Neon Indian And Microsoft Want To Change The Way You View Music
Originally published on Slant.
Alan Palomo is a busy man.
Palomo, who creates music as Neon Indian, debuted his immersive, new live act Wednesday to a rapturous, sweaty crowd for this week's CMJ Music Marathon.
On Friday, Neon Indian will drop the highly-anticipated LP, VEGA INTL. Night School, the first Neon Indian record in 4 years.
Early reviews are coming in hot for the album, which is being heralded as a huge step forward for the artist who first broke out of the chillwave scene in 2009. Pitchfork calls it "the most deluxe, comprehensive Neon Indian album yet," while Consequence of Sound declares, "It's the party of the year, and everyone under the sun is invited."
For the uninitiated, Neon Indian gravitates toward blippy, synth-driven disco, with a dark goth edge (hence, the "chill" in chillwave). But with the new record, Palomo expands on the lower-fi vibes of previous releases and offers up something that sounds simultaneously 20 years in the future and straight outta 1982.
On the new record, the production is crisper, the songwriting is more ambitious, and the bass bumps. "Night School" references that most of what's important in life can be learned after the witching hour, when the freaks come out to play and the groove doesn't stop until sunrise. Palomo supplies hearty helpings of boogie as curriculum.
So when he thought about taking VEGA INTL. on the road, Palomo wanted to raise the stakes with the live show. A stunning visual experience would be a necessary complement to the sonic elements for the live performance to feel like a success.
"In so many cases, it’s like you pop in a DVD and the audience starts watching TV in the middle of your set," said Palomo.
In past tours, Neon Indian had messed with everything from modular video synthesizers to an old-school Atari Video Music visualizer to create an engaging live experience.
"The one thing that we hadn’t gotten to yet was the idea of the actual performance being manipulated and something that could be reinterpreted visually," said Palomo.
The strange bedfellow for such a collaboration turned out to be Microsoft, who partnered with Neon Indian via Listen, a NYC-based music marketing agency. After a successful interactive installation in August at the New Museum with the music of electronic artist Matthew Dear, Listen pursued a second collaboration with the "first-on-our-list" Neon Indian.
To get the project off the ground, the collaborators solicited the help of VolvoxLabs, a new media design studio based out of Brooklyn.
VolvoxLabs' Creative Director, Kamil Nawratil, called the main objective of the project to create "a bridge between the virtual and physical."
By using Microsoft Kinect sensors, on-site visual artists were able to capture both the band's movements, as well as the sonic textures, and project them both in real-time on a mammoth screen behind them. But rather than simply tracking movements with cameras, a custom PC kit with pre-recorded visual elements allowed for the band's movements to come to life in spectacular color.
Palomo's form turned kaleidoscopic while shaking behind the microphone stand as the casual head bobs from the long-haired drummer manifested magically explosive geometry. The closest comparison would be the psychedelic screen savers that emerge when your laptop goes to sleep, but personified by human, dynamic motion.
While the collaborators hashed out specific color schemes and concepts ahead of the show, the spontaneity allowed by the Microsoft Kinect sensors added a layer of fluidity to the live experience. Unlike many other live shows, which rely upon a meticulous lighting and visual set-up that can't fluctuate show-to-show, the show that the New York crowd experienced unfolded with a sense of ownership. As Neon Indian heads out on tour with Microsoft's technology, each new audience will be able to visually experience a unique iteration that can't be replicated at other shows.
But this collaboration goes way beyond Neon Indian. Microsoft announced that they would release a performance tool-kit following CMJ, allowing artists, media artists, and event producers access to the project blueprints used to produce the show. This means that Microsoft Kinect projections could become the standard, rather than the novel outlier, when it comes to immersive live experiences.
"You've gotta go all out for New York," said Palomo when asked about the significance of the evening's premiere.
And watching Palomo and the band groove out to yet-to-be-released jams, with splattered, fractured forms as a backdrop, it was easy to forget that this was only the beginning
Cover photo: Drew Reynolds