Hustle and Flow

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Saiman Chow

Tame Impala Let It Happen

Storming Coachella, embracing pop music, turning the charts psychedelic — Kevin Parker knows his band is on the brink of something big. All he has to do is keep writing and stay ‘pissfit.’

Swingers is an archetypal L.A. diner — waitresses who look like Suicide Girls, upscale Waffle House fare on the menu. It also happens to be the unofficial Los Angeles headquarters of one of the most exciting young bands in the world. Surging Australian psych-poppers Tame Impala stayed at an adjacent motor inn on its first trip to L.A. years ago, and they’ve been coming back to Swingers ever since.

“It’s cheap and cool,” says Kevin Parker, the group’s boyish frontman, songwriter, producer, and benevolent dictator in town for an extended stay in April for both weekends of Coachella.

“It’s kind of like our dining room,” Parker tells me as we settle in at a quiet table in the rear of the restaurant. “It’s like getting out of bed and going into the kitchen.”

With his shoulder-length brown hair, Jesus beard, red scarf, tight blue jeans, and unassuming manner, the 29-year-old Parker seems more like a skinny L.A. slacker in search of some early-afternoon grits than a budding rock star. But talk to Parker for a few minutes and you’ll find that he’s learning to play the part.

In five years — since its 2010 debut album, Innerspeaker — Tame Impala has gone from being Parker’s one-man recording project to a world-conquering rock group. 2012’s Lonerism was Tame Impala’s breakthrough, a forward-thinking work of psychedelia that sounds like the Sgt. Pepper–era Beatles discovering trance. It’s precisely what you want to hear blasting through the tumbleweeds of the California desert, though Parker is still wrapping his head around his band being one of Coachella’s most talked-about attractions.

“It’s kind of weird for us to see all these big artists playing before us. To me, it doesn’t really make sense,” he says. “[But] I’m not gonna complain about playing too late.”

The Coachella shows and Tame Impala’s spring U.S. tour set the stage for Currents, the group’s transformational third album, due next month. Anticipation for Currents has been rising ever since the album’s intoxicating first single, “Let It Happen,” appeared in March. With its July 17 release still several weeks away, seemingly every Currents tidbit has been pored over. When the album was made available for preorder on iTunes in Japan, it was news. Right now, the hype machine is fully operational.

“Tame Impala is a great band, different from everything else going on right now,” says John Janick, chairman and CEO of Interscope Records, Tame Impala’s label. “I think Kevin is a genius and there’s nothing he can’t do.”

Over nearly eight swirling, shape-shifting minutes, “Let It Happen” sets the tone for the rest of Currents, which was written and recorded by Parker as Tame Impala toured the world in support of Lonerism. Gone is the jangly acid rock of the first two albums; in its place is an ethereal, insinuating vibe that feels like dropping in on an all-night rave. The lyrics hint at a journey that has just started — Parker slotted “Let It Happen” as the album’s first track and an eagerness to evolve. (Another song on Currents is simply titled “Yes I’m Changing.”)

For Parker, “Let It Happen” evokes “this chaotic world — I want to say ‘party,’ but that sounds wrong. It’s kind of like me on tour.”

Whereas Parker previously cast himself as an intense studio auteur in the mold of Brian Wilson — he has described the making of Lonerism as “agonizing” — he says Currents reflects his newly optimistic, extroverted outlook. While Parker didn’t set out to write hits, the songs on Currents are catchier, more danceable, and likelier to reach an audience that has never heard a Syd Barrett LP.

Lonerism is such an insular, detached album. I got that out of the way, and now I want to join the world,” he says with a shy smile.

When I met Parker in mid-April, Currents didn’t have a release date yet. The band wants to thwart leaks with an aggressive digital strategy, but that might threaten vinyl sales, which made up almost 25 percent of the units moved for Innerspeaker and Lonerism.

Parker recording in 'Innerspeaker' in 2009.

Modular Parker recording ‘Innerspeaker’ in 2009.

That conundrum speaks to the disparate factions of Tame Impala’s fan base — this is a band that appeals both to younger listeners who experience music via their phones and sprawling music festivals, and to aging music fans who fetishize physical media and new bands that fit old molds. These same futurist/retro impulses are embedded in Parker’s songs, which come out sounding like record-collector rock but are assembled by a solitary polymath who sees himself more as an electronic artist than as a Jack White–style classicist.

“There’s a lot of talk about, Is it a guitar or is it a synth? I don’t even see the difference, because for me it’s the same thing. It’s just one has a slightly different texture,” Parker says. “Usually it’s just what the closest thing was to me when I thought of the song. There’s a guitar there — sweet. Plug it in and do it.”

Whether by design or consequence, Currents has a pronounced lack of guitar — or at least recognizable guitar sounds. There’s nothing like “Elephant,” Lonerism’s heavy-riffing single and a fixture in commercials and TV and movie soundtracks. Parker seems embarrassed by the empty-headed bluesy swagger of “Elephant” now. (“It’s a little bittersweet because, like, that song paid for half my house,” he says.) Instead, Parker put more emphasis on the music’s bottom end on Currents, stripping down the other layers of sonic window dressing to give the rhythms more prominence.

“There was so much top end sonically [on Lonerism] — that sizzling guitar, sizzling synths, the drums are blasting. I realized you can’t turn it up too loud before it’s just burning your ears,” he says. “I wanted to make an album that you could just turn up really loud, with a throbbing rhythm to it.”

After “Let It Happen,” Tame Impala released three more singles from Currents: “’Cause I’m a Man” and “Eventually” have a silky, vaguely R&B feel, while “Disciples” is the album’s zestiest space-age power-pop number. So far, Parker has presented Currents as his mid-’80s Prince record, playing up the lysergic balladry and Todd Rundgren hero worship.1 Meanwhile, the poppiest tracks have thus far been kept under wraps — like “The Moment,” which skips along joyously on syncopated drums and chiming synths to an ecstatic climax, and “The Less I Know the Better,” a finger-snapping summer jam with a jazzy bridge teleported from Side 2 of Off the Wall.

“Michael Jackson’s one of my favorite artists of my whole life,” Parker says. “In fact, I think he is my favorite. It’s one of the first things I fell in love with before I learned about genres and before I knew what was cool to like.”

While Currents has the occasional prog-rock curveball — on “Past Life,” a menacing slo-mo vocal is set against a sci-fi keyboard lick — most of the songs are emotionally direct and musically immediate. It’s the kind of music that Parker has long kept himself from making, in part because he “thought indie-music snobs would turn their nose up at it.” But on Currents, he proves himself a natural at crafting highly addictive ear candy.

“I’ve always liked pop music. I love what it does to my brain, and I’ve shut it out for a long time,” Parker says. “The more I question myself about why I think pop is taboo, the more I realize it’s not.”

Born in Sydney and raised in Perth, Parker began playing guitar and then drums by age 10. (It’s no coincidence that Tame Impala songs typically have tremendous drum sounds.) Parker’s music teacher hooked him up with three other students and they became a cover band, jamming on Lenny Kravitz songs. By the time he was 12, Parker was already experimenting with recording equipment, and he found that he no longer needed other people.

“I thought it was amazing that I was able to layer myself many times,” he recalls. “Nothing has really changed since then. I’ve just gotten slightly better at recording.”

Tame Impala, still a trio, in 2008.

Modular Tame Impala, still a trio, in 2008.

As Tame Impala has become more popular, Parker has made the band less collaborative. Outside of Tame Impala, Parker has enjoyed playing with others, most notably super-producer Mark Ronson, who featured Parker on this year’s Uptown Special. (“Just having him around … made everything a little bit cooler and better,” Ronson told The Guardian.) But within the confines of Tame Impala, Parker is the unquestioned king. While bandmate Jay Watson received cowriting credit on two Lonerism tracks, “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Elephant,” he and the rest of the band were kept out of the creation of Currents. From the beginning, Tame Impala has essentially been a solo project on record that becomes a band onstage, mostly because Parker can no longer play all of the instruments himself. But no matter the context, the essence of the music comes directly from him, and he’s bolder about expressing that now.2

“The more confidence I get with making music, the more I feel like I can just rely on myself to fulfill me,” Parker says. “[Before], I didn’t really have any self-confidence. I would rely on my friends going, ‘Oh yeah, sick track, man.’ I guess as long as it’s not Tame Impala, I could work with people. The longer I’ve been in Tame Impala, the harder it is for me to split up the roles. It’s like my brain is just all over everything. I’m thinking of a hundred things at once. To suddenly not think about one of those things takes some getting used to.”

When Tame Impala appears as a band in front of tens of thousands of people, Parker looks at it as playing a role — just like everything else outside of making records. Sometimes this rock-star playacting requires a lot of grunt work that’s the opposite of fun, like the recent lawsuit about unpaid royalties filed against the band’s former labels Modular Recordings and Universal Music Australia. And then there’s the glad-handing that happens backstage at high-profile events like Coachella, a magnet for every music-industry barnacle within 1,000 miles.

“Coachella is 90 percent people saying hello,” Parker says sardonically, “just people that work for, like, the style department of your record label. Hello, nice to meet you … That’s most of what Coachella is.”

The upside of realizing that you’re playing a game is seeing how much fun rock stardom can be. After all, “you want to enjoy yourself because it’s Coachella,” Parker says. So, Tame Impala rolled into Coachella’s opening weekend with a big entourage and immediately commenced boozing in the band’s trailer. (Parker is partial to gin.) The revelry didn’t taper off until about an hour before showtime.

“You have to try to balance the whole day between being too sober and too drunk,” Parker says. “We’re all pretty pissfit. Do you say ‘pissed’ in America for drunk?”

Some people do, but it’s not common nomenclature, I say.

“We have this term called pissfit — if you drink a lot regularly, you become pissfit, so you can be drunk but you’re able to function. Except for being able to sing in tune.”

Parker admits that he resumed drinking heavily immediately after Tame Impala’s Coachella set “to wash away the sorrow” of what he viewed as a lackluster performance. The band was delayed by five minutes, forcing Parker to cut all the songs short. And since Parker rules all in Tame Impala, the mistakes weigh heaviest on him.

“Sometimes it’s things that only I know how to fix, because our stage set is quite complicated,” he says.

Parker in 2015.

Interscope Parker in 2015.

Back at Swingers, Parker is killing time before heading off to a rehearsal for an appearance the next night on Conan. He already has some new songs knocking around his head. Parker is a dabbler, always writing and recording something new — over time, those songs coalesce into albums. He records so many demos that he doesn’t always remember making them — for instance, he knows he worked out a rough outline for the new album’s gorgeous, introspective slow-dance number “Yes I’m Changing” at some point on the road, but all other details of the song’s genesis have evaporated from Parker’s pissfit brain.

“I’ll write songs wherever I am,” he says. “Last night I was thinking of something but I forgot it. I had something this morning, but I don’t think it’s very good. I think of multiple things every day, but I don’t always get to record them. If I’ve got my phone these days, it’s easier. I’ll just whip out the voice recorder.”

I mention to Parker that he ought to consider releasing his voice memos as bonus tracks, like Taylor Swift did for 1989. “I’m not sure how true that Taylor Swift thing is,” he says, adding: “Didn’t Max Martin write all her songs?”

It’s Parker’s comfort zone to be inside his head — working out new melodies, figuring out how to play different sonic textures against each other, creating what he calls an “orchestra of sounds and emotions.” But he’s changing. His lifestyle is poised to get appreciably more interesting in the second half of 2015. His days of sipping coffee in an L.A. restaurant unrecognized may soon be over. He’s even throwing some lighthearted shade at the world’s biggest pop singer. Stardom awaits and Kevin Parker is ready.

“I used to smoke weed and I don’t even smoke weed anymore,” he says, “because, it’s like, the world’s intense enough as it is.” 

Filed Under: Music, tame impala, Kevin Parker, Interscope, Innerspeaker

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden