Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker Talks New Album, New Sound, and Being a Control Freak
As Tame Impala’s psychedelic indie rock prepares for its major-label moment, musical mastermind Kevin Parker keeps a tight grip on the reins.
On a recent Wednesday around 5 AM, as he sat alone in a New York recording studio, putting the finishing touches on the new Tame Impala album, Kevin Parker had one of those moments—the ones when he can’t help wondering, Why do I put myself through this? After 36 hours in transit from his home studio in Perth, Australia, Parker had landed in New York and gone straight back to work.
He’d been spending every spare moment for the past couple of years recording Tame Impala’s third LP, and now he felt as if he might crumble just before the finish line. “I always have these extreme thoughts at the end of an album,” he tells me over mimosas in Los Angeles just two days later. “In those times, I’m like, I’m not doing this alone again.”
You could call Parker a control freak, but the 29-year-old prefers the term control enthusiast. For the new album—due out this summer—Parker not only wrote, performed, and produced all the parts for all the songs entirely on his own but is also mixing it himself. “I felt like, this way the album is even more my heart and soul, my blood, sweat, and tears,” he explains. “I don’t want to say it’s a control thing, that I need to be controlling every fraction of the sound, but I suppose that’s a part of it, too. I guess it just comes from obsession.”
It’s funny to think of the artist behind some of the most sonically blissed-out psychedelic rock of the past decade sweating the details. But Parker is one of those awesome musical masterminds with a highly precise vision, an overflowing bounty of idiosyncratic ideas, and the talents required to execute all of it, entirely on his own. (File under “Rock Polymaths,” along with Jack White, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan.) In concert, Tame Impala is a five-piece, but the records have always been all Parker’s. And, though the Australian band has a well-deserved reputation for delivering incredible live performances, the two genre-busting albums they’ve released so far—2010’s “Innerspeaker” and 2012’s “Lonerism”—are what have made Tame Impala one of the most critically and commercially beloved indie rock acts of the current decade.
This next record, Currents, which is the band’s major-label debut (for Interscope Records), promises to help Tame Impala gain a massive new audience of fans. The songs that are already finished—like the recently premiered eight-minute space jam “Let It Happen”—have an even more palpable ’70s feel, with groovy, sinuous bass lines that lend them a greater sonic heft. “I want this album to be more hard-hitting,” Parker says. “I’ve never heard Tame Impala in places where there’s a dance floor. I wanted it to be something you could turn up really loud in your car and have it hit you in your chest.”
Parker started figuring out ways to make his own kind of noise at a young age. Over drinks, he shows me a photo on his phone that his mom recently sent him: six-year-old Kevin, sitting in his backyard with a row of different-size glasses and mason jars he’d arranged to make an improvised xylophone.
At 11, he fell in love with drums and built his own kit. “The bucket from my toys was the kick drum, and the snare was a rubber drum pad my friend gave me,” he says. “Then I got one of Mum’s drink trays, put a hole in it, and turned it upside down, and that was the cymbal. I made a pedal for the kick drum out of the trailer from a toy truck, and the stopper from my Rollerblade was the mallet. I used it until my mum felt sorry for me and brought me a real kit. And then I practiced all day, every day.” His parents had divorced when Parker was a toddler, and while he practiced drums at his mom’s house, he learned to play guitar at his dad’s: “He showed me chords, and I’d play rhythm parts while he played lead.”
A couple of years later, he started writing his own songs. Parker is a solitary dude by nature (hence “Lonerism”), and he says that in his early teens, songwriting seemed to help him connect with other people in a way that felt more natural. “I’ve never been a very socially engaging person,” he says, though one-on-one he’s quite relatable. “When I was younger, I felt like I didn’t really have much effect on people. I wasn’t able to get kids to like me or get chicks to think I was interesting. So I guess I grew up with this desire to affect people. For me, that’s a big part of what songwriting is: the ability to get inside someone’s head and move them.”
But, as dedicated as Parker was to writing and performing music, he says that learning to record is what truly ignited his obsession. At around age 16, he got his hands on an old computer with a program that allowed him to make crude multitrack recordings. “I was experimenting with sounds in a way where I didn’t even know what I was doing,” he says. “I put my microphone through a wah-wah pedal, like, What is that? That sounds crazy!”
Parker has a considerably better setup nowadays. The home he owns in Perth includes a two-room studio where he recorded the new album. There’s also a room he turned into a lighting studio, because he has now taken on the responsibility of creating Tame Impala’s live light shows—as if he didn’t have enough to do already. “You could have a lighting person who understands the music,” he reasons, “but they could never understand it as intimately as someone on the stage, as someone playing the music, someone who wrote and produced it.”
Tonight, Parker will fly back to Perth and finish work on the album’s last two tracks. A few days after that, he’ll turn around and jet back to Los Angeles to rehearse with the rest of his band for their upcoming appearance at the Coachella Festival, and a subsequent series of shows. He and his girlfriend have been talking about settling in L.A. for a while, but Parker remains ambivalent about it. “I don’t care where I live, to be honest,” he says. “But now that I’ve almost finished the album, I just wanna experience the world again.”
Photos by Photographed by Matt Sav