Kevin Parker reflects on Tame Impala's breakthrough

No minor breakthrough success story this year, Tame Impala's Kevin Parker leaves behind psychedelic metaphor for a more personal take on Currents, genres and the crossing of wires

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 07 Dec 2015

“It’s the more feathers you rustle…” explains Kevin Parker, haltingly. “That’s one of the hidden rewards of putting yourself out there. If you make music or art and you keep it safe, that’s cool but it’ll never be truly exciting. So many times throughout my career, I’ve noticed that risking something, whatever it is, is always more rewarding. Even with writing songs that are more exposing... I used to be quite closed off, using psychedelic metaphors to keep it cryptic. So I’ve started tearing a bit of myself off and putting it in the song. I thought it was kind of risky, like, do I really want to tell people how much of a loser I am? But I think people really respond it to it.”  

The Skinny steals time with the band's creative mastermind ahead of Tame Impala’s sold-out show at the Barrowland, where even at 2pm there are tie-dye-T-shirted, acid-washed teens stalking the streets looking for an unguarded entrance to the venue. The group, hailing from Perth (in Western Australia, not the Perth up the way), are a long way from home and have been for many, many months. 

Their ocean-crossing summer tour has seen them play venues from beach-side festivals to muddy British fields; a clear indication of their undisputed status as a formidable live act. In fact, since Tame Impala’s debut LP, Innerspeaker, in 2010 and its wildly successful follow-up, Lonerism, in 2012 – a record nominated for a Grammy, amongst other heady accolades – the Australians have taken a decisive step into the mainstream limelight.

Labelled psychedelic revivalism by both fans and detractors, it’s certainly true that the band’s woozy, colourful vibe feels purpose built for sound-tracking a toke or two. But Currents – Tame Impala’s third LP, released back in July – marks a definitive, brave departure from the guitar-focused psych-rock of previous records, and heralds a changing of the tides in more ways than one.   

“This is the most I’ve ever thought about how prog this album is” – Kevin Parker

Typical Tame Impala practice sees Parker write and record alone, before bringing his finished material to the band for rehearsals and subsequent mammoth tours. On the last two records, he’s had production assistance from Dave Fridmann, a multi-talented producer celebrated for his work with the Flaming Lips, as well as Jay Watson, a regular touring member of Tame Impala.

The ensemble nature of Tame as a live force roots the band firmly within Perth’s close-knit music scene, with members past and present belonging to myriad other bands. But Parker’s project remains very much his own – and Currents found him mixing and producing single-handedly for the first time: an important progression both symbolically and practically. Why? Some theories are floated: has collaboration prepared him, technically, for solo production duties? Or is Currents simply a more personal record?

“I mean, it’s always going to be yes and no,” Parker explains. “But yes, partially, to both of those. In the early days I used to mix myself, but I guess we got Dave because…” If you can, then do? “Yeah, exactly. He’s an amazing mixing engineer, alongside all else. And mixing I find extremely important, so I guess I just wanted to try and see if I could do it myself? It was quite daunting. About halfway through I was like 'Ooooshh… shit. Am I really trying this?' There were many 'come back Dave, all is forgiven!' moments. But I pushed through. Sometimes I still lie awake at night and wonder what the album would have sounded like, though...”

Currents offers resistance to easy labelling, with Parker's production techniques instigating that fuzzy, liminal existence. At times blissed out, spacious, the album nods to dance music, electronica – rather than the axe-wielding bell-bottom wearers of decades past – and now, the bass-lines are the driving force. Or at least they seem to be. There’s a clear disparity between what happens during a full-band Tame Impala show and the tracks Parker records and releases; during their raucous Barrowland performance it’s easy to see which instruments are where – but when tracks like The Moment are coming at you through your headphones, suddenly it’s not so straightforward.

Parker confesses that this confusion is wholly intentional: “So, I’m in the studio, and I’m picking instruments to use, and I always just feel that they all have the same kind of… emotion and sound to them. I don’t really distinguish between a guitar and a keyboard that much. If I’m writing a song I’ll just grab the nearest thing to me. If it’s a keyboard, I’ll play it on keyboard, and it’ll probably be a keyboard song, you know? For me, that moment is just not important. The most important difference is how you end up playing it… which is why I have such a fetish for confusing the listener as to the origin of the sound.”

This time around, Parker had “a few more tricks” up his sleeve in terms of sonically disguising the instruments he’s used, and Currents sounds all the more confusingly interesting for it. In a strange twist of fate, it seems that the more Tame Impala’s sound becomes alien and experimental, the greater mainstream success the band finds. For comparison purposes, consider Elephant, a thumping and relatively straightforward blues rock single from Lonerism, alongside ‘Cause I’m a Man – the first cut from Currents. The low-slung “sexy bass grooves,” as Parker terms them, tongue firmly in cheek, soundtrack a sardonic take on modern masculinity. It’s not an instant floor-filler, nor is it likely to soundtrack things on the telly (as did Elephant), and it’s a world away from ‘classic’ psychedelic rock.

Yet, Parker finds himself topping the first Official Progressive Music Chart – besting giants like Muse for the number one spot. The creation of the new top 30 list has sparked a discussion of the genre in full, not least because the titling sees a noticeable absence of “rock.” It seems timely, then, that Currents should be the figurehead for this re-evaluation of the parameters of the genre.

Parker is flattered, confused and relieved: “Well, that puts it into perspective! I had this idea that it was the prog purists, prog rock. So I originally felt guilty, like, are there going to be thousands of prog heads out there thinking it’s a travesty this album’s even been called prog, let alone number one? Obviously I’m complimented, but my overall sentiment is, like… if you say so.” He laughs but adds, suddenly serious, “I guess, actually, Let It Happen is prog in its purest form. I stand by that one as decidedly progressive.”

Let It Happen, the album’s opening track and second single has, as Parker describes, “a landscape to it, in the way it progresses. Ha, there’s that word. But when I was writing it, I got the sense that… you know, like you’re on a train?” Er. “Ok, so, there’s different scenery that you go through. A city, then the middle is some weird tunnel, and you come out the other end and you’re in the country. It has that landscape, you know? That must have something to do with the essence of prog?” Parker laughs loudly, scratching his head. “This is the most I’ve ever thought about how prog this album is.”

It’s true that the album’s tracks take unpredictable twists and turns, often to end up in vastly different territory from where they began. But alongside refuting genre, Parker’s quick to dispel claims that his music is in any way “retro,” too – a description often applied to his work. “I just find it reductive to say that this whole sound, this whole thing as an overall sound, is a throwback. Or, that it’s futuristic. As a body of work, why does it have to belong to a period of time? I guess it all comes down to us being able to discuss it, which is what we as humans... do. We like to put words on things.”

Instead of worrying about hyphenated genres like nostalgic-psych-disco (which Currents has probably been labelled, somewhere on the internet), Parker’s far more concerned that the music he creates gives a good time while remaining challenging, too. His most recent endeavour in this department came in the surprising guise of a very public collaboration with proper pop star Mark Ronson. Writing an unashamedly catchy single, Daffodils, and lending his voice to two further tracks on Ronson’s latest album, Parker got a taste of pure pop – something he’s long been angling for.  

Some indie purists found this colliding of worlds troublesome, but Parker’s delighted to have sparked confusion. “It sounds so cliché, but when you can challenge someone’s appreciation of something, when you can see in their face that wires are crossing in the brain, neurons are touching, and they’re like… I don’t know how to interpret this? Yeah. It’s something that could happen with psychedelic rock fans listening to the new Tame album, too, which I think, in the end, is a good thing.

“You know, the start of the album process is extremely therapeutic, because you’re just getting your shit out, doing things musically you’ve wanted to do, whatever. But when it comes out, I feel like it belongs to the rest of the world. Not like, THE REST OF THE WORLD, but that it belongs to the outside world… it’s not just mine any more. A year or two down the track, I’ll feel like it’s my album again, but for that year it belongs to other people – not to me. Call it what you want, put it in whatever chart you want.” He grins, “It’s yours; do what you want with it.”

Playing Manchester Arena on 11 Feb