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Tame Impala’s Mind Tricks: Kevin Parker on Sense-Altering ‘Currents’

Frontman says psych rock is “really just about transporting people, even for just an instant”.

In just a few short years, Kevin Parker’s one-man recording project Tame Impala has expanded into a full-band psychedelic rock monster. Albums like 2010 debut Innerspeaker and 2012’s follow-up Lonerism not only inspired an Australian psych-rock renaissance, they led Parker to collaborate with the Flaming Lips and Kendrick Lamar (who jumped on a remix of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”).

Over the past year and a half, Parker has been hard at work on the forthcoming Currents (due July 27th), which he hopes will expand the band’s parameters considerably. “I wouldn’t say making psychedelic music is my focus,” he says. “That’s not the modus operandi for Tame Impala. It’s about making music that moves people.” On a recent afternoon, we caught up with him before a headlining gig at Austin’s Levitation Fest, where he had just been roused from a combination of hangover and jetlag.

The Currents album art shows a captivating image designed by Robert Beatty. Did this inform the album concept?
I had this concept, a core idea that we needed someone to bring to life. It’s based on this scientific diagram where it shows an airplane wing and the flow of air around it and shows how the air in front is calm and still and undisturbed. But as the wing moves through space, it disturbs everything and the air behind it is mangled, warped and disturbed. Slackness versus turbulence. The last two covers were about taking organic things – a photo in each instance – and fucking them up, taking something that’s real and warping it until it’s weird to look at.

You do that a lot with sonic perception, compressing guitars until they sound like synths and making live drums sound like drum machines. Were there new challenges in making Currents?
Everything I do is a mutant cross between a challenge and something that comes naturally. Making music is so spiritual. I’m not a spiritual person, but music is sacred to me. Trying new things and experimenting is something I push myself to do. It’s one thing to have love for all different kinds of music, it’s another thing to bring them together seamlessly and make them coherent.

The single “Let It Happen” has this digital skip that then turns into its own rhythm. Was that an accident? Or intentional?
I’ve done it before on “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” – it’s exactly the same thing. I love that kind of thing. Going back to the album art, it’s that organic realm that’s been fucked with in a digital way that tricks the mind. That synthetic repetition is the same with the music in “Let It Happen”; for some reason that just does it for me. It makes my ears prick up. These days there’s all these ways to manipulate sound. As I was working on the song, I had this idea for this skipping bit. I loved the idea that someone would be listening to the song on their car radio and they’d think that the radio was broken or go, “Something’s not right.” I feel that’s a big part of what I do.

A CD skipping is almost this archaic sound now, as it’s not something that would happen on streaming services or MP3s.
For me it’s about finding some way to alter your sense of what you’re listening to and alter your sense of which way is up and down. Whatever you can do to make people feel woozy or not just standing on the ground, that’s what psychedelia has always been about for me. All the stigmas and clichés aside, it’s really just about transporting people, even for just an instant.

The album moves around a lot, and there’s a song, “Disciples,” that brought to mind someone like Ariel Pink.
That song was about Seventies AM radio – an upbeat song, but it’s totally different from the rest of the album. If I had an idea for a song or a soundscape, I would just go for it. I wouldn’t try to make it fit into a preconceived notion of what Tame Impala was. If I had an idea for a song, I would just go for it and take it to its own extant, rather than try to box it in. One of my mottos for Currents was “give the song what it deserves.” How would this song flourish? If the song could tell me what it wants, what can I give it? I tried not to dictate it with any sensible or logical decisions.

Previous Tame Impala singles always have an ear toward remixes from producers like Errol Alkan and the Field. Are you a big fan of dance music?
I don’t get to listen to a lot but I’ve always loved the Field, Caribou, Chemical Brothers. There’s a big part of dance music that really intrigues me. I was reading about Goa trance back when we were really into psych-rock and jamming and making this extended jam where it was no longer about the three-minute song with verse-chorus-verse but instead this drawn-out experience. I was reading about Goa trance and these beach raves in South India and I remember thinking of the parallels to psych-rock. It wasn’t about worshipping the artist onstage. The DJ was just a deliverer of the music. It would go on for hours. There wasn’t this focus on this one thing that… uh… I’m too hungover.

You also do dance music sometimes as the AAA Aadvark Getdown Services. Does that feed back into what you do as Tame Impala?
That was something that just spilled out of me. It’s a side project that serves as the spit valve of Tame Impala. It’s like on a trumpet, you release it and all the spit that’s in your trumpet comes out. You have to let it drip out. Disco-funk is the build-up of saliva from Tame Impala. I love that kind of thing but I have to stop myself from letting it overtake what I do. I need a little avenue for it or else it would overtake Tame Impala otherwise. As a person growing up in the Nineties, there was a big division between dance music and rock music. They were two separate camps, you could only be one side or the other. But then you start to realize that they’re inherently similar.