"You've got to be lucid to make music that is surreal."
Kevin Parker, the 29-year-old Aussie behind the band Tame Impala, has made a career out of loneliness. Although the group brings its electro-psych to life onstage as a face-melting five piece, Parker has recorded nearly all of the band’s music himself, from 2010’s breakthrough single “Solitude Is Bliss” to 2012’s ornately trippy album Lonerism. This week, Parker and Tame Impala return with their third album, Currents, which hops from glitchy electronic to seductive slow jams while keeping true to the lyrical theme of isolation.
Despite Tame Impala’s quick ascent from small-print no-names to festival must-sees, Parker is keeping things quiet when EW connects with him in his Australian home. “It’s Friday night, I’m just at home,” says Parker as he rests up between busy spring and fall tours. “I’m doing interviews, so that’s cool.”
The rocker resists classification but has lots to say about the evolution of his music from Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles—despite being a vocal dead ringer for John Lennon, Parker says he’s never listened to an album by the group start to finish—to hippie-dance music for festival-goers in the digital age. Parker caught up with EW about getting into trance music as a kid, why the Beatles and Britney Spears have influenced him equally, and the reason that sometimes the trippiest art requires sobriety.
KEVIN PARKER: Yeah—it’s never not surprised me, ever since the beginning of all this. I’m a pretty self-conscious guy. I usually assume that anything I have to say or do or create is only going to be amazing for me. I never expected to be impressive or anything for anyone else, but I’m starting to accept that people dig it.
Dance music has started to permeate so many other genres. Did you ever foresee making an album like Currents when you started recording as Tame Impala?
When I started recording, I used to operate under different names. I was just doing it in my bedroom. I changed the name to Tame Impala when I was 21 or something. I used to try lots of different things—in the beginning it never really had a genre. I didn’t even bother putting words to it, allocating genres to anything I did. It was only when I started making albums to release to people that the idea of a genre came into my mind.
I’ve always been intrigued by dance music. I remember I walked into a CD shop when I was 12 years old and there was this insane, intense ’90s trance and it totally transfixed me. I was like, “Whoa, what the f–k is this?” My two brothers walked in and gave me shit. They were like, “Oh, Kevin’s being entranced by this music” and I was like “Oh, no!” I’ve always been intrigued and fascinated by it, but I assumed that I never had the ability or that that wasn’t really the world I was from. But now I accept that as long as you do what you want and what you think is cool and righteous, then it’ll be real.
Your recent live album Live Versions focused on takes that differed from studio versions. How do you adapt your complex songs for the stage? Does that take some guts to change things up in that way?
The more we look at it, the more we accept that it’s a completely different thing from the album recordings. The more that we just abandon the standard sort of approach, the more freedom we have. As long as we keep the essence of the song, the feeling of the song, then we can do anything with it and we can adapt it to the new world that it’s in, which is five dudes playing it on stage, rather than a guy in his studio multi-tracking forever. The live version of the song that ends up coming out is the version that would’ve existed had it been created that way.
In recent concerts your newer tracks have balanced nicely with your older ones. Has it been challenging to get all your songs to coexist in performance?
Surprisingly not. I always assumed that they would be really difficult, that they would stand out like a sore thumb. Before we started practicing the songs, I was concerned—like “Oh shit man, we’re going to be playing this psych-rock set and then burst into some pseudo-electro f–kin’ disco number.” I assumed that was what it would be like, but as soon as we started playing, it just felt right. It makes sense, because the way I record the songs is kind of similar to the way I always have: I’m using the same instruments, I produce in the same way. When we play live we play the same way we always play, which is there’s five of us and we’ve got an instrument each. In the end the way we do it is the same, even though the song sounds different. The fact that it sounds different really just comes down to the way it’s played.
What artists influenced Currents? Were there any crucial touchstones?
It sounds like a cop-out, but I honestly couldn’t name anything that directly influenced me, because I don’t really listen to a lot of music these days, intentionally. I’m so consumed by making music myself that I just prefer to be thinking about new music that I make all the time. Especially when I’m in the writing and recording process, the idea of music in the outside world is a distraction almost. I try to just focus to make it the most pure output that I can.
Were there bands that got you into the psychedelia that defined your earlier work?
The Flaming Lips are a big one. At first I was a fanboy and then we got to know them and now we’re good friends, which is kind of weird to look back on. Air, that French band, was one of my favorites growing up. At the same time everything I’ve ever heard in my life is equally as influential. Even things that I wasn’t aware were influencing me. For example, the Beatles are as much of an inspiration as Britney Spears, at the end of the day, because it’s all stuff that just comes in. I don’t necessarily, intentionally listen to—I’ve never listened to a Beatles album the whole way through, I’ve never listened to a Britney Spears album the whole way through, either. It’s just stuff that’s around me that happens to enter my brain. It ends up playing a part in my understanding of music.
The first song on your first album, Innerspeaker, talks about smoking weed, and that record is a stoner album in a lot of ways. Lonerism is even more far-out. Was there a substance that influenced Currents?
Not any different to any other album. To be brutally honest, I sometimes smoke weed when I’m making music. I sometimes drink. I usually like to be drinking when I’m making music, just for no other purpose then to loosen up. But the funny thing is that of all the Tame Impala songs that exist that you would expect me to have been totally off my face while making them, are the ones I was most sober on. And the ones that sound the most sober and controlled are the ones that it was like, late at night.
That’s the funny thing about drugs and music, they don’t necessarily paint the picture that you would expect them to paint. It’s weird like that. You listen to some artists with straight-up folk-rock or whatever, and it turns out they’re the biggest stoner that ever lived. And then you listen to the most f–ked up music you’ve ever heard, and it’s just some guy in his bedroom, he’s never smoked or drank anything. Even Salvador Dalí, he was a pretty sober dude, he was just so focused in his pursuit to make something that was transportive and crazy for someone else to experience. I learned early that if we ever had a concert and it was a backyard party with a bunch of stoned people there or all these people on drugs or drunk or whatever, I would make sure that I wasn’t on drugs because I wanted to make sure that I focused on making the music as transcendental for the people that were wanting it to be transcendental. If there’s someone that’s f–ked off their head trying to make transcendental music, it’s going to come out as mush. You’ve got to be lucid to make music that is surreal.