old me would punch me in the face for creating this texture for you.’ But it was so musical and it ended up being just the right thing.”
Morgan Wiley — keys (Midnight Magic)
“I ended up tracking a bunch of keyboards over the course of maybe two days. He has a lot of great gear that he brought into the studio, particularly this Korg 3600 analog synthesizer. Which is an amazing, amazing instrument. That was fun for me to play. It’s a big sound for him. It’s all over his music. I actually believe it’s on the cover of the record. It’s such a awesome piece of gear.”
W. Andrew Raposo
“The greatest musical asset for the record wasn’t just all the technology that was at Alan’s disposal — the wonderful synthesizers and drum machines and sequencers — but really Jorge himself. So the choices that I saw Alan make were really centered around the very human, very live aspect of making a record. I thought that was really cool and really smart for him.”
“We had this really nice work flow going, where he would have an idea set already, and then he’d have me play to it, kind of on repeat. If he heard something that he liked, he’d be like, ‘Play that again.’ And then he would adjust a note, like, ‘Take that note, put it over here. Don’t play that.’ And then I would start to see where he was going, and I would be like, ‘Oh, you mean like this!’ ‘Yes! But now make it a little bit more …’
I can confidently say I’m fairly proficient at my instrument. People trust me. 9 out of 10 times people will be like, ‘Just do your thing.’ And they’ll be happy with it. With my brother it was — I feel like, because he’s so used to working with MIDI, and stuff that he has 100% complete control over, that he was, in a way, sampling me.”
Nick Millhiser — drums (Holy Ghost)
“His brother is the secret weapon of that record. His playing is incredible. I don’t know anybody else who can play bass like that. I’m a huge disco nerd, Chic fan. I don’t know anybody who can even fake it. People don’t really play like that anymore.
I remember talking to Eric Broucek, another friend of ours who helped record some of that stuff. Like, ‘How do you get that bass sound?’ He’s like, ‘Dude. That’s just him. There’s no magic. That’s just what he sounds like.’”
“It’s called modal borrowing, when you have all these other scales, with different chords within them, if you line them all up, you can start borrowing this chord and throwing it here. Good songwriters have natural ability of doing that. And that’s what I think makes a good songwriter, is being able to take something that’s kind of out of context and making it fit. ‘Skorpio’ does that. ‘News from the Sun?’ Super progressive. That was the first song that came out of that first visit to New York. It was the last song that he wrote vocals to, because it was so different. It was the first one that he sent to Jason, just kind of like, ‘Hey man, this is what’s in the works.’”
Jason Faries — drums (Neon Indian live band)
“He was sending me stuff as it was coming down the pipeline, just like, ‘How do you feel about this?’ I really loved ‘Street Level’ the most. I’m a huge fan of Jay Dilla and Madlib, and it has that kind of feel to it. That MPC kick drum rhythm. To me it had that deep Jay Dee, Madlib charm to it, Stones Throw stuff.”
“I was starting to get a little antsy. One of the dancer guys from Six Flags had talked about how he did cruise ships. So I called him. He laid it out and was like, ‘Well, you’re gone for six months and you don’t pay any rent.’ I was like, ‘I’ll go on this contract, save up all this money, and on the way back I’ll use that money to move.’ Halfway through the contract he called me and he’s like, ‘Is there any way that I can borrow you for like a week?’ And I was like, ‘No, man, the only way would be for you to come on the ship.’ Within a week, he’s like, ‘Hey, so, how much is a cruise?’”
Josh Ascolon — engineer, Rad Studio, Bushwick, Brooklyn (The Great Void)
“We were at 285 one night and he was just like, ‘So I’m thinking about going on this cruise? And I might want you to come and bring some equipment and maybe engineer the session, record some stuff.’ I was like, ‘Uh, OK.’ That sounds like probably the best possible scenario for a recording session that I could think of. Then a month later he was like, ‘Alright bro, we’re going. Here’s the date.’ I was like, ‘Cool.’ That was insanely fun.”
“I was good friends with a lot of the security guys. As a musician, there’s a very wide gray line that you can maneuver. Cause a lot of other employees on the ship can’t be in guest areas and they can’t eat in the same places, but musicians, they’re like, ‘Just don’t wear jeans.’ And, ‘Try not to sleep with our guests.’”
“I spent pretty much the whole time in the hot tub. And then his brother would get done around 11 and we would just crack the tequila and party it up slash record until like five in the morning. Rinse and repeat for the next — we were there for a week.”
“The guitar that they brought on board — my brother tweeted, like last minute, if anybody in Florida had a guitar that we could borrow. And this dude, I don’t know who he is, he was like, ‘Oh, you can borrow my guitar!’ Like, ‘Of course!’ It was so funny. He brought them the guitar to the airport and when I take the guitar out, the dude’s demo falls out on the floor. I was like, ‘This is for you! Now you have to listen to it.’ It was so awesome. I would totally do that.”
“I do think that Neon Indian is almost like a thing he has to conjure, through almost ritualistic — in a very, very loose sense — way. And I think that’s almost a subconscious thing that a lot of artists do, where they create a situation that forces them to act certain ways that even subconsciously they maybe don’t realize is happening. But that they’re sort of facilitating — talking about that whirlwind.”
Eli Welbourne — roommate, Austin (Silent Diane)
“I have this amazing video of him singing ‘Only the Good Die Young’ by Billy Joel in an empty Mexican restaurant. The only person there was the vaquero-esque karaoke host who was wildly enthusiastic about him singing so well and so exuberantly. Eventually one of the cook’s girlfriends showed up to pick him up (the place was delaying closing because we took over this karaoke operation) and she was so into it she wanted to sing a Selena song with Alan. I have video of that too.
The spot was a place we would go to whenever Alan needed a break from working on the new tracks. He also had a tradition of going to this place with his father, who is initially from Mexico. I believe the staff had become familiar with him prior to him moving in with me to work on the record and escape the distractions of New York. I think we remained plenty distracted. His last night in Austin during his stay we snuck into an anime rave at a Hilton hotel.”
“Either February or March I heard the first versions of ‘Baby’s Eyes.’ It was a lot different from everything else he had sent me. As a drummer I immediately heard fills, cause the drums on it were just kick, snare, real basic. I could just see it. It sounded like it needed live drums. I don’t know if a computer can make it happen.
I was like, ‘Hey man, I really have a good idea for some of this stuff. You mind if I take a shot at it?’ At this point he was working so hard on the album that it was just like, ‘Sure! Throw me something I can use and I’ll see if I can get it to work.’
I ended up texting my friend Jordan Richardson, who actually was Ringo Starr’s drummer. I knew that he would get my references, which was really important for this record, to be able to be like, ‘Yeah, we kind of want the drums to sound like Yes drums.’ Or, you know, ‘We kind of want the drums to sound like LCD Soundsystem. Really dead, dry, like disco toms. Concert toms vibe.’ And he knew exactly what I was talking about. I was in Germany, heard the song, flew home, and the next day I was in the studio.”
“I’m hungover from the night before, cause we’re partying cause Alan’s gonna leave, of course. He’s going down to Atlanta and he has to get all of this — like $70,000 worth of gear from Brooklyn to Atlanta, so he can go down there and finish shit. I hear this really heavy crash, everyone starts screaming, I run down the stairs and Alan’s laying on the ground. There’s this gigantic rack case next to him. He’s got his hands pinned to his face, covering his eye. And there’s mad blood all over him. From what I’m seeing, his glasses are broken, his eye is torn to shreds.
He’s like, ‘OK, Marcus. You’ve gotta tell me how bad it is.’ I lean over, I’m looking him in the other eye, in like a human connection, like, ‘OK buddy.’ He pulls his hands off and I realize it’s the eyebrow, not the eye. There’s a gigantic gash, and it’s spread apart. I’m like, ‘You’re gonna be fine, but you’re going to the hospital right now.’
Everything’s colliding. Up until that point been grinding super hard. Gotta party cause you’re going out of town, even though it’s only for like six weeks. Then last minute struggle — that stuff is all very part of the story.”
W. Andrew Raposo
“The reason why Alan moved around quite a bit with his process was he wanted to not fall into the patterns of distraction that you find in your hometown, or in the city you love visiting the most. He wanted to kind of cloister himself from time to time to work through ideas. Going to Atlanta wasn’t just, there’s a studio and a producer he wanted to work with, but also very much this sense of, ‘And I can’t get a text at any minute that might make me go, like, ‘You guys want to break a little early tonight?’”
Sumner Jones — engineer, Maze Studios, Atlanta
“Definitely some of the most fun I’ve ever had making a record. Lots of hard work went into it, absolutely, but we also knew when to chill out and go grab a beer, hit the reset button.”
Ben Allen — mixer/additional producer, Maze Studios, Atlanta
“I was already a fan before he reached out. He had a really clear vision for what he really wanted to do. It’s nice to be able to kind of help someone like Alan get where to where they want to get, especially when they know what it is.”
“The equipment used on the record is some of the coolest stuff I’ve ever got to work with. Ben’s collection of vintage synths is amazing, and Alan brought almost all the synths that he had as well. I remember Alan unpacking the crate. And looking at all the stuff, I was like, ‘Holy cow. This has got to be one of the best synth collections in the state of Georgia.’”
“I was bored one day at the studio and I had just gotten a new toy, synth toy. And I was like ‘You need anything done?’ And he’s like, ‘I need some noise interludes.’ So i just spent a couple hours in the studio doing these weird noise interlude things and sending them to him. He was like, ‘Sweet!’ He ended up using a couple on the record.”
“We’re all big synth nerds.”
“A lot of really bright, funky guitar playing is all about the rhythm behind when you’re not playing, it’s the muted notes, so to speak, so them communicating back and forth, talking about like, ‘No, the bounce needs to be here. Instead of hitting on the up, you need to lay back a little bit and then come back to resolve on the one.’ The dynamic between two brothers making a record together was awesome. They’re giving each other shit and horsing around. And then when it came time to get a take, everybody put their business suits on.”
“Alan was working a lot of this stuff at his house, and he’d come by when he needed some recording stuff that he couldn’t do. We did a lot of guitar stuff, some background vocals. We had a party for some party vibes on the record, where we just bought a bunch of beer and invited a bunch of people over.”
Nicole Brenny — backup singer
“We all got super drunk. He was encouraging us to get as drunk as we possibly could because he wanted it to be sloppy, and then eventually he was like, ‘We can record now.’ He instantly gets into this director mode. He’ll put himself in your shoes, do the embarrassing thing first. He sings it for us so we copy it exactly. He started having us do this acting exercise — it’s a little bit blurry by now. I think he has a lot of fun directing people like that. I think it’s his film side. He seems to be sensitive to what he can get out of people.”
Chris Coombs — guitar (The Great Void)
“Alan pulled up a little known piece of footage from a Marvin Gaye rehearsal for a song called ‘I Want You,’ in which Marvin is seen leading the rehearsal while sprawled out on a comically enormous burgundy sofa in a comically comfortable track suit. The video was intended to inspire a vibe prior to recording the guitar on the track. After hearing the final product of ‘Dear Skorpio Magazine,’ I believe Marvin served his purpose, but we’d recorded on a few different tracks that day and over the course of the session Alan had sunken into a much smaller, much lower budget couch that we have in the control room at Rad Studio. We’ve kept the plastic cover on it as if to preserve the integrity of the upholstery, but it’s very far gone. The dichotomy between the validity of the reference and the humility of our bohemian parallel experience created an equal parts hysterical and unforgettable moment. The man’s got style.”
“I’m pretty sure we just ended up using one full take of Chris whaling. As a guitar player, I don’t think Chris very often gets invited to the studio: ‘Yeah, why don’t you whale a solo?’ Which is pretty much what we asked him to do. ‘Just whale one.’ And we basically just laughed the entire time while he was whaling guitar solos. A semi-ironic whaling guitar solo, but being 100% serious about it.”
“He just knew what he wanted the entire time. And he was always willing to rewrite what he wanted if what he wanted had shifted or changed in the process.”
Eric Broucek — engineer, DFA Studios, West Village, New York
“Alan was focused and meticulous about his sounds. It’s always nice to work with someone who knows what they want like that.”
“He’s very hands on. It’s difficult for him, for being someone who likes to have full control over his music. That’s the reason why his stuff is really good; it’s cause he doesn’t let too many people in the kitchen.”
“If he needed something specific done he kind of just let the person do their thing and kind of guide it and conduct it and direct it towards what he was going for. He purposely would only work with people that he trusted, musically or personally.”
“He has a way of minding the details.”
Alex Epton — mixer/additional producer, Flavor Factory, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
“We do the music inside a computer a lot. Instead of looking at the computer screen — cause then you’re just sort of looking at boxes pass by and it’s a little bit like, ‘Oh, that thing’s coming up’ — if you’re watching something else, it allows you to listen with your normal brain, your normal listening brain, instead of being like, ‘Here comes the chorus!’
If you’ve heard the song 1000 times, you know what’s gonna happen, you want more, you start adding more crap just to keep yourself interested. But then when somebody else hears it for the first time, they’re like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s way too much information.’
Alan’s really into B-movies — he’s just into movies in general, but he’s into weird cult movies, too. And then I like to watch anime. So we were watching anime and then he brought over Mutant Hunt and Robot Holocaust and funny, grindhouse-type movies.”
Heba Kadry — mastering engineer
“VEGA INTL. is the last record I mastered in my old studio in Williamsburg before I had to move out so it can be converted into another depressing high rise. We were literally down to the 11th hour right before breaking down and boxing all my gear so it can be moved to my new studio in Bushwick. It was super stressful but in hindsight it helped giving us both a VERY definitive timeline to work with; we could have kept tweaking foreeeeever!”
“I think the reason that we actually finished is because she had to move studios. So there was a hard cutoff date. She was gonna be out of commission for like a month. And I’m pretty sure he was doing revisions until the day that she moved.”
“There was a point when the sequence of the album wasn’t quite gelling together and we were sort of hitting a wall. After a super long, exhausting 10-hour mastering day, Alan showed up at my studio the next day on zero sleep having worked out a these wacky and amazing segues he tracked all night. It worked perfectly.”
“You can work on it and work on it and work on it until you have to stop. And it’s not going to be any less of a piece of art if you stopped a week before. It’s just that’s how much time you had. The expectations of the audience might be fulfilled way before the artist’s own standards are met. I don’t think it really has a bearing on overall quality, as relates to the world, but to him, or like, to whoever, if you’re the artist, you just have to work as hard as you can on it and make it as great as you can. You can work on it until the day you die, or you have a deadline. That’s why deadlines are a good thing. Cause then you’re like, ‘Eh, it’s done now.’”
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Originally published at yourstru.ly.