Tame Impala: We Need to Talk About Kevin

kev3Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is redefining what rock bands should sound like in the 21st Century. If only he knew how important that was…

It’s a testament to the spirit of the city that never sleeps that after one of the most physically and emotionally draining fortnights in recent memory, there is still a significant number of New Yorkers willing to brave the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and an exhausting presidential campaign to welcome Tame Impala to Brooklyn. Even with his knowledge of the Big Apple’s fabled levels of resistance and perseverance, it still comes as quite a shock to Kevin Parker as his troupe of Australian psychonauts roll into town to be met by legions of adoring fans at the beginning of their US tour. It seems that even superstorms and election night hangovers aren’t enough to keep those in the know from experiencing one of the most anticipated live shows of the year.

“The reception we’ve been getting is really humbling and more than a little confusing,” the laid-back front man says, his Antipodean drawl stretched out over the vowels and consonants like a lazy cat on a warm radiator. “We used to play one big gig on every tour and that would probably be back home in Australia. It would be about 500 people and that would be the highlight. Now every night is the biggest gig of the year.”

In person and on stage before a show begins, Parker looks every inch the accidental rock star, both out of place and out of time. He seems uncomfortable with having to be the focus of attention, be it in front of the media or an expectant crowd. It’s only when the music starts to flow out of him that Kevin Parker grows exponentially in stature and confidence, a musician at one with the sounds he’s unleashing from his head. It’s a sound that has resonated with tens of thousands so far on this tour. The European and North American shows have all sold out and yet Parker, when away from his sonic comfort zone, still wonders what all the fuss is about.

“We don’t dance about, we don’t play music that you can really get down to and some of the songs go on longer than a Pink Floyd epic when we play them live so it kinda confuses me as to why people actually like it,” he says with surprising honesty. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they do but we don’t really fit in with what’s supposed to be popular. I suppose that’s part of the attraction.”

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Since signing his first deal and releasing the band’s eponymous debut EP in late 2008, Parker has seen interest in what is essentially his personal pet project rocket to stratospheric levels. The buzz became global with the release of debut album Innerspeaker in 2010 which alerted the rest of the world to the band’s heady mix of 60s psychedelia, dance rock and spaced-out feedback. It was a sound which conjured up images of Cream in their heyday, Hendrix at his most cosmic and the druggy splendor of White Album-era Beatles, and one painfully at odds with the omnipotent plastic pop of the charts. Now, with the release of sophomore album Lonerism, Tame Impala’s nostalgic futurism is a seriously international phenomenon.

Not that you’d get any of the affected posturing that you’d expect from a 26-year-old musician with the world at his feet and a Who’s Who of rock royalty singing his praises. Despite nearly four years in existence, the popularity of Tame Impala is still a mystery to the band’s affable and eloquent mastermind. “Back in Perth, people don’t treat me differently, I’m still just Kevin and no-one attaches any of this bizarre, constructed rock star status to me or any of the other guys,” Parker says. “That’s why Perth is a sanctuary. I can go home and be with my friends or disappear into the crowd like I used to. Out in the world, people stop me outside venues and stick cameras in my face and want autographs, and I’m like – whoa, okay dude…I’m just this fucking guitar nerd who makes music in his bedroom…but hey, that’s cool!”

With this apparent obliviousness to the reasons behind the growing adoration and the widely-held perception of Parker as a young man most comfortable in his own company, many observers have taken Lonerism to be a collection of songs about his struggle with isolation. With titles such as “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” and “She Just Won’t Believe Me”, it’s easy to mistake the album as a vocalization of Parker’s own insecurities. But the chief Impala maintains that it’s not a record about being alone. “Most of the songs are about other people and trying to establish connections,” he says. “Deep down, it’s hard for everyone, especially when you come to realize that you’re not one of these people who belong in the middle of the rest of the world. It’s about being a member of the human race and what a huge deal that is, being a small part of something so immense. It’s more about that than physical loneliness.”

Parker rarely reads his own press but when he does, he finds himself constantly amused. “No-one can really understand what goes on in my head, where the music comes from and what it really means so it’s kinda futile that people try,” he says. “I don’t mind them having a go – it’s a compliment in a way, especially if they’re trying to be nice but some of them get it so spectacularly wrong that we just piss ourselves laughing. I read about all these crazy cosmic references and spiritual interpretations and I’m like, what? That’s all new to me, man…”

Lonerism as an album is as contradictory as the world Parker has to operate in. It’s a record jam-packed with panoramic soundscapes of soaring beauty with Parker’s dreamy vocals played deep in the mix under fuzzy echoed guitars, lazer-beam synths and rumbling bass, tripping over danceable drums and leftfield orchestration. It’s a life-affirming album despite the fact its lyrical content hints at inner conflict and paralyzing questions of existence.

Parker may have uprooted his entire home studio in Perth and had it freighted to a small apartment in Paris to record Lonerism but he says this had nothing to do with any concept he had of an album about solitude. “My girlfriend was there and I wanted to be with her as well as work on the record. I pretty much do everything on all the records on my own anyway, so it’s not like I had this Marlene Dietrich moment and swanned off from the others to be alone. I play, record and produce the music myself and always have done. I only get involved with others in the mixing because, to be honest, I’m a fucking terrible engineer.

“The other guys have their own things going on and are cool with that. I don’t expect that input in their bands. It sounds like I’m just a control freak who won’t let anyone else have a turn in the studio but to us, Tame Impala is just Kevin’s project and everyone has their own.”

These projects, born out of Perth’s tight-knit underground music scene which centered on the notoriously avant-garde Troy Terrace, Parker’s home in the city for four years, have themselves started to make an impact internationally. Jay Watson and Nick Allbrook, part of the Tame Impala touring band, are also founding members of Pond and their project’s rise to prominence has made things a little “squeaky” in Parker’s words. “It makes it a little tighter now when it comes to planning tours and stuff but I’ve been producing Pond’s next album on my laptop on this tour so we make it work,” he says. “I play live drums for Pond and so we have to coordinate things a bit more these days with both bands taking off. But Tame and Pond are just a couple of pieces of this giant noise-making puzzle we have as a circle of friends.”

Despite the growing global acclaim, Parker and his cohorts still manage to tap into the spirit of those early days in Perth when Troy Terrace was filled with broken instruments, bong smoke and crazy levels of creativity. “When we’re at home and one of our bands is playing gigs, it’ll be like the old days,” he says with a smile. “Stuff the drums in the car and drive to the gig; drink our six-pack of warm beer backstage then play the gig to one man and his dog like its Madison Square Gardens and then go home. It’s like nothing ever happened.”

If only. However hard Kevin Parker tries to convince himself that this is the case, Tame Impala’s meteoric rise is changing things forever in the rest of the world. Whether he likes it or not.

First published in: Hash Magazine

See also: Lonerism – Tame Impala

See also: Tame Impala live at the Amsterdam Paradiso

See also: Wizards from Oz – Tame Impala live in Brussels

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