Neon Indian, the musical project of Mexico-born and Texas-raised synth maestro Alan Palomo, broke the blogosphere in 2009 with his day-glo debut Psychic Chasms. The effervescent LP fizzed and popped with lo-fi flourishes and left-field samples, ushering in a new era of electronic music less egg-headed than spiritual predecessors like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, and less meat-headed than the EDM and dubstep craze that followed.
A decade later, Palomo has carved his lane in a crowded field through restless experimentation. Last month, Neon Indian returned with a new single, “Toyota Man,” which finds Palomo singing in his native Spanish for the very first time on record. The bold new track centers the 31-year-old songwriter’s Mexican heritage and takes aim at our current immigration climate: “Venimos a estudiar / Queremos trabajar (We came to study / We want to work).”
I talked to Palomo, a longtime friend, from his home in Los Angeles.
Jezy J. Gray: Hey buddy. Where am I catching you right now?
Alan Palomo: I’m back home. I’m in LA. We just wrapped this tour up. We did a little Texas run and then took some time off. Then we did the West Coast, and then finally the longest stretch of it was this last leg, which coincided with the release of “Toyota Man.”
Gray: Let’s talk a little about the arc that brought you here. Psychic Chasms came out during the first year of the Obama administration—this kind of hopeful moment for the country after the economic crash. Now you’re putting out a really different kind of single in what is hopefully the final year of a white nationalist administration. How are you processing that?
Palomo: I think in 2009 a lot of us felt like we could afford to be lackadaisical. It was a very different mindset. I feel like what was intrinsic to that hope was that good times were ahead. That’s not to say the 2000s didn’t have their own set of hardships and complications, but at the very least there wasn’t really a feeling of urgency in the indie sphere for any kind of real political engagement. It just wasn’t where our heads were at. I feel like, in our minds we were kind of living in this John Hughes movie of what we wanted our lives to be.
“Toyota Man” dropped this fall, but I wrote it initially during the family separation stuff. When [Trump] was elected, New York was in a state of shock. … I called my brother [Jorge Palomo] and talked to him about it, and I think that’s when the gears started to turn about where the music would go next. The very system that allowed my brother and me to you know, ‘make right with the law’ and become Americans was essentially being challenged.
Gray: It’s definitely your most biographical work. Your parents are in the video, which is sort of this backdoor narrative telling your own immigration story. How did it feel to make that turn?
Palomo: It never really occurred to me that a lot of people who listen to my music aren’t really aware of my background. And this is my own sort of complex that I’ve slowly chipped away at, you know, post-adolescence—this idea that you don’t want to talk about your background because it’s uncool. You know, like it’s not cool to engage with this otherness. And initially when you arrive in the States, I wouldn’t even call it a pressure to assimilate, because you’re excited to be in a new place. And when you’re young, your brain is a sponge.
Gray: Your parents must have had a different experience, coming to the U.S. later in life. What can you say about that?
Palomo: Everyone had to rebuild themselves. My mom went from producing a local TV show in Mexico to scrubbing toilets at Taco Cabana. I remember I could see the Cabana sign from my school, and at recess I would know my mom was there making a living. My dad hustled singing at nightclubs, which is still what he does now. Everybody had to build themselves back up again. And for us, you know, that was really more of a cultural question. Because my brother and I were still just in [elementary] school. So our narrative was about fitting in and embracing this new home.
Having the chance to prosper in spite of that is not something I take for granted, and I feel like part of what allowed for that was the attitude the U.S. had towards immigration in the ‘90s. The way we were able to become American citizens, and even arrive here with any sort of footing, was partially because of a referendum signed by Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s. My dad was able to get a green card because he lived in L.A. in the mid-to-late ‘70s. … There were some inherent privileges that allowed us to become citizens, and now it’s just kind of wild to me that suddenly what before just felt like part of the process has become criminalized.
Gray: Now it’s, ‘Get in line or go to jail.’
Palomo: Right. And the people who say they have no idea what it actually entails to run the gauntlet of American citizenship. It doesn’t happen for most people. In our case, it was a very lucky set of circumstances. My mom had an education, and she eventually got a job in government and finally worked her way back into journalism. And my dad was in a unique opportunity to be middle class because he was a musician.
In those first days of the Trump administration, my brother and I kind of meditated on the fact that there are people who came to this country at the same age but won’t have the same opportunities. And it’s not because those opportunities aren’t there. It’s because we decided they should be inaccessible to some people.
Gray: How did you arrive at a strategy for communicating these ideas musically?
Palomo: It’s difficult to translate the [“Toyota Man”] lyrics in a literal way without them sounding angry. The delivery is to some extent a little sardonic. There’s definitely a humor that’s woven in when you sing it in Spanish that maybe might come off, you know, a little more didactic in English. But part of conveying that message meant the music had to be really upbeat, and really irreverent and funny, to engage with that.
We’ve fallen into an era of absurdism; at times, it’s hard not to just laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
The music video felt like this extension of having to snicker at the audacity of how far things have gone. That’s not to make light of the current plight of anyone who’s lost in the system, or been deported by ICE, or has had their children separated from them in some fucking internment camp. But it’s all so ridiculous that to some extent I can’t help but laugh as a means of relieving the desperation.