backstage with kevin parker of tame impala

The musical prodigy behind one of Australia's most loved bands discusses keeping the music surprising and not writing love songs.

by Lachlan Kanoniuk and i-D Staff
31 July 2015, 7:35am

Foto: Matt Sav

It's the second full day of Splendour in the Grass, a Saturday where the sun has the beyond impossible task of baking the acres of mud on site at Byron. Backstage provides a refuge of astroturf and cocktails. Mark Ronson closed out the main stage the night prior, bringing a cavalcade of special guests, one of which being Tame Impala progenitor Kevin Parker. The following night, Tame Impala are scheduled for the penultimate main stage slot, their first appearance on home soil following the release of third LP Currents. Still, Kevin is happy to be on festival grounds in his spare day. "My friends are playing tonight. Pond," he says in regards to the outfit he used to play drums for.

Introspection is what Kevin does best. Currents, rather than blowing out into a blockbuster, as you'd might expect from Australia's most successful, for lack of a better term, 'rock' acts, instead digs deeper into isolation - more so than previous LP Lonerism. In Currents, Kevin has created a break-up record, largely his creation alone - from composition, to recording, and for the first time, mixing. Tame Impala don't function as a band in the traditional sense, with recordings essentially acting as a solo outlet for Kevin, fleshed out in the live setting - as they will be tomorrow - with a full band. It's a process that works, with Currents receiving critical acclaim and top-billed festival appearances drawing an invariably rapturous response.

Amongst a flurry of lanyards and artists well-indulged in riders, Kevin sits down to dissect Currents and coming to terms with the uniqueness of Tame Impala.

The songs on Currents largely deal with heartbreak, but do you see them as love songs in any sense of the term?
I don't think they are. I don't think I've ever written a love song. I've guess I've got a clichéd perspective of what a love song is: a song where someone declares their love for someone. I see it as a one-dimensional thing.

But even the melodies you're using, they can be synonymous with love songs?
I guess so. But when I think of a love song, I think of piano ballads. And I'm actually pretty terrible at piano.

A few years ago there was the B-side 'Beverly Laurel', which was quite unlike anything Tame Impala had released. How do you look back on it, especially in the context of Currents, which does have a lot of these dance-inclined elements?
Who knows. It was something that was sitting on my computer for ages. It ended up being the other side of a seven-inch, just the B-side. I had it for a while, and I love the song. It's different to anything off Lonerism, and different to anything off Currents. I just did it without thinking.

You get the sense that Currents is a lot less inhibited in terms of melody. How did you get to that point?
I've definitely become a lot bolder with melodies, especially vocal melodies. I used to think I had to keep it no frills, I used to sing the basic melody and do no vocal acrobatics. I think I've started embracing different ways of singing melodies. I've made two albums already, for it to sound like it's evolving I can't keep using the same tricks. I've always wanted to just sing more, embrace the vocals as something that…

On the flipside of the playful vocal, there are the verses of 'Past Life', with this gnarled spoken word effect. Were there any doubts putting something that experimental on the album?
Well, there are always doubts. I knew something had to go in the verse, and I wanted to tell the story, because there's a story to it. When I decided it was going to be somewhere in between someone being interviewed on A Current Affair and Serge Gainsbourg, someone telling a story but in a monotone, almost depressed way. He's this guy that's 40 years old, living his life, moving on from this crazy part of his life. Something's switched off in him, he's flat, robotic. As soon as I realised the song had it's own life - when you know a song has its own character, it's own personality - you know it has a place. Even if the song has the most killer melody, the most killer beat, it has to have something that's its own persona, the same way you would identify a person, before you know it has a place on the album.

It's easy to fall in love with the drum sounds on Currents, how has your relationship with percussion changed over the years?
I think I've become a lot wiser about it. For me, drums are the most important part of the song. I have this theory that people who like Tame Impala, at least the musicians who like Tame Impala, like Tame Impala for the drums but they're just not aware of it. It's the thing I spend most time on tracking, most time mixing. Literally months getting the drum sound cool. As what goes with age, I used to be a lot more frantic with my rhythms - doing a complicated beat for the sake of doing a complicated beat. But now days I keep it simple and understand - the relationship between what the beat is doing and what the rhythm is doing, I'm just letting it be a simple kick-snare and let that be the rhythm. But at the same time, it's always a pendulum swinging.

You were on stage last night with Mark Ronson. What's it like for you entering a project as a guest, especially considering your own work is created in this insular space by yourself?
This is the first time I've done that sort of thing, I've never been a hired gun. I've never done a musical cameo. The first time I performed, it was pretty nerve-wracking. When it's a Tame Impala show, if I fuck up monumentally, I'm only letting myself down. But if it's for a close friend of mine, I feel this responsibility to be good. Last night was the first time I really got into it, having fun without getting too nervous. I'm getting into it, I understand the appeal - coming on for three songs and just being like, "hey! It's me!" then "seeya later!" It's kinda cool.

As a musician, you are beholden to this record-tour-record-tour cycle. Are you comfortable with that?I am comfortable with it now. I wasn't, and the band weren't, for a long while. We didn't know what was going on, we were really confused. We'd argue a lot because we were frustrated. We didn't know what we were doing. The other guys didn't know if they were in a band, or if they were session musicians. Now we understand it. It's not one or the other. We're not a rock band that sits down and jams out songs together. We're not a solo artist that has a band, it's somewhere in the middle.


Text Lachlan Kanoniuk
Photography Matt Sav

tame impala
Splendour in the Grass
Kevin Parker
I'm a Man