Tame Impala Interview: Slow Motion
The majestic new Tame Impala album The Slow Rush sees Kevin Parker absorbing sounds and production techniques from everything available to him. Despite becoming a festival headliner, he tells John Earls he still isn’t fully happy with what he’s achieved in the past decade…
When Kevin Parker began planning the shows for Tame Impala’s new album, The Slow Rush, he looked into the cost of buying lasers. He’d heard Rihanna had bought the ones used on her last tour, and Tame Impala is a festival headliner now – his show closing the Other Stage at Glastonbury last year was one of the most talked about sets, and that was before he’d even finished The Slow Rush.
“I kept telling my production manager I wanted to buy lasers, but I was told it’s not a good idea,” laughs Parker, sat upright and attentive on his bed at his hotel suite in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. “Lasers constantly get upgraded and, if I bought wholesale lasers, next year there’s going to be something even cooler I’d want. But it wouldn’t make sense to hire them, because what would I do with the lasers I’ve bought? Plus, the lenses degrade and we don’t know how to repair them.”
It’s a story that says much about Tame Impala’s current status: if Parker’s not quite a Rihanna-status megastar, he’s potentially in the market for lasers now. And it shows he is always thinking about how to bolster Tame Impala’s spectacular shows. “Every time we headline a festival, I think ‘Woah! Fuck! Really?’ It’s an honour,” he insists, seemingly not being disingenuous at the status of his recording alias. “I just hope I’m the headliner I’ve been booked to be. When we started,I loved that we didn’t have to put on a headline show. We could just rock out and, if we played shit, it didn’t matter – we were just some band on the middle of the bill. It’s not suck it and see now: we’re the headline show. But that’s a massive opportunity, and I’m learning how to embrace that role. I try not to think of the pressure and just have fun with it.”
Despite the musical growth from the winning stoner rock of 2010 debut album Innerspeaker to the fluid melodies on Lonerism two years later, it wasn’t until third album Currents in 2015 that Tame Impala’s shows matched the spectacle of the music. “I decided to grow up and stop being afraid of the people who have come to see me,” admits Parker.
Tame Impala was signed by influential Australian label Modular, which had fostered local talents like The Avalanches, Wolfmother and Cut Copy, after just a handful of gigs in his native Perth. “There was a lot of hype around us and, as we hadn’t established a live following, from day dot I had this idea people were there to judge me,” recalls Parker. “It took me a long while to realise there were actual fans coming who wanted to enjoy the show.”
Although The Slow Rush is stuffed with huge pop songs worthy of a festival headline show, Kevin is reluctant to consider whether the record was made with the size of his audiences in mind. “I thought about the fact I’ll be playing arenas a little bit, admittedly,” he frowns. “I say ‘admittedly’ because I’d hate people to think I’m imagining how it’ll sound out on stage while I’m still in the studio. That doesn’t feel right.” He gets off the bed and points out of the hotel window at a passing bus. “I think about people listening to songs on their headphones on buses like that, far more than I think about the people witnessing our live show. Music is ingrained in people’s lives, it’s not about when you’re blowing people away in an arena. I’d hate people to think that’s the key purpose of my music, because it definitely isn’t.”
Alongside growing up in concert, Kevin has matured off stage, too. In February last year, he married his girlfriend of five years, marketing strategist Sophie Lawrence, who founded Australian healthy ice-cream company Denada. They married on a vineyard, ordering McDonald’s burgers for the 150 guests still there at midnight.
“As a touring musician, you’re encouraged not to grow up,” smiles Parker. “You’re encouraged not to make big life decisions like getting married. I’d always bought into that idea and I was immune to thinking about things in my own life. Once I’d made the decision to propose, it was so liberating. I thought, ‘Oh, so I can make these decisions! I am an adult!’”
It’s this new-found maturity which informs The Slow Rush. It’s no less joyous than Currents, but lyrically it earns its euphoria, with One More Year an unsettling opener. “It’s definitely not a concept album,” he insists. “But there’s a general arc that, at the beginning, the passing of time is something you’re afraid of and, when the album ends, you’re embracing it. I hate writing songs that are just about me and can’t be universal to everyone. I like to keep my songs so that people can think it’s about them.”
“But getting married inspired the emotions that led to a lot of the new lyrics. It’s such a big chapter along the way from birth to death, a point where you’re taken aback by the passage of life. You go, ‘I really am a mortal human being!’ Getting married, it really puts where you are in your life on a point in that birth to death line. There are times when you don’t feel like you’re anywhere on that line and you’re just lost.”
Although Parker has worked with Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott and co-produced Lady Gaga with Mark Ronson, The Slow Rush is wholly his own work again. “The more I worked on these songs, the more personal it got,” he explains. “The more personal it is, the less I need other people to do it. But not having collaborations on my records isn’t a hard and fast rule. The timing wasn’t right on this record, but I might do it in the future. It’s the same with The Slow Rush not being a one-word title for the first time – I was attracted by the idea of breaking what had become this ‘Tame Impala thing’ and I never want people to think there’s a pattern.” He’d particularly like to get in the studio with Mariah Carey, laughing: “I’d love to make something with Mariah that would sound like Fantasy, but done with my usual kinda style. Actually, on this record, Breathe Deeper started out as my idea of a Mariah Carey song: it’s stoner Mariah Carey.”
In a nice way, Kevin Parker does still seem a goofball stoner. Other than his PR, there’s no entourage when we meet. He’s tall and lean, dressed in a blue-and-black stripy jumper that makes him resemble Dennis The Menace gone grunge. He’s seemingly unguarded in conversation, blue eyes lighting up as he jokes away, including about his obsessive nature. Talking about the skittish drums that open new slowjam Tomorrow’s Dust, Parker admits: “I spent way too long getting the intro drum sound right – probably a total of 100 hours just on that. Generally, my music flows out of me quite quickly. When people hear my songs I don’t want them to think it was laboured over, as I don’t like music that sounds laboured over. I like to think music just falls out of people and, in most cases, it does for me.”
Parker abandoned many song ideas along the way for The Slow Rush, but emphasises he quickly knows whether or not a song is worth pursuing. “I start songs all the time,” he explains. “But I only bother pursuing even halfway to finishing it if I know it’s worth completing. I won’t put a song on an album unless I’ve had a real moment with it, where I’ve thought, ‘This is the best song I or anyone else has ever done!’ That’s important.” He laughs, aware of the possibility of such a grand statement being misconstrued. “I know that sounds arrogant and like Kanye West, but to me it’s vital. I can’t get to the end of a song unless I’ve had that moment. It might just be for one night of working on it, but I have to have been in love with it and thought it’s the best my soul can express.”
Patience Is A Virtue
The only song Parker finished recording since Currents not on The Slow Rush was Patience. The first taste of new music, the woozy ballad was released last March. One of the first songs to be finished from the sessions, it arrived around the time Parker first thought the album was taking shape. Nearing the home stretch that summer, he began having second thoughts about featuring the single. “I just didn’t think Patience was good enough for the album in the end,” he shrugs. “I still love that song, and I’m proud of it as one of my musical children. I guess I just love these other songs more.”
To help keep his focus, Parker barely listens to any music when he’s making a new record. It meant that, last year, he can’t recall having heard anything. “I can’t remember the last album I listened to in full,” he admits. “I listen to zero music in the studio. It’s too agonising, because when a song sounds new and amazing, I’m terrified of overthinking it. I can barely hear elevator music when I’m working without analysing that and overthinking it! A friend put an album on Spotify in my car. It was jazz, something obscure for me, but I play so few albums that it massively affected my Spotify algorithm and for ages it kept recommending me obscure jazz. I’m pathetic, because I basically only listen on Spotify, to individual songs. I don’t give music listening the same respect I expect people to give to mine. I guess my excuse is that I want to experience music the way most people experience it – I like to get into the head of someone else listening to music.”
Instead, Parker likes to have on “background chatter” when he’s messing around in the studio: one of the two samples on The Slow Rush is of two audio experts talking about equipment on a podcast Parker had on in the studio, which ends the brief Glimmer. “I wanted a song to appear for a brief moment and then fade out,” he says. “Some things in life are like that – they come along briefly for no apparent reason and evaporate into thin air, forever to be a distant memory. I thought the two guys talking audio was really funny, so I was compelled to put it on the album, and it made sense to put it on a random song like Glimmer.”
The other sample is of Parker’s wife Sophie talking in the couple’s living room, which closes Side One of the album at the end of Tomorrow’s Dust. Parker is about to talk more about recording his wife’s voice when the sound of protestors drifts up to the fifth-floor suite – Extinction Rebellion have brought the traffic to a standstill. “Look at that!” he exclaims. “I want to go and join them.”
Spiritually, Kevin Parker may want to take to the streets, but he’s happy – for now, at least – to be talking to the press. “I’ve been feeling good doing interviews,” he smiles. “Doing press feels like finally doing some work. It feels like getting shit done whereas, working on an album, you never feel you’re moving forward. I never know if I’m going forward, sideways or backwards, if I’m being constructive or destructive. My work ethic is terrible – I wish I did more.” That sounds harshly self-critical for someone who has stayed so busy with other music since Currents. But then, he’s friends with the prolific Mark Ronson. “I’ve learned so much from Mark,” he enthuses. “He’s extremely focused, and his drive to make music is just so uncompromising. He’s also got the trademark of the best producers, in that he has a brilliant sense when we’ve worked on songs of when it needs something more or when it doesn’t need anything.”
The Slow Rush comes out 10 years after Tame Impala’s debut album. It’s not a landmark Kevin had intended. “I wanted it to come out last year,” he laughs. “I just didn’t get there in time. But I’m happy that it’s a new decade and I’ve got a new record out to mark that. Ten years on from Innerspeaker? That’s mindblowing, it’s crazy.” For once, Parker starts to look a bit concerned, his usual smile fading. “The more I think of that anniversary, the more it’s interesting, because it makes me think, ‘What have I achieved in 10 years?’”
Parker should say this in celebration of Tame Impala graduating from stoner-rock contenders to major festival headliners. Instead, he seems frustrated. LLV reminds him: “Come on, you’ve achieved quite a bit!” He brightens immediately. “Yeah, fair,” he laughs. “I’d been meaning it sarcastically, but I guess it’s true I’ve done quite a bit.” More to the point, Tame Impala’s music has graduated to the stage where Kevin Parker is showing other rock musicians how it should be done in 2020. Tame Impala’s work ethic is just fine.