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Kevin Parker’s Dream World

Tame Impala’s visionary has a head full of ideas and not enough time to do everything.

Kevin Parker answers the door and ushers us in off the busy main road that fronts his Fremantle home. It’s the sort of house you’d imagine Tame Impala’s frontman living in. An old, charming, single storey abode surrounded by modern warehouses and factories, it looks as out-of-place as you’d expect of a man whose music sounds like it’s from another age. A lounge room is littered with throw cushions, Supertramp LPs and empty bottles. To the left, with only a thin sheet of glass separating the bedroom from the footpath, is the room where Parker recorded and mixed Tame Impala’s third record, Currents, entirely on his own. His set-up is minimal, the sort of gear that any bedroom hobbyist might have. A ramshackle drum kit, a guitar covered in duct tape and some battered vintage synths only help compound the disparity between the sprawling sonic opus that is Currents and the humble circumstances in which it was created.

Parker has always worked like this, even on Tame Impala’s 2010 debut, Innerspeaker. (“The idea of going to some flash studio where there’s some stranger telling you how to arrange your song is pretty absurd to us,” he said at the time.) Currents is a major departure from that guitar and delay-drenched debut and its 2012 follow-up, Lonerism, both musically – first single “‘Cause I’m a Man” eschews his trademark guitar riffs for dreamy electro and R&B beats – and lyrically. For the first time ever Parker’s vocals feature prominently in the mix, and the personal, first-person lyrics are sometimes brutally honest: “‘Cause I’m a man, woman, I’ll never be as strong as you,” he sings in the single.

From the beginning, Tame Impala have kept people guessing. Initially signed to taste-making label Modular as a band made up of Parker, drummer Jay Watson and bassist Dominic Simper – the live line-up saw Simper switch to guitar and Nick Allbrook come in on bass (he’s since been replaced by Cam Avery); Watson, meanwhile, is now on keys, with Julien Barbagallo on drums – it was unclear at first that the band was purely a vehicle for Parker’s songwriting and solo recording. Until Lonerism cemented the idea that Tame Impala were only a band in the live sense, they were referred to mostly as a collective, something that seems to neither please nor irk Parker.

As he shows off some of his rare synths, a dozen bikers roar past at deafening volume and he chuckles. “There’s a bikie hangout near here. I dunno exactly where it is, but everyone else does.” A passerby coughs outside the window as they pass and they sound like they’re in the room with us. Parker’s neighbours have no doubt been listening to Currents taking shape for months. The next bedroom is filled with dozens of automated stage lights on stands. Parker explains that rather than complain about lighting design he wasn’t happy with, he decided to take the lights home and teach himself how to design his own light show. It’s D.I.Y. on a new level.

We make our way into the backyard. Evidence that Parker has been living, working and partying here for a considerable amount of time is littered everywhere. Beyond a wooden bench crammed with overflowing ashtrays and empties, sits a rowboat full of bottles and cans. A ladder leans precariously against a wall that has been half-painted lurid pink, but not very well.

As we settle in for a chat Parker’s girlfriend, Sophie, wrestles with a paint gun – she grins sheepishly and waves a bottle of vodka at us. “This is the best way to clean the nozzle,” she says as she pours the booze over the mechanism. It’s pure student logic, and with Parker due to jet off to the States the next morning, it’s safer not to think about what will happen to the half-pink wall in his absence. The boat, it seems, was here when Parker moved in. “I asked the real estate agent, ‘Does the boat come with the house?’ and she just looked at me and said, ‘It’s not part of the house, it’s a boat.’ I said, ‘If they can’t be fucked moving it, tell them I’ll have it.’ I think it gives it a nice flavour. It gives it movement. It makes it feel like the whole backyard is a lake.”

“‘Cause I’m a Man” was well-received, which must be a relief, because even though it was seen as a departure, it’s very indicative of the rest of Currents.
I maintain that I wouldn’t put out a piece of music that I made as Tame Impala if it wasn’t soulful and honest. But “‘Cause I’m a Man” has definitely got a different flavour to what I consider to be Tame Impala. But I guess if people are into that then they’ll be ready for the whole album.

Was it hard to write from a more personal angle?
Every album I do becomes more and more personal. I become more and more confident in myself as an artist to bear my soul. I definitely consider this album to be the best lyrically, which is why I made an effort not to bury the message of the songs in delay and reverb. It’s something I made myself do, even though towards the very end I started getting that same old self-consciousness around my lyrics.

Is it true that you listen to a lot of hip-hop and R&B?
I do, just by coincidence these days. My girlfriend listens to a lot of R&B and hip-hop. I’ve always been into it but now I almost see it as a kind of nostalgic thing. The whole Nineties R&B thing, it’s funny how it cropped up to me recently as something that brought back a lot of teenage memories. People talk about Sixties music as being nostalgic or Seventies music, but really that’s a perceived nostalgia, like a Hollywood nostalgia, because for me this was the music that I heard when I was actually starting to switch onto music, even if it was something that I disliked at the time because I considered myself a grunge head. Even if I pretended to hate it when I was a teenager, it doesn’t matter what it is or how good it is, or how much you like it, everything with age becomes romantic.

You mentioned that your girlfriend likes R&B. Do you think subconsciously you were making this record for her?
Don’t bring up that topic! [Parker looks around quickly to see if Sophie has been listening, before composing himself.] I’ve always made music for myself and the people around me. That’s why I started doing it. I started making music for myself, but then I started having friends who were into music and I started to make it for them to listen to. I first asked myself, “What would I like to hear?” But the secondary thought is, “What would the people that I love like to listen to? What would appeal to them?” Because if I didn’t ask that question, I’d only be catering to the same one person.

You really seem to like recording on your own – living inside your own head. Does that mean you hate playing to an audience?
No, not at all. They both have their charms, especially when you’ve spent so long doing one of them – by the time you’ve exhausted one outlet you’re craving the next. By the time you’ve spent two years going over the same thing perfecting a small section of music, you crave the opportunity to play it the whole way through. And the way you do it live is the way it is in that moment and it can’t be changed and it’s just for this audience and that’s the end of it. Which is, when you think about it, completely the opposite to recording an album. So you have to treat it as a different thing.

How do you draw that line?
I used to be confused where the line was between the two. I’d make my studio recordings and then we’d play them live, but I didn’t know if I was meant to make it exactly the same or to just completely abandon how it was in the recorded sense. So it was like that for years, me and Jay [Watson] had some serious arguments over it. I remember getting on stage at Falls Festival. It was the first time we ever played Falls and it was the biggest audience we’d ever played to, and we were getting on stage and sound checking. We didn’t have any crew and we didn’t know what we were doing and we were having this heated argument in front of all the people. We were just about to start and he did a drum fill and I made some quip about him being Dave Grohl or something and he pulled the finger on me. We didn’t really know what we were doing.

Do you still feel like that?
Not at all. It’s amazingly settled now. In a live sense at least. It couldn’t be more ego-less. At least in between us. We’ve always got our problems with “the system”. Not that we’re out to smash the system, I’d hate to come across like that. It’s more that when you want to live the rock & roll dream and do it the way that has been done since the 1960s, then you just go along with it. Just coast along. But if you actually choose to poke your head up and see what’s going on and see how much more work the crew do than you, it’s eye opening.

Do you think that if you ever decided to write a Tame Impala album with the entire band, just jamming out songs, you’d be able to do that?
Absolutely. That side of me has never faded. It’s like driving a car. That’s the easy part. When you’re one person working with a bunch of musicians, especially dudes that you love, it’s one of the most rewarding things in the world. That’s fucking magical. It’s an unparalleled feeling. It just so happens that it’s not at all what Tame Impala is about. And never has been about.

Was it hard to recruit the other Tame Impala guys, who were your friends, and tell them that they’d never have any input in the writing and recording?
It was tricky when we were confused ourselves about what it was. It was only confusing when we were signed as a band, but even that, from day-dot was kind of weird because the band wasn’t on the recordings. I’ve been recording music since was 12, on my own and before I even knew how to play instruments. So we got signed as a band and even the record label thought we were a band. It was confusing for us, because we went from two years as a touring band to a signed artist. But once we worked out ourselves what was going on we realised that the live part of Tame Impala was for the sake of doing it rather than for the sake of ourselves.

Can you explain what you mean by “the sake of doing it”?
It’s for the love of doing. For us as musicians making music together, Tame Impala was kind of a side thing and the other bands that we had, like Mink Mussel Creek, were us coming together as musicians. But even with that it was completely ego-less. Even in Tame Impala, there’s been barely any arguments because creatively it’s just me. Once I’m finished the song, I’m satisfied with it. So then it’s just, let’s make something that we can play on stage. And because its not that usual structure of a band where everybody wants their moment to shine – there’s none of that. There never has been because it’s not what Tame Impala is about.

Are there other people who you look up to that work like that?
The Flaming Lips have a similar way of working. Wayne [Coyne] is the chief visionary. It’s similar but different. [Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist] Steve Drozd is a musical genius but they have roles.

Are you a control freak?
I don’t think so. When people get paid for something they allocate that amount of time according to what they’re being paid and that’s what it means to them. People are involved with lots of different bands, they split up their time and it becomes a time-allocation thing. The music and how well the music corresponds with what they’re doing fades into the background. It takes so long to find people to work with who get what you’re doing, that want to help your music and your vision.

What was the turning point for you? When did you get so comfortable steering the Tame Impala ship?
There must have been some crucial moment where we were meant to go on stage and some sound guy said, “Kevin, just shut up. Just let us do our job. We know what we’re doing, you just be the musician. You do your little thing, you just get up on stage and play your guitar. Sing the lyrics and everyone claps and we just get on with it.”

Don’t guys like that hate that you’re so hands-on with the production and everything?
I’m trying to change the fucking system and it’s been in place for many years, and it’s tiring, for people, for people like me to interrupt their job. It took a long time to gain the respect from people so they’d listen to me.

Do you find it hard to imagine not being involved with every aspect?
We were practicing in LA recently at this big-arse rehearsal complex, and a big artist was practicing next to us and we were like, “Oh my god, he’s here!” We were there for four days, so excited because this artist was practicing next to us and we could hear his songs being played. And then on the last day we found out he wasn’t even there. Apparently he rocked up at the end of the last day and was like, “Cool, sounds good”, and then left. So that’s kind of how it happens, they have a big production team, but for me, I need to know how it’s working.

Would you take inspiration from anywhere or are there things you’d find too cheesy?
Everything is relevant. There are no hard and fast rules about what is cheesy and what is commercial because it’s all based on a time and a place. It’s all relative.

There’s really no one else that sounds like Tame Impala. Was that important to you?
I would say that’s the one thing that I rest on. The one thing that I make sure of before I let something out of the studio doors. I ask myself the question, “What you’re doing here, could you get that anywhere else? Could you get exactly what this is somewhere else?” And if the answer is yes, then it’s pointless. If this is the only way that they can get this particular blob of emotion and groove or musical sensibility, then it’s worth existing. It’s proven its own existence. So yeah, it’s extremely important to me.

But nobody’s even trying to copy your sound…
I also think that comes down to having a singular vision. I feel like this sounds like I’m downplaying the idea of collaboration, but collaborating has to do with compromise and blending. And for me it’s cool, I love the idea of blending, but it also dilutes. You run the risk with collaborating that you can blend it all together and all of a sudden you’ve got brown.

The full version of this article features in issue #765 (August, 2015), available now.

Photo courtesy of Universal Records.