Interview with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker
Monday, May 24 2010
Curious multi-coloured swirls adorned the cover of Tame Impala’s debut EP in 2008. It was a painting by lead singer Kevin Parker of the Orion Nebula – that strangely beautiful place, sometimes visible in the night sky, of churning dust and gas particles known as a ‘stellar nursery’. A place, quite literally, where stars are born. Whether intended or not, that cover has proven prophetic for the band who have since been signed by mega-label Modular, toured Australia with sold-out shows, are supporting MGMT on their upcoming US tour, and will return to play Splendour in the Grass later this year. It has been something of a meteoric rise for these Perth psychedelic rockers with their distinctive, retro-hued style. This month, the band released their LP, InnerSpeaker – voted one of Faster Louder’s most anticipated albums of 2010 – and the first single ‘Solitude Is Bliss’, into the cosmos.
When I call Kevin Parker to interview him, he tells me that the band are driving back from Channel 10 studios where they appeared on Toasted TV. Considering the band’s status as ‘stoner rock’ I thought this amazingly apt. But it turns out to simply be a children’s cartoon show. “Attempting to win over the younger demographic?” I ask. “Yeah, we’re covering all our bases, all areas of media.”
The innocence of a cartoon program may be a welcome relief for a band who have been living on the road for some time now, as part of the festival circuit and now on a national tour. “We tend to find the whole touring thing utterly hilarious. In that like, every day you meet a new character who is ridiculous.”
“Just last night some guy was trying to talk to us as much as possible, and we had to go. We’re sitting in the van, and he yelled out: ‘do a solo’. We weren’t holding guitars, we’d packed up all our stuff in the back of the van,” Parker laughs. “And then he wanted us to go round to his house and take acid and play ping pong. And we, y’know, politely turned him down. Everyday there’s more.”
Yet it hasn’t always been crazy fans and acid ping pong invitations. Life before the release of the EP for Parker was surprisingly, and perhaps reassuringly, similar to that of most uni students – the doubts and insecurities of what to do with your life, of which path to take.
“I was at uni, and a couple of months before we got signed, I had submitted to the reality that I wasn’t actually going to be a famous musician and I should just get on with my career. So that was when I started to knuckle down and actually do stuff at uni. But at the same time, I could never passionately give my attention to anything other than music. Like, it was a disease. I would not be able to listen to a word in lectures because I’d just be thinking about my new song.”
“But I realised that I wasn’t going to be like, a big famous musician. So I submitted, I thought I should just get on with life, because it’s not going to happen. And then…I got a record deal. [laughs] It came out of nowhere.”
Had it not been for their signing, Parker may have been on his way to a career as an astronomer. If art reveals its author, then it’s not hard to see the resonances of Parker’s celestial interests in Tame Impala’s music and art.
“I was actually studying engineering before then, and I did that because I wanted to please my dad in a way. I had no idea what I wanted to do, because I didn’t enjoy anything other than music.”
“I love space, and I love all kinds of science, but I didn’t do anything that was fun, I was just in a career because I thought I should be doing a career so I was doing engineering. And at that point I went, fuck it, this is my own life, I don’t like engineering, I’m going to do something I enjoy doing. So I pulled out of that course and enrolled in astronomy.”
“And I was so happy that I was doing something that I wanted to do. Even though I knew that the career prospects for astronomy are pretty dismal. Sitting in an observatory, all hours of the night, in absolute solitude, on top of a hill. That to me sounded like…ah, like bliss. [laughs] Sorry that wasn’t meant to be a pun.”
Yet, for a guy who spends his time gazing at the stars, Parker is amazingly down to earth.
“Just last night, it was a really crazy show, there were so many people there, and we got the whole like, barrage of fans, and when that many people are lauding you for what you do, and when it’s on that kind of scale, you wonder, if this was to keep on going, how the hell am I gonna keep myself grounded?”
“People are people, humans are not meant to get that much attention, y’know? It’s not natural for people to get that much mass attention. And so, I do question our own, like, stability of ego and everything. I was thinking that quite hard last night on the drive home from the gig.”
The video for the first single “Solitude is Bliss” is out, and fans might find its maddened, post-apocalyptic feel at odds with the mellow, honeyed vibe of the track. “Yeah we really like how it’s the opposite of what you expect.” Parker says. Dark and disturbing, it follows the wanderings of a man in a burning city, with a particularly distressing attack on a dog. As one person commented on YouTube: “Tame Impala…are all ‘mystical forest’ with their photos and trippy music, and then this whack shit.”
Parker admits that the band didn’t have much to do with the clip itself, but was the work of “two French guys.” “I kind of like to think of it as not the clip to the song, but if that scene was in a movie, then that song would be a really cool song to have over that scene.”
The song, like the album itself, is mellow and dreamy, filled with their characteristic spiralling psychedelic guitar riffs. Parker describes it as “a summer album that you can put on during the day, rather than a winter album, but at the same time you can be emotional in the right ways and like melancholic or whatever that word is.”
Tame Impala has been something of a solo project for Parker, who wrote and recorded most of the album, and the title itself ‘InnerSpeaker’ describes the fraught process of composition – of the effort to transpose the vision in your mind, to the real world.
“It’s an attempt to explain the process of how Tame Impala’s music gets made. It’s like having a song spinning in your head, but it’s your own song, and so you’re doing your best to project that into the outside world. I think there was a definite concerted effort to preserve the songs as they originally sounded in someone’s head.”
The cover of the new album InnerSpeaker again holds an image of the heavens, but this time one that is a little closer to earth, a distorted vista of cloudy sky. This time, as the press release would have it, it’s “a journey into inner space.”
Tame Impala’s LP InnerSpeaker is out now through Modular Records.