INTERVIEW

EVERYTHING IS CHANGING: Kevin Parker sees his new, third album as Tame Impala as a fork in the road. David Zammitt met him at London’s St. Pancras Hotel for our 2015 summer cover feature

tame-impala

As he ambles over and sits groggily down at our table in the lobby of the plush Renaissance Hotel in St Pancras, Kevin Parker looks a bit dazed. To his credit, he is immaculately turned out – trademark scarf and denim jacket sit perfectly in place despite the sticky London summer edging the mercury northward – but when I ask how he’s feeling he’s not so sure. “Yeah, not too bad.” He winces and peers back through a single, painful red eye. “But not too good.” It turns out he’s a little worse for wear, having just crawled out of bed after less than four hours of sleep. “We kind of just celebrated being in this really fancy hotel last night. We were just making use of the room, I guess. And I’m… paying the price!” He rolls his eyes downward and smirks like a teenager who knows he shouldn’t have. “That was a stupid idea.” I offer the consolation that at least he’s only got two full days of interviews and a Glastonbury appearance to get through. He doesn’t appreciate the reminder.

As we settle down, his manager comes over to offer a coffee and the choice seems too much for the 29-year-old psych rock saviour, staring off into the distance as though searching for inspiration. “Ammm…” Eventually she makes the decision for him but as the simple binary of flat white versus latte seems to prove too much I’m not sure if I’m going to get the chirpy, effusive character I’d seen in previous interviews. I needn’t have worried. For when you talk to Kevin Parker about music he is transformed. As the detail-driven nature of his work under the Tame Impala moniker suggests, he revels in the minutiae of his art and obsesses over its quality control to the point where the final process of tweaking and mastering each album has seen him spiral into a self-inflicted psychosis.

Growing up in Perth, Australia, in the early 2000s, Parker played with grunge, classic rock, hip hop and the sunny ’60s pop sounds of his father, Jerry’s, extensive record collection as he tried to find his true musical voice. As his son got deeper and deeper into his craft and schoolwork started to become less of a priority, Jerry warned him that even if making music for a living was enough to pay the bills, it would still ruin the magic that first drew him in. A massive rock and roll fan and diehard Hank Marvin aficionado, he would play the Shadows guitarist’s lead riffs while a young Kevin practised his rhythm guitar. Jerry died while Parker was writing his 2010 debut album, ‘Innerspeaker’, and Parker Jr. takes a moment to consider whether or not his father’s hypothesis was correct. When his appraisal comes, it’s respectful but firm. “In the end, no. He was wrong.” His lips crease with a smile. “But I still don’t know if he was making up the excuse that it’ll lose its magic as a way of secretly saying that I won’t make any money. I think he genuinely meant it. But he didn’t really experience music the same way I did. It wasn’t a creative thing for him; he played covers and stuff. So maybe he had a slightly more one-dimensional way of looking at life as a musician. He said it’d kill the mystery of it, but for me, as soon as you conquer one mystery and it’s not a mystery anymore, more mysteries open up.” As he affirms his thesis Parker’s eyes grow wider, emphasising that this is more than just a job, and much more than a mere pastime. “It’s this infinitely unknown thing, creating music. I’ve never once felt that music isn’t as wondrous as it once was. Never. In fact, it’s the opposite.”

Jerry Parker lived to see Tame Impala sign to Sydney-based EMI offshoot Modular Recordings, proving that the project would at least put some food on the table – and guarantee his son’s happiness – in the short term. “It was when we were starting to get talked about and it was looking promising, so he lived just long enough to get to eat his words!” He laughs fondly and I ask if he was a fan. “Yeah! Because the first stuff we released was ’60s-inclined psych pop, so it was right up his alley.”

Both of Parker’s parents were born in Southern Africa – his father was Zimbabwean and his mother South African – and the image of the impala comes from a chance flick through the books that were lying around when he was younger. “As part of the coffee table book pile, there was one on African animals and it was just them; these amazing, majestic pictures of different Sahara Desert animals and that kind of stuff. I remember seeing pictures of the impala and them being really graceful and almost flying through the air.” It’s a fitting metaphor for music that has always seemed to come from somewhere beyond human touch, untethered by the force of gravity. It certainly describes the music better than the Dee Dee Dums, Parker’s previous nom de plum. But are there any lingering regrets about that name change? “No! Oh God.” He crumples up with laughter. “That was terrible. Thank God the record label called up after I changed the name. No one would’ve wanted to listen to a band called Dee Dee Dums.”

When he speaks about his teenage years and coming of age in Western Australia, his fondness is immediately clear (“I’m flying the flag for Perth!”), and it’s a refreshing counterpoint to the lines of musicians who queue up just to slag off the places from which they come. “It’s easy to do. There’s a big thing about people who live in Perth and who know about the rest of the world. There’s a big cultural cringe in Perth and it’s a cool thing to say that Perth’s so backward and, ‘Man, life in Berlin is so much more forward-thinking.’ But I kind of front the resistance to that.” And while he doesn’t like to think that the music he makes would be any different had he been born on the other side of the world, he acknowledges that the so-called ‘City of Light’ (Loud And Quiet trivia: Perth residents lit their house lights in 1962 to celebrate astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around the earth) has influenced him both as a person and a songwriter, even if just by virtue of climate and town planning. “Perth has its own effect on you,” he says. “The weather’s pretty good. It’s like a miniature L.A. and there are little things, like everyone drives a car because the city is so spread out and I learnt to sing because I could roll the window down and just belt my lungs out to my favourite songs. That’s how I found my voice. I didn’t sing before then because I was so shy.”

So there you have it: Kevin Parker didn’t even know he was in possession of that steely, Lennon-like baritone until the age of seventeen. “Yeah! I sang quietly but I didn’t have a voice voice,” he nods. “And some of my most profound and memorable experiences of music were up at a hundred decibels with shitty saucer-size speakers rattling out of their sockets. I’m pretty sure I sustained more hearing loss coming out of my little speakers in my car than all my years of being a touring musician.” As incidental as it may at first seem, anecdotes like this show just how in tune Parker is with his environment. Everything is thought out, and it’s this same heightened awareness and painstaking meticulousness that shines through in every pour – every hi-hat and delay pedal – of Tame Impala’s music.

Between making his initial forays into songwriting at the tender age of 12 and the arrival of his first eight-track when he was just 16, Parker would make music by recording himself over and over again, scientifically working out how melody functioned by layering himself over and over. By working solo, he was able to construct a world that was all his own, giving birth to the inward-looking fixation suggested by titles like ‘Innerspeaker,’ ‘Solitude Is Bliss’ and ‘Lonerism’.

From an early age, he found that engaging with the world at large didn’t seem to be as fruitful for him as it was for others and he valued his own company and that of close friends high and above a room full of other humans. Since starting to tour the world, though, he’s had to develop a more pragmatic approach. “It definitely beckons the closed off part of me out of myself, if that makes sense. It makes it harder to be that closed off person, especially as it’s been so long that I’ve been doing this. Your brain kind of works out how to deal with it,” he explains. “The first few years I was doing it, it was so confusing for me. Even the outside world – and other people – talking to people all the time, it was too much for me. That was kind of how [album number two] ‘Lonerism’ happened; it was just me kind of expressing the frustration of being in this world with lots of people and I just can’t cope with it. That’s what the album is about. It’s not about being physically alone,” he says, keen to avoid misunderstanding. “It’s about being alone in a room full of people.” It has, thankfully, become gradually easier to deal with the realities of his current life. “I started to realise that staying that closed off, and walking around with my fingers in my ears and my hands over my eyes…” he says, trailing off. “It became more energy consuming to block out the world rather than to allow it to come into me and to allow myself to be a part of it. To remain detached was more draining.”

That tunnel vision meant that early attempts to translate his recordings to a live setting proved challenging. For all intents and purposes this is Parker’s solo project, despite the fact that he repeatedly refers to Tame Impala as ‘we’. Although bassist and long-time collaborator Dom Simper contributed to ‘Innerspeaker’ and Jay Watson played drums on that album and keyboards on a smattering of ‘Lonerism’’s tracks, Parker has written virtually every note, played around 99% of them and produced everything. He says: “We’ve got the conversion path down now but in the beginning it was confusing. I was confused about what the live show was meant to be.” There was a central contradiction, he admits, in what he was trying to do. “I wanted it to be a band. I’ve always loved the idea of being in a band. But at the same time I wanted the songs to have the same vibe, the same feeling as the recordings, which to me, I thought meant that all the players would just mimic my style. I told Jay to just play drums like me, you know?” Parker is able to see the funny side now, and relations have improved, but it didn’t always look like it would turn out that way. “That caused a lot of tension,” he says. “He’d do a drum fill and I’d be like, ‘Maybe just do the drum fills on the album.’ So we had a lot of arguments in the early days because we were just confused about what it was meant to be. But now I kind of know. Now I realise that it’s a completely different thing to the album. It’s so much more to focus the energy on setting up the song so that it doesn’t really matter how you play it, it’ll still sound cool.” As he reflects on a thankfully more sanguine working relationship it’s clear that he’s spent a lot of painful hours into getting his head around the concept. “Me on the album is just me multi-tracked a hundred times but playing live is just five guys playing all at once, that’s all we’ve got. So knowing that I’m a lot more at peace with it. I’ve embraced it.”

It’s exactly that self-reflexive bent and the underlying tension between the private animal and its social counterpart that has given Tame Impala’s work its uniquely ultra-personal, self-contained feel. Whether writing love letters to the space within his own mind (‘Solitude Is Bliss’), wrestling with the chore of existing in a world full of people (‘Why Won’t They Talk To Me?’, ‘Let It Happen’), or zooming in on the glorious details of the world’s tiniest objects with imagistic focus (‘Half Full Glass of Wine’, ‘41 Mosquitoes Flying in Formation’), the themes that Parker draws on and the almost claustrophobic perspective from which he writes evokes the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth and the transcendentalism of Whitman for its obsession with the self versus the outside world. “It’s something that my music has always pointed towards. The music and the lyrics I write are always self-explorative – if that’s a word,” he says, hesitating. “I’m not even sure why. Maybe it’s because the music that comes out of me seems to beckon that kind of message. But at the same time music, for me, has always been a very important part of self-questioning and working out who you are. For me making music is kind of a therapy. It’s the equivalent of lying down on a sofa and talking to a psychologist.” It’s nice, I suggest, that we as listeners get to reap the benefits of his self-administered psychiatry. “When I put it like that it sounds quite selfish,” he smiles. “Just publishing the results of my therapy.”

But what results they have been. Since his eponymous EP landed in 2008, Parker’s oeuvre as Tame Impala has been a revelation, gradually evolving from classic blues-rock through psychedelia and baroque, towards the slick, electronics-driven future-pop of recent singles. While early tracks wore the influence of Clapton and Hendrix on their loose, floral sleeve, all fag smoke and drum solos, those ’60s rock indulgences quickly gave way to a distinctly tighter and more measured offering in ‘Innerspeaker’. But Parker really began to come into his own when writing and recording 2012’s ‘Lonerism’. That gift for melodic pop began to shine through all the more clearly as he chipped away at his sound, and while the youthful chutzpah which made early Tame Impala tracks so alluring was still present, he was able to dispense with the bravado and excess instrumentation of that debut LP with ruthlessness. The riffs were there (you sense the riffs will always be there) and ‘Elephant’’s infinite catchiness shifted a couple of BlackBerry Z10s and popped up in both Girls and Entourage, but Parker had the confidence to let the songs do the talking without the need for ornamentation. ‘Apocalypse Dreams,’ ‘Be Above It’ and ‘Mind Mischief’ saw Parker strip his songs back, ever closer to that magical three-minute mark, with an economy that served to foreground the genius that had been hinted at previously. Where before it seemed he needed to reinforce an idea through repetition or bombast, on ‘Lonerism’ his sheer belief in the songs allowed him to hold back.

Forthcoming album ‘Currents’ (released this month via a new deal with Fiction Records), predictably, doesn’t stand still. Taking on that sonic development, it takes Tame Impala into uncharted pop territory. The production is closer to ’90s RnB and trip hop than the sunny, George Martin-esque haze of yore, while sparse, rhythmic interplay and sassy bass lines replace the layers of guitars. Finger clicks (yes), synths and drum machines vie for centre stage as Parker experiments with his own take on what pop music should sound like in 2015. There’s an exactitude to this latest work, a newfound precision that gives the songs more clarity and an almost geometric quality. If ‘Innerspeaker’ and ‘Lonerism’ were made up of blurred edges then ‘Currents’ is constructed out of deliberate, straight lines.

There’s also a sense that Parker’s new album was approached as a larger piece of art as opposed to a mere collection of songs pushed together by chance. Tracks like ‘Nangs,’ ‘Gossip’ and ‘Disciples’ all clock in under 2 minutes, functioning as intervals between the longer pieces, meaning that the album ebbs and flows beautifully, with breathing space between its bigger statements. “I only started getting into the idea of the journey of an album when I got signed, when putting out albums was a medium for me to release music. Up until then I just made songs. I’ve always loved interlude sections, where it’s not its own song, it’s kind of like a connector from one song to another, almost like an intermission in a film or something.” He pauses. “It makes it more of a journey.”

It’s that idea which informs much of ‘Currents’, and even individual tracks feel like journeys. Lead single ‘Let It Happen’, a ballsy 8-minute snapshot of the album that never once feels its length, morphs and evolves by marrying sinister, looping electronica with krautrock and Air-like vocoder motifs, all the while underpinned by pounding, motorik snare hits. ‘The Less I Know the Better,’ a track jokingly discarded by Parker as, “white disco-funk,” has a groove that would have Quincy Jones on the floor, although my comparison to Kylie and Jason’s 1989 Stock, Aitken and Waterman-penned smash ‘Especially For You’, with its xlyophones and love sickness, unfortunately draws a blank from their compatriate: “I can’t believe I don’t know that track – I love Kylie!”

As well as its sonic shift, ‘Currents’ sees Parker realigning his subject matter and the audience for his words. Thematically, while he used ‘Innerspeaker’ and ‘Lonerism’ to discuss his independence and his fractured connection with outside forces, on ‘Currents’ those walls come down as he finds himself dealing with the breakdown of a relationship and the realities of human frailty. It places at its centre the universal truth that, regardless of what you might do to combat it, you can end up becoming something you never intended to be. “It’s about the uncontrollable forces within you, that take you in different directions as a person, that transform you, not against your will but unconsciously. There are decisions we make about who we are and what we do but in the end it’s uncontrollable who we end up becoming and deep down the person who we are.”

Coming out of that break-up, a quick glance down the album’s tracklisting (‘Love/Paranoia’, ‘Cause I’m A Man’) gives a sense of the emotional state of its creator. Was it harder, then, addressing someone else directly as opposed to looking inward? “Yes it was tough but no, it wasn’t that much tougher than before. Because each step of the way of me making albums, I’ve kind of been breaking off more and more of myself and exposing more of myself. In the early days my lyrics would just be about nonsensical metaphors. And then I discovered the fulfilment of really exposing myself and being vulnerable in my lyrics.”

I’m conscious of the raw emotion that underpins the album but as he speaks Parker seems remarkably calm – philosophical about what he’s learned in the process.

“With each album I’ve got more and more confident, to be honest. In the past I wouldn’t have wanted to be that honest because that would’ve seemed like I was, I dunno… seeming overly emotional.”

For longtime Tame Impala fans, the album’s lyrical content may come as a bit of a surprise. Drawing on standard love song aphorisms, songs like ‘Eventually’ (‘I know I will be happier / and I know you will too’) and ‘Less I Know The Better’ (‘I was doing fine without ya’) flirt with kitsch as Parker tries to purge the hurt of the loss. Ultimately, however, it’s that honesty which shines through and gives the album a humanity, which isn’t often found.

On the subject of lyrics, Parker is keen to set the record straight on the words of recent single ‘Cause I’m A Man.’ Through tender falsetto, the song sees him play with gender stereotyping but it’s brought hasty cries of sexism. “It’s meant to be with a large sense of irony,” he says. “When I was thinking of the song, the more I found that message of the song ridiculous. So in the end the synopsis is that it’s the worst excuse in the world. It’s a pathetic excuse; an absurd thing to say but presented in this delicate, fragile, honourable casing. But, for me, I maintain that only on the surface is it about gender. It’s really about being human and how we as humans are vulnerable to our own urges or whatever.” While he never names the act that caused the woe, it’s another hint at the infidelity suggested in the song’s lines. “If you take out the chorus reference to being a man, all the rest of the lyrics have nothing to do with gender. I suddenly realised that all the lyrics about being a bad person, basically, could quite as easily be a reference to being a human.”

With those allegations of chauvinism put neatly to bed, I remind Parker that he’ll pass into the unknown of his thirties in January, unintentionally reprising the misery of his hangover in the process. “Aw God, thanks,” he laughs. “Well, I heard your thirties are the best years of your life!” What I’m really asking him is to reflect on whether or not his twenties have been a success thus far. I assume that the rhetorical nature of my question is obvious – wall-to-wall critical acclaim, a couple of gold and platinum albums, and a Grammy nomination seems like a decent return – but he is thoughtful in his response, demonstrating that, despite the fact that approval may come from every angle, he doesn’t take anything for granted.

“Ammmmm. I guess so,” he says. “I guess there was only a small part of my twenties were I actually felt like I was in my twenties. Until I was 25 I still felt like a teenager – until we started touring. And then my hopelessness with life and being an adult was fuelled. Being a touring musician is the best excuse to not grow up. It’s the ultimate excuse to not get good at life. So I only realised I was becoming an adult recently.” Skilfully and modestly dodging the question about success, he prefers to tell me how he hasn’t improved when it comes to life’s daily practicalities. “I’m still useless at life. I bought a house recently and I was a complete amateur. I was laughably shit at it. I didn’t even do the whole thing of making an offer that was heaps lower. I saw it on the website and it was this amount of money so I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll take it,’ and my stepmom was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ It was an absolute joke.”

While ‘real’ adulthood – whatever that actually means – might be a while off, with such a seismic leap in sound and subject it’s difficult to know what the next musical move will be for Parker. Where next for this one member band? Understandably careful to choose his words, one thing is clear: it will involve a significant change. It might not even come under the Tame Impala banner. “Well, that’s what’s on my mind at the moment,” he says. “This album feels like more of a fork in the road than any other album I’ve done. I just wanted to experiment on this album and for me experimenting isn’t necessarily being experimental,” he emphasises the word, suggesting he’s sick of hearing it – “in the clichéd or known sense of the word. I wanted to try things that in the past I wouldn’t have had the courage or audacity to try. One thing I know for sure is that I didn’t want what I did on this album to be an indicator of what was to come. I wanted to leave it open-ended. I wanted it to be shaking the snow globe, doing something that would make what immediately follows it unknown. Because I knew that if I did the same thing again,” he says, self-effacingly ignoring the leaps he’s made with every album, “or if I took the path that was laid out in front of me, I would’ve known exactly how it would play out – who would like it, who would dislike it, which radio stations would play it, how successful it would be – and I didn’t like the idea that I knew what was going to happen. For me, part of the excitement about making music is the unwritten future.” He sighs and takes a sip of his coffee, relaxed and confident as he stares into the unknown. He sits back in his chair and grins. “I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future.”

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