GQ, January/February, 2020 (LINK) (PDF)
With his most musically ambitious album yet, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker is finally ready to embrace fame –
just as long as it’s on his own terms.
If millennial success could be defined by any recipe, it might be two parts viral fame, one part pop-culture myth. Kevin Parker achieved the latter during his headline performance at Coachella last year, when the artist known as Tame Impala used 18 cannons to blast close to 300kg of confetti into the sky, supposedly breaking Beyoncé’s confetti record along the way. “I don’t know if it was a record and I don’t even know that we broke it,” he laughs, as if wary of upsetting the Beyhive. “But someone told me that we used more confetti than her. I don’t even know that we did use that much confetti, to be honest. Who knows?!” In an interview with Rolling Stone after the show, the self-confessed ‘confetti diva’ half-joked he wanted even more. The entire scenario reads like a Spinal Tap moment. “I suppose, yeah,” he says. “You don’t know how many Spinal Tap moments we have every day. It wouldn’t be touring without them. You just have to laugh sometimes.”
When it comes to viral fame, Parker’s continues to spread. Take 2015 Currents single ‘The Less I Know The Better’, which spawned countless ‘Fuck Trevor’ memes that plagued those unlucky enough to possess the name (Trevor being the fictional, girlfriend-stealing fuccboi from the song). While last year, the sheer might of Gen-Z TikTokers set the four-year-old Gold single on course for Double Platinum territory.
For a five-year-old album to experience the rise and rise of Currents is almost unheard of. But that’s the Midas touch of our most diverse musical export: he keeps his toes in the sands of nostalgia and his eyes on the horizon. Or, as a former astronomy student, maybe the stars. Tame Impala, Parker’s solo moniker – he uses a band for touring only – sounds like an esoteric find from the bottom of a dusty record bin; a discovery, that upon first listen seems all and only yours. Of course, the brilliant irony of Parker’s orbit is that it’s also firmly in the mainstream.
“I haven’t done interviews in a while. So it’s been a bit of a culture shock,” admits the 34-year-old Perth-born artist, having returned to Australia from an international press tour, just in time for summer. “I’ve just been in my cave, for however long,” he shrugs. “I enjoy it! I do. Who doesn’t like talking about themselves all day?!” Without context, most Australians would probably palm that last comment off as self-deprecating or sarcastic. Parker absolutely means it. He is charismatic, humble and a generous storyteller, speaking in bursts with thoughtful pauses in-between. You easily get the feeling he is either impervious to fame or disinterested in the conventional trappings of it. He doesn’t flinch when GQ’s fashion team puts him in lilac Louis Vuitton, an all-white Stella McCartney look that can best be described as ‘dystopian cricketer’ or a furry jumper and neon-splattered pants from American artist Sterling Ruby’s SR Studio fashion line. Though, he admits the looks are a far cry from his usual “expensive surfie” style.
One gets the sense that Parker wears his ambition like a pocket watch that every so often catches the light and is kept to a time zone only he inhabits. That, it seems, is part of what drives him and probably what keeps him rising; an inherent hunger to defy what people expect. Put him into the context of the last decade of music and few other artists have consistently reinvented and simultaneously smashed the wheels they drove in on. Kevin Parker might just be the most underestimated man in music.
This year marks a decade since the release of his debut record, Innerspeaker. Ahead of the arrival of record number four, The Slow Rush, we meet Parker at his most self-assured, having forged the accoutrements that have seen him slide from unassuming shoegazer, uncomfortable under the glare of a spotlight, to full-pelt stadium deity. “I guess there was a time when I just decided to start enjoying it and embraced that role,” he explains. “I never even used to want to be a bandleader, let alone a solo artist, which I consider myself as.”
The world’s music tastemakers have shown no such hesitation with bible NME describing tracks on his last album as “a work of dazzling beauty; the layer-cake arrangement suggesting Parker as a natural heir to Brian Wilson’s studio wizardry”.
Parker has written, performed and produced his own music since age 12 and it just so happened he was able to hide behind Tame Impala ‘the band’. “I didn’t even want to tell people that [Tame Impala] was mine and mine alone,” he says. “Terrified, I always pretended it was a band that was making it in the studio.” But this isn’t another case of the old rock trope of a ‘reluctant star’. On the contrary, Parker has always had ambition, he just needed to deploy it on his terms. “I just decided, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to do it and be that person that, deep down I want to be and I know that my fans want me to be, especially on stage’.” Did he have to retrain his brain? “It was the opposite. It was more liberating, to be honest. As an artist, people want you to be a bit self-indulgent, they don’t want you to hold back,” he adds.
As Australians, we are taught to hide our success and our national sport of tall poppy chopping is something Parker, who has homes in both Los Angeles and Perth, still thinks about. “I guess becoming a fan of Kanye West [opened my eyes],” he says. “Some of my favourite people say whatever they think. Even if they talk about themselves all the time. It’s something that’s frowned upon in society, but those people are the most interesting. I say that as someone who definitely isn’t one of those people, but it doesn’t hurt to embrace a bit of that.” “This is the entertainment industry, after all,” I offer. “Exactly!” he replies. “Take Liam Gallagher. At the end of the day, does anyone hate Liam Gallagher? No, they don’t.”
There are few artists, let alone Antipodeans, who have managed to straddle the world of indie, psychedelic rock, pop and rap as effortlessly and composed as Parker has. Fewer have done so with a sound as distinct as his and have entered and exited the machine with commercial acclaim and their sonic signatures (and fandom) intact. To name a few, Parker has been sampled, reworked and/or covered by Rihanna, A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar. Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Travis Scott, Kanye West, SZA and Theophilus London have all called on him to collaborate, and he has co-produced debut albums for Koi Child, Melody Prochet and more. “It’s way easier because you’re sharing the responsibility, the burden,” he explains. Does he ever selfishly squirrel tracks away? “Well, you have to remember that any time I’ve brought something to another artist, it’s usually something that I’ve made by myself anyway.”
His phone is full of half-baked ideas, voice memos that may or may not one day end up as songs, be it for Tame Impala, another artist or something else entirely. “I have been like, ‘Ah man, I shouldn’t have given…’,” he trails off and starts laughing, “OK so ‘The Less I Know The Better’ was one that I wrote on my own. I gave it to Mark Ronson for his album, but I took it back. I was putting off telling him that I wanted to use it for me. “I was in America recording with him for a few days. I was like, ‘OK now, [I’ve] got to tell him I want it for me.’ When I finally mustered up the strength, he was like, ‘Oh yeah, dude, I was going to say this song is yours. I feel like I’ve stolen your hard drive!’ He was thinking the same thing anyway.”
His phone is full of half-baked ideas, voice memos that may or may not one day end up as songs, be it for Tame Impala, another artist or something else entirely. “I have been like, ‘Ah man, I shouldn’t have given...’,” he trails off and starts laughing, “OK so ‘The Less I Know The Better’ was one that I wrote on my own. I gave it to Mark Ronson for his album, but I took it back. I was putting off telling him that I wanted to use it for me. “I was in America recording with him for a few days. I was like, ‘OK now, [I’ve] got to tell him I want it for me.’ When I finally mustered up the strength, he was like, ‘Oh yeah, dude, I was going to say this song is yours. I feel like I’ve stolen your hard drive!’ He was thinking the same thing anyway.”
At the time of writing, ‘The Less I Know The Better’ is Tame Impala’s most-streamed song on Spotify, with the best part of 430 million plays and, as mentioned, is on the verge of going Double Platinum. “I don’t know if he regrets it now. I don’t know if he knows how successful it is… and if he realised the song was going to be as successful back then. He’s obviously not exactly kicking himself.”
Dropping next month on Valentine’s day, The Slow Rush is Parker’s next phase. Exploring time and how we move through it, the record is soaked to the bone in existential exploration and a sense of longing. For what, depends on your interpretation – Parker isn’t giving too much away. Youth? Legacy? Permanence? Tame Impala lyrics have often been complicated in theme while erring on the blurry side of ambiguity. But there are hints. ‘One More Year’, ‘Posthumous Forgiveness’, ‘Tomorrow’s Dust’, ‘Lost in Yesterday’... ‘Glimmer’? Each song holds and dissects time under a magnifying glass. “It ranges from deeply personal to completely fictional and everything in between,” he says. “It’s autobiographical, but from different parts of my life – being much younger or even pretending that I’m older. I liked exploring the idea of writing from different personalities in this album and as though it’s like me in a parallel universe.”
Think of it as more of a range of self, he explains. “Like me if I wasn’t who I was right now – I’ve been getting inspired by that a lot.”
Dynamically, The Slow Rush is intricate, curious and heady, like a time-lapse video of the night sky or a flower blooming. It is subtle and tidy in its refinement, and a lot to unpack. With drums front and centre, spotting the bent and blurred genres is like playing record store bingo. ’70s art-rock? Ding! ’90s uplifting house? Ding ’00s space-pop? Ding! Neo-soul, psych-rock, hip-hop, ’10s synth-rap? Ding, ding ding!
There is a drumbeat that sounds like it’s been lifted off a Kelis track and other nods to the familiar. Parker plays with orchestral and organic-sounding instruments more than ever – acoustic guitars, bare-ish snares, trills and stabs of piano. There are timpani drums and pan flutes – if anyone can make plan flutes cool, it’s Parker. That ambition? Well, here it is stamped and grooved in wax.
“I know that I’ve got a lot of ideas, genre-wise in there,” he says. “I wanted just to make an album that was dance music-, hip-hop- and R&B-friendly, but still had the instruments that I love to use and a lot more of them.”
With The Slow Rush, he says, he aimed to create something divergent. “I used a lot of synths and drum machines and synthetic stuff on Currents, but for this one, I wanted it to have a lot of real-sounding instruments, but still sound like Tame Impala.” What is most interesting, is the confessed perfectionist’s priority among the flirting with genres and jumble of instruments: it needed to sound like someone deep in the studio.
From the outside, it seems like the aloneness of Parker as an artist permeates everything – his processes, his visions, his concepts. It’s even in The Slow Rush album art, a photograph by Neil Krug of the dune-filled rooms of Kolmanskop, an ex-diamond mine ghost-town in Namibia. Having grown up with a somewhat rickety childhood (his parents divorced when he was four), Parker found solace in solitude, using music as a way of expression and grounding in its infinite possibilities.
His surroundings still play an integral part in his process and his love affair with Australia has never waned. “I just love being near the ocean,” he says. “Coming from Perth and being able to go down south whenever I want, it’s a luxury I’ve grown up because we have such a beautiful landscape. It’s a beautiful part of the world to get lost in.” Tame Impala encapsulates a dichotomy of modern loneliness, with mixes for headphones and melodies all but tailor-made for party playlists. But Parker is, creatively, still an island.
“It’s been a while since I’ve made an album so I’d forgotten just what it took to actually finish, especially on your own and not having a team of people around you to help carry the load and responsibility,” he says. Isolation has its perks, but can become a battle against himself. “At the start, it’s simple. It’s just me and my recording equipment in my studio or an Airbnb or wherever I am,” he explains. “By the end, it becomes infinitely complicated because there are just so many factors that I have to think about at once.”
Granted, Parker’s process hasn’t changed much from fiddling around with a guitar in his bedroom as a kid. These days he just has a fancier bedroom and a much fancier desk. “Music has to be a raw and almost childlike thing,” he explains. “When you’re making music, you have to feel like there’s no responsibility, there are no expectations for you to be sensible. For that reason, you have to tap into your most childish, heady, emotional frames of mind.”
As he gets older, does he worry that old habits of retreating into self-imposed solitude might impact his relationships? “That’s why I do it by myself. I love my wife. She understands that I have to make music, I have to make art. The rest of the people around me have known that that’s been me for as long as they can remember.
“Everything I do has to be experimental in some way, I detest the idea of just doing what you know.” Parker is not only anti-what people expect of him, but harsh on himself. “I think music is the best when it sounds like someone trying something they’re not fully capable of,” he says, sounding very rock-critic-esque. “I like all of those things in music. Jay [Watson, of Pond and Tame Impala’s touring band] was telling me he read something about rock and roll a while ago that was like, ‘the best rock albums sound like a band that are just at the edge of their capability’. I think that’s true about all music and probably everything to do with art.”
If there’s anything he stands to avoid, it’s repeating history. “I would never want to do an album that sounds like I know exactly what I’m doing. That’s why I never wanted the same album twice because it’s like, ‘I’ve done that’.” I could make Innerspeaker 2.0 in about 24 hours because
I know exactly how to. But I think that would sound really boring.” It might help pay the bills though. “You know, what? Probably not, actually. People think they would listen to me doing the same thing twice, but I think they are mistaken.”
With his collaborations, Currents and the incoming pop-leaning The Slow Rush, Parker is a far cry from his stoner, dive-bar roots. Does that affect his vision of Tame Impala? “Every decision you have to take for itself and not to allow commonly-believed connotations to drag you down,” he says. “I’m just not one of those people. When we got offered a record deal, I remember saying, ‘Holy shit. Modular Records!’” he says, “and the first person I told, a friend, said ‘Oh, don’t sign to them. They’re electro.’ From the very first day I said something, my friends turned their noses up. [Modular] were interested in my music, they were genuine, they didn’t ask me to change in any way. They believed in me. So I just try to take every turn as its own thing and not think about what it means culturally.”
The mental load of producer, performer, writer, collaborator, husband, friend, press junket talking head and GQ cover star can’t be light. “It’s difficult. Well, can be difficult,” Parker sighs, half-joking that he often does that ‘Australian thing’ and just doesn’t talk about it. “I assume that everything I’ve done is unlistenable every time I’ve released it. I’ve promised myself I’m going to enjoy it this time – the rollout and people hearing the songs for the first time. I’m going to get excited and not freak out as I have with every other album.”
We all know the breakthrough cliché, the pressure felt by an artist trying to get another bite of the relevance cherry. I ask Parker, having experienced that three times over, if it gets any easier when you achieve confetti cannon-level success? “No. No, it doesn’t,” he sighs. “In fact, it gets worse. A lot of people consider my last album [Currents] to be the best... Above all else, I too considered my last album the best one I’ve ever done. Until I made this one.”
He pauses. “So the pressure I was putting on myself to make another album that becomes my best one yet was greater than ever.” He concedes, “You just have to turn that pressure into positive energy and just try to ride the wave, rather than get dumped by it. You know? Just hold on for dear life.” Parker takes a long pause. “Which is funny, because all of the waves at the beaches I go to in Perth are dumpers anyway.”
The Slow Rush is out February 14 and Tame Impala will be touring in 2020
Photography James J Robinson
Styling Petta Chua
Words Noelle Faulkner