Though Neon Indian majordomo Alan Palomo talks film school and Tarantino when speaking with NPR, music geeks will quickly understand what the twenty-something’s third album, VEGA INTL. Night School (Mom + Pop), is all about. Recalling a tongue-in-cheek splice-merging Scritti Politti, Pet Shop Boys, and a young Prince, VEGA INTL. Night School is the perfect “chillwave” party record that time forgot. Palomo’s clever use of irony informs his effects-laden miracle pop with pictureperfect ’80s snapshots, from Sade-sleazy saxophone solos and chorus-heavy guitar squalls to a collection of super-vintage hardware synthesizers providing both freaky psychedelic color and nostalgic buzz. Though confessing a debt to “Balearic” and “Belgian Beat” styles, VEGA INTL. Night School is as old school as an ’80sthemed episode of Nick at Nite—and more enjoyable.
Composed and recorded in a cabin aboard a cruise ship, DFA’s Plantain Recording Studio in New York, Pure X’s practice space in Austin, and engineer Ben Allen’s studio in Atlanta, and mixed in Brooklyn with Alex Epton (currently of XXXchange and formerly of Spank Rock), VEGA INTL. Night School was created entirely in the box, using Ableton Live and a bevy of classic synthesizers and drum machines.
Quoted as describing his first album, Psychic Chasms, as “being surprised by the instrument,” and his sophomore effort, Era Extraña, as “trying to turn the tables and surprise the instrument,” Palomo explains that VEGA INTL. Night School is about “having a symbiotic relationship with the instrument. On the first two records I wouldn’t know what I was doing and then suddenly I’d hit a button and something cool would happen; that would be the basis for a new song. Now I’m going to get the results that I want out of the instrument. I finally have enough control and understanding that I can make the instruments do some pretty complex things, and that is satisfying.”
And master the instruments he has, even building his own DIY synth, a Bleep Labs PAL1980X, which he used on his latest effort alongside such vintage behemoths as a Moog Minimoog Voyager, E-Mu Emulator II, Korg M1, and Korg PS-3100.
“The Korg M1 is more synonymous with early ’90s house, those ubiquitous piano and organ sounds,” Palomo says. “The Moog is clunky, but beautiful; the factory had to build a little lock panel function for it because the parameters would arbitrarily change because of the power supply. So if you’re making a patch and you step away for a couple minutes, one of the oscillators might go wildly out of tune and create a completely different wave shape. I would make the patch as quickly as possible, lock the panel, and then record and try to finish the song that day ’cause once I turned it off there was a 50/50 chance that the patch would change. I also used the Korg PS-3100; it’s the closest thing I’ve heard to modular polyphony. It sounds like a lot of Krautrock records; it’s basically a polyphonic version of the MS20, which is why I gravitated to it. It sounds very ethereal, like Ash Ra Tempel.”
VEGA INTL.’s highlights include the Ray Parkersounding “Annie,” the sample-stuffed day-glow hypnosis of “Smut!,” the guitar hook/irresistible melodic goodness of “Dear Skorpio Magazine,” and the greatest songs that Duran Duran never wrote: “Slumlord” and “Slumlord’s Re-lease.”
“The intent was to create a collage record that plays genres like an instrument,” Palomo explains. “One where you could have these changes in nonsequiturs that happened from one section to the next that played with genre. They take you out of the song to slowly create some tangential shift into something that would be an entirely different palette.”
In describing VEGA INTL. Palomo happily spills the beans regarding the various tricks of his trade, as with the distorted, watery guitar solo of epic American Gigolo-worthy sad song, “Baby’s Eyes.”
“There’s this Korg MS20 trick where you can run a guitar or any signal into its external input processor,” Palomo divulges. “It takes the velocity and the pitch of whatever you’re feeding into it and applies it so it’s triggering both the envelope and the pitch. The envelope is controlling the filter so the harder we played the guitar the more the filter would open up and squelch. The guitar solo on ‘Baby Eyes’ felt too perfect as far as psych-rock sensibilities were concerned. So we un-muted the MS20 channel and it sounded insane so we blended the two. It’s hard to get those really expressive aspects when you’re just opening and closing a gate on an individual key. When you can combine the player’s sensibility with that approach then you really get a unique performance.”
Palomo doesn’t use soft synths and he shies away from plug-ins, but he does admit to the occasional Soundtoys fetish. “There are plug-ins I like for processing,” he says. “I generally use an Eventide H3000 and other preamps, such as a Roland VP-330 Vocoder. But at DFA studios they have this ethos: Take the best things about old-style recording and integrate it with the tricks of modern production to get this hybrid result that is either/or. That’s more interesting to me than a revivalist band that only wants to sound like 1982. I want to be able to touch on that then take you out again. That is more akin to records that I really love from J Dilla or Negativeland, artists who define themselves more as collage artists than the narrative of a band going into the studio to write a record.
“I like Soundtoys’ Decimort for bit crushing,” Palomo reveals. “It overdrives in a nice way. If I was mixing a band like a rock band, I’d use the real thing for echo, but once you’re in this complex soup of stuff I don’t find the need to painstakingly pursue this one effect. The context is not going to get showcased for its true character, anyway. That’s when I use Echoboy. I’ve done the Pepsi challenge between it and the H3000. They all have their things they do well.”
Palomo ran a Roland Juno 6 through a Moog Moogerfooger on Era Extraña, and he continues to play hardware rope-a-dope tricks on VEGA INTL. Night School.
“The Eventide H3000 offers a pretty complex set of algorithms,” Palomo says. “Ben Allen came up with this trick using it and a Korg Kaoss Pad. The 3000 isn’t an intuitive box to operate but it’s pretty deep as far as its routing capabilities go. We assigned these parameters of delay time and feedback to the Kaoss Pad to run like channels, doing aux sends from the song into this one component. The guitar in ‘Annie’ gets mangled by this Eventide trick where the feedback is blaring, then it closes up. Those were literally performance takes, not automation on the Ableton screen. I always find it awesome when you can fine-tune a trick from an older piece of gear. I like to bust out the Roland RE501 too, but I only really use its chorus and reverb. It makes really spooky sounds if something sounds too plain. And we had a great Yamaha CP70 electric grand piano at Midnight Sun Studio in Brooklyn. The CP70 has character but if I wanted it to sound more haunted, I’d glaze everything in chorus. I become obsessed with chorus. I’ve got various rack-mounted stuff and Ibanez chorus pedals. The Electro Harmonix Poly Chorus is fantastic too, and the Moog MF-108M Cluster Flux. The 108 mangles and overdrives the signal when you need that boost.”
Like much of VEGA INTL., drum sounds are mixed tightly within the album’s “complex soup.” Designed to resemble the sound of an ’80s car radio, the songs’ individual components sacrifice clarity for consistency. Palomo followed suite, mixing and matching analog rhythm machines to achieve ultimate character.
“We used a Sequential Circuits DrumTraks on some songs,” Palomo states. “It sounds best when you layer the kick with the snare; it’s got this very contained, tightly-wound sound that doesn’t require much compression since it shoots out of the box that way. We also played around with the Roland TR-909. And I have this fantastic old Russian-made Formanta UDS synth; it’s a rip-off of an old Simmons brain. It has great preprogrammed rhythms, such as ‘waltz’ or ‘disco,’ but what a Russian thinks that was in the ’80s. Polka! It’s got these bizarre rhythms; I use its synth modules as white-noise hi-hats. It came with an oscillator, a white noise generator, and a filter so it was easy to just use its different channels. It’s super cheap and has more character than a lot of gear, and these bizarre built-in rhythms.”
Palomo’s brother (who goes oddly unnamed in multiple interviews) played bass on the album, working both electric stringed and fingered synth versions. “We have an old Roland GR77B Bass Guitar Synthesizer which has an output but also a MIDI pickup that you assign to this brain that basically sounds like a Roland Juno 6,” Palomo recalls. “The filters in the envelope are all tied into the MIDI pickup. It’s one thing to play the part on the keys; it’s another thing to listen to the percussive multi-harmonic components he will incorporate and just really get more of the synth sound from it but still feel like it’s in the spirit of something he would do on bass.”
And while Palomo painstakingly pursued exacting effects with ancient hardware throughout VEGA INTL. Night School, when it came to his own vocals, which fill the album, he was oddly casual in his tracking approach, barely remembering his primary microphone, a Neumann U67.
“The chain varies from song to song: a UAD 610 preamp usually on vocals, and I used the Eventide H3000, again, because it has a lot of character,” he explains. “I never like the sound of my naked voice; I like to crunch it and add layers. After the UAD 610, the signal goes to a Symetrics 501 Compressor/Limiter, invariably. I always add some spring reverb and a touch of chorus. I like modulating my voice to the extent that it sounds like multiple people—that’s the sweet spot, just enough that it creates that roomy element. For reverb, I like the Lexicon PCM80 which is great at creating more of a room reverb sound, not a trail or something dramatic. But the PCM80 gives the song a time and space. And that’s where the more cinematic elements crawl in. I love songs like the Rolling Stones’ ‘Emotional Rescue’ and Queen’s ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love,’ where you can hear the room they’re recording in. It just sounds like this subterranean sewer space and that to me is infinitely fascinating. That’s where the stories are.”
DIY has been a big part of Palomo’s process, his experience building Bleep Lab’s PAL1980x affecting his musicianship both on the road and in the studio. “I was always a fan of Bleep Lab’s Thingamagoop and all their different noisemaker instruments,” he recalls. “I wanted that synth to embody the aesthetic of the last record. That really opened up a few things for me in terms of learning DIY electronics and other instruments and having dynamic variables within the song. This time around it wasn’t as much about that as it was getting controlled performances and Frankenstein-ing them together.
“Understanding more of the basic components that comprise the instrument will help you when things break but also give you a better understanding of the sound of the machine you’re after,” Palomo advises. “You’ll better understand what the individual ingredients are and you’ll be able to isolate them to apply that one aesthetic to any instrument.
“I have a small Doepfer Eurorack kit but it’s limiting ‘cause it doesn’t do polyphony very well,” he adds. “It’s very challenging to figure out a pragmatic polyphonic setup on Eurorack; it’s more about effects processing and sequencing. The module I use the most is the Intellijel Metropolis module, which is really great, it’s the most dynamic hardware sequencer I’ve ever played around on. It sounds like Model 500 and Detroit techno. It lets you set individual scales you’re operating in and it lets you silence and repeat certain steps up to eight times. The one problem with using the old Korg SQ10 or MS20 is you get that goofy sequencer riff syndrome that doesn’t let you break outside of wanting to play every note. It gets something that sounds like it’s in no particular key which is dope if you want to get all Paul McCartney ‘Temporary Secretary’ with it. But I can’t write a song with that. The Metropolis aids me as a songwriting tool, which is what I was after with Eurorack. I don’t want to make bug sounds. I already know how to do that. I want the thing that will help me bring a song to that next level.”
Palomo offers solid advice to anyone looking to delve into their own DIY Stew: Start simple and as always, do it old school.
“Start with Doepfer Eurorack,” he says, “then you’ll get into a mindset where you’re not looking at the instrument as a whole but for its individual components. It’s very useful when you’re have to make those informed decisions. Eurorack has blown up; it’s become the most ubiquitous language in DIY. It occupies little space; it’s not the clunky modulars of the ’70s. And a lot of manufacturers make cool stuff for it. I like the Roland SH101, I just wish it had a different filter on it or I wish the envelopes were tighter on this Voyager 8. I find myself in that position often, but if you know enough about the instrument you can rig it in a way where you can apply things from other gear you like.”
Though VEGA INTL. Night School trades in song genres, old synthesizers, and effects like a stand-up comic teaching 1980s history through a series of ironic bits, Alan Palomo insists his music is from the heart, not from the intellect.
“I never want the irony to outweigh the sincerity of making a fun, interesting record with some themes and narratives that are very close to me,” Palomo says. “Consider Tarantino’s movies; I like that he plays with form. He will make a genre film but he’ll deconstruct what that genre even is. That’s an example of post-modern filmmaking. You’re aware of the reference, but nothing is original because everything has been done; everything is a variation on some concept. But you can’t exist in a vacuum. I like embracing the idea that listeners might catch a reference or that they get inspired by something. Instead of concealing that, I would rather celebrate it because who fucking cares? It’s 2015. There’s 1,000 years of pop music behind us.”