Fuji Rock Interview: Kevin Parker of Tame Impala

Music Trends & Culture - July 7th, 2013
Tame Impala Web

Their fuzzy-riffed, 60s-infused rock featured in a flagship Blackberry ad before the band became the first Aussie act to top the NME’s prestigious album of the year list; indeed, Tame Impala created quite a buzz in 2012. Kyle Mullin spoke with the band’s mastermind, Kevin Parker (pictured above centre), in the lead up to a much-hyped Fuji Rock set – touching on the familial strains that inspired his songwriting, the necessity of avocado jam, and everything in between.

Tame Impala’s music has been described as euphorically psychedelic. But frontman, founder and sole songwriter Kevin Parker attains those highs with lucidity. In fact, one of his most inspiring ascents involved a sobering climb, chasing a senior citizen up a mountain.

“My Mum’s always doing crazy shit, like riding bikes up trails. One time we went up Bare Rock together, everyone else in the group was half her age,” Parker says of the expedition he and his spry 60-something mother recently took near their hometown of Perth, Western Australia – a moment of true bonding after years of familial strains. Parker adds that his mother brings equal enthusiasm to the dullest of daily routines.

“People appreciating my music helped me open up. Because when you think about something as your own problem, but then reach people with the same problem, it makes you feel like you can connect with the outside world.”

“She gets excited about almost anything, while Dad was always so serious. She’ll see a juggler on the street and think that’s just the best thing ever; that’s my mom. Music ended up being that sort of thing for me, it just astonished me.”

When it came to his songwriting, Parker inherited so much more than simply his mother’s zeal. His father, an accountant who meticulously collected classic rock records by the likes of Supertramp, The Beach Boys and Shadows, bought young Kevin his first guitar so that the two of them could jam together.

His mother wasn’t a musician, but years after a divorce that ruptured the Parker household, it was her who supported her son’s creative outlet, in the hope that he’d find some closure.

“We were all pretty closed off. I was brought up in a family that never spoke about emotions,” Parker says of the childhood he spent with a stern father and a free spirited, though stifled mother.

“It almost felt as if I was brought up to think emotions were a weakness, and of course they’re not, but that’s how it seemed. Now it feels pretty cool to bear my soul.”

Those years of emotional isolation are apparent in his work. Take, for instance, the chorus, “You will never come close to how I feel,” on the searing centerpiece tune Solitude is Bliss, from Tame Impala’s 2010 debut, Innerspeaker. Or song titles like Why Won’t They Talk to Me? and Apocalypse Dreams, on the critically acclaimed 2012 follow up Lonerism.

“People appreciating my music helped me open up. Because when you think about something as your own problem, but then reach people with the same problem, it makes you feel like you can connect with the outside world.”

While that may have been the end result, the actual process of making those songs lacked such a spirit of outreach. Today Parker (pictured second from left, below) has recruited band mates to help him perform the Tame Impala songs that are so deeply informed by his father’s throwback record collection. But before that, Parker spent two years alone at home obsessively writing and recording each note on his own, in the same way that his father would pore over spreadsheets and tally up numbers as an accountant. In another interview, Parker described working on Lonerism as “crucifying.”

“The only time it was crucifying was at the end,” Parker now says, adding that several months’ hindsight had helped diminish the most grueling portions of the recording process. “I was overloading my brain. It’s towards the end that you really have to make decisions. Or finish a song and realize you’ve been working on it everyday for two years, that you ran a marathon and didn’t even know it.”

A prime example would be the Lonerism deep cut Music to Walk Home By. It started with electronic drums before Parker decided to pound out the tune’s backbeat on a traditional kit instead. In the beginning the tune had no trace of Tame Impala’s kaleidoscopic signature riffs, featuring only a few synth motifs instead. Parker also ended up writing another verse for the song, before recording the final version that would go on to become a fan favorite.

“There’s stuff going on all the time when you tour, so you always feel a bit hung over, and always a bit sick. And yet, I was always excited to go out and experience the new crowds”

Parker adds that if he hadn’t holed up in his home studio alone and taken so much painstaking time to work on Lonerism’s songs, many of them would have turned out far different to – and fallen quite short of – the tunes that are now featured on the beloved record.

“I just really, really care,” Parker says of his meticulous method, which he admits can seem quite obsessive at the worst of times.

“I want the song to keep on stimulating listeners, so I keep looking for ways to get more effects. In that way, the song is never really finished. I always think it can be better. It can be painful, but someone has to tell me to stop working on it. Otherwise I’ll just keep working on it forever. I always just want the song to have an effect on people, so I keep working on it until it really moves me.”

That same sort of separation anxiety occurs long after he releases an album, as he gets out of the house and on the road to perform it.

After all, leaping from hotel room to hotel room, venue to venue, time zone to time zone, day in and day out can be quite jarring after spending every day at home nitpicking synth notes and guitar chord progressions on your own.

“You’ll look outside the hotel window, and you’re seeing a different city every time. It’s like a machine gun of images, and it can really drain you,” Parker says of the rapid fire travelling that touring requires. He adds that some locales, like the beach in Rio that served endless cocktails, were so hospitable that it was tempting to stay forever.

But all those drinks never soothed his anxiety the next day. “There’s stuff going on all the time when you tour, so you always feel a bit hung over, and always a bit sick. And yet, I was always excited to go out and experience the new crowds.”

Despite his love of touring, Parker says he more than understood when its tumultuous schedule became too grueling for bassist Nick Allbrook, who left the band in May.

“There’s no bad blood not at all, we were friends for years before we were bandmates,” Parker says of Allbrook’s departure. “He just needs some time to chill out. Because being in a touring band, after all, can be a burden on you.”

Parker says he also loves returning to the quiet of home once a tour cycle is over. And yet, he’ll be restless within a few days after seeing Perth through his window, rather than a new town each day.

That love of the road did make his isolationist recording technique all the more straining as he worked on Lonerism, and his anxious perfectionism certainly didn’t help. Yet, it wasn’t always a “crucifying” process. In fact he absolutely relished extended stretches of his self imposed little exile.

“There wasn’t much I needed to make myself comfortable. I’m fine with eating avocado on toast three times a day and drinking red wine,” he says of his Spartan existence during those recording sessions – the same sort of rhythmic retreats he’d take in his bedroom as a boy, while his parents argued down the hall.

Parker says a minimalistic lifestyle was more than enough to sustain him while he recorded Lonerism, even at the most stressful of times: “When you’re doing something you love, you don’t need anything else to make you comfortable.”

Tame Impala headline the Red Marquee at Fuji Rock on Friday July 26.

Kyle Mullin is a roaming rock journalist who has contributed to music mags around the world. You can read his interviews with Iggy Pop, David Byrne and St. Vincent, Brian Wilson and others at his blog. He spoke with James Blake and Japandroids for Tokyo Weekender earlier this year.