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Tame Impala - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Perfect Sounds Forever

Jul 02, 2015 Tame Impala Photography by Shervin Lainez Bookmark and Share

It’s Saturday morning in early March in Perth, and Kevin Parker’s normally laid-back demeanor is beginning to crack. He has five days to finish up his third Tame Impala recordmastering sessions begin in New York City on Wednesdayand over half of the album’s songs are still incomplete. Many are in various stages of mixing and engineering, two still have unfinished lyrics, and he’s fighting the temptation to re-open the ones he already finished for more tweaking. Today, he’ll go to a friend’s studiosomeone who has “two speakers the size of fridges”to blast the album as loudly as possible in order to better hear the minute details that are driving him insane. He has three days before he boards a plane for New York, and the hours are slipping away. “I don’t know why I do this to myself,” he sighs. “What am I doing?”

This isn’t the first time Parker has put himself in this position. He did precisely the same thing when working on Tame Impala’s 2010 debut Innerspeaker and 2012’s Lonerism, taking on the responsibility of producing the albums and playing nearly every instrument by himself. Each time, he found himself obsessing over thousands of small decisions—a little more snare here, a little less echo there—that careful listeners probably couldn’t hear even with headphones. Each time, he found himself losing his mind. This is all irrational, he admits. Why insist on playing all of the instruments when you have a seasoned touring band? Why record at home when you could easily afford to rent a state-of-the-art studio and a team of engineers to help you? Why obsess over details no one can even hear? The answer: because everything has to be perfect.

Even if the process hasn’t been good for his mental health, it has been great for his music. Though he’s not a particularly flashy producer or musician, his ear for tastefully sprawling arrangements made Innerspeaker a delirious psych-pop masterpiece. Two years later Parker indulged his love of pop hooks and Lonerism became an instant classic, selling 175,000 copies and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album. Parker would tour the world, start a funk band, and collaborate on tracks with The Flaming Lips, Kendrick Lamar, and Mark Ronson. But none of this really seems to impress Parker all that much. As always, he’s too busy thinking about the next thing.

Just what this next thing is isn’t entirely clear to him yet. Having started the songwriting process as soon as Lonerism was finished, he has spent so much time with these songs that he long ago lost any perspective on what kind of music he’s making. It’s a clear departure from his previous two albums—or so he suspects—and there are few, if any, vestiges of psychedelic pop remaining in the mix. When I tell him that I hear shades of Prince and Michael Jackson in the tracks he has shared with me, he seems pleased. “I think a lot of my songs and mixes have a lot more bottom end these days,” he says like a proud father. “I’ve only recently learned how to mix a song properly. You can’t just do it straight-up without any experience.”

Such a statement is the closest Parker comes to boasting about his work, and nearly every compliment he pays himself is soon undermined by a doubt. That’s not to say that he lacks confidence in his work—far from it. He agonizes over every detail for that very reason. He’s more likely to be troubled by the notion that, even in his best moments, the sounds he hears in his head are not those that are ultimately communicated. “For ‘[Feels Like] We Only Go Backwards,’ I thought it sounded like The Backstreet Boys,” he says, mentioning Lonerism‘s most iconic song. “I thought it was just this super clean pop song. Then I listened to it a year later, and I was like, ‘Fuck! This is like a boulder.’” If he can’t trust his own ears, how can he even know what kind of album he just made?

Those concerns color everything he says about his new tracks. One minute he’s excited that they sound “totally different from anything ever,” the next he’s worrying if they’re so far afield of most familiar stylistic reference points that they’ll have no audience. It’s the most eclectic album he has ever made, he says, and he’s not certain that’s a good thing. As this is the first interview he has done about the album, he’s still trying to figure out just how he should talk about it, leading to frequent aborted sentences and half-retractions when he realizes his words don’t quite ring true.

“It’s kind of hard to describe the album as a whole,” he says, leading to a long pause that only ends after it becomes clear that I’m not going to let him off the hook by asking a different question. “The album is called Currents, and it kind of documents—though ‘documents’ is a shitty word—but it follows the progression of someone feeling like they are becoming something else. They’re becoming the kind of person they thought they’d never become. It’s like if you know someone and you’re close to them, and you can see them changing and morphing into a different person. You’re like, ‘Oh, man. This person is totally changing. They’re not really the person that I used to know. It’s kind of a bummer.’ And this is meant to tell the story from the inside, like what’s going on in their head and why they’re seeing things differently and feeling like they go somewhere else mentally,” he continues, trailing off. “That probably wasn’t a very good description,” he frets. “I’m going to have to perfect that.”

One gets the impression Parker spends most of his days with those words rattling around in his head like a mantra. In conversation, however, he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would be plagued by such intrusive thoughts. Informal and unassuming, he is an engaging interview subject, offering thoughtful, if occasionally evasive, answers to whatever you pose to him. Ambitions aside, he doesn’t seem like someone who takes himself too seriously, laughing often and making jokes at his own expense. But talk to him for any length of time, and you’ll get the sense that making music remains an intensely private affair for him, and he seems to regard talking about the meanings of his songs or his motivations for his work as a violation of his privacy. He’s protective of his songs in a way that only a true perfectionist can be.

Though he doesn’t suggest the connection, it seems that Parker’s uneasy relationship with his obsessive tendencies could easily tie into the album’s central theme of personal transformation. Lead single and album opener “Let It Happen” is a nearly eight-minute dance-pop epic that might as well serve as the album’s thesis statement. Built around a hypnotic dance groove and disco synths, Parker intones ominously about battering winds that carry off everything that isn’t tied down, of forces both internal and external weighing on him. “All this running around, I can’t fight it much longer,” he sings over a soothing synth drone. “Something’s trying to get out, and it’s never been closer.” When he writes about change, he doesn’t seem to be inviting it as much as surrendering to it as an inevitability.

“For me, [the song is about] finding yourself always in this world of chaos and all this stuff going on around you and always shutting it out because you don’t want to be a part of it,” he explains. “But at some point, you realize it takes more energy to shut it out than it does to let it happen and be a part of it. The analogy I use is that you’re stuck in this really rapid river, and it’s washing you somewhere, and there’s a wharf at the end. You’re clutching at these branches or logs and trees, trying to not let the river wash you down. You don’t want to be washed away; you want to stay in control. But at some point, you realize that you’re only wasting energy by trying to resist. You might as well just let go and let it take you where it’s going to take you and let it rush you off the side of a waterfall,” he says, his tone turning slightly conspiratorial. “Who knows? It might be amazing down there.”

Read between the lines, and it’s not hard to imagine that Parker is talking about the life of a musician, a charge he doesn’t deny. But what he’s changing from and into is much less obvious. An admitted introvert who gets anxious in social settings, he’ll never make headlines for shooting his mouth off or trashing hotel rooms. And while many artists in his position end up struggling with their addictions—drugs, fame, praise—Parker appears to have a different compulsion. He’s addicted to the moment of creation, those fleeting instances when an idea first hits him, mysteriously and perfectly, nothing but infinite raw potential. It’s that spontaneity, so present in his first takes, that he spends months trying to recapture.

Therein lies the essential contradiction—and, one might say, the definitive characteristic—of Kevin Parker’s music. His music is both meticulously crafted and gloriously unkempt. He is the kind of the songwriter who can try to write a Backstreet Boys song and end up with a dream pop anthem. He does favor first takes but will record another thousand just to make sure he got the right one. That approach might not seem logical to you or me, but inside his head, it makes perfect sense. And for most of his life, that’s the only place that has mattered.

Solitude is Bliss

Though he admits to having a “poor mental calendar,” something that causes him to puzzle over which years his albums were released and just when watershed events in his life took place, Parker knows the moment he became an artist. “I can trace it back to when I first drew a picture of a Ninja Turtle when I was five years old,” he recalls. “Just looking back at something that I’ve made from nothing and going, ‘Fuck! I’ve just made this! This is now something.’ I don’t know why that stuck with me so heavily and why it has transferred into my entire life and my entire purpose.”

When talking about his childhood, the anxiety of the day seems to melt away and Parker is a giggling teenager again, not the overworked 29-year-old indie rock star with an album due in five days. These are stories he is comfortable telling, and one gets the impression that he doesn’t get to tell them very often. There’s the one about how he used to sing along to his mom’s vacuum cleaner when she cleaned the house. Or the one about how he learned to play rhythm guitar by backing his dad, an accountant who played in a covers band for fun, while he played leads on Shadows tunes at home. Or, better yet, the one about when he played his first gig as an 11-year-old drummer, performing a spirited rendition of Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” in front of a few hundred people at his Perth music school, complete with a drum solo that went off without a hitch until he got a little too cocky and attempted a drum stick twirl.

“I did it and everyone cheered, and it fucking flung out of my hand and rolled down the stage!” he says, his words still heavy with embarrassment. “But it was okay because I turned it into the act and hit the cymbal with my other hand. It worked but not really. It was undeniably a mistake. I hadn’t perfected the art of making fucking up look good yet, as I have now.”

These were the days when he couldn’t play the guitar and had to hum the melody line to teach his song to his music school band, when simply being in a band felt like the coolest thing he could imagine. A year after his botched drum twirl, he was making his first song experiments, using two tape recorders to multi-track himself on guitar, keyboards, and drums, creating “weird, genreless, almost-electronic songs.” It didn’t matter what they were, because in the privacy of his head the songs were perfect and making them was intoxicating. For a shy 12-year-old, there was no safer place in the world.

“It was really emotional at first, because I had no intention of playing them to anyone else,” he says. “When I was writing them, I could just completely open up and be as emotional as I felt like. That was when I discovered the power of music, because I never really talked about my problems with anyone. Especially in high school I was a pretty closed off kid, so when I discovered this outlet, I could really bare my soul into this song. For that reason, I had a lot of confidence. It wasn’t until I started wanting other people to hear my music that I became self-conscious about it or cared about these particular aspects or what it sounded like to the outside world.”

Another four years would pass before Parker would share his songs with another breathing soul, performing them for his then-girlfriend. Her reaction? “You have to do something with this!” Parker says he was flattered by the attention but still unconvinced. A little later, when scrambling to come up with a last-minute gift for his stepmother’s birthday, he decided to burn her a CD of his songs. The reaction this time? Silence. Even worse, his dad—the man whose record collection had largely formed his musical vocabulary—also said nothing. It wasn’t until he finished high school that he would learn his father’s verdict.

“I was like, ‘Why didn’t you say anything about my songs that I fucking made?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, me and Rhonda really liked them, but we didn’t want to tell you because we thought you’d get distracted from your studies.’ I was like, ‘Are you fucking serious?’ Not that I cared about their opinions…” he says, turning serious. “Well, I did. But that’s not the reason I didn’t put the songs out.”

The reason he largely kept his songs private was because they weren’t very good, and he says he’d “expend a lot of energy and time and money making sure they do not ever get released.” (If you’re waiting for a Tame Impala: The Early Years compilation, don’t hold your breath.) Instead, Parker spent his late high school years playing “grunge-punk kinds of things” in a series of bands that often included his friend and future Tame Impala member Dominic Simper. Despite a rocky start to their friendship—Parker made fun of Simper for wearing a Blink-182 T-shirt—the two soon found themselves playing cover songs at their school’s Year 9 ball. In a performance Parker says still ranks among his most favorite, his classmates showered him with applause and a mosh pit broke out. But such experiences were the exception rather than the rule.

“Over time it became obvious that we were the only ones that cared about music and played instruments in an environment that was mainly focused around football,” Simper recalls. “We just naturally fell into each other’s path, I guess. Perth is the kind of place where if you’re Mozart, you’d play someone a song and they’d shrug their shoulders and go back to talking about football. We were in an environment where there were no expectations.” Parker’s father’s words stuck with his son: focus on your studies and get a real job. Don’t expect music to be more than a hobby.

And so he didn’t. Instead, he enrolled in college, studying engineering and then astronomy, struggling to pay attention to either when all he could think about was whatever song he happened to be working on at the time. Then as now, it seemed like everyone in Perth’s music scene both had their own band and played in everyone else’s, and Parker was no different. He had taken an interest in guitar-heavy blues rock in the vein of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, and his Dee Dum Dums—the band he founded with Simper and drummer Luke Epstein—had started to gain some local notoriety, winning local awards and getting some label attention. But Parker’s hopes for rock stardom had largely passed.

By the time Australian indie label Modular Recordings wanted the band on their roster, Parker had recruited multi-instrumentalist Jay Watson, renamed them Tame Impala, and mostly remade them as a hazy, psych-pop unit (though traces of prog and blues-rock can be heard in early singles). After receiving the contract offer while driving to take his astronomy final, Parker literally turned the car around and went home. His career as an academic was over, Tame Impala’s first two EPs generated immediate attention, and Parker suddenly was free to spend as much time making music by himself as he wanted. He wasn’t going to squander his opportunity.

With the goal of making a double album out of 25 songs he had written before he had any expectation that anyone outside of Perth would ever hear them, he took Simper and Watson with him to an isolated (and decrepit) mansion four hours south of Perth. Though he soon abandoned the idea of making a double album, Innerspeaker was an instant sensation upon release, and the band embarked on a year of firsts—first gigs in Europe and the U.S., first TV appearances, and (for Parker at least) the first worries about making a suitable follow-up.

Parker addressed his concerns by doing what he’d always done, pulling himself away from his bandmates and pouring his energies into the songwriting and recording process whenever the band wasn’t on stage. Making Lonerism “devoured him” for two years, Simper says, the lines between everyday life and music-making eroding to the point where there was no meaningful distinction between them. By the time the process was over, Parker had a perfect album but was totally worn out. “I think it definitely affected him,” Simper admits. “His day-to-day activities were making that album. I think it confused him.”

Seven years later after they officially began, Tame Impala is arguably Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary band and a remarkably flexible live act, with Cam Avery and Julien Barbagallo filling out the band on bass and drums, respectively. (Multi-instrumentalist Nick Allbrook left the band in 2013 to devote more time to Pond, a band which also includes Watson and previously featured Avery, Barbagallo, and Parker.) But Kevin Parker still isn’t a rock star—at least not by the standards he dreamed about as a teenager carefully designing eight-track opuses in his parents’ garage. But if he isn’t, that’s by design, too.

“I probably could be if I wanted it to, let’s put it that way,” he says. “People who want to live like rock stars can if they want. It’s really up to you. If you want to spend $2 million on an album and fly out to different studios and do lines of coke off prostitutes’ tits, you can do that. If you want groupies, you could have that, too. I guess I was too discerning about myself. I knew that I’d consider myself the biggest walking cliché if I did that. But at the same time, if there was a prostitute in front of me with coke on her tits…” he says with a mischievous pause. “I’m not ruling anything out.”

Got My Hopes Up Again

On March 10, a day before Parker took Currents to New York City for mastering, he released “Let It Happen” to the world as a free download. The response was immediate and immediately polarized. As expected, the indie rock blogs ate it up, comparing the track favorably to Daft Punk and praising its neo-disco overtones. Over at YouTube, as it often the case, the response was more divided: Where were the guitars? Was this still psychedelic rock? Had Kevin Parkergasp!gone too far?

“With their music going in this direction, I don’t think Tame Impala will ever come up with another album like Innerspeaker,” wrote one disappointed YouTube listener. “They used to be [the] leading band in [the] neo-psychedelic genre but now they sound less rock and more like dance numbers.” Another retorted: “If ‘Let It Happen’ is a glimpse of what we will see on their new album then I’m all for it. You know who also constantly evolved throughout their history? The Beatles.” And on and on it went, complete strangers debating whether Kevin Parker was a visionary or a charlatan.

It is a curious debate, if only because Parker has never been shy about his love of pop music. When I interviewed him about Lonerism in 2012, he described the then-unreleased album as

“Britney Spears fronting The Flaming Lips,” then confessed his desire to write songs for Kylie Minogue. That “Let It Happen” should cause any amount of teeth-gnashing is evidence that a not insignificant portion of his audience don’t grasp that the track is an obvious extension of the elements Parker has been experimenting with from the start. The simple unwinding hook, the ethereally foggy production, the otherworldly atmosphere-these are all hallmarks of the Tame Impala sound, even if it’s easily the most dance-floor ready track Parker has ever made.

When I mention to him that “Let It Happen” features no obvious guitars until well past the six-minute mark, Parker seems puzzled by the comment. Many Tame Impala songs haven’t featured any guitar at all, he reminds me, even standout single “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.” Though his creative process has become an increasingly solo affair—Parker even opted to mix Currents by himself, a first—he can’t help but be troubled by the notion that there will be some psych rock fans who will “turn up their noses” to these new tracks simply because they feature a lower guitar count. “It’s always weird that Tame Impala is [seen as] a guitar rock thing,” he says. “I’ve never really got that or understood it—other than like on ‘Elephant’ or something.”

“In a weird kind of way, I’ve always imagined my music on a dance-floor,” he continues, “and it’s one of the most pleasant imaginations that I have for my music, that it’s played at some fucking beach rave somewhere at sunrise. Even though the music doesn’t necessarily fit that genre that’s the most potent environment in which to hear music. Not that I ever go to beach raves,” he assures me, “but it’s a weird fantasy.”

If “Let It Happen” causes some heartburn for psych-pop purists, “Less I Know the Better” could cause even more consternation. Though built around guitar riffs, it is powered by a hard-bouncing R&B groove that he says he almost left off the record because it sounded too much like “dorky, white disco funk.” Even more striking is “Cause I’m a Man,” a slow-burning ballad that sounds like John Lennon fronting Prince’s Revolution, with Parker infusing his vocals with a soulfulness that is uncommon for Tame Impala tracks. Most striking of all: Parker is finally making his lyrics the centerpiece in his arrangements.

“It is very direct,” he admits. “Lyrically I’m not usually that out there and straight up saying things, but it’s meant to be really tongue-in-cheek at the same time. The song is about how weak men are, basically, and how we make all these excuses but really we’re just these odorous male members of the animal kingdom. We don’t have any self-control and are pathetic, basically. Again, that was probably a bad description of the song, but I guess I’ll let people figure it out for themselves.”

The inscrutability and unintelligibility of Parker’s lyrics has become a bit of a joke among Tame Impala fans, something he finds amusing. (For those hoping to transcribe the computerized vocal lines at the end of “Let It Happen,” don’t bother. The lines are a gibberish word salad that Parker ad-libbed as a first take and then liked too much to change.) But Parker acknowledges that his focus on lyric-writing is taking an even more pronounced role in his work, and he has never been more direct than he is on “Eventually,” an aching breakup song where Parker assures his former lover that the dissolution of their relationship is for the best of both of them. One assumes Parker is addressing the end of his relationship with Melody Prochet, the French songwriter whose Melody’s Echo Chamber he produced and performed with, but he’s not going to confirm that suspicion.

“I think I’m just getting more confident in what I feel and think and transfer into words,” he explains. “I’ve always been extremely shy and self-conscious about expressing my thoughts with everything—not just music. I’ve always assumed that I didn’t have anything important to say—I don’t know why. I guess it’s just part of being who I am—I’m a shy person, generally. But as I get older, I start to be able to stand behind what I think and I’m just embracing it more, the idea of telling a story.”

All this maturation isn’t just a sign of personal maturation; Parker says it’s a necessity if he’s going to continue pushing himself to grow as an artist. He knows he could churn out psych-rock epics for the rest of his life, but he’d be bored and soon his listeners would be, too. If he has changed as a person, becoming more open and confident—more comfortable with “carrying the weight of being the leader and the musical genius in Tame Impala,” in Simper’s words—will his motivations for his art change, too? Could he actually allow other people to begin shouldering the responsibility for his music? What will push him forward when the time comes to torture himself with the promise of songs that will never be quite perfect enough?

“I don’t know,” he says after a long pause. “The prospect of not feeling worthless? I feel like this is the only thing I have to offer in life. To be honest, I can’t foresee what the next Tame Impala album will be or what the process will be in any way. Maybe I’ll be doing other stuff. Maybe albums won’t be a thing by then,” he says, his tone brightening. “Maybe we’ll all be listening to music via a USB chip in our heads, directly streaming from the artist’s head. There won’t even be instruments involved. It will be all mental data converted…” he says, drifting off in a fantasy of sounds I can only imagine.

“Oh, man. Bring it on. Bring it on, I say!”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s April/May 2015 print issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]



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April 4th 2019

I’m down for whatever he creates, because everything he’s created thus far has been gold, and I don’t see that changing. If you want psych-rock epics, there are plenty of incredible bands out there making just that, many also with the same Aussie flow. I don’t feel the need to hold my breath for Kevin to digress.