Kevin Parker is a songwriter, musician and singer best known for his work as Tame Impala. He has also produced and collaborated extensively with Pond, Rihanna, Travis Scott, Lady Gaga and The Flaming Lips. Tame Impala’s fourth studio album ‘The Slow Rush’ is out on Feb 14th.
Christopher Barker: I saw a video of your studio last night on Instagram and caught those sweet Hello Kitty monitors.
Kevin Parker: They’re great. Have you seen them in action? Coloured water sprays up depending on what’s being played.
What sounds best on them?
I’m keen to talk about the concept of time with you, because it seems to come up on the new album quite a bit. Where did your interest in time come from?
It's something I've always been intrigued by. I love anything universal and existential and scientific where human life combines with space. I don't even know what category that is, I'm really bad at describing that kind of thing. But I've been really moved by the way we as humans respond to a concept like time.
At various points of my life I’ve had visions of exactly where I’m at in life. Most of the time we don’t know where the fuck we are, we just go around and do our thing, but every now and again we see ourselves as a dot on a line with a beginning and an end. And for whatever reason, maybe it’s where I’m at in my life or the music I’m making, but at the moment it’s made me think about the past and future and everything in between. These songs [The Slow Rush] are about those little dots; times where shit just really hits you like a tonne of bricks and you can see the past and future.
I’d say we’ve been conditioned to perceive time in a non-linear sense now too. When you consider how algorithms present important information or memories, it's no longer in a chronological order but in the order that's most relevant to you.
Oh yeah, that stuff freaks me out.
When you're performing songs that were written in a different time of your life and revisiting those emotions, does it fuck with your head?
Performing songs is completely different to writing the lyrics or recording them. I don’t feel like they’re songs about me when I’m playing them. I just feel like I’m delivering the music back to the audience, or that the song in the audience is for them, as it should be. I’m lucky not to be digging up old demons every time I perform a song, it would be incredibly unsustainable.
I was talking about this with Adam Bainbridge (aka Kindness) recently. He described each album as 100,000 decisions you make on what a record should sound like where you need to have complete confidence in every single one. And it made me think that this time you're in now — you and I sitting here and talking about this — is something like a dissertation. Does the process make you second-guess yourself?
I’ve definitely had interviews where someone has asked me about something that's made me think of some stupid detail, so that’s dangerous. But the longer time passes between me making one of those decisions and having to think or talk about it, the more I see it as a kind of... cute?
Like, let’s say some really stupid basic example, like I fucked up a note on a song. There’s an out-of-tune note on the song and I’ve just finished it and signed it off. Then it’s been sent to mastering and the next day I hear it's out of tune so I want to kill myself. But a year later it’s innocent, kind of naïve and it sounds like someone else. So in a way me talking about it now is kind of therapy because I get to say ‘sorry everyone, I sung the wrong note!’.
But you’ve had instances of just plugging your guitar directly into a headphone jack on the laptop when you think of something, right? Surely that’s part of the experience of documenting an unpolished moment in time.
Totally. Which is why I think it's a total misconception that I'm some sort of sonic perfectionist. Most of my recording methods are terrible. I have friends who are really high-end studio operators in New York who hide under a cushion when I tell him how I do it, but that’s where I have the most fun.
Let’s go into the new album. Is there a really pivotal, non-musical moment that made a big contribution to The Slow Rush?
Getting married or deciding to get married was a big one, not that any of the songs are about that specifically. Going back to those life events that make you feel like a dot on a line, getting married was a blockage for me because I saw that as something adults do, and I didn’t want to admit I was an adult. Being a touring musician, particularly a successful touring musician, means you can behave like a four year old; you’re encouraged not to think responsibly. So once I decided to propose, it was an amazing feeling. It just made me think about everything that has been and everything that will be. A great source of inspiration.
In terms of where you’re at right now and the level of success you find yourself in, have your insecurities changed much?
I'm better at handling them or not letting them get the better of me. For example, even with this album rollout I'm not letting myself fall into the same stupid fucking psychological traps that I have every other time, where it's like when someone compliments me, I'll believe them and not believe them. Someone tells me they like a song, and I will just think they’re lying to be nice, you know? And also just realising that the music will be what it will be and my output will be what it will be whether there are flaws in it or not. You know what I mean? Like just not sweating the small stuff, which used to just really get on top of me and now I'm just telling myself I won't let it.
A hundred years can race by, but you look at the clock and it’s not even moving.Kevin Parker
I'm interested in what the visual aspect of Tame Impala looks like for you and what your aspirations and influences are in that context.
It’s pretty much exclusively the live thing because I don’t want the listeners visual response to the record to be put in a box. I love to think of everyone listening to the songs as just in their own world, you know? If someone is listening to their favourite song on their headphones when they're going home from school on the bus, I want that to be their world, and what that song means to them.
I suppose the dilemma is that you are forced to design an environment for the audience to experience the music. Like you said, you've set the boundaries for them in that CD or vinyl cover or whatever it is before they've even turned on the first song. So even though you're saying you're not massively invested in it, it's so important. It's like the first thing.
I don't want the listener to think that the song is a story about what's going on in the film clip or album cover. My most powerful musical listening experiences were like… when I think of some of my favourite songs I think of my bedroom wall and what my little stereo system and my little CD player looked like. I love to think about what those little things look like for everyone else. But the live thing is different because it’s an experience, and I want to make it as immersive as possible.
You collaborated with [photographer] Neil Krug for the album art. Can you tell me a little about the approach?
There’s a little town in Namibia that I found on the internet, I can’t remember how. We started with the idea of an abandoned place as the cover. I kind of got obsessed with abandoned places, I think because there is an abandoned power station down the road from my house in Freo and it’s a great source of inspiration.
So I found this ghost town in Namibia, an old mining town in the desert and it’s so windy that there are these crazy sand formations in the room. So I called up Neil and was like ‘we’ve got to go there and get the cover’. So we booked some flights and went.
Instinct is just a word... a genealogy which isn’t really what we use to make decisions.Kevin Parker
Not sure, I remember just wanting it to be red.
Maybe the Hello Kitty monitors were telling you something?
Very possible. Actually, it’s funny because Neil asked me ‘have you thought about a colour for the walls?’ And I said red and he was like ‘that’s really weird, I was going to suggest red'. Maybe down the line someone will ask why it’s red expecting some psychological reason, so I’m going to have to work out why we chose that colour.
The cover for Currents was based on the concept of vortex shredding. Is there a similar neurology behind this one?
When you look at this image or any of the rooms in this town you can’t really tell if it’s something that’s happened momentarily or really fast. The sand is flowing in the windows like liquid, but it's occurred over hundreds of years. That was one of the sentiments I wanted to give on the album was of the different ways humans process time. A hundred years can race by, but you look at the clock and it’s not even moving.
We've been talking about restlessness a lot which I think everyone experiences in varying degrees and capacities throughout their life; you in particular as someone who wears many different caps. How do you deal with your desire to 'do more'?
Just do more, I guess? I mean, I think of music all the time and, more specifically, as something that I do. I don’t know if restless is the perfect word, I’d probably pick agitated. But I find when I’m in a hurry a lot I start thinking of music. Even being on this press trip I’ve thought of more songs then when I started working on the album; I've probably written seven songs in the past two weeks just going from hotel to hotel and photoshoot to photoshoot. It's also because I’m out of my comfort zone which I find very inspirational, melodically speaking. When I’m super calm I don’t really think of music, when I’m agitated or restless, I just get a loop of a song around my head which enables me to keep still. So I’m actually pretty good at just sitting in a room.
What about burnout?
I’ve got pretty good stamina, but I just do the most mindless shit I can find. I play video games.
What are you playing?
I just got a Nintendo Switch but I have a PS4 at home. I do the old school thing of just going to the video game shop and asking the person there what’s good. But I like the open world stuff where you just go exploring. I don’t really play missions.
That was the best thing about Red Dead Redemption II, how much hanging out there is in it.
That’s the first fucking thing I’m going to buy when I get home because I heard how addicted everyone else got on it when I was recording the album. So when I get home, that’s what I’m going to do.
I'm interested in how you've learned to trust your instincts. You’ve said before that you will love a song when you write it then wake up the next day and hate it, and then oscillate between those two emotions right until the release. How do you decide which is the right feeling to go with?
I haven’t learnt yet — that’s the simplest answer. I’m learning all the time. Maybe I’ve learnt to rely on my instincts and to not need to be totally satisfied straight away and let the course of everything happening happen. And it’s also this thing where making a final decision at the end of the day makes it interesting. 'Cause you know what, not every decision I’ve made has been instinctive. But it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll regret it any more or less because your instincts aren’t always right.
But going back to that point of making 100,000 decisions a day, you have to own your instincts a bit. I don’t know how you trust your instincts and I don’t know how I trust mine. You just make decisions and then you get to live with them.
Instinct is just a word. The actual definition of instinct is a force of nature; a genealogy which isn’t really what we use to make decisions. Sure we make decisions based on instincts, but they’re being influenced by everything else and desires for this and that. It’s still desire. It’s just a different way of framing it.
The Slow Rush is out Feb 14th.