Tame Impala’s Mr Kevin Parker Shares His Magic
MR PORTER takes a trip inside the mind of the cosmic genius behind the Australian band
It’s been a while since he’s done any press – his last album, Currents, was released five years ago – and, although he admits it takes a minute to get back into the swing of it, he’s ready. “Who doesn’t like talking about themselves?” he asks. Mr Parker, otherwise known as Tame Impala (he writes, records and produces all the music, but brings in a band when he performs live) is about to release his fourth studio album, The Slow Rush.
Tame Impala started with a handful of prog rock songs recorded at home and hosted on Myspace and now counts Rihanna, among millions of others, as a fan. (The Bajan singer covered “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” nearly note for note on her 2016 album Anti, which came as a surprise to Mr Parker. “I didn’t have approval,” he says. “It was weird and I didn’t believe it when I heard it. I thought it was so Rihanna for her to say, ‘Hey, can I have your song?’ and not feel the need to justify changing it.”) His last two albums both garnered Grammy nominations for Alternative Music Album and the band won best international group at the 2016 Brit Awards, beating out U2 and Major Lazer. In 2019, despite the lack of a new album, Tame Impala headlined both Coachella – a glittering performance that famously included more confetti than Beyoncé’s – and Glastonbury. Such is the magic of Mr Parker.
Mr Parker’s early life was filled with melody and harmony, thanks to The Beatles and The Beach Boys. At age 11, he was playing the drums and guitar. By age 12, he was experimenting with lo-fi tape recordings. He was playing on Perth’s pub scene at 18, turning to music to fill various voids in his life. He studied astronomy at university, slowly giving in to the idea that he might not be a famous musician. Legend has it that on the way to his final exam, he got a call from Modular Recordings offering him a deal. And with that, the die was cast.
2015’s Currents proved to be a turning point for Mr Parker. He wrote, recorded, performed and produced his two previous albums, Innerspeaker (2010) and Lonerism (2012). Currents was also mixed by Mr Parker and he recorded the instruments himself. It was truly a solo project. It rose to number three in the UK charts and number four in the US. The single “Let It Happen” became a fuzzy anthem for a generation of people who felt life slipping out of their hands.
In the intervening years, as pop music took centre stage, Mr Parker stuck to his guns, adding his funked-up nous to some of the decade’s biggest hits. He collaborated with pop overlord Mr Mark Ronson on three songs on Uptown Special. He produced Australian-based hip-hop jazz septet Koi Child’s debut album. He remixed Miguel’s “Waves”. He worked with Lady Gaga on “Perfect Illusion”. He produced songs for Messrs Travis Scott and Kanye West, and The Flaming Lips. Then finally, in August 2018, he set out to record The Slow Rush.
Grinning on the sofa today, cold beer in hand, Mr Parker suggests, ludicrously perhaps, that he thinks he has a “shit” work ethic. And yet, The Slow Rush was delivered to his label in less than five months and most of the songs on it were formed in one night, so you be the judge. “I know it sounds weird, but if you make an album the way I make an album, it shouldn’t take that long,” he says, flicking his glossy shoulder-length hair. “I don’t mean it like, ‘Oh, I pumped out a song in a night,’ but I will make the guts of a song pretty quickly. I’ll play four bars and loop it. But a lot of the time is spent listening to what I’ve made.”
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He makes it sound simple, but Mr Parker’s music is complex. It’s full of reverb, layers of delay, guitars, synthesisers, disco drums, acid-house beats, pan flutes, timpani, autotune and piano, all piled up with his optimistic voice lifting through the layers. There is an undeniable magic to it. Some tracks purposefully skip like a scratched CD, others carry you off deep into a trippy universe filled with squishy baselines and disco drumbeats. The Slow Rush is packed with this sonic sorcery, filled with the robust sparkle of an atom travelling through space.
When Mr Parker speaks, he fidgets and punctuates his sentences with laughter. His attitude towards his music is different, he says, thanks to his work with musicians across the arts spectrum, something that his five-year hiatus from Tame Impala allowed. “I stopped being afraid of people thinking my music was bad,” he says. “I know everyone was expecting a follow-up album and that made my inner teenage rebel come out and say, ‘Fuck you. I’m not doing it.’” But it is not all rock ‘n’ roll bravado. “My greatest fear is someone listening to my music and thinking it sounds laboured. I wish I could make minimal music. This album was supposed to be minimal, but I can’t hold back. If I think of a melody and instrument to put on it, I don’t have the strength to not put it in the song. I am self-indulgent, but hopefully that makes a beautiful thing.”
The Slow Rush had what might be considered inauspicious beginnings. Mr Parker rented an Airbnb in Malibu, somewhere he could “spread his mind and make music”. After the first night of spreading his mind, he went to bed in the wee hours. Sometime later, he woke up to see a massive cloud of smoke billowing over the hill. “I didn’t know if the fire was coming towards me,” he says. “I googled Malibu on my phone and it said in bright red, ‘Immediate evacuation’. I got a couple of things together and got in my car and drove down to the beach.”
Not thinking the fire would reach the house, he left behind most of his equipment. “Later that night, I got message from the owner saying the house had totally burned down,” he says. He pulls out his phone and shows me some fire-scarred rubble, the only standing remnants are four metal table legs and a fireplace. “I lost all my equipment apart from a bass guitar, my laptop and a hard drive. I was literally working on that table.” The fire, which devastated homes and ravaged communities, had also claimed the album, or at least what it could have been. “Who knows what would have been written on those nights?” Mr Parker wonders. “Undoubtedly, I would have started songs that would be on the album. Songs that would have existed, but don’t.” It’s a Sliding Doors scenario. “Sliding songs,” he grins.
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Tame Impala often gets called an “unlikely headliner”, largely because the music he makes isn’t genre-specific pop. He laughs at this idea. “We are the token rock band,” he says. “Not that a rock song must contain a guitar.” He’s right. Rock ‘n’ roll is defined by its attitude as much as its instrumentation. When glam rock emerged in the 1970s, it introduced a new way of playing the guitar, but it was also a reaction to the social politics of the time. Does Mr Parker mind being pigeonholed as a rock star? He laughs. “To classify as ‘rock’, you need to abide by a certain collection of rules and categories, which, to me, is the opposite of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit,” he says. “The official definition of rock relies on embracing old values and rejecting the new.”
Mr Parker considers “It Might Be Time”, the first single from The Slow Rush, to be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s distorted and aggressive, but it doesn’t feature a single guitar. Is it a reaction to something specific? “Well, the climate,” he says. “I have responded to the inaction of politicians on climate change. I’ve had lots of arguments about how to reduce our carbon footprint, but touring on the train doesn’t work when you have four trucks of stage equipment.”
Other bands and artists are struggling with the same conundrum, though few have piped up. Should they speak out on an issue they care about and risk being called hypocrites or be quiet and do their jobs? “The obvious thing is carbon offsetting, which I have learned is basically putting money into solar-panel research and planting trees, which is a good thing,” says Mr Parker. “But the guys in the band and I have had many late-night arguments about this. There are some companies that have set up to make tours green. They have recycling bins and no plastic. But really, the opportunity that you have with a stage and speaker to reach a few thousand people, to spread a message is massive. Obviously, I am assuming most of my fans are climate-change accepters.”
It’s tricky math. If you are standing in front 15,000 people every night and you change the perspective of 10 per cent of them, then maybe it’s worth the carbon footprint. “It’s hard to be complicit in it, but also to be able to change people’s minds,” he says. “I haven’t used my platform yet and I don’t want people to think I am jumping on the bandwagon, but I am willing and able to use my resources.” Perhaps it is his fear of negative criticism that has prevented him from speaking out, or perhaps it is the lack of a solution, but it’s something he clearly feels strongly about. For the first time, he stops fidgeting while we speak.
To complicate the matter further, Mr Parker calls both Los Angeles and Perth home and commutes between the two with his wife, Ms Sophie Lawrence. Concerns about climate change feel particularly close to home in both locations. In his homeland, which was recently ravaged by bushfires exacerbated by record-breaking temperatures and severe drought, one of the world’s biggest coal mines has been given the go-ahead by Australian prime minister Mr Scott Morrison, the leader of a coalition government that has resisted plans to cut carbon emissions. “Australia is a microcosm of the world,” says Mr Parker. “A lot of people, I hope, are against climate change. But there are a lot of people who aren’t. If everyone in Australia decreed that climate change is a thing, he’d have to change his perspective.”
For now, Mr Parker is focusing on the album release, and he’s nervous. “I hate letting people down,” he says. “Any time you step outside is like entering uncharted water. But letting people down is a part of it. Not everyone is going to like this album because of stylistic choices. I’ve lost fans with past albums, but I wouldn’t want the same group of fans for my entire career. You wouldn’t grow.”
What does he hope the reaction to The Slow Rush will be? “I want to elicit love or hate,” he says. “I think it was Kanye who said people loving you was the same as people hating you. You can’t hate something without being affected by it and caring. If everyone says, ‘Oh yeah, it’s pretty good,’ then that means it’s beige as fuck.” With its layers of sound, orgasmically trippy tracks, disco rhythms and its pop hooks filtered through Mr Parker’s psychedelic lens, this album, forged in fire and defiance, is anything but beige.
The Slow Rush by Tame Impala is out 14 February