Interview by Jesy Odio
Images by Ambar Navarro
Assisted by Nele Moens
Grooming by Leticia Llesmin
Video by Tempe Hale
“With filmmaking, you will never hit the mark,
but you will beautifully miss and that’s exciting.”
— Alan Palamo
Musician, filmmaker and score composer Alan Palomo is best known for his band Neon Indian, one of the defining acts to spark the 2000s chillwave movement. He is also known for his work with the band Ghosthustler and solo project VEGA. Palomo’s most recent release is Neon Indian’s acclaimed third album, VEGA INTL. Night School (2015). He has written and directed several music videos for Neon Indian and directed his short film 86’d last year. Palomo most recently composed his first film score for Pete Oh’s film Everything Beautiful Is Far Away (2017).
Jesy Odio is a writer from Costa Rica, now based in LA.
Directed by Alan Palomo and written by Palomo and Kai Flanders, 86’d (2016) is a short film set in a Jewish deli in New York.
Everything Beautiful Is Far Away
Written and co-directed by Pete Ohs and co-directed by Andrea Sisson, Everything Beautiful Is Far Away is about 2 humans and a robot head who traverse a barren planet in search of a mythical lake. The film stars Joseph Cross, Rola Garner and C.S. Lee, with Jillian Mayer as the voice of Susan the robot head. The score for Everything Beautiful Is Far Away was composed by Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo.
Film writer and director Pete Ohs is known for his films I Send You This Place (2012), We Found Footage (2015) and his new release Everything Beautiful Is Far Away (2017).
Director and producer Andrea Sisson is known for her films I Send You This Place (2012), The Vision Quest (2014) and Everything Beautiful Is Far Away (2017).
Give a musician a camera, and you will end up with the visual expression of their aural landscape. Watching the music video for Neon Indian’s “Slumlord Rising,” it’s obvious that both music and filmmaking come from the same head: Alan Palomo, whose mind is a reservoir of mid-80s synth tones and neon lights reflected in cathode ray television screens. It came as no surprise that after directing the music videos for “Annie” and “Slumlord Rising” Alan decided he was finished with VEGA INTL. Night School and ready to graduate to cinema, focusing his creative energy on directing and composing film scores.
Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Alan Palomo grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, the son of Mexican pop singer Jorge Palomo. Like so many Brooklyn-based musicians, Alan currently resides in Los Angeles. His most recent creative endeavor was composing the score for Peter Oh and Andrea Sisson’s forthcoming sci-fi indie flick, Everything Beautiful Is Far Away, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this year. Last year, he completed a short film 86’d, which has yet to be released to the general public.
I met with Alan to muse about his experience composing the film score for Everything Beautiful, directing his first short, and his experience with screenwriting vs. songwriting. A pioneer in the chillwave music genre, I have no doubt Alan will continue to explore new frontiers on his cinematic journey.
Jesy Odio: How did you enter the world of Everything Beautiful Is Far Away?
Alan Palomo: I heard about the project about four years before they started shooting, when Pete Ohs, who co-directed with Andrea Sisson, pitched me the concept in my kitchen. Even in its most embryonic stage, he pretty much had my attention at “guy traversing a desert planet with a robot head.” I met Pete almost ten years ago when he Myspace messaged me to direct a music video for my first group, Ghosthustler. So when this project came about I was immediately attached.
JO: When do you think you heard the music in your head?
Candian composer, arranger, songwriter and electronica pioneer Mort Garson is best known for his albums in the 60s and 70s, which were among the first to feature Moog synthesizers. He co-wrote the 1963 Billboard Number One single “Our Day Will Come” for Ruby and the Romantics, composed theatrical and film scores and created the theme songs for several game shows including Gambit (1972-81).
Isao Tomita, often known as simply Tomita, was a Japanese music composer regarded as one of the pioneers of electronic and space music and as one of the most famous producers of analog synthesizer arrangements. Many of Tomita’s albums are electronic versions and arrangements of famous classical pieces. Tomita received four Grammy Award nominations for his album Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974).
Quest: Brian’s Journey
Inspiring several similar video games, Quest: Brian’s Journey (stylized in its title as Quest RPG: Brian’s Journey) is a year 2000 RPG [role-playing game] created by Japanese video game developer and publisher Sunsoft for use on Game Boy Color. The game is set in mythical Celtland, resembling Ireland, and allows players to increase their character’s skills via battle experience and learning new spells.
AP: The first thing I read didn’t even have an ending yet, but I immediately started sending Pete and Andrea all these reference points of what it was reminding me of—different musical styles and concepts I knew I’d be capable of tapping into. What resonated the most was all this neo-classical electronic stuff from the 70s, like Mort Garson or Tomita. Then when I saw the first cut of the film it quickly shifted into something that sounded almost like video game music, which to me made perfect sense given the kind of RPG Quest themes I felt in the film.
I used a lot of Super Nintendo and Buchla [synthesizers]—a kind of melding of midi orchestra with these gruff, organic, spacial sounds. My main problem with modern film scores is they are too textural with no discernible themes. I think the great iconic film scores of the past were more about building leitmotifs, melodies you hum long after seeing the film. I wanted to create something to celebrate that and that would gave every character their own melody.
“I realized at some point I didn’t want to write any more sad boy love songs, recanting romantic exploits and treating my art like a sort of emotional “purging.” One of the bigger takeaways from my 20s is that you can’t write a song to make someone fall in love with you.”
— Alan Palomo
Gary Numan is an English musician, composer and producer considered a pioneer of electronic music. Human released two albums with his new wave band Tubeway Army before going on to a successful solo career throughout the late 70s and early 80s. Having garnered a cult following, Numan is known for his distinctive voice, androgynous persona and for his music’s signature heavy synthesizer hooks fed through guitar effects pedals.
Erik Satie was a composer, pianist, writer and figure in the early 20th-century Parisian avant-garde. His work was a forerunner of later art movements including minimalism, Surrealism, repetitive music and the Theatre of the Absurd. Satie’s most well-known work is his famous collection of three piano compositions entitled “The Gymnopédies.”
JO: What was the biggest challenge?
AP: Trying to make sure the score made sense as a single coherent concept. And then there was the fact that working on a feature you really have to surrender a lot of ego. It’s not about your narrative as a musician. You’re there to serve the film.
The upside was I got to write in a style I’d never gotten to explore with Neon Indian. Perhaps another difficulty was that I’m not classically trained so I had to sort of reverse engineer a lot of these deceptively simple compositions from our references, like Tomita or Gary Numan’s cover of Erik Satie’s “First Gymnopédie”. But I think half of the charm is that I didn’t know what I was doing. In that way, making my first proper score was like making my first record.
Killing Zoe (1994) is an American-French crime drama written and directed by Roger Avary. Starring Eric Stoltz, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Julie Delpy, the film follows a safe-cracker named Zed who aids an old friend in a bank heist only to find that a woman he has a connection with is in harm’s way. The film is a cult favorite, labeled by Roger Ebert as “Generation X’s first bank caper movie.”
JO: What was the genesis of 86’d?
AP: It was kind of a Roger Avary Killing Zoe scenario where I had access to a location first and then was prompted to write a story around it. Some friends of mine had opened a Jewish deli in Greenpoint, and we kept joking about making “the movie” for it, and over time it materialized into an actual concept. I collected as much information as I could: deli terms, opening and closing protocols, general anecdotes, etc. Then my co-writer, Kai Flanders, and I decided we’d write it up and edit each other’s work. The script materialized pretty quickly after that.
“The great iconic film scores of the past were more about building leitmotifs, melodies you hum long after seeing the film. I wanted to create something that celebrated that and gave every character their own melody.”
— Alan Palomo
JO: How does screenwriting compare to songwriting?
AP: Film has always informed my music. It was perhaps a more prominent feature of this last record in particular. However, the main shift in focus that my songwriting has undergone in the last few years is how narrative the songs have become. At some point, I realized I didn’t want to write any more sad boy love songs—recanting romantic exploits and treating my art like a sort of emotional “purging.” One of the bigger takeaways from my 20s is that you can’t write a song to make someone fall in love with you.
I think that’s when I became more interested in growing as an artist and gearing my focuses into universe building around the albums. Write narrative arcs that all seem to spume from the same world. Consider every song and how it serves the overall album. Screenwriting in many ways can be like that. Small choices in individual scenes almost invariably affect the overall picture. Consistency is maybe the hardest part. You don’t always know how it all stacks up until you experience the entire thing all at once.
JO: So now you’re writing a feature?
AP: I think whatever I’m working on is maybe too embryonic to talk about. I can say, however, that one of the main things I’ve been learning through this process is scaling ideas. I’ve written things where I think, “And then the house is on fire! And then there’s a helicopter!” without any indication of how I could possibly go about making something like that. I’ve been more excited about working within confines and embracing the intimate.
Film and music video director Tim Nackashi is known for his film Dirty Work (2004) as well as music videos including TV on the Radio’s Grammy-nominated video for “Nine Types of Light” (2011) and the first live, one-take music video for Death Cab for Cutie “You Are A Tourist” (2011). Nackashi has worked with artists including Maroon 5, OK Go, Gnarls Barkley, Icona Pop, Robyn and Neon Indian.
Producer Jefferis Gray is known for his work producing short films including Some Girls’ Mothers (2015), Time Is A Place (2017) and Neon Indian: Slumlord Rising (2017).
Jewel’s Catch One
Located on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, Jewel’s Catch One was one of the first black discos in the United States. Given her experience as an black female who was often denied entrance or double-carded at West Hollywood bars, Jewel Thais-Williams opened Catch One in 1973 as a safe, welcoming place for black, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Now under different ownership and called UNION, Catch One was the longest running black, gay dance bar in Los Angeles.
Musician Leanne Macomber is one-half of the synthpop duo Young Ejecta, alongside musician and producer Joel Ford, and a former member of Neon Indian’s live band on keyboard and vocals.
“It’s just a question of sitting down and doing the work. When you have an idea that you really want to do it’s almost like hearing a nagging voice, and the longer it goes unvalidated the more it drives you insane.”
— Alan Palomo
JO: What did you learn directing music videos for “Annie” and “Slumlord Rising”?
AP: There’s definitely some validity in faking it ‘til you make it. “Slumlord” was an insanely tall order for the first go around. We had about 15 characters and 50 extras. We had a shot list comprised of 28 shots and a long, elaborate 5 minute oner. Had it not been for my very dope co-director Tim Nackashi and producer Jefferis [Gray], a lot of those ideas could never have materialized. We just kept throwing in all these things that could have gone horribly wrong and yet never did. It also seemed like kismet that we had the opportunity to shoot in Jewel’s Catch One the literal night before it was closed, gutted and renovated into Union. It wound up being a cool little time capsule. With filmmaking, you will never hit the mark, but you will beautifully miss and that’s exciting.
“Annie” was almost the opposite. I shot it with an old panasonic VHS camera over the span of an entire Neon Indian tour in Asia. I knew I would have kicked myself if I didn’t bring along a camera so I just shot it run-and-gun, amending a narrative as I went along. Eventually, I brought the footage back to New York and shot all the pick-ups with Leanne [Macomber] and the rest of the cast. I had nothing but time. It was so long after the single I knew I wouldn’t put it out until it was entirely there.
JO: So is today a music day or a film day for you?
AP: Compartmentalizing is difficult. As I get older, I prioritize my social life less and less. It’s just a question of sitting down and doing the work. When you have an idea that you really want to do it’s almost like hearing a nagging voice, and the longer it goes unvalidated the more it drives you insane. And if you neglect it long enough, eventually you’ll have all these ideas demanding attention, that you won’t know where to start. Eventually, external forces hopefully put you in a particular lane, and you have to just dive right in.
For the moment, all I can say is I’m in a studio surrounded by instruments and plugging away at something I’ll be very excited to share in the near future.