Tame Impala Interview: Inside The Mind Of A Psych-Pop Shaman

This article was originally published in July 2015

 

“I think five years ago,” says Kevin Parker, the man who to all intents and purposes is Tame Impala, “the thought of sitting in a room being dissected by journalists would have horrified me.”

In the cool, palatial backrooms of the St Pancras’ Renaissance Hotel, where outside the international concourse of a hot and impatient London rages perpetually, Parker is contemplating the media circus that has become his life since 2012’s ‘Lonerism’, the psychedelic opus that many consider to be the best guitar album of the decade so far. Five interviews down, five to go, the Aussie hasn’t long before he departs for Glastonbury where he is due onstage with Mark Ronson. Then it’s back home to Perth where, undoubtedly, the Impala-bonkers Aussie press will hit him withtheir worst. “Right now, I’m trying not to look more than two hours into the future,” confesses Parker, “or it’ll do my head in.”

Regarding Glastonbury, Parker says: “I love it. It’s the most insane place on Earth.” But, as expected, he’s more comfortable in the crowd than backstage with the glitterati, His trek around the site with Tame Impala bandmate Jay Watson after they played in 2013 was fittingly psychedelic – they got lost and ended up at 6am in the festival’s burlesque cyber-village and pleasure-apocalypse, Shangri La. “We were like, ‘What the fuck is this neon strip in the middle of this mud city?’ We were so fucked that I can’t remember whether we took drugs that night, but it felt like it.”

The occasion for today’s junket, however, is not Glastonbury but ‘Lonerism’’s feverishly anticipated follow-up. ‘Currents’ illuminates Parker’s personal transformation from introverted bedroom shut-in to open-armed musical voyager and reluctant rock star. To tell such a story, ‘Lonerism’’s clouded, psychedelic sound – so keenly evocative of isolation and the interior life – no longer felt like the appropriate vehicle for delivery. On ‘Currents’, Parker has exchanged woozy guitar-driven rock for a celebratory, unabashedly ostentatious and effortless pop sound. The album’s crowning glory, silvery discofied opener ‘Let It Happen’, tells you most of what you need to know about Parker’s journey into the dark heart of celebrity and his current state of mind.

“It’s about chaos – the whirlwinds of life that have always seemed too intense for you,” he explains. “You put your fingers in your ears and you close your eyes to shut them out, because you’ve always tried to control who you are, control the world that you’re in, but it comes to a point when it takes more energy to block it out than allow it to wash through you.”

Tame Impala – ‘Cause I’m A Man

Music video by Tame Impala performing ‘Cause I’m A Man. (C) 2015 Modular Recordings http://www.vevo.com/watch/AUUV71500057

And so Parker learned to serenely accept his lot. Early last year, his life changed dramatically as his two-year stint in Paris came to an abrupt end. His relationship with Melody Prochet (of Melody’s Echo Chamber) faltered and when his visa expired he decided to return home to Perth. Understandably, Parker has mixed feelings about Paris. “I felt more closed off than ever in that city, more detached from the rest of the worldthan in Perth, which is the most isolated city in the world,” he says.

The temptation is to interpret ‘Currents’’ candid story of self-realisation as a friendly address to his ex-girlfriend – a conciliatory, atoning missive to let her know he’s a changed man. The truth, however, is more complicated. “It could seem like I’m talking to a partner or a friend,” concedes Kevin. “But it’s really me talking to myself, another part of myself… to my old self, the part of me that resists change and wants me to stay as I am.”

The mellow Australian has decided that baring his soul on record is a way for him to feel a little less alone in the world, to confirm that his audience experience the same bad thoughts he’d always assumed were his alone. “It’s extremely fulfilling to show a bit of yourself and see that others feel the same way,” he says. “It inspires you to break off more and more.” With ‘Lonerism’’s obfuscating cloak of fuzz now jettisoned, the boldly naked, brightly produced pop sound of ‘Currents’ shows the world more of Kevin Parker than he ever allowed before.

‘Currents’ also satisfies that most important requirement of all good pop music: unlike previous Tame Impala albums, it’s danceable. Playing the role of DJ or producer, as opposed to rock star, appeals to the naturally shy Parker. “Dance music is completely different to the rock world, where there is someone onstage that everyone’s watching – this icon that’s being worshipped. Everyone’s facing a different direction and doing their own thing. There’s no one central person to worship, other than the DJ who’s more just administering the music for the people.”

This notion of musician as facilitator – “feeding the atmosphere,” as he puts it – speaks to the hippy egalitarian in Parker, who regardless of his solitary approach to making records insists he has “always loved the idea of music as being a communal experience”. Parker has always been a particularly reluctant frontman, but he says that the bigger his crowds have become, the easier it’s been to get away with fading into the background and letting the music take over. “At high school, I always preferred being in the band playing at the house party – not the star of the show, but one of the people contributing to the atmosphere from behind the curtain.”

When asked if he thinks Tame Impala might lose some followers in this migration from psychedelia to pop, Parker says he feels like he’d already abandoned psychedelia on his last album. Er, come again? Helmed by renowned psych producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips), ‘Lonerism’ made heavy use of nearly all of psychedelia’s quintessential signifiers, from excessive reverb to vocal distortion. Not only that but many elder statesmen of psych have since gone on record to declare the album a genre classic. So you’d be forgiven for your incredulity. But Parker is sticking to his guns. “Psychedelia is not ‘these instruments plus these instruments plus these scales = psychedelia’, nor is it a genre,” he insists. “It has nothing to with guitar or synths. Psychedelia is a sensation. It’s when you transport people; where you feel like you’re outside your own skin. ‘Lonerism’ did not induce that sensation. I never saw it as transportive.”

By that logic, does that mean ‘Currents’ is actually more psychedelic than ‘Lonerism’? “Sure, yeah. I mean I think of Aphex Twin as more psychedelic than, say, Cream, so…”

Released in 2010, Tame Impala’s debut ‘Innerspeaker’ was the biggest indie album to hit Australia in years. The album quickly went gold, inspiring a nationwide psychedelic awakening largely without precedent in the land Down Under (although the latest Amorphous Androgynous compilation, ‘A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble (Exploding In Your Mind) – The Wizards Of Oz’, does a fine job of locating some long-lost Aussie psych gems from the past). If ‘Currents’ risks alienating the rock set, did Parker have a difficult task persuading his mates on the Perth psych scene of his new mainstream-orientated direction?

Tame Impala – Let It Happen Live on Conan 04/15/15

Tame Impala – Let It Happen Live on Conan 04/15/15

“My friends are the ones changing with me, especially the ones involved in Tame Impala,” Parker asserts. “We’re experiencing the world in a different way together – realising that we shouldn’t feel guilty for liking types of music that we used to take the piss out of before.”

Rather than feeling like he’s ‘selling out’, once Parker had come to terms with what he saw as the “moral” ramifications of going pop, it opened him up to a whole new world of musical possibilities. “I used to shut out the [pop music] side of things because I considered my identity to be more understated, but I realise now that that side of things can also bring out good art. Really, before now I was boxing myself in.”

‘Currents’ is more diverse than any Tame Impala album before it, with disco rock (‘Let It Happen’), new-romantic balladry (‘Eventually’), yacht rock (‘Past Life’) and bassy dance-pop (‘The Less I Know The Better’) among the many genres mastered. It’s clearly the work of a brazenly adventurous musician, but as he is the first to remind us, Kevin Parker: The Human Being is a work in progress: “I still fluctuate between the side of me that wants to go out and stay awake forever and the side of me that never wants to leave my house again and become a Dracula-type figure.”

For the majority of ‘Currents’, Kevin’s stay-awake-forever side seems to be winning out. On the falsetto boudoir-soul of ‘’Cause I’m A Man’ and sexy seduction ditty ‘Past Life’, Parker seems to relish playing the part of a virile, vainglorious pop star, that troublesome innervoice of his silenced in the pursuit of hedonistic all-surface entertainment music. It seems that in your wildest pop dreams you can be anyone you want to be. “There are always different parts of you can choose to let shine,” he says. “Now I feel open to trying new things in music that I otherwise would have shut out because they were taboo.”

Yet the album’s final two tracks betray hints of agitation, defiance and self-doubt. Firstly, ‘Love/Paranoia’ is a kind of ‘Jealous Guy’ lament with Parker wrestling either with current relationship hang-ups or old Parisian wounds, but certainly his own flaws as a partner. And to finish, there’s the self-explanatory ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’, whose subterranean synth line and heavy gait is a bummer next to the powder blue confections of Side A. “The last song is meant to sound like the final battle between optimism and pessimism,” Parker confirms, “a confrontation between the side of you that wants to progress and the side of you that wants to stay the same.”

Regarding that battle, Parker says that, for now, he’s simply intent on getting the best out of life – and that could mean leaving the Perth scene behind for good. “I can see myself moving again, just for the hell of it,” he says. London, where Parker will spend the days after Glastonbury chilling with his current girlfriend, is one option. “I love this city. The vibe is palpable. You can just juice it for all it’s worth.”

As Kevin’s next interviewer hovers outside, there’s just time to ask when this constant scrutiny gets too much for Parker? He seems pretty Zen right now, but when does the Dracula sign go up? “Usually it’s during an extremely awkward social when I’m feeling like I have no presence as a person. As a ‘personality’ you’re expected to have confidence in yourself, but sometimes I’ll be hanging around people that I wanna make a good impression on and I’m just coming across as awkward.”

Seemingly, it’s not so much what’s expected of a pop star onstage that troubles Parker so much as what’s expected offstage. Parker may have mastered his relationship with music, but as for his relationship with himself… to be continued.