Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Hypewave: No matter what one pseudonymous blogger says, Neon Indian’s warped synth-pop isn’t just some ’80s throwback

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Photo by Ben Rowland.

Alan Palomo, the 21-year-old force behind Neon Indian, keeps it real: His synths are analog, his lyrics personal, his electro-pop unabashedly sentimental. But since getting catapulted from his bedroom, through the blogosphere and onto Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in a matter of months, he’s wound up at the center of a genre that seems to exist in name only: chillwave.

It’s not his fault. Ever since the term was coined last July by Carles, the pseudonymous proprietor of the pop-culture blog Hipster Runoff, the hype machine has turned “chillwave” into a bona-fide craze. In February, Pitchfork dubbed summer 2009 “the summer of chillwave.” In March, The Wall Street Journal dutifully reported on the trend. In April, MTV elicited backlash from Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino after erroneously asserting that she’s “embraced the chillwave sound.” On Twitter, she raged: “What the fuck is chillwave?????”

It’s catchy and winsome. It’s nostalgic for the ’80s. It was recorded in someone’s bedroom. And it doesn’t matter that when the hype tsunami crested, hardly any chillwavers actually knew each other, lived in the same state or considered themselves chillwave.

It’s chillwave, dude—who cares?

Of course, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that this is really just a hoax. Carles invented chillwave (even as he mocked it, offering up alternative labels like “Pitchforkwavegaze,” “Blogrock” and “Forkshit”), only to act as though the musicians themselves chose to be chillwave.

To be fair, though, there’s some truth to the hype. Songs by the likes of Neon Indian, Washed Out, Memory Tapes and Toro Y Moi share a DIY aesthetic, a keenness for synthesizers and drum machines and an apolitical outlook more invested in psychedelics than current affairs. Take, for example, Neon Indian’s “Should Have Taken Acid With You.” Over a dramatic torrent of synths, Palomo’s ingeniously simple lyrics (“Should have taken acid with you / Take our clothes off in the swimming pool”) evoke the innocent longing of Say Anything. Only it’s been updated to fit the druggy lifestyle of the modern-day college student.

But Palomo was never interested in being chillwave (or “glo-fi,” as some like to call it). “My intention was never to tap into some kind of movement or something,” he says over the phone from his sublet in Brooklyn. “I think that’s incredibly pretentious to say, especially when experimentation is just sort of the word of the day and all you’re really doing is trying new songs out.”

The truth is, he wrote “Should Have Taken Acid With You” on a lark. While he was living in Austin, Texas, last year, a date to drop acid with a friend fell through, so he sat down to write her a song. Adding layer after layer of synths, he finished it in five or six hours.

“I sat on it for, like, a month. If anything, I tried to rewrite it as a VEGA song,” he says, referring to his other band. “But it just really wasn’t working out.”

Realizing that his song worked just as it was, he decided to pursue the sound further. “Just one day, I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll try writing these other songs,’” he says. “And in a week, I had an EP’s worth of material. And in about a month, I had an album’s worth of material.”

What came out was Psychic Chasms, a half-hour set of heartfelt yet silly pop songs composed of squeaky synths, squelching bass lines and melted samples. Innovative and infectious, it’s no wonder the album’s become an instant classic: You could just as easily geek out to it while smoking a bowl or blare it in your car on the way to the beach.

Palomo acknowledges that some “chillwave” tracks bring to mind iconic moments from ’80s films—“like that scene in Rocky 4,” he says, “when he’s driving his Ferrari late at night and thinking about his friend dying.” But he isn’t trying to manufacture nostalgia for the pop culture of a decade he hardly lived through. At its core, Psychic Chasms is a personal document, encapsulating all the psychedelics Palomo’s taken and the heartbreak he’s experienced (from the liner notes: “Thanks to all the women who’ve broken my heart. I could not have done this without you”) during the last four years of living in Texas.

But even if “chillwave” doesn’t represent what he’s about, he thinks the recent obsession with lo-fi makes for an interesting statement.

“We have high-definition cameras, and we have everything that looks really pristine and clean, so how are we going to create the distinction for nostalgia 40 years from now, when it’s probably going to look the same way?” Palomo wonders. “You’re able to store all this information that doesn’t undergo any kind of degradation. Recording something on a tape means killing certain components of it that gave it its qualities. Over time, that becomes the quality about it. Having this music, this preoccupation with lo-fi, it’s almost like a swan song for that.”

Maybe, though the swan song itself will be revived in the echo chamber of some future blogosphere.

Neon Indian play with Class Actress on Wednesday, June 2, at The Casbah.

This article was published in this week’s issue of SD CityBeat.


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  1. […] I Were U” column as CityBeat‘s Music Editor. Check out more coverage from this week here and […]

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