We chat with Kevin Parker Of Tame Impala
As Kevin Parker slowly strolls in to the Universal offices in South Melbourne, he spots a poster for Lonerism hanging politely in a crowd of million-dollar artists. “There he is, look, see him grabbing his crotch?” He’s referring to a man sitting in the foreground of the Lonerism cover, a photograph Parker took whilst in Paris. “Paris was fun, I set up a little studio, it wasn’t as big as my one in Perth, but I did most of the vocals for the album there.”
It’s a rare musician who gets to pack up shop and move his entire studio to the other side of the planet. But, realistically, Kevin Parker is a pretty rare musician. Like Innerspeaker, and their self-titled EP, Tame Impala’s second album was recorded and produced entirely by Parker.
Producer wunderkind Dave Friddmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Revv) once again came in to help mix and tinker with songs, but from the initial creative spark right through to the final master copy, Parker was well and truly the man driving the Tame Impala ship.
Looking weighed down by the “two-week hangover” of the Parklife festival, Parker spends a decent portion of the interview with his head resting on his forearm; the prospect of five interviews in a row clearly not leaving him too enamoured. But judging by the material on Lonerism, Parker enjoys being left to his own devices far more than yarning on with people about those devices.
Despite his sullen mood, he carries a restless energy; tapping, shaking his leg, whilst describing the album’s thematics he changes the volume of his voice like a child struggling to determine what the appropriate decibel level for the room is.
“Thematically, [Lonerism], is a lot more childlike and immature,” he expains. “The lyrics in Innerspeaker are coming from a grown person who is already out in the world doing their thing. When starting this album I didn’t feel the need to restrain on themes I felt like singing about. When in the past I would have thought them too petty, now I just thought ‘well this song is quite emotional, it’s got this vibe of a child singing about the world’ so I’d follow that.”
This lack of restraint doesn’t end with the album’s themes. Tame Impala are known as much for the lively textures and the attention to detail of their spaced-out lo-fi frequencies as they are their paisley riffs; and in this regard Lonerism is more wide-eyed and adventurous than its predecessor.
On album opener ‘Be Above It’, Parker admits “I actually sampled the drums from a song off the first album because I didn’t have a drum kit. I got a bit of that and put it through a space echo and looped it for the whole song.”
Despite being the album’s lead single, ‘Elephant’ almost never made it onto the album. It was only at the behest of Tame Impala’s other members that the song formally known as ‘Blues-Prog-Epic’ ever found its way into the studio. “I’d forgotten about it, I didn’t really record it back in the day and the guys reminded me of it, they said ‘is that song ever going to be on an album?’ and I was like ‘I don’t think so, it’s too late now’ and they said ‘it should’ and so I recorded it finally and Jay [Watson, the band's drummer] came and helped out with the synth part in the middle.”
This album marks the first time that a member other than Parker has been granted songwriting credits, with Watson helping to bring ‘Apocalypse Dreams’ to life. “We wrote a whole bunch of songs together but only a couple made it on to the album. I felt like being open, it was at a time when I wasn’t writing a lot of stuff but was getting really into different ways of producing, and Jay had these chords and they sounded cool. We’ve been around each other’s music and know each other so well that it was just really fun.”
While still sounding well and truly like a Tame Impala record, there are moments on Lonerism which sound foreign to anything in their discography. Album closer ‘Sun’s Coming Up’ sees Parker ditching his falsetto and fuzz-drenched guitar and offering up a piano-driven ballad.
“I’ve had a few songs like that in the past, but I’ve probably ignored them because they weren’t groovy enough,” he defers. “There are songs like that but they haven’t made it onto anything because I’ve had better songs, or more upbeat ones. This one, it felt like a really good idea to put it at the end of the album after all the washy-synthy-craziness to bring it down to just the piano and vocals.”
Despite his penchant for cosmic freakouts and layers upon layers of melting guitars and synths, vocal harmonies and barrelling drums, Parker has always managed to keep Tame Impala from sounding too overblown. Like Innerspeaker, their second outing manages to sound like a concise unit, however, trying to keep things ‘together’ sounds like the downside to Parker’s musical explorations.“I don’t usually pay much attention to the album as a whole until quite late, I just kind of chuck the songs together. I have to kind of sit down and think about track listing and stuff, it doesn’t come naturally.”
When asked how songs come to him, his head jolts up from his arms and suddenly that Parklife-induced hangover is a distant memory. “It’s generally just a chorus, like 30 seconds, and it will just go over and over, that’ll suddenly appear to me. It’s usually sparked by a jolt of something, I dunno,” says Parker.
“There’s usually just one little melody or chord change, or blip and I love the sound of that happening. And then the rest of the chord progression gets created around it to help it, then the whole thing expands outwards.”
Considering all this wide-eyed talk of “less restraint,” and with song names like ‘Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control’, you’d be safe to assume that Modular, Tame Impala’s label, would have every reason to be frightened. But you’d be wrong.
“God no, our label is really open-minded, which we’re very lucky to have. We know some people in bands who have a really hard time with their record labels bossing them around and trying to fit them into boxes and stuff like that. But our label has been totally accepting of our weird ways. The fact that they let me record it by myself in a room in my house is already an illustrator of that.”
It’s easy to see why the label is so accepting of their weird ways. Having debuted at #4 on the ARIA charts, #14 on the British charts and now #34 on the US Billboard charts, commercial success is now matching the universal acclaim critics have showered the album with. Not bad for a bedroom musician who lacks the million-dollar-marketing-juggernauts behind most Top 40 acts.
It’s ironic that someone who boasts how out of touch he feels with people has managed to create sonic adventures which are striking such a strong chord with so many.
Their place as one Australia’s most critically acclaimed young bands would be something that puts their label’s minds at ease, but Parker is unmoved by the flattery he receives from the blogosphere.“It’s more meaningful to the people trying to sell the record. It’s just another person giving their opinion, could be that guy next to the fuel pump, and who’s to say his opinion isn’t more important than someone who calls themselves a music journalist?”
If Parker started bringing Lonerism to life immediately after Tame Impala dropped their first album, does that mean album number three is already under way? “I totally blew out on this last album, got way too into it. I’m thinking about stuff all the time but haven’t been able to organise anything, I’m still coming down off it.”
It seems like the trip has taken a toll on Parker. He’s spent so much time milling about in his own musical world, he admits he can’t recall any other music he’s come across in 2012. “I haven’t heard any albums this year. What month is it? Are we near the end of the year?”
And you thought your hangovers were bad.
Lonerism is out now through Modular, read the Tone Deaf verdict here. Tame Impala play a national headline tour in December – full dates and details here – then play a spate of Australian music festivals, including Meredith Music Festival, Homebake’s 2012 ‘Global Edition‘, and finishing with Pyramid Rock Festival at year’s end.