Inside the Music of Neon Indian

An album that called out for impressive visuals in a live setting + a Kinect for Windows-powered collaboration = an exceptional show of color and movement.

When Neon Indian, aka producer and multi-instrumentalist Alan Palomo, released his third full-length, VEGA INTL. Night School, in October 2015, several music critics were moved to metaphor. To one, a few chunky synth melodies were reminiscent of “the sunrise peeking through the club’s doors” (Allmusic.com), to another, a track evoked “a slice of roller-rink disco as viewed through a dorm-room bong” (Rolling Stone). Clearly, it was an album that called out for impressive visuals in a live setting. And so, in a Kinect for Windows-powered collaboration with creative music agency Listen and NY tech studio VolvoxLabs (VVOX), Neon Indian’s performance of his new tracks during the 2015 CMJ Music Marathon at New York’s Webster Hall turned into an exceptional show of color and movement.

VVOX developed a custom multi-Kinect rig that mapped the movements of the band, broke that data down with TouchDesigner, and shot it back out through the projectors in real-time. Behind Palomo and his band members, the screen lit up in an awe-inspiring frenzy of colors and shapes — five extra-terrestrial lightform versions of the band members themselves. Inspired by Palomo’s overall aesthetic vision for the album, it looked like a synesthetic hallucination, or a Pollock painting come to life. Most importantly for Palomo, the boogying apparitions that came to life behind Neon Indian were generated in real time, based on the band’s movement data as picked up by the Kinect, and with distinctive designs to match the style of each track. “With the live show, we always wanted to do something that went beyond popping in a DVD and having people basically watch TV while you’re performing,” says Palomo. “That, I wasn’t interested in.”

Prior to VEGA INTL. Night School, Palomo’s laptop was stolen, along with his song demos. It was an unnecessarily harsh reminder that an electronic musician is, by definition, inseparable from his or her technology. “I feel like it’s the only genre of music where the people creating the tools to make the music have just as much of a stake in the outcome as the people utilizing the tools,” says Palomo. More than that, in the hands of curious artists, technology can be implemented in ways that even the manufacturers couldn’t have dreamed of, Palomo says, pointing to the invention of the Roland TB-303 — a sequencer and synthesizer with a distinctive sound that gave rise to acid house in the mid-’80s.

At the very outset, Neon Indian was a multimedia project, with Palomo collaborating with video artist Alicia Scardetta. Real-time video was a strong component of Neon Indian’s live performances: data from the band’s instruments would be fed into a video synthesizer and spat out. “We’d get to see a very direct outcome,” says Palomo. “But we never really had an opportunity to incorporate ourselves as performers into the outcome of the visuals.” That was the next step, with Kinect technology leading the way. At Webster Hall, five Kinect sensors were used to capture the movements of each individual band member on stage, converting them into human-shaped eddies and swirls of color and light. Palomo’s hyperkinetic energy, in particular, was perfect for the Kinect treatment. Unleashed on stage during the CMJ Music Marathon, he prowled and strutted around the space, his digital counterpart reacting accordingly. Augmented in vibrant technicolor with the powers of Kinect, the whole thing became a larger-than-life spectacle that SPIN called a “dazzling visual masterpiece.”

I like the idea that as the years go on, you blur the line between what live music performance even is.

- Alan Palomo

For Palomo, supersized visuals are another way for the audience to enjoy a multi-sensory, multi-layered performance. “I like the idea that as the years go on, you blur the line between what live music performance even is. To go from the initial paradigm of person on a stage with an instrument to this amorphous experience which is partly theater, partly cinematic, partly musical. It’s kinda cool to get to go to a show and not to have the expectation that’s it’s that one thing.” When it comes to further potential uses for Kinect technology, Palomo trusts in the inherent knack of adventurous artists to discover and tap into all the possibilities. “It’s almost not even for me to say [what the possibilities are],” he says. “It’s always interesting when you pop open YouTube and you’ve found someone who has integrated it into their medium.”

For more technical information about Neon Indian’s performance at CMJ, explore the toolkit and tutorial video here. You can also read more about the collaboration at the Microsoft News Center.