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Tame Impala - The Under the Radar Cover Story Bonus Q&A

The Ocean Inside

Jul 03, 2015 Tame Impala Photography by Shervin Lainez Bookmark and Share

Kevin Parker can’t take a compliment. He has just offered me his creative philosophy, explaining how artists are at their best when they move away from the parts of their craft that they’ve already mastered and move toward the parts that remain just beyond their reach. But when I congratulate him on succeeding by reaching this very standard on his third Tame Impala album, Currents, he is suspicious. “‘Yeah, it definitely sounds like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew,’” he laughs, putting an imaginary quote in my mouth. But while his tone is joking, the sentiment behind it seems real. “Maybe people who listen to it will say, ‘Is he actually trying this? Maybe he should stick to what he was doing.’”

Such comments are typical from him. Like many artists, he appears simultaneously confident and conflicted, certain that he’s right to challenge himself but unsure that his listeners will agree that the risks were warranted. He has good reasons for doubt, too: Currents is full of moments where Parker is exploring well beyond the borders that have previously defined Tame Impala’s sound. Dance music, R&B, and soul music have all been added to the mix, continuing the drift toward pop music (and away from psychedelic rock) that began on 2012’s Lonerism. Along with his stylistic reinvention, he has also reimagined himself as a lyricist, with currents-wind, oceanic, internalserving as the metaphor for Parker’s personal transformation, agents of change he seems to regard as both threatening and inevitable. If he’s bitten off more than he can chew, choking has never sounded better. Here Parker examines his perfectionist tendencies, the origins of his new songs, and why he can’t allow himself to take a day off. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Kevin Parker, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on Tame Impala.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): The last time I talked to you, you explained that your songwriting process eventually breaks down over minute details that most listeners will never even be able to hear. Is that still an issue?

Kevin Parker: Yeah. Without a doubt. But it’s one thing to consciously know thatto know that people aren’t going to hear the minute detailsbut it’s another thing to act on that, to not worry about it. Even though you know that people aren’t going to know the difference, that’s not going to stop you from fucking going over it and doing this one line of one lyric [over and over]. I usually don’t do that many vocal takes for a song. If it’s not the first vocal take, then it’s the 600th, and I literally went over into four digits! In the recording program I use, it counts the takes you do. It will say “18 audio” or “18 vocal one.” And I looked back, and it was like 1,003 for this one track! [Laughs] That’s not to say that I sang the whole song 1000 times, because it could be just one line. I usually get one word in, and I’m like, “Okay, fuck it! Go back. That was shit.” That’s the thing: it’s one thing to know it’s ridiculous that you can be so intricate about it. It’s another to just let yourself be cool with it. Your desires just dominate. My obsession over it being perfect dominates my logical mind any day of the week.

Do you think you’re becoming more of a perfectionist over time?

Everything is becoming more ridiculously blown out as I go on, blown out in terms of attention to perfectionism. I used to argue that I wasn’t a perfectionist. People would say, “If you’re recording it all yourself, mixing it all yourself, and you insist that it’s you, you must be a perfectionist.” My response was, “Not really. I’m just a perfectionist with the vibe. I want it to have this particular vibe. The details aren’t important.” But now I’m realizing maybe that isn’t so true. But at the same time, I still love things that are rough around the edges and have this raw energy, and a lot of the album still has that. That’s one of the aspects of perfectionism. That’s a wanky thing to say. That’s one of the parts that I want to get perfecthaving that rough energy come through. It’s kind of contradictory, but it makes sense in my head.

You said before that you spend most of your studio time trying to recapture the spirit of your original demo. Does that ever get any easier?

Yeah, I think I’m getting better as a producer. I think that’s one of the things that you only get with experience. It’s such a well-known phenomenon. The first crusty demo and first vocal take and first fuck around with the song has this energy and vibe to it that you can’t replicate. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get it back. But at the same time, I’m getting better at finding out what it was that was so cool about that original thing and being able to do it again. It’s hard to explain. A lot of my vocals are the first takes. So much is that true, that on the first song [on Currents], “Let It Happen,” there’s this part at the end where I’m singing through this keyboard sampler thing, almost like a vocoder but not really. And the first take I did, I was just singing gibberish and making sounds with my mouth just to test it out. And I didn’t even know what I was saying. I was saying words and stringing sentences together that weren’t really words. I do that a lot when I’m demoing and fleshing out ideas, because I’ve got the emotion in me, but I haven’t turned it into words yet. So I was just doing that, and then I left that for months and months, always planning to go back and re-record it with real lyrics. And I only did it a few days ago, a week before mastering. I’m totally contradicting what I said before, but I couldn’t get back the same groove I did when I was speaking in tongues. So I had to make the decision, like, “Fuck it. I’ll just leave the speaking in tongues version on the album.” It will never make sense, but the song is called “Let It Happen,” and it’s about allowing what is overtaking you to take control. So I was, “Well, if there’s one song where this is allowed, I guess it’s this one. I have no idea what I was saying, but I guess fans will string the words together and try to work out what I was subconsciously thinking.” Because that has been a layer to it, as well, letting your subconscious battle.

Do you remember your first idea for that track?

Yes and no. I think most of that song was put together at different times, when I was on tour, actually. I remember it came to me, I think I was walking to my hotel room in Oklahoma. And then the chorus, I was at a festival in Hungary or Turkey. And then the midsection, the jam bit, I was on a train. That’s a bit looping and a weird repetitive thing going on, and I had my laptop on a train in France, going to Toulouse. I think with that song, one thing led to another. I was just jamming by myself in the way I do, and I put it on a loop to see what sounds cool. I just see where it takes me. That’s something I used to do when I made music when I was younger. I wouldn’t even have an idea of where it was going to go, and I would let the song write itself in a sense and not be closed off to any things that you can use, those little elements that can come in. It’s coming out next week, I think. If I can actually get my shit together by Monday, the whole album that is. And by “my shit,” I mean the entire fucking album. [Laughs]

That song seems like quite a departure. You haven’t really jumped so thoroughly into dance music in your previous work.

But for that song, I wouldn’t know [what style it is], especially because I’ve been working on this album for so long, and this happens every time. You work on something for so long, and you listen to it and you get so involved in a different realm of the music that you lose all perspective of what it sounds like to hear it for the first time and what it will sound like to other people and what they think it will sound like. For me, by the time I’m finished with an album I have absolutely no idea what it sounds like. I have no idea what genre it is. I have no idea what people will say it sounds like or what category it will be put in. To me, it sounds totally different from anything ever. But I know that after the album is released and I haven’t listened to it for a year, I’ll listen back to it and go, “Oh yeah. I can hear this or that.” But at the moment, it’s a completely abstract and separate piece of music from the rest of the world. I’m hoping that’s how it comes across to other people, as well. But that worries me: if something is completely different and not part of any genre, then when does it get played? What kind of atmosphere does it fit into if it doesn’t fit into any genre? But that’s equally as inspiring as it is worrying.

You jumped into writing this album right after finishing Lonerism, correct?

I think I tried to shut out making music for a while, because each albumespecially Lonerismit absolutely wears me down to nothing. I’m just a shell of a man. By the time I finish an album, I feel like I’ve expended every ounce of energy and creativity, and I’m just this empty sack at the end of it. [Laughs] I always imagine I’ll take a break from writing anything, because it’s just too much. But as soon as you stop, your brain starts kicking in and starts wanting to be creative again, as soon as you don’t have to be creative…. That’s the thing: when you’re making an album, there’s an obligation to be creative every day. You’ve got to finish these lyrics, you’ve got think of a sweet keyboard melody for this bit. You don’t have a choiceyou’ve got a deadline and you have to finish it. That can inspire you, like “I’m not going to do that for a while.” But as soon as you don’t have a deadline and you’re not obligated or have a responsibility, it can instantly renew itself as this amazing, fulfilling thing. And also, by the time you finish an album you have such a clear idea of what the next thing is going to be like, and it’s usually the opposite of what you’re doing now, because you realize how much this takes it out of you. So you’re like, “Yeah, man. The next album is going to have two things in the mix. There’s going to be a drum machine and this crazy synth, and they’re going to repeat for three minutes. That will be it. The lyrics are going to be ‘Bop she bop, she’s my baby/I’m going to take her out tonight.’ I’m going to finish the song in two days, and fuck it, that’s going to be it.” But obviously that never ends up being the case.

“Cause I’m a Man”that one seems to be a departure, too. I haven’t really heard a Tame Impala song that has that sort of sexy creep to it.

It’s meant to be kind of sassy and tongue-in-cheek to some degree. It’s meant to sound kind of sexy, but I don’t know if that’s how it comes across, with its laid-back beat. I’m really putting myself out there vocally more than I have before. I usually bury my vocals and sing quite ethereally and stick in a laser beam melody washed in reverb. I just love that dreamy, silvery vocal sound. But here I just forced myself to put myself out there and really try something more than what I would feel comfortable doing with a vocal performance. I was like, “Fuck it, man. Just do it.”

It sounds a bit like Prince to me, which those sensual vocals and soulful guitar licks.

Ah, cool! That’s good. It’s good to hear that, because I have no perspective on this! I finished the song, and I think it sounds a particular way. It’s good to hear you say it’s a sensual soulful thing.

Listening to it, I was wondering if the lyrics are intended to be apologetic. The tone also seems a bit defiant.

It is, but it’s also apologetic. When I say it’s tongue-in-cheek, I’m not saying it’s insincere. The apology is sincere, but the excuse of saying, “Oh, it’s because I’m a man” is the tongue-in-cheek bit. I hope people don’t see it as a sexist in any way. That would upset me, but I wouldn’t put it past people to interpret it like that, because people have wack interpretations of things sometimes.

How about “Eventually”? What was your original idea for that song?

All I know about the genesis of that song is that I was on the back of a scooter. I think I was in Perth and my friend was driving the scooter and I was on the back. I don’t know why, but I started singing it in my head. The song is about knowing that you’re about to damage someone almost irreparably, and the only consolation you get is this distant hope that they’ll be alright eventually, because you know that they aren’t going to be now or soon. It’s like “Fuck!” That’s all I remember. I was on the back of the scooter and the wind was rushing through me.

It sounds like a breakup song.

Yeah. I guess I can’t really deny that, but at the same time I like songs to be ambiguous. I hate to say that a song is about this and you must interpret it this way, because one of the cool things is to hear someone’s interpretation of one of your songs that is completely different. That’s when you feel like you’ve done something that belongs not just to you. That’s when you feel like your music belongs to the world, when you hear all these different interpretations and what it does to people. It’s a good feeling.

Do people usually interpret your songs the way you intend them?

People don’t talk to me about their interpretations, usually. I think the interpretation of songs on Lonerism were especially wide because the vocals weren’t very easily understood. One of the things about that album was that I finished it and I was like, “All the levels are perfect, and you can hear every word.” Then I listened to it a year later, and I was like, “Fuck! You can’t hear a thing! Turn up the vocals, mate!”

What was the inspiration for “Yes, I’m Changing”?

I make a lot of quick demos. It will be a quick demo if I’m not in my studio, and I’m on tour. So I do a lot of recordings with just a keyboard part late at night, just getting back to my hotel. I’ll just bash it out and sing a demo vocal into the laptop mic. And if I remember it the next morning, I’ll go, “Oh yeah, that sounds good.” Or “Oh, that sounds terrible. What was I smoking?” And sometimes you just forget about it, maybe because you’re drunk or do it so quickly that you get distracted and forget about it. This is one that I just came across. It was a weird experience, because it was like it was someone else made the song. I had no memory of imagining it. I don’t know where it was or when it was. All I know is that I had this demo on my laptop and was listening to it going, “This is really good. I wonder why I forgot about it.” To this day, I don’t know, and I’ll never know. It is there.

It seems to be an exceptionally straightforward song for you. The verse-chorus structure is pretty simple.

It’s meant to be a verse-centered song. Obviously, it’s not like Bob Dylan, but it’s that thing where it’s one verse after another, just explaining it. I guess it’s a very lyrically-centered song, because the music is quite simple. That’s something that feels new to me, as well, making songs that are based on the lyrics. Not that that hasn’t happened in the past, but usually the lyrics are another dimension of the song. But this time, they are the central thing, like a “Listen to what I’m saying” kind of thing. Not that you have to…

I was also surprised by “Less I Know the Better.” That one almost has a Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder vibe to it.

That’s good to hear! Yeah, that song originally I thought shouldn’t be on a Tame Impala album, because it has this dorky, white disco funk. I wouldn’t call it cheesy, but it’s not trying to be too cool, because the lyrics are pretty dorky and the groove is pretty dorky. But at the same time, for me, I love that kind of music. I don’t know why, but I’ve been obsessed with disco for the last year or two.

I can’t think of many artists that have been experimenting in the ways that you are here. You’re mixing dance music with an almost singer/songwriter approach. That’s something I haven’t really heard before.

Thanks, man. I need all the compliments I can get at the moment. But I think this album without a doubt is my most musically diverse one, not by intentional force. Every album I do, I get a little more adventurous and not afraid to go from one realm to another.

Can you imagine yourself ever taking an extended break?

I just don’t think I’m capable of that, and it’s because…I don’t know why the fuck it is. But all of us are like that, all of the people I’m friends with, the Pond guys. There’s just something about the way we’ve always thought of music that it doesn’t feel right to stop or be like, “Well, I’m going to take a break for a while.” I don’t know why that is. I’d say we’re ambitious, but that implies that we’re trying to get somewhere with it. But it’s not necessarily the case; we just love the idea of making something new. But maybe that’s not it. I think maybe it’s because we feel like if we stopped we’d be missing out on something, an opportunity to do something. Why would you stop making art if you could keep doing it? If there’s an opportunity to do it? And there is! We have access to more things and more ways of making music than ever in history. We’ve got everything at our fingertips. Why wouldn’t we use everything? Why wouldn’t we do something all the time? It just seems like a waste. There’s so much fruit out there to pick and eat.

Do you have any particular expectations for how this album will be received?

Well, with this album, I don’t know, because I feel like I’m touching on a lot of genres that I know a lot of true psychedelic rock fans would turn their noses up to. I also thought that on the last album, so I don’t know. I’m just never sure. I can’t expect to be moved by the music throughout the whole process. But there are a few times in making an album where I’m in a really kind of emotional state, and it’s very intense to me. If that happens to someone else anywhere around the world, then I’ve succeeded. And if it happens to more people, then that’s even better. While I’m making an album I do like to just think about this one person that is experiencing it in a really strong way. That’s what motivates me to finish it. “You’ve got to get this out there, because this person, who is unnamed and without an identity, is waiting for it.” I guess [that person] is me in a parallel universe. There’s not much quite like it.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital version of Under the Radar’s April/May 2015 print issue (for tablets and smart phones), which is available to download or read now via our app, Zinio, Readly, and Readbug. This is its debut online.]



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