It takes more than popularity to play the top spot at Coachella. Tame Impala's Kevin Parker on how the psych-rockers brought sci-fi spectacle to the desert.

By Alex Suskind
May 21, 2019 at 08:15 AM EDT
Credit: Pooneh Ghana

This story appeared in Entertainment Weekly’s special double music issue, which you can buy here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Kevin Parker needs maracas. “I just remembered I threw [them] into the audience last night,” says the 33-year-old singer, songwriter, and producer behind Tame Impala. The previous evening in nearby Pomona, the touring version of the band, a quintet, played its first live set in six months. That was a dry run to prep for one of Tame Impala’s biggest shows ever — two days later, they would be headlining Coachella in Indio, Calif.

Though major music festivals date back to the ’60s with legendary events like Monterey Pop and Woodstock, Coachella has the most cachet among the current boom of multi-headliner, multiday fests in the U.S. When Coachella began in 1999, at Indio’s Empire Polo Club, it took place over two days and attracted 37,000 attendees, with tickets costing a now comically low $50 a day. Twenty years later, it has transformed into a bougie back-to-back weekend spectacle of artisanal food trucks, experimental art exhibits, and sets from some of the biggest names in music; general admission tickets go for $429 each, VIP for $999. Snagging a headlining slot can mean a lucrative payday and a new fan base with disposable income.

Tame Impala had played Coachella three times before, but 2019 was their first top-of-the-lineup offer. Parker was initially hesitant: Though hard at work on another album, the band hadn’t released new music in four years. Should he rush and finish in order to have fresh material to play? He decided it didn’t matter. “We were just like, ‘F— it, let’s do it, strike while the iron is hot,'” he says.

Tame Impala are known for heady live sets filled with lysergic grandeur and piercing synthesizers. But Parker realized he’d have to up his game for Coachella. So he turned to one of the best conceptual designers in the biz: Willo Perron, who has collaborated with everyone from Drake to Rihanna to Florence + the Machine. Perron tells EW that for Coachella, he and Parker were trying to “land something that felt otherworldly, almost like you were going on a journey through space.”

Credit: Timothy Norris/Getty Images

To achieve this intergalactic vision, the two began sharing images, creating a space-travel-meets-psychedelia mood board — with a touch of evil thrown in (Parker cited the “Force lightning” of Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi as inspiration). Those ideas were soon molded into visuals that vaguely resembled the Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and would later be projected onto a screen behind the band. The team also incorporated confetti cannons, laser lights, and the set’s crowning achievement: an unnerving, illuminated 12,000-pound ring that hovered four stories over the stage like a UFO. “I don’t like to think about how much things are going to cost, but…I was like, ‘How much is that f—ing thing going to cost?'” says Parker, laughing. “But [incorporating it] was kind of a no-brainer.” He also asked Perron to add interludes between songs when the ring would flip over and move toward the crowd, like it was going to abduct them. “I wanted to do sections of just mind-f—ery, where we’re not actually playing anything,” Parker explains. “I call them cosmic intermissions.”

While they were immersed in festival prep, Parker continued to tinker with the new album — the band’s first since 2015’s acclaimed Currents — releasing the piano-led tracks “Patience” and “Borderline” in late March and early April, respectively. Tame Impala’s move from pure psych-rock act to mainstream-adjacent synth rockers over the last decade has been a bit of a surprise to the frontman, but explains that he has always just tried to make the music he wants to listen to. “After [2012’s] Lonerism came out, I realized I could keep making ‘Elephant’-style songs and getting played on [mainstream radio],” he says. “But at the end of the day that wasn’t an option, just for me to feel confident about what I do and why I do it.”

Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

A week before Coachella, Parker and his touring band found themselves in a warehouse in Los Angeles rehearsing for the fest, while Perron and his team began to package and ship the stage out to Indio in time for the Saturday-evening performance. Tensions were still high. “The last couple weeks [have] just been mayhem, narrowly avoiding some sort of nervous breakdown,” says Parker.

But he finally began to feel looser at the pre-Coachella show in Pomona, playing for hardcore Tame Impala fans and getting “a little bit too drunk” — though he thinks it worked in his favor. “A warm-up show is practice for how to manage your drinks [on stage], because it is a fine, fine art.” (Parker’s usual preshow booze ritual: one gin and soda an hour before showtime, and a second a half hour later.)

By Saturday night, Parker had nailed the balancing act, walking out on the Coachella main stage and blasting through faithful renditions of “Let It Happen,” “The Less I Know the Better,” and “Elephant” as the crowd danced under neon-tinted confetti. Of the new songs, Parker only played the already-released tracks “Borderline” and “Patience.” “I like that the first thing that people hear of a song is the version we’ve been slaving away perfecting rather than something we clang out half-drunk,” he says.

At the end of the set, Parker told festivalgoers, “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be up here.” Tame Impala’s performances ended up being some of the best-reviewed of this year’s Coachella, making all of Parker’s preshow angst worth it. They also helped him attain a career goal. As he told EW ahead of the show: “I want to go out and do things that are out of my comfort zone. I want to buy big boots and try and fill them, rather than just buy the boots that fit.”

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