Kevin Parker, 29, walks into an interview trailer behind the main stage on the first weekend of Coachella. Charles Bradley’s soulful cries can be heard as the door swings open. Parker is relaxed, Tecate in hand, scarf loosely tied around his neck, flip-flops worn likely for safety, not comfort — he virtually always appears barefoot on stage.
In a few hours, his band Tame Impala will provide direct support for the biggest act to ever come out of his home country of Australia, AC/DC. Though his project’s psychedelic rock past doesn’t necessarily draw a direct influence from the classic rock icons, the honor isn’t lost on Parker.
“It’ll be an even more momentous occasion if we get to meet them,” he says with a smirk, “especially Angus Young. That would really seal the deal.”
Tame Impala, from all vantage points, have a ways to go to reach AC/DC’s heights, but in terms of current Australian acts, the band is at the top of the pack. After two well-received albums, their new Currents looks to push the outfit further than anyone could have predicted five years ago.
“I don’t even know how big AC/DC are in the rest of the world,” Parker says. “They’re like gods in Australia, royalty.”
When it comes to his own project’s growth, though, Parker reserves more disbelief. It’s as if Coachella and touring and television appearances and “Best of” lists are all a dream from which he tries not to be woken, or an elaborate hoax in which everyone from fans to critics are in on the ruse.
A week later over coffee at Swingers diner in Beverly Hills, a hop away from the band’s hotel rehearsal space, Parker asks glibly, “Is there such a thing as an ‘imposter complex?'”
It’s an idea that Parker brings up frequently in other ways, suggesting half-seriously that either he or his project are undeserving of the attention that they receive and that it all might go away at a moment’s notice.
While the idea is seemingly ridiculous, in a way, it beats the alternative. It keeps Parker grounded, appreciative of everything he has received from his music, and pushes him as an artist to make sure he deserves the acclaim.
Currents’ first single, “Let It Happen”, telegraphed a change for the project when it surfaced in March. The finger-snap production, the weaving in and out of sound tunnels, fidelity changes, percussion elements coming and going — it doesn’t sound like a band. “Let It Happen” is more akin to the work of an electronic producer, and despite the clear use of organic sounds and instrumentation, straddling the line between band and solo project is something that Parker is finally truly comfortable with, though it has been the project’s M.O. since its inception.
“The fact that it ever sounded like a band was just a decision of mine to try and make it sound like a band because I was into band music,” Parker says at Coachella. “But we never recorded as a band. It’s always just been me. I’ve always had this effort to try and make it sound like it could potentially be a band. And I always make sure that it doesn’t just sound like one person, to sound like a producer. Because I’ve always seen myself as a producer but not wanting to sound like one.
“So I’ve always made sure to play the drums from start to finish, to not loop them, to not do the same drum fill twice. And then I’ll play the bass the whole way through. And then I’ll make it sound organic, but that was totally just a flavor or a stylistic choice. But now, well, fuck it, you know?”
Parker explains what can plainly be heard: “I am essentially a producer, and I always have been, so I may as well embrace the other qualities of making music, like sampling claps and really exploring other territories and not just sticking to this one ethos. I just find it more interesting than bands … well, these days.”
Like many young people, Parker grew up listening to bands. In high school, he liked AC/DC, among others, but his infatuation with music began even before that as a young man growing up in Perth, Australia. After spending his early years being raised by his mother, he moved to stay with his father at the age of 11 and discovered a joy in creating music.
“Music was his main hobby,” Parker says of his father. “He played in bands all his life, played in cover bands. When I went to live with Dad, I started learning guitar because he played guitar. And then I discovered recording music … with just two tape decks. I realized that if you played drums into one tape and then play along to that, listen back to yourself playing drums and play guitar along to it, and then you hit record on the other tape deck, you’re recording two versions of yourself onto one tape. And you can just keep going.”
Parker laughs now when he thinks about it.
“I thought that I had invented something,” he says. “That was how much of a revelation the feeling was. And that basically grew into what I do now. Essentially, nothing has changed.”
Regardless of how the music was created, when Tame Impala surfaced on American shores with Innerspeaker, they were a band. Their first LA date in 2010 was a free show at the Echo opening for Rainbow Arabia’s residency. The place reached capacity, and Tame Impala played two more shows the next day at the Silverlake Lounge in attempts to please everyone curious about seeing them.
“I was confused and frustrated on that day,” Parker recalls. “I remember that I stormed off in a huff. Jay [Watson] and I were arguing. We argued for like the first three years of our career, straight. We just argued because we didn’t know what we were doing. Everything was new and unexplainable, and we couldn’t work out what was happening, so we didn’t know our roles; we hadn’t found our identities as people in this new world that we had been thrust into. I was really insecure about how good we were. Nothing to do with hype or expectation — it was just the expectations we had for ourselves. So that night it all kind of came to a head. It was the end of a stressful tour. We did the same thing in New York; we played two shows in a night in the same place, and it was packed.”
The run of Innerspeaker began back in Parker’s homeland — a story similar to so many in the late 2000s — when his music was discovered on Myspace by Glen Goetze from Modular. Of Parker’s early days recording in his bedroom, he notes that he had more ambition to be successful and famous when he was a teenager than when he was 20. “By the time I was 20, I realized it was kind of like a cliché wanting to be this famous rock star, this passé idea,” he says. “It was only then I saw it altruistically, which made the music better, that got us a record deal.”
Parker and his band were flown from Perth to Sydney to perform for Modular and were signed. Tame Impala’s debut EP was just demos that Parker had previously recorded himself, but for Innerspeaker, he had something bigger planned.
“I never thought that making an album was worth anyone else’s time until there was a record label saying, ‘You gotta release an album,’” Parker says. “So, basically, I just took everything I had in my bedroom, and I rented a house down south overlooking the ocean. I thought, ‘Well, fuck it.’ If I’m going to record it myself, I may as well spend the budget. I’m doing it in a nice house, not my bedroom in suburban Perth. Basically, I recorded the whole album with the same gear I had at home, but just did it in a slightly more professional manner. I made the album the same way that I do now, but knowing that people were going to hear it for the first time.”
Even back then, there was duality in Tame Impala. “There was me recording songs in my bedroom and the live band, Tame Impala, that would play around bars and music venues around Perth,” Parker says. “And we’d play a completely different set of songs. We’d play just these other songs I had written especially for the live thing, because the recorded ones were more intricate, a lot more carefully constructed. The live ones were just jams; we’d just jam psych rock blues for 40 minutes. It was only when we got signed that those worlds merged, when we actually had to play the songs I had recorded.”
But as Tame Impala began touring the world, the highs and lows of success struck Parker unexpectedly. He recalls the first time the band traveled for two weeks in Europe, including their first show in London, seeing a line down the street and losing his mind when he realized Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh was in attendance, along with recording engineer Liam Watson.
“A bunch of other people came to that show that I idolized,” Parker recalls. “And I remember just sitting outside on my balcony of the hotel room going, ‘What the actual fuck just happened? How am I ever going to re-live the amazingness, reach the amazingness of tonight?’ Then we went home. We got home, and we got back into our shared house, because we all live together, and I just remember feeling so emotional, getting back and seeing our shitty living room crap everywhere, musical shit everywhere. I remember standing outside and almost being brought to tears. It was just too much, coming home after all that and not having time to process what was going on. I got back and almost started crying; it was so overwhelming.”
Still, there was no doubt in Parker’s mind how he would be spending his time to come. “As soon as they told us we might be getting a record deal, I signed off on my entire life outside music,” Parker says. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s it. There’s my ticket.’”
Ask Kevin Parker what happened between Innerspeaker and the success of sophomore album Lonerism, and he’ll just shrug and mumble something about a lot of concerts. “It’s all pretty hazy around there, to be honest,” Parker admits. “My memory’s not good at the best of times.”
When Tame Impala played Coachella in 2013, there was a sense that the band was coming into its own. It was booked at an outside, near sunset slot, but Parker claims he was pretty removed from any sense of impending success.
“I’ve always been kind of blind to that because I never know how to compare the level of Tame Impala to anyone else,” Parker says. “And I always assume that we are smaller than people are trying to convince me we are. I’m always the one that just thinks that we’re still a small-time band. In my head, we still are, and we’ve got this small, really dedicated fan base; that’s it. It doesn’t make sense in my brain for us to be something talked about.”
Still, he can’t deny that licensing his song for a Blackberry commercial and beginning to play radio-sponsored gigs and festivals did indicate the band was reaching a broader audience. Parker, though, remains unaffected by most of it.
“I find it interesting, that world of, like, ‘corporate music,’” Parker says, “where the value of a song is more than just the song. It’s how good the band is at schmoozing bigwigs from this publication or how good your manager is at talking. It kind of gives me a weird taste in my mouth, so that’s why I try to stay out of that.”
Equally confusing is Parker trying to put his finger on exactly when the process of Currents began. “There’s never really a start and never really an end either,” Parker says. “It ends when I run out of time, basically. Or someone just pulls the plug. I asked someone to pull the plug; I was about to absolutely fall off the edge. I’m recording all the time, especially when I’m at home.”
But with Currents, the idea of Tame Impala being a band seems to have finally been cast aside. Though Currents is recorded using the same methods as his previous work, for once it doesn’t have to sound like a band. In a sense, the feeling of being an imposter is going away, with Parker joking that he realized reviewers weren’t actually paid off to give his music favorable reviews.
“I think it’s just been a gradual acceptance kind of thing,” Parker says. “It has to do with self-confidence, building up enough confidence to actually be able to stand by what you do. This is my baby. It was always such a security to hide behind five dudes and say, ‘We all did this. If it sucks, it’s not just my fault.’ It’s kind of a security blanket.
“Don’t get me wrong; I love bands,” he adds. “I love the idea of people getting together and combining their ideas to make something. But they’re kind of bound by the laws of being in a group where each person has their role. You got the drummer, you got the bassist, the singer, and there’s always going to be these boundaries where one single person isn’t going to be able to have their total view. It’s always going to be combinations; there’s always going to be compromise. And if you’ve got all these polar views of people coming together, it’s going to meet somewhere in the middle. And the idea of meeting in the middle, to me, just seems kind of beige.
“You’ve got different colors and when you mix all the colors together, you get beige,” Parker says. It isn’t hard to see the colors of his outfit, the paisley-patterned drapery that hangs behind him in our Coachella interview trailer, or the colorful stage show that Tame Impala uses on a nightly basis. Beige is the last thing Parker wants to be.
“So for me, I find it more exciting when you just make a song. I’m going to make this fucking song pink or turquoise,” he says. “I just find it more exciting that you can go just any one direction and totally hone in on that.”
It isn’t until months later that Parker surfaces on the phone again. Despite the time that passed since our initial interviews, he remains remarkably constant in his personality: easy to talk to, himself. Any fear of getting discovered for a fraud, even if he is just joking, is balanced by the fact that he seems unchangeable at his core.
Of course, Currents would seem to argue against that, as change is such a central theme, both in the sonic alterations and in the lyrics. On a song that is literally titled “Yes I’m Changing”, he sings the line: “They say people never change, but that’s bullshit, they do.” The song is ostensibly about relationships, but Parker notes a number of ways in which he’s been shaped by time and experience, including the embracing of more ways of making sounds and detaching from the stigmas of certain instruments. “I can just hear the sounds for what they are and what they mean to me,” he says.
There is also the decision to let the lyrics stand out like never before on a Tame Impala album, a conscious effort by Parker not to bury words in sound. “I could feel strongly about my lyrics, but I’ve never been an exhibitionist kind of person, so I’ve never been easily able to stand up and sing a song to people with lyrics I’ve written. I feel like I’m bearing too much; I feel too exposed. It’s that feeling of being exposed. I’ve hated feeling exposed in the past, so I’ll cover the lyrics in reverb — put this echo on everything else so you can just make out the bones of it.
“It’s that fear of being judged,” Parker says, “but I think with this album, I just had to force myself. I had to remind myself that I would regret not putting myself out there if I didn’t. On the last album, I was like, ‘Aw man, I wish I put the lyrics just a little bit louder, so you can hear them.’ Because I was proud, I’m always proud of my lyrics. So I just had to force myself, to remind myself if I buried them or if I didn’t say what I wanted to say boldly, that I’d regret it.”
Parker’s shifting attitude doesn’t only pertain to his views on how music should be made, but also to who is making music. He speaks of identifying less with indie rock types he previously thought were keeping it real and more with pop artists whom he has met and discovered a similar drive for creation. “It just makes you rearrange how you view music and the personalities that are associated with those types of music,” he says.
Maybe it is fitting that Parker doesn’t fit in with either camp these days, walking the line between the alternative and mainstream worlds. Regardless, he remains grounded about the realities of the music industry. Although there was talk of dropping Currents on the fly back in April, Parker never really believed that was a possibility. And while he admits that some of the coverage of Tame Impala has overblown the project’s shift in sound, he remains unsurprised by people’s tendency to grab the low-hanging fruit when talking about his music.
“That kind of thing would’ve surprised me five years ago,” Parker says, “but these days it doesn’t because people like to turn that kind of thing into a conversation. It’s something to behold, you know, when in actual fact it’s natural for people to want to try different things. It’s a total music, pop culture, historical construct that someone should have this one type of music they make forever. For me, it’s more natural for people to try something new rather than stick with one thing forever.
“There are two kinds of joy,” Parker says of making music, “but they’re completely unrelated. One of them you’re doing for yourself, and the other you’re doing for other people. When I’m recording a song, just freshly thought of the melody, and I’m recording this section of music that I’m really excited about — that part, I’m doing for me, 100 percent. And then everything that comes after that is for other people, for a fan or a listener. The releasing part of it is for other people. And if I ever witness someone that really gets into it, or it means something to them, or it enriches their life — to be pretentious — then that’s a completely different kind of joy that’s equally and potentially greater. It’s a greater fulfillment to know that it’s affected someone else in a positive way.”
Parker speaks on this subject with the confidence of someone who is more and more certain about his place in the music world, saying with authority that “melodies don’t necessarily belong to any genre. It’s just the production that guides it, that dictates everything.” Tame Impala’s music has thus far supported the fact that Parker should believe in himself, as his decisions have found approval among both fans and critics. Even if it might never be in Parker’s nature to look around and admit that he deserves this success, he doesn’t need to. We can do that for him.
Portraits by Philip Cosores. Live photography by Robert Altman. Artwork by Steven Fiche.