Tame Impala: “This band is the fantasy of music. It’s The Lord Of The Rings”

As frontman of Tame Impala, Kevin Parker has taken his band from psychedelic outliers to festival headlining giants – all while revealing very little about the man behind the music. Their long-awaited new album ‘The Slow Rush’ – out today – will change all of that. Dan Stubbs meets the production genius and reluctant rock god in London to hear how love, mortality and the cosmos influenced his deeply personal new record – and why he keeps a box of smells at home.

“The universe is such a big place that time just gets… fucked with, in certain ways,” says Kevin Parker, Tame Impala frontman. We’re three-quarters of the way into an hour-long interview and Kevin, 34, a former student of cosmology, is distorting reality before my very eyes.

But it’s apt because, a long time since Tame Impala’s last record – five years, but who’s counting? – Australia’s greatest contemporary rock band today release a new album ‘The Slow Rush’, which takes time as its conceptual inspiration.

And when you think of things on Kevin’s cosmic scale through the eyes of a stargazer, Tame Impala make more sense. To love astronomy is to admire things that burn brightly at a great distance, and to understand the vast distances and emptiness of the universe.

Kevin is a star who burns brighter than most, but like a faraway object through a telescope lens, only permits being observed at a distance. On stage, he’s human anti-matter, a dark silhouette surrounded by smoke and light, master of ceremonies of a slow-mo rave that sends enraptured festival and arena crowds into trance-like states.

Off-stage, the perception of him is that of a recluse, an affable but fiercely private genius endlessly tweaking away at Tame Impala tracks as an entirely solitary concern, playing every instrument, searching for the lost chord.

Currents’, released in June 2015, was absolutely the result of that process – and it worked. It elevated his band to new heights. Within six months of its release, Rihanna adapted one of its tracks into ‘Same Ol’ Mistakes’ for the closer of her album 2016 ‘Anti’, Kanye featured him on ‘Ye’, Travis Scott sought out his production magic for ‘Astroworld’ and Lady Gaga took Kevin on as a songwriter for her 2017 album ‘Joanne’.

During that time, Tame Impala also took to the road on an exhaustive tour, including high profile Glastonbury slots, a headline set at Coachella and a tour of the UK’s biggest arenas. Typically, there was a point in latter shows where Parker would tell the crowd that new music would be on the way very soon, with the sheepish air of a schoolboy who’s late with a homework assignment. At that point, it wasn’t.

The assumption among Tame’s fans was that Parker was spending every spare minute neck-deep in diodes and wires meticulously piecing together his next magnum opus. But they were wrong. Actually, ‘The Slow Rush’ is the opposite: an album recorded relatively quickly over a matter of months rather than years, and finished in a furious three-week “marathon”, a race to complete the album in order for the masters to be sent to the vinyl pressing plant. “I was literally just waking up at 10 o’clock in the morning and going until one in the morning,” he says. “My whole thing with the label was, you know, it’s so funny that in 2019 we’re limited in how we release the album by a vinyl factory.”

How about those years in between? What was going on? “I just didn’t need to make another album,” says Kevin. “And I mean that emotionally.”

A lyric on ‘One More Hour’ backs that up. “I did it for love/I did it for fun/Couldn’t get enough/I did it for fame/But never for money/Not for houses, not for her/Not for my future children/Until now.

“It’s true!” says Kevin. “It’s obviously a terrible business move to not put out any music for five years. It was only when I decided that I was gonna throw myself into a Tame Impala album that I started writing songs that were good. Like, I think two years ago people were starting to go, ‘So, Kevin, how about a new album?’ And of course, the rebel of me was like, ‘Fuck off – I’m not going to do an album just because you want me to’.”

It was the experience of working with multiple collaborators, says Kevin, that enabled him to shake off his perfectionism and work more instinctively. “I guess it all comes down to not being sacred, understanding that I need to put myself out there,” he says. “I need to go outside of my comfort zone and, like, do some work. With Lady Gaga, for example, I saw this unrelenting work ethic, you know, and determination, in the face of the pressure that she faces. She made me realise that I was under small, small-time pressure.”

We’re in a lavish, gilded hotel suite in central London. There’s a giant bed behind us, but Kevin isn’t staying here – it’s been hired to dispatch with an album’s worth of press interviews in the space of a day. Kevin, you suspect, is not someone who avoids doing excessive amounts of interviews because he’s difficult, more that he finds talking about himself excruciating. He’s chatty and open, if hesitant, peppering his speech with “like”s and “you know”s, but you can tell he’d rather be elsewhere. But judging by ‘The Slow Rush’, Kevin’s become better at expressing his feelings than he once was. Where Parker’s lyrics were formerly introspective and abstract – as guarded and impenetrable as the man himself – ‘The Slow Rush’ is personal, open and, at times, alarmingly revealing.

“I’ve always been a pretty closed off person, I don’t know whether it was because of the kind of environment I was raised in,” he says. “I never really had an outlet for emotional weight or burden or whatever, but as soon as I discovered that music is that is that channel, I’ve just been a healthier person mentally. Even the first album, ‘Innerspeaker’, wasn’t really that exposing. It was ‘Lonerism’ where I started to open up.”

Where the impeccable ‘Lonerism’ – NME’s Album Of The Year in 2012 – felt like Kevin exploring the recesses of his own brain, ‘The Slow Rush’ feels outward-looking, allowing the listener into Parker’s inner circle, family and fears. It was recorded, in part – and rescued from – a wildfire that raged in California, with the studio right in its path, but its effect on the album’s fatalism “might just be a coincidence,” says Kevin. “It’s more a sign of where I’m at in my life. I think when I got married this year, that was pretty big. It was something that it took me a while to like embrace because, to me, it was like a sign of maturity, and the thing with being a successful touring musician is that if you don’t want to grow old, you don’t have to. It’s a never-neverland thing.”

One track in particular, ‘Posthumous Forgiveness’, delves into difficult subject matter: the loss of Kevin’s Zimbabwean father, with whom he had a complicated relationship, and who himself was a wannabe performer, when Kevin was a young adult. “Wanna tell you ’bout the time I was in Abbey Road/Or the time that I had Mick Jagger on the phone/I thought of you when we spoke/Wanna tell you ’bout the time/Wanna tell you ’bout my life/Wanna play you all my songs/Hear your voice sing along,” it goes. It’s raw and honest, impossible to misinterpret, and relatable for anyone who’s lost a family member.

When we speak, three months before the album’s release, Kevin is worried how the song might be perceived. “If I’m giving anyone a bad rap in this album, it’s not necessarily that I want to give them a bad rap. It’s just lyrics that come out of me,” he says.

I tell him it simply seems like he’s telling his dad: ‘Hey, it’s all OK, I miss you.’

“Ultimately, yeah, in the end,” he says. “You know, some shit went down. We had a complicated relationship but he was a great person. He was fair. And I see a lot of him in myself. And in fact, one of the things, since he’s died, is that a lot of things I didn’t understand about him when he was alive [are] things that I do now. Just from sort of growing up, becoming someone that’s not just 21 years old. And so seeing myself approach a situation different to how I used to, and seeing him in me, [but] not being able to tell them that – it’s difficult.”

Does he think he’d be a similar as a dad?

“I think I’d be quite different. Yeah, absolutely.”

Presumably the phone call with Mick Jagger was about the remix you did of his solo track ‘Gotta Get A Grip’. Has Mick responded to your namecheck?

“Well, he can’t have heard it yet ‘cos the album isn’t out. But Mick Jagger must get referenced every day. He probably has a morning update, you know, ‘Morning Mick, these are the people that have referenced you today…’.”

Does that kind of stuff – a phone call with a Rolling Stone – still freak you out?

“I had to have a couple of wines first. I just pretended I was Mark Ronson. Like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m talking to Mick Jagger in a second,’ – that’s what Mark would do.”

At the point where he was remixing Jagger, Kevin says his artistic focus had shifted significantly. “Around that time I’m like, all I really want to do is producing and just sort of turning other people’s ideas into songs. I’m good at that! I just wanted to be a producer. I wanted to be a songwriter behind the scenes. I wanted to be a DJ. I still love to sing. I still want to pursue this but that’s that’s kind of just me. I’m just like, infinitely curious.”

There is an integral tussle going on beneath Kevin’s calm exterior, and it’s one that’s haunted gifted producer-performers from Beach Boy Brian Wilson to Scott Walker and Dr Dre: a desire to retreat that’s equalled by a desire to perform. But Kevin’s teenage dream was “absolutely” to be a rock star. His idol was Daniel Johns of Australian trio Silverchair, who found fame in the 1990s. “He was in a grunge band and became successful when he was 15 years old. And so when I was 12 years old, I was like, ‘Right, three years. I got three years to get there and I’ll still be still on track to being Daniel Johns’. I was convinced I was gonna be a rock star.”

It didn’t quite work out to plan: fame eluded the young Kevin, and an astronomy degree beckoned. But when Kevin had to reality-check his ambition, that’s when things started to fall into place. “That’s probably when my music changed, when I just accepted that music would be this thing in my life, just something I love doing,” he says. It was that which facilitated Tame’s slow gestation on the Perth scene, and gave them the foundations for their contemporary success.

A track on ‘The Slow Rush’, ‘Lost In Yesterday’, finds Kevin thinking back to those days, making music in the relatively isolated Australian city, living in squats with bandmates and friends. “When we were living in squalor, wasn’t it heaven? Back when we used to get on it four out of seven,” it goes.

There’s an element of the rose-tinted glasses about that one, says Kevin. “The truth about that time is that it was this kind of creative volcano for me and everyone else that lived there, but I actually kind of hated it. So now, when I’m retelling the story, I’m just telling you the absolute romance. The truth is I was just stoned every night, and probably writing songs to comfort myself as a demonised teenager.”

Another track, ‘One More Year’, seems to find Kevin questioning the benefits of what he’s made with Tame Impala, too. “I get this feeling and maybe you get it too/We’re on a rollercoaster stuck on its loop-de-loop/’Cause what we did, one day, on a whim/Has slowly become all we do”.

Does he yearn for the days before everything got so massive? “I guess it’s a thing of responsibility,” he says. “Like, back then, I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself – if even that. Now, just by nature of the fact that Tame Impala is a successful entity, there are people whose jobs would be a lot different if… I’m trying to put it politely, but some people’s lives would be different without Tame Impala.”

In reality, says Kevin, he wouldn’t tolerate the smell of those squats if forced to re-live them now. But while some see nostalgia as indulgent at best, toxic at worst, Kevin is not one of them.

“I love [nostalgia] as much or more than anyone you know,” he says. “Like, I keep a box full of deodorant cans from when I was a teenager, each with a couple of sprays left in them, and I can sniff the nozzles and remember those days. Smells, in particular, are things that I find the most powerful in terms of memories, and I think it’s because your smell receptors are the closest to your memory in your brain. I think that’s the thing.”

Just over a year ago, Kevin married his partner, Sophie Lawrence, at a low-key ceremony in a vineyard in Australia. Was there a moment, when they moved to LA together, where she told him it was probably time to ditch the smell box?

“No, no. She’s got ten times more shit. She’s got every school notepad, she’s got magazines from when she was a kid. She’s worse than me,” he says.

Kevin and Sophie’s roots go way back, too, having known each other – though not continuously dating – for 20 years. Two small-town kids chasing a dream and winding up living in LA together sounds like the stuff of a Springsteen song, but on ‘The Slow Rush’, their relationship is present in both loving vignettes (“We’ll be lovers until the end of time,” he sings on ‘Instant Destiny’) and, oddly, a sense of fear about losing each other. Its Valentine’s Day release, says Kevin, is a coincidence.

There’s also plenty of mortality in the album. Is Kevin scared of dying? “I’m not scared of dying if I’m with my wife,” he says. “Like, I’m terrified of taking planes without her, but if we’re together it’s like, ‘Well, let’s take a dive’.”

It might sound as bizarre as it is romantic – fatalistic, but as a transplanted Australian living in LA and fronting a world-famous rock band who are permanently on the road, Kevin and Tame Impala are, operationally, as close to 1970s touring behemoths The Who and Led Zed as any contemporary band. Their euphoric shows have come to embrace big production and spectacle, with confetti cannons, billowing smoke, artfully washed-out visuals and psychedelic light shows. They allow Kevin to play out that rock star fantasy while maintaining a degree of anonymity as part of a much bigger entity. But the scale of Tame’s shows is another thing that’s weighing on his mind.

Another lyric from ‘One More Year’ says “Do you remember we were standing here a year ago?/Our minds were racing and time went slow/If there was trouble in the world, we didn’t know/If we had a care, it didn’t show.”

“Not necessarily one year ago but the problems in the world weren’t the problems of everyone a little while ago,” he says. Like climate change? “It’s impossible to ignore. It’s irresponsible as a human being to ignore some of the things that we’re faced with at the moment, and that’s and that’s the burden of humans now.”

So what does that mean? Biodegradable confetti?

“We already use biodegradable confetti! I want to make our shows 100 percent carbon offset, whatever that means, whether it’s like, funding solar panels or replanting trees, I want to do all of that. No plastic bottles and all that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day, I think that like, even if it isn’t carbon offset, if you can somehow use your platform to raise awareness and convince someone that was another otherwise convinced, then it’s justified.”

And it’s important to spread happiness too, right? The transportive experience of a Tame show?

“I’ve always considered Tame Impala as a thing that people can use to escape from whatever the physical strains and problems in their life are. Tame Impala is the fantasy [fiction] of music. It’s The Lord Of The Rings.”

As a kid, separated from siblings following his parents’ separation, music was one of two things provided that escape to Kevin himself. The other was the night sky.

“A lot of people look at space and feel insignificant. Weirdly, it had the opposite effect on me – it made me feel special,” he says. “When I was a teenager, I’d be walking home at night, maybe just getting off the train or something. But seeing the same stars every night, in the same spot at the same time, was kind of comforting. It was almost like they were, you know, kind of like friends, you know?”

I put it to Kevin that the abiding message of the album, really, is this: that when a man gets everything he wants in life – the marriage, the career, the fulfilment – there’s nothing he can do but lose it. “Yeah, you might have just figured me out,” he says.

You suspect he needn’t worry – Tame Impala have transcended fads to become a band for the ages.

And, besides, the stars will always be there.