I'm talking inspiration with Alan Palomo, the 21-year-old Brooklyn-/Austin-based artist behind the psychedelic synth-pop outfit Neon Indian, when he offers up his earliest musical obsession. "It all started when I discovered [New Order's] "Bizarre Love Triangle," he says. "It summarized every blissful feeling of infatuation I've had since birth in those six minutes."
At once buoyant and melancholic, the influence is clear in Neon Indian's songs, which often come across like a homemade fusion of rough-around-the-edges indie pop and cool '80s synth funk.
?Distinctive as that combination may sound, Palomo isn't alone in making this kind of music, as other artists such as South Carolina's Washed Out and Toro Y Moi are also toying with variations on a similar style, which curiously seemed to spring up out of nowhere last summer.
Neon Indian - "Deadbeat Summer"
It's hard to pin an exact date on when the sound emerged (the closest approximation being sometime in July of 2009, when Washed Out's cut-and-paste beach ditty "You'll See It" began to light up the blog circuit), but suddenly it seemed like there was a multitude of pastoral dance-pop tracks arising from different parts of the country. In addition to Neon Indian, Washed Out, and Toro Y Moi, there was also Denver's Pictureplane, Philadelphia's Memory Tapes, Brooklyn's Small Black, and a slew of others playing with bedroom-recorded electronic music, and writers were quick to group these artists together, giving the microgenre clumsy handles like "chillwave," "glo-fi," and "hypnagogic pop," none of which seemed to really accurately describe the sound.
That made sense in a way, because, for the most part, each of these musicians was operating independently, and, with the exception of Washed Out and Toro Y Moi, had never met one another. They were doing aesthetically similar work but were part of a scene only in the loose, online sense of the term. Still, there are similarities that can be drawn between each of these artists' tracks: Generally, the music is often sample-based and purposefully rough-hewn, but propulsive and playful, packed with childlike emotion and a coastal ambiance (hence all the talk of "beach music" you've probably encountered over the past year or so). There's a clear debt owed to lo-fi innovator Ariel Pink in terms of production, not to mention Panda Bear, whose 2007 Person Pitch might very well serve as the blueprint for the sound.
?It's also worth noting that these guys, who are mostly in their early 20s, represent one of the first waves of artists to be raised predominantly on internet culture (hell, the key inspiration for their sound is a record not yet three years old), and their artistic development is as much a product of file-sharing and blogs as it is traditional music discovery—you know, that forgotten practice of buying records in a store or finding out about bands from friends. Those shared files no doubt include plenty of indie rock, but with bedroom music-making taking on more and more traits of electronic music production (ie. the use of laptops, Ableton Live, etc.), some of these guys are just as influenced by dance music's history, and it's made quite an impact on the sound as a whole.
MEN WITH LAPTOPS
Palomo, a lifelong music obsessive who also records as VEGA, credits much of his sound to the music he absorbed early on. "I practically inhaled the Factory Records catalog and began getting really into stuff like Fad Gadget and Cabaret Voltaire at an early age," he says. Those darker tones are evident in his tracks, but are often balanced out with a blissful, upbeat feeling—even seemingly downcast numbers like "Deadbeat Summer" and "Should Have Taken Acid With You," from his recent Psychic Chasms LP, tend to bounce along cheerfully. IDM was also an influence, he says: "Boards of Canada had a lot to do with it. They exemplified a lot of the qualities I eventually became obsessed with on some of the Neon Indian stuff." Though at times sketchy, Palomo's work in particular shows a real attention to songcraft, which may stem from his admiration of a few of music's more notorious studio rats. "In terms of work ethic and craft, I got pretty into Scott Walker. Aside from that I'd say Todd Rundgren—that's another maddened, prolific musician I always end up referring back to in times of need."
Though there are pretty clear delineations between each of the artists under this burgeoning genre's umbrella, perhaps the two closest in approach are friends Ernest Greene and Chaz Bundick (known as Washed Out and Toro Y Moi, respectively) who both reside in Columbia, South Carolina. Like Palomo's, the pair's inspirations are a mélange of new and old. "My first big influences were more hip-hop based—people like DJ Shadow and Four Tet," Greene says. "I didn't really discover dance music until the past couple of years, so it's more of an indirect influence." Bundick's style, which oscillates between more traditional guitar pop and looped, blown-out dance tracks, is more production-heavy, and the things that inspired him tend to be more layered. "Sonic Youth is a huge one. My Bloody Valentine, J. Dilla, a lot of the Stones Throw stuff," he says. You can hear the ghosts of these artists clearly in the chopped-up beats and woozy shoegaze backdrop of a song like "Sad Sams," which circulated online last summer. Bundick and Greene make no bones about their creative relationship, and have grown individually, they say, from sharing ideas. "We definitely feed off of each other," Bundick says.
Washed Out - "Feel it All Around"
If we're talking in generalizations, two other artists that you might lump in with Neon Indian, Washed Out, and Toro Y Moi are Memory Tapes (a.k.a. Dayve Hawk) and Pictureplane (a.k.a. Travis Edegy), though these two probably stand furthest from the stylistic center of the batch. Hawk is the former frontman of indie-rock group Hail Social, but his solo material—which occasionally appears under the names Memory Cassette and Weird Tapes—is decidedly more enigmatic and introverted. His cut-and-paste style, which pulls from funk and dance-pop, is usually set over ambient haze and sounds best as internal, headphone music. On last year's Seek Magic, ambient soundscapes split time with New Orderisms, but the album mostly feels unattached to a particular genre.
Like Hawk's, Edegy's songs are heavy on mood and feel, though his style is quite a bit darker. With a clear love of kitschy late-'80s and early-'90s radio dance-pop ("I think that was permanently burned into my brain," he says) and trashy house, Edegy runs these sounds through home-recorded fuzz and an almost industrial, dark-wave filter to arrive at a sound that's also drenched in nostalgia, but more sinister-sounding, like the nightmarish flipside to Memory Tapes' dreamscapes. Interestingly, Edegy is invested in current dance culture more so than the others. "I really pay attention to a lot of the forward-thinking electronic music coming out of Europe and the UK," he says. "I'm really big on grime, the more weirder and avant-garde corners of dubstep, and I love the funky scene and wonky." That comes through on tracks like "Goth Star" and "Trance Doll," from last year's excellent Dark Rift album, which marry heavy, distorted bass with Edegy's androgynous vocals and chopped-up samples of folks like Fleetwood Mac.
Pictureplane - "Goth Star"
With the exception of Memory Tapes, whose production style is cleaner than the rest of the group, one sonic quality that ties these artists together is a tape-hissy, unrefined tone to their songs. Which is pretty easily explained—most of these guys are in fact recording in their bedrooms. ("It is really a ghetto process; I make music sitting on my bed," Edegy explains.) But, as with most lo-fi artists, the use of fuzz is just as much an aesthetic choice as it is a product of their circumstances. "I would love to go into a studio, but I just can't afford it," says Bundick. "I've tried buying nice compressors and pre-amps and stuff to make it sound better, but I don't have any technical music education, so it just sounded like I was trying too hard—it had no weight. So I went back to doing what I knew how to do best, and that's when it had the most punch." Greene agrees: "I'm not the most technical producer, so the weird mixes and blown-out sound happen naturally. But I think the most interesting things happen by mistake, which I feel would be much harder to pull off in a traditional studio," he says.
Talking to each of these musicians, both about their technical approach and style, the artist who keeps coming up is Ariel Pink, and it's hard to ignore the idea that he is, at least in some ways, the grandfather of this sound. Since the early 2000s, Pink has been releasing records on Animal Collective's Paw Tracks imprint and others, but his buried pop was met with a collective shrug (and occasional disdain) upon its original release—yet it has only grown in influence since. (UK publication FACT recently listed his 2003 The Doldrums LP as their 19th favorite album of the last decade, for instance, and you can hear Pink's impact not only on this sound but also throughout much of the more rock-inspired shitgaze scene—Vivian Girls, Wavves, et al—that's emerged in recent years.)
However indirect, these artists are quick to cite Pink's inspiration. "Production-wise, I definitely favor the DIY feel to his records, but even more important is his pop sensibility," says Greene. "He writes catchy songs that are slightly 'off,' which falls in line with my tastes."
Palomo concurs: "I remember hearing Ariel Pink for the first time on a long van ride to a debate tournament my sophomore year of high school. It was pretty cathartic, to say the least. I spent the whole day freaking out about it and playing 'For Kate I Wait' on repeat as I hogged my friend's Discman," he says. "It's his ability to endlessly reference songs that always seem slightly out of reach. Like, they could be on the tip of your tongue the rest of your life. It's pretty difficult to capture some of the idiosyncratic magic of AM Gold hits but he seems to do it very prolifically." Listening to a Neon Indian song like "Terminally Chill," with its heavy reverb and innocent outlook, it's easy to see what Palomo picked up from Pink.
Neon Indian - "Terminally Chill"
If there are common threads that run through the work of, say, Neon Indian and Washed Out, there are plenty of stylistic traits that divide them, and in a lot of ways it feels shortsighted, if not outright incorrect, to consider their work as part of a collective. And though there's a mutual respect that extends to everyone involved ("I definitely think they have some pretty intense talent," Palomo says of Washed Out and Toro Y Moi), each artist sort of scratches his head as to how they've all been lumped together. "I've not interacted with any of those dudes, so it doesn't feel like a scene to me," Hawk says. "Music is so malleable that you can invent genres all day and find examples to fit the name you've come up with."
But it is fascinating in some sense that this brand of music, the apparent result of geographically scattered artists working independently, could develop so quickly. Subgenres pop up all the time, of course, but it's not often we see it happen within the span of just a couple months. One has to think the unfettered access we have to music online plays a big role there—an artist could potentially hear a contemporary's new demo the day he records it—but often the same online communities and publications that provide idea-sharing create false relationships. Palomo describes it as such: "It seems like whereas before, genres were cultivated by a community confined to a group of similarly minded friends in a city somewhere who began influencing each other's music, now you could find three or so bands in different places in the world, tie some vague comparisons, and call it a movement. It's kind of assaulting in some ways."
That's true; one can't assume that each of these musicians is sharing the same musical dialogue. But whether they like it or not, upcoming releases by these artists will inevitably be compared to one another. And there's much new material to come from each of them, it seems. Toro Y Moi releases his first full-length, Causers of This, in February, and Palomo plans to record the debut VEGA LP shortly, which will surely mark a different direction for those accustomed to his more laid-back Neon Indian material. Both Pictureplane and Memory Tapes are also working on follow-ups to their 2009 releases, which, though in their early stages, also sound decidedly different to their predecessors. Given a little more time, maybe these artists won't sound so similar after all.