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Musician Alan Palomo on 'World of Hassle' and his love for synth

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hiding behind a small storefront in northeast Los Angeles, there's a whole world of synthesizers...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: ...Keyboards upon keyboards stacked from floor to ceiling and racks of knobs and dials oozing with cables. It's the Vintage Synthesizer Museum, and everything in there actually works.

What?

ALAN PALOMO: And it...

CHANG: I feel like this looks like we're in a spaceship.

PALOMO: (Playing synthesizer) Let's see.

CHANG: There are literally four shelves of equipment in front of us, and Alan is twisting...

PALOMO: (Playing synthesizer).

CHANG: Holy - (laughter).

We recently met Alan Palomo there. He's the former frontman of the chillwave band Neon Indian. And the day we met, he was sporting a neatly trimmed mustache, green terry cloth shorts and a shirt with an enchilada recipe on it.

PALOMO: Chopped cooked beef, chicken or turkey. But I have - I've yet to try it, but it looks legit. I'm kind of...

CHANG: I love it.

PALOMO: I'm just giving it a quick glance. That sounds about right.

CHANG: It totally looks like a legit recipe. And I love that it's printed upside down so all you have to do is look down on your chest...

PALOMO: This is my apron...

CHANG: ...And read it right side up.

PALOMO: ...In the kitchen.

CHANG: Yeah.

PALOMO: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

CHANG: All right. We'll talk about his taste in fashion some other time. But what we want to talk about now is his decadeslong obsession with synthesizers because it was obvious trailing him around the museum that he is a serious synth scholar. He knows just which knobs to twist, which buttons to tap to get the right sounds from outer space.

PALOMO: (Playing synthesizer).

CHANG: (Laughter) Hello, R2-D2.

PALOMO: Yeah, there you go.

CHANG: He also made keyboards talk.

PALOMO: ...Trick, you know, where you can kind of make weird vowel sounds with it - like, you know, like a (vocalizing). (Playing keyboard) So, you know, but it's kind of...

CHANG: (Vocalizing).

PALOMO: Yeah, like a (vocalizing) kind of stuff. And...

CHANG: And he gave me a drum lesson on the legendary Roland 808 drum machine.

PALOMO: So, actually - all right. Try...

CHANG: I want more cowbell.

PALOMO: More cowbell. So just start putting it in random places around the sequence. And you'll - that's how you'll - yeah.

CHANG: I'm punching all the cowbells. (Playing drum machine).

PALOMO: That's awesome. First go - amazing.

CHANG: (Playing drum machine) There's a synth nerd in me, too.

All of the synthesizer knowledge Palomo has - it just melds into gorgeous pop on his new album, "World Of Hassle."

(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN PALOMO SONG, "STAY-AT-HOME DJ")

CHANG: And this album marks a turning point for Palomo. It's the first record he's ever released under his own name.

PALOMO: It's also, like, such a tried and true '80s male rock cliche to, like, leave your band in your mid-30s in a crisis to, like, make a jazz record, you know? It's like - Bryan Ferry did it. Sting did it.

CHANG: So this is your jazz record. Yeah.

PALOMO: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, for sure. I, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY-AT-HOME DJ")

PALOMO: (Singing) But she doesn't know what she's talking about. She's never listened to Prefab Sprout. And everyone's a DJ. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

CHANG: Long before Alan Palomo became a fixture of synth-driven pop music a decade ago, he was a kid in Monterrey, Mexico. Then, when he was five, his parents took him and his brother across the border to Texas, an experience that he sang about in his 2019 track "Toyota Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOYOTA MAN")

NEON INDIAN: (Singing in Spanish).

PALOMO: I remember that - I didn't understand yet that we were moving there indefinitely. And I remember it was the year "The Lion King" came out, and I had a bunch of "Lion King" toys. And I was asking my parents in the backseat, like, did I bring enough for this trip? And they were like, yeah, it's - there's enough. So obviously we got to San Antonio, and then, you know, I saw this empty apartment. It was just dawning on me, like, oh, we've moved here. We're, like, not coming back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOYOTA MAN")

NEON INDIAN: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: Even from an early age, Palomo was exposed to music. His dad had been a gigging musician in Mexico and put out a couple records in the '80s. And he encouraged Paloma and his brother to take up piano and guitar along with some other things.

PALOMO: I remember he was just, like, OK, I got it. We'll dress you up as clowns.

CHANG: (Laughter).

PALOMO: And you'll play cumbia, and you'll be called The Payasonicos, which is, like, a pun that means, like, The Sonic Clowns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN PALOMO SONG, "LA MADRILENA")

CHANG: The Sonic Clowns never came into fruition. But Palomo says he has tried writing some cumbia music, and on his new album, he sings in his native Spanish more than he ever has on tracks like "La Madrilena."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA MADRILENA")

PALOMO: (Singing in Spanish).

As a songwriter, it's, like, now another lane in your arsenal of, like, ways in which you can express yourself. But because I had always written music in English and hadn't expressed myself in my native tongue, I didn't want to do it as a gimmick. And I really wanted to take the time and wait until I had kind of found my own lyrical style and voice, you know? I started reading a lot of, like, contemporary Mexican novelists like Fernanda Melchor or Yuri Hererra and was finding a means of, like, you know, OK, what's your prose style in Spanish? - because you haven't really written in Spanish. So once I kind of got comfortable with that, then, you know, you got songs like "Nudista Mundial" and "La Madrilena," and I'm hoping to just kind of start incorporating it more and more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA MADRILENA")

PALOMO: (Singing in Spanish).

CHANG: You know, some of your childhood memories on this album feel sort of familiar to me, like hanging out in a shopping mall in the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN PALOMO SONG, "THE WAILING MALL")

CHANG: I'm talking about the track "The Wailing Mall." You mention Rainforest Cafe, Payless.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAILING MALL")

PALOMO: (Singing) 1994 - there was panic at the Payless, a little brown boy led astray.

CHANG: Did you spend a lot of time at the shopping mall when you were growing up in the '90s?

PALOMO: Yeah, I mean, that was...

CHANG: Yeah.

PALOMO: ...Kind of like...

CHANG: Me, too.

PALOMO: Before we moved, we would go to the U.S. to shop, you know, from Monterrey. That was a very popular thing to do amongst the people in Monterrey - is, like, all right, come Christmastime, you know, maybe you go get - 'cause it was cheaper - if you wanted to get, like, a Super Nintendo or a Sega or something, like, to buy it in Mexico, the taxes were, like, insane. So we used to drive to the U.S. to get, like, Christmas gifts. So I think there was this association with the U.S. as, like, this big mall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAILING MALL")

PALOMO: (Singing) Freedom fighting in the tangled jungles of the Rainforest Cafe.

When I dream about that mall, I sort of see, like, the entirety of the United States as this mall. Like, you can't escape the sprawl. Like, I got lost in the mall at the Payless Shoes. I lost my parents, and I still haven't left the mall. I'm 35 now. It's like I - you know, to me, the idea that it's like they would still be paging my mom, like, 20 years later, you know - it's just, like, if he's not picked up in the next hour, he becomes the property of - you know, of Payless Shoes, you know, or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAILING MALL")

PALOMO: (Singing) They got us all surrounded now, backs to the wailing mall, backs to the wailing mall...

So, yeah, there's a bunch of, like - it's just a weird soup of, like, pop culture Americana in my head and, yeah, the idea that it's all becoming one giant mall, and it's becoming, like, very claustrophobic. And that - it does feel that way, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN PALOMO SONG, "THE WAILING MALL)

CHANG: That was musician Alan Palomo. His new album, "World Of Hassle," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAILING MALL")

PALOMO: (Singing) They say the world's in hot water. Well, it's a world of hassle anyway. I just play that hot water music in my tinfoil Che beret. So good luck finding parking when it's T2 judgment day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.