Kevin Parker of Tame Impala on rock stardom and being alone

At age 11, Tame Impala ’s Kevin Parker knew he wanted to be a rock star.

By the time he reached 14, within a perfect storm of teenage emotion and personal circumstance, the feeling had reached peak intensity.

“I was just having a rough time as a teenager, you know, I had weird family stuff going on … and I just felt like the only fucking thing that would ever improve my life was if I was a famous rock star. That’s all I wanted. Because the idea of it solved all my problems. It solved not being loved by anyone, it solved being dirt poor, it solved everything.”

The prospect of fame for this guy from a small city where the sun meets the retinas like a flare at the end of a film roll and sand stings uncovered skin as the south-westerly hits, and those tall poppies never really stood a chance, was addressed and then eclipsed with the release of Tame Impala’s third long-play Currents. That is to say, fame became a given.

On life since Currents ...

“I wanted to make hip-hop music, I wanted to deejay … I wanted to make house music, and I wanted to make pop music with pop artists, I wanted to produce other people’s stuff," says Parker. “And I was like, none of that stuff is really conducive to being a Tame Impala album.”

Presently living between his home town of Fremantle, Western Australia, and L.A., he’s spent much of the five years since Currents in creative exchange with people like Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Rihanna and Travis Scott. What else the period of collaboration gave him, he says, was “perspective”.

By way of context, despite its live iteration as a five (or so)-piece band, his work as Tame Impala takes place in voluntary isolation.

“A Tame Impala song is not one I can just get people to work on,” Parker says. “Like friends of mine; like, ‘hey, come around’. As soon as I do that I have this kind of weird maternal instinct. You know like if a mother bird comes back to her nest and one of her eggs has been touched by someone else, she expels it … Collaborating is obviously the opposite of that, so it’s a new feeling for me.

“But, you know, after a while I also realised that me working on other people’s music was never going to be as fulfilling as doing Tame Impala stuff. It just can’t be. Like it’s still special and I still feel like I’m a part of it and so proud of it and everything, but it doesn’t fill the same void.”

Which brings us to new album, The Slow Rush

Tame Impala’s fourth long-play began in earnest in mid 2018, spurred by the congruent revelation that, actually, “all the things that I wanted to do musically could be Tame Impala”.

“... I love disco a lot more than I did [when making Currents], I love house music … also hip-hop, and I’m also kind of better at making it now.”

Not that that’s a primary consideration.

“That feeling of ‘I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing’ is one of the most potent emotions in the studio,” says Parker.

In its fluid coalescence of disco sensibilities, classic acid house, warm organic sounds (timpani, pan flute, acoustic guitars), Parker’s deft drum breaks and lush psych frays, The Slow Rush is evolutionary. But it’s hardly the first instance in which Parker has warped the lines of genre in keeping with his expanding production capabilities.

“To me the idea of doing the same thing as last time couldn’t be more unappealing, you know? Couldn’t be less what I want to do … Even if I am aware that a lot of my fans want more of the same thing, I [have] this theory that people think they want the same thing but they don’t,” he explains.

“You know, all the bands that I fell out of love with when I was growing up were the ones that kind of stuck with the same thing. Because even if you don’t know it, you want to be challenged, you want to be taken somewhere new, and kind of have this initial, ‘What is this? … this is strange and foreign’ … When you slowly digest something new, find something new that you love from someone that you previously loved, you know, someone that you already love … the pay-off is so much bigger.

“It also has to be good.”

It seems an intimidating precipice from which to step into a creative project. And one gets the impression Parker doesn’t cut himself many concessions. “Ah, it’s scary releasing it,” he concedes. “[But] it’s not scary when you’re doing it. Because when you’re doing it it’s magical … "

"Doing it for the first time is always just a wondrous time.”

From Tame Impala’s early buzzed psychedelia, turned sleeker by second long-play Lonerism, then synth and stadium-ready with Currents, The Slow Rush rolls in to a more intimate atmosphere. As per its predecessors, it had its genesis in a home studio (Parker has two – in his L.A. and Fremantle residences).

“But I think this album particularly, I wanted to give off that [vibe of a] ‘guy in the studio’; a guy or person in their element, just constructing weird bedroom symphonies.”

For those who want to define it, the Tame Impala signature has long been assigned a genre – psychedelic, in the present and then the past tense. But what feels more distinctive is the way the music is made – inside a home, inside a room, inside a mind – yielding explorations of aloneness and hope as they actually feel, the kind of conversations that can only be had in one’s head. And, of course, the self-actualised soundtrack to this monologue is the kind the outside world couldn’t ignore if it tried.

With this in mind, The Slow Rush feels like Tame Impala in that it is both introverted and universal, reflective and progressive, at home on speakers at their limit on the hazy side of midnight and on loop in the stillness of one’s bedroom. A dip into neuroses (you ain’t as cool as you used to be), with high notes of defiant assurance (“if you think I couldn’t hold my own believe me, I can, believe me” as Parker asserts to euphoric funk backing in Breathe Deeper) – the sort of positive self-talk that would assumedly be required before releasing one’s bedroom symphonies to an awaiting international public.

A prediction of Parker’s demeanour based upon his creative output could in theory be accurate – depending on the interpretation.

At first meeting he’s thoughtful, perhaps a little reserved; occasional self-deprecation belies acute focus and knowhow. His confidence is quiet in that Australian way and he laughs easily, also in that Australian way, smoothing centre-parted hair behind his ears at regular intervals and sitting asymmetrically on the red velvet couch we’ve been assigned for our interview. He’s very human. But then, aren’t we all?

On missing deadlines …

In the midst of personal and creative evolution, one gets the impression Parker keeps in regular contact with his former selves. Indeed, the sands of time – their ability to distort, dilute, disillusion – are The Slow Rush’s central preoccupation.

“We have this idea that time is just this solid thing in the universe and we’re just going along but really time, it’s totally a human thing,” Parker explains of his fascination. “I was reading this science blog and they were saying how if we didn’t have memories of the past and if we didn’t have awareness of the future then we would have no way of experiencing time. You know, if you didn’t remember what had been and you didn’t know what was coming, time would be completely meaningless to us … Things like, ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ – I find that just such a magical thing … If you’re staring at the clock watching it tick time goes forever; as soon as you get distracted for a moment, years can pass.”

Not entirely consciously, Parker’s relationship with time in the making of The Slow Rush has been, “What’s the word? Strenuous,” he laughs. “It’s been bad.

“Actually it’s so funny how relevant that whole concept, literally just what I’m talking about, has been, making this album.”

As Parker explains it, he’d intended to finish The Slow Rush in time for Tame Impala’s headline performance at Coachella in April 2019. “That was the first deadline that I missed.

“It was a month before Coachella and I was telling my manager, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’"

"A month, what’s that? That’s 31 days, that’s four weeks, every week has seven days, every day has 24 hours … Thinking about it, I can make 20 albums in that time, you know? Because it just seems like so much time … The record label was ready to go, because I was so sure I could do it.”

Rather than showcasing new material, the performance proceeded, for the most part, as a kind of retrospective. “And I finished the album in November … It seems like anything’s possible but somehow time always wins, it always gets the better of you. There’s so much we want to do in life, and so much we assume we can, and we can, we totally can, but somehow it always beats us. It always wins in the end because we get distracted. But that’s a beautiful thing."

"We get distracted and then our lives pass and we didn’t do all the things we expected to do but that’s cool, you know? It’s fine.”

On the other side of that process, Parker is optimistic. “I feel good at the moment … I can’t wait to tour with songs that aren’t four years old, as in I can’t wait to tour with my new album … I’m pretty excited for the future at the moment. Me personally – I mean, obviously our country is on fire and everything’s heating up so that’s not good, I’m not excited about that future.”

On what he lost in the Malibu fires …

In Australia, the summer of 2019-20 will likely be remembered as the time in which the future caught up with us – even for the lucky ones viewing it from a distance. For Parker, that moment was a morning in November 2018, when he woke up in a rented apartment in Malibu to evacuation warnings during the worst wildfire season recorded in the state of California. The apartment was destroyed, and Parker, who was there to record, lost a multitude of musical equipment. “I was meant to be there for a week and I was only there for one night,” he tells. “I just realised this the other day, actually, I think it was during an interview, but I was meant to be there for a few days and there are definitely songs I would have written while I was there had I not had to evacuate after one night, and those songs may or may not have been on the album."

"So it’s weird kind of sliding doors, for me.”

Having entered Sydney through a smoke haze ahead of our interview, the intersection of planetary and personal destiny has been on Parker’s mind. “You know what I was thinking yesterday, it was such a weird vibe and people were coughing, and to think about the effect that that had on the city … people’s personalities would have been different yesterday. And everyone was working and doing business … things would have been different because of that, interpersonally. Outcomes would have been different.”

On all he learnt from Lady Gaga ...

The years following Currents have given Parker valuable insight into the universality of human experience, how it rises to the surface. In working with musicians who fall easily into the category of ‘famous’, he picked up on a common quality: vulnerability. “It’s just something I started to notice, especially with Gaga,” he tells. “’Cause personally-wise, I’m a pretty closed-off person. The idea of me walking into a room of people, many of whom I’ve never met before and baring my soul to them is like torture; I cannot imagine anything worse.

"For me to like go into a vocal booth where there’s like an engineer, a producer, a songwriter, someone from the label there watching me do vocals … watching you sing your heart out about things that are personal for you – again, another form of torture, because it requires being vulnerable in front of people. I can sing my songs live, because they’re fans – I don’t know how that’s different but it is  … But Gaga is someone that can just do that and just stand by it so strongly and be so validated in it and it’s kind of amazing to watch; to be able to be vulnerable.

“It’s made me realise that I can be [vulnerable], and that I shouldn’t be afraid to be, and no one should, you know."

"Especially in today’s social climate of Australia when there’s such a big thing of people not talking about their problems. I guess I’m kind of developing myself, with everyone, in that way, hopefully.”

The notion of rock stardom as a cure-all may no longer appear as it did in his teen dreams, but Parker is fast to acknowledge music as a saviour. “I would probably be in the same boat as many, many other Australians ... Australian guys, if I didn’t have music as an emotional outlet. Because I, like so many other people, was raised to be emotionally strong and not talk about it so I feel extremely lucky that I have music in that way – and that it’s kind of been rewarding for me to speak about my emotions … I’m lucky and also extremely privileged in that way.”

Augmented or otherwise, there’s no denying that Parker got what he wished for. So what does he want now? “I don’t know. I don’t know. As a thing that’s different than how it used to be … I really don’t know.” In that case, how do his present desires compare with those of the past, I ask. “I don’t know either – I’m sorry, I’m coming up with nothing.”

A moment of pause and Parker begins again.

“I want my music to be a part of people’s lives."

"I want to make music that people connect with because that makes me feel connected with people. I want there to be some people that have a relationship with my music the way I had a relationship with music when I was discovering music. Or the relationship I do have with music. When I was a kid it gave my life meaning.”

Read more in the ‘Desire’ issue of RUSSH Magazine, on newsstands now.