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The Non-Guilty Pleasures of Tame Impala

  • Words: Nathan Taylor Pemberton

  • Photography: Torso

  • Styling: Avena Gallager

FRONTPAGE is Highsnobiety’s weekly online cover story exploring the people, moments, and ideas shaping culture today. For the latest edition of our series, Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker indulges us in the inner workings of the band's long-awaited studio album.

In the five years that it has taken Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker to assemble the materials for the band’s highly anticipated album The Slow Rush (out February 14), we’ve watched as the global mood has darkened under a grim state of social entropy. But if we are actually in the end times, who better than Tame Impala to be the last band standing on the sheer edge of our silly planetary epoch?

In the weeks it’s taken to assemble this piece for publication, 26 million acres of wilderness have been vaporized and an estimated billion animals killed by raging bushfires in the group’s home of Australia, spurred by runaway climate change (Tame Impala has since pledged to donate $300,000 for Australian brushfire relief). This was followed by the opening maneuvers of a third Middle Eastern war for the United States, which has since mercifully sputtered out. Climate change reared its ugly head in November of last year, too, when Tame Impala’s long-awaited fourth album was nearly devoured after brush fires in Malibu consumed Parker’s rental home and $30,000 of studio gear. He escaped with his laptop, hard drive, and vintage Höfner bass — all while hungover, as the story goes. 

You could say the world has caught up with Parker’s escapist soundscapes. Like the sand-filled rooms that make up the album’s Romain Veillon-inspired artwork, Parker’s musical project (now a decade old) has become a kind of makeshift shelter for the atomized listeners wandering our streaming new world. As Parker told the New York Times this past May, he’s still trying to embrace the fact that Tame Impala is now the kind of band that brings “10,000 people all together, everyone screaming lyrics about, ‘Why am I a loner?’”

Flocking to this same sonic refuge is a stream of chart-dominating artists, most famously Rihanna, who covered the Currents-closing track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” on her 2016 album, ANTI. Now that Parker is based in Los Angeles the majority of the time, he’s become a regular presence in high-dollar recording sessions for Kanye West, Travis Scott, SZA, and even Kendrick Lamar.

It’s understandable why they’d want Parker. He’s perfected a sound that is everything our present reality is not — lush and utopian — making it a signature aural product. During a listening session at a Brooklyn club this past fall where Parker debuted a rough version of The Slow Rush to a room full of giddy writers, he moved fitfully between the center of the room and the laptop that was the source of the sound. Little more than a third of the way through the session, the songwriter left for JFK to catch a red-eye flight back to his newest studio in Malibu — something still didn’t sound right. A lone guitar part, imperceptible to you or I, had to be redone one last time.

There is, Parker admitted on the phone from Sydney, an astounding level of myopia at play to his music-making. It’s just for him, until it’s for the entire world, with a few detours along the way. The sterilized nothingness of Parker’s creative act hardly diverges from the quarantined vibes that surround listeners at the group’s highly designed concerts, which happen to boast one of the most expensive lighting rigs in the world. It’s the kind of nothingness that Parker offers his masses. And in return, they have followed him to it.

I like to believe that a song should have a reason for being.

I think people don't discuss your lyricism enough. It's almost like your voice is used as another instrument. What’s that process like for you?

It varies drastically. For some songs, it's the core. I’ll spend a lot of time on it. Or it may just be something that I add in, as you say, [like] another instrument. But at the end of the day, for me to be able to justify making a song with vocals on it, the lyrics have to kind of paint a picture. There has to be a strength in the theme of the song. That's even for songs where I'm kind of just writing lyrics to set the mood or whatever. It still has to mean something to me, whether it's deeply personal or completely fictional. It still has to give the song a purpose for existing. If [I wouldn't write] words to go with the music, I'd just write hundreds of songs. I could churn that music all day. But they all wouldn't be meaningful. I like to believe that a song should have a reason for being.

Something I heard in your songs when I listened to your record is that it sounded so much like a club or dance record — you're almost making house music.

It's something I've always loved, but [has] always been a guilty pleasure — until I realized that there's no such thing as guilty pleasures. Coming from the psych-rock world — where you're sort of encouraged to value everything that's raw and spontaneous — music that's real is supposed to be music that’s organic and performed, which is obviously bullshit. It's got nothing to do with that. I've always loved electronic music. I've always loved house music. It fits with my perspective on music, anyway. I've always felt like house [and trance have] so many similarities with original psych-rock, [more so] than modern rock; more parallel joining points.

What things were guiding you when you were putting The Slow Rush together?

I like to keep it kind of subliminal. It's rare that I'll consciously turn to an artist for guidance. In this last year, I've listened to fuck-all music. I just can't bear it; it's like nails on a blackboard. Actually, it's the opposite of nails on a blackboard. Everything just sounds so amazing and so sublime — any piece of music that's not my own (while I'm making music). I start doubting my own music. The only music I can listen to without thinking it sounds better than the album I’m working on is elevator music.

You did some press earlier this year, and I remember a quote from you saying something along the lines of, "You have to feel worthless in order to write music," or that you at least have to be in that kind of headspace...

I probably said the word worthless, but that's not the right word. It's more just feeling like I need daily worthlessness. Like, every day, at some point in the day, you feel on top of the world, and then during other parts of the day, you feel worthless. It's not a deep depression or anything. Depression is really not a creative space. It's more just grand thinking, that a song will elevate my mood. Melodies and stuff like that are the basis of my self-esteem. Feeling stressed or anxious is a big source of melodic inspiration. It’s when the best music comes to me.

I've told myself that I'm gonna enjoy it this time. I'm forcing myself — not forcing myself, but I’m instructing myself not to fall into the same trap that I've fallen into with every other album, which is burying my head in the sand and not believing anyone that tells me it's good. I've never enjoyed an album release. I've been so lost in my head about it. I'm just telling myself, if someone compliments you on the album, Kevin, believe them. Take the fucking compliment. Rather than imagining people listening to it and judging the album, I’m thinking of people listening to it and loving it, falling in love with it the way that I fell in love with the songs the first time I started working on them. At the end of the day, there [has been] some point where I've thought that every one of these songs was the best song in the world.

Who are the people in your world that you expose your new ideas to first?

The first person I go to is Glenn, who works for my record label. He's worked on all the albums. He’s my go-to when I’m thinking in bits and pieces. He’s just someone whose opinion I trust. I play stuff for my wife. My friends. The guys in the band, generally – Jay, especially. I can count on him for an absolutely brutal forced opinion [laughs]. That’s the one I have to prepare myself for, mentally. But even then, this is usually months after I've started a song.

The time it takes for me to get a song to that point is a beautiful, magical time. It’s when it sounds like the best thing that's ever been written because it's like a new piece of music that no one else has heard, and for all I know, the first person who hears it is gonna fucking break down in tears. Or have some sort of out of body experience. It’s fresh and it's new. During that time, it's ego-free. There's no doubt, there's no concern. There's no talk of what genre it is. It doesn't belong to the real world. I like to hold on to that for as long as I can because, invariably, I'm back down to earth at some point.

This is almost a rhetorical question, but what convinces you to leave that state of existence?

Well, because it's my job. There are some songs I think of, and for some reason, they don't even work. It works in my head — like, it sounds beautiful and it sounds like it will be an amazing song. But I record it, and for some reason, the chords just clash and it doesn't work. Or I’m singing a melody that doesn’t fit, so I’ll stop working on it. It never turns into a song. It's kinda weird, because some songs stay in the mental realm forever, things that no one else has heard. Sometimes, it doesn’t need to come out.

Feeling stressed or anxious is a big source of melodic inspiration. It’s when the best music comes to me.

From a distance, it sounds like your creative life is in a realm radically opposite to your obligations of being in one of the world’s most popular bands.

It gets pretty weird. It's not the best environment for anyone, mentally. But even though it takes its toll, it doesn't take long to recover. In the early days, you'd just go away and come back so often that the album cycle would click over to the next one while we were on tour. A new album would just mean that we'd play more of the new songs in the next live set than we did before. We'll do the whole album in one of those shows, to kind of understand the feeling, just being able to focus on the album and the colors, being able to really make the show fun and focused — not to be this kind of sprawling back catalog.

When I saw Kanye on the Yeezus tour, he was playing to the fans, but he made it a totally new show. He makes it a totally new show every time he does an album. Now, I'm coming up with this idea of scrapping everything and just doing an entirely new thing from scratch — doing it for a year or two and then deleting it.

On your level, headlining festivals next to Kanye or J Balvin — who played before you at Coachella this year — almost makes it seem like you’re the world’s last band. Have you ever felt like you’re trying to make an antiquated format work when everyone else is reducing the action on stage?

To be honest, it's kind of liberating. I've never really seen us as that total rock band on stage. I've never enjoyed that idea. I've always been more of a frustrated electronic music performer. I'm just not into that rocking out thing [laughs]. It has its place, but I don't know the last time I went into a rock show and felt like it was moving. I want to stay relevant, but that’s a word that’s overused. I don't want it to seem like I'm jumping on a bandwagon. Honestly, the last eight shows I've seen, where I've been genuinely moved or affected, have been either electronic shows or hip-hop.

Do you ever feel that Tame Impala has become this mantle bearer for everything that isn’t electronic music? Like you’re the flag holder for the end of a genre?

I'm still not really sure exactly what it is I'm carrying the torch for. Maybe I’m just the pallbearer.

  • Words:Nathan Taylor Pemberton
  • Photography:Torso
  • Styling:Avena Gallager
  • Production:HARBINGER
  • Photography Assistants:Amelia Hammond
  • Styling Assistants:Gregory Miller and Imaan Sayed
  • Shot at:CitizenM Hotel on the Bowery

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