Kevin Parker probably appreciates that his new album, Lonerism, received nine out of ten reviews by Pitchfork and NME. He may have even cracked a smile when he learned The Guardian gave it a perfect five stars. But you'd likely make his Christmas card list by just trying to describe Tame Impala's music without using the word "psychedelia" or referencing the '60s.
There are traces of the music he grew up with: The Magical Mystery Tour, the Beach Boys circa 1966 to 1971, Supertramp, the Shadows, and his most recent obsession, Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, A True Star. But what you think you hear is not what Parker hears.
"On this particular album I didn't really think it had any of the '60s in it, any sounds I think of from that era, like drums," Parker says via Skype, on the eve of a lengthy intercontinental tour. "But it has '70s-type textures that are treated in a way that people do it today. I feel like what I make is electronic music because of the computer programs I use to make it."
On the surface, Tame Impala's breakout debut album, 2010's Innerspeaker, felt like a straight-up throwback to LSD-fuelled psych rock and the free-form noodling of prog. Dig deeper, and you start to hear the heaping layers of synthesizers at play on tracks like "Make Up Your Mind" and "Runway Houses City Clouds" that reveal the modernity of the music.
Parker's girlfriend Melody Prochet, who just released her debut under the name Melody's Echo Chamber (which he produced), feels Tame Impala's craft is misconstrued as revivalism, despite the innovative techniques being applied.
"We're both fans of drum sounds from older bands like Can, Silver Apples, Led Zeppelin and Neu!," she says. "We probably try to make it sound this way 'cause we love it. I understand why he doesn't hear it; the way he's recording is so modern. He's not a revivalist trying to do everything as they used to. We've plugged our guitars directly in the desk and used Ableton, some midi keyboards and samplers, so it's definitely not intentional."
"With Innerspeaker I was trying to do these hypnotic '60s grooves," Parker says, "but it was so hypnotic and repetitive that they sounded like they were sampled. It was making electronic sampled music but using real instruments to do it. The whole point of a synthesizer is having a blank canvas so that you can completely fuck with everything. You can go to really cosmic places quite easily. So with this one, it was more about making more progressive songs and not caring about what type of genre it was."
While it's still undeniably rooted in rock'n'roll, Lonerism is, for the lack of a better term, some next-level shit. Have a listen to their debut EP from 2008 and by comparison, Lonerism is the equivalent of upgrading from VHS to Blu-Ray, or 2D to 3D.
Tame Impala keyboardist Jay Watson, who splits his time playing in the equally psychedelic Pond, feels Parker became fearless making the new album.
"It's not afraid to be bold or experimental, pop or epic," he says. "It's less subtle, which is good for me. I hate when bands make beige, middle of the road music. I guess you can say Lonerism is the war on beige music."
Based out of Perth, Australia, Tame Impala began in 2007 when Parker decided to change the name of his band the Dee Dee Dums ("a Kyuss-like, really riff-heavy, stoner rock" says Watson, one of their biggest fans) after the departure of a couple members. He turned it into a solo studio project with live support coming from bassist and long-time best friend Dominic Simper, then drummer Jay Watson and eventually guitarist/keyboardist Nick Allbrook. (Julien Barbagallo has since been added on drums.)
Perth's tight-knit musical community gave its musicians the freedom to moonlight creatively. Though Parker is the brainchild behind Tame Impala, he has also been a occasional member of Pond (with Watson and Allbrook) and Mink Mussel Creek (with Allbrook), while collaborating with Modular label-mates Canyons.
"We're a gang," explains Watson. "We've been making music together as ten bands since 2005. We've known each other for long enough. When people get into music and start a new band, they find new people to work with. But we just changed our bands so they weren't shitty anymore. In ten years time, we'll still be in bands together, but it will sound completely different. Tame Impala will likely be a dance thing and Pond will likely be a Black Flag, punk rock band. I'm kidding, but that's probably what will happen [laughs]."
After creating some national buzz, Tame Impala signed to Modular Recordings, the Australian label that launched the careers of the Avalanches, Wolfmother and Cut Copy. Parker, who was working odd jobs and in school at the time, says he was on his way to write an astronomy exam when he got the offer from the label. He skipped the exam and went home to bask in the glory of being a signed band.
The band wasted no time releasing their debut self-titled EP, which was received strongly by national press, helping them earn supporting slots on tours with Aussie legends You Am I, the Black Keys, Yeasayer and MGMT. Although a trip to the UK to cut a single with cult favourite engineer Liam Watson at his Toe Rag Studios spread the word around London, it wasn't until the release of their first full-length that the entire world came knocking.
Innerspeaker arrived in May 2010 to rave reviews. The album put the band on the map, allowing them to embark on two headline North American tours and eventually go on to win Album of the Year in Australia at the Rolling Stone Awards.
Almost immediately, Parker grew a solid fan base full of gearheads passionate about everything from the kind of mics he uses to the set-up of his pedal board. He has the makings of a cult music icon, especially considering his growing reputation for preferring isolation. As a revered frontman, the entire spotlight shines on him, but Watson says he and the rest of the band don't mind.
"I'm not too fussed that I'm not the psychedelic messiah," Watson laughs, noting that's how Parker's fans see him. "It's funny how when you're younger you want to be in a big, successful band, but then the bigger and more successful the band gets, things become weirder and less casual. I like staying on this side of things."
Despite having called the album Lonerism, Parker is clearly not a tormented rock genius in the vein of Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson. Spend some time with the 26-year-old and you'll find a guy who's just in love with his job. He doesn't come off as reclusive or unapproachable. He's friendly, relatable and quite vivid in detailing his musicality with a relaxed, beach bum poise.
"The recording process is a result of me wanting to make an album about being alone," Parker says. "Making music is all about forgetting about everything around you. It's about doing the craziest shit you can imagine, and then waiting until later on to see if you can play it to the rest of the world or not. The name of the album has nothing to do with the recording method, it's just kind of a coincidence. I grew up that way and recording music is just one of the things I do when I alone.
"Before Tame Impala, it worked much more like normal bands. I still have other bands with my friends, which is where I get my collaborative music fix. Most of the other bands we have are diplomatic, just a group of friends making music together. I guess, in a way, Tame Impala is a bit of an anomaly compared to the rest."
Parker says he doesn't hole himself away from the rest of the band when he's composing the music. Watson brought some ideas to the table and received co-writing credits on "Elephant" and "Apocalypse Dreams." According to Watson, there were even more ideas but Parker politely dismissed them as "rubbish."
Though it's not a democracy, Parker says, "They're my best friends, so if I'm ever uncertain I know I can go to them and get an honest opinion. They're the best musicians I know, and they're also the people whose musical opinion I respect most. So I can go to them and ask if something's too cheesy or too cliché or too boneheaded. Sometimes it's a hazy line between what is totally bad-ass and what is totally lame. They will be honest. They are the people that keep me from going crazy."
But Lonerism presented Parker with far more of a challenge than he'd encountered previously. He's said the album nearly drove him mad, and if you ask him to explain why, you quickly understand how such a thing could happen.
"I was constantly trying to make the album better," he says with amusement. "I keep working until someone tells me to stop. I would keep working on songs forever if I were allowed to, which is deadly because it would send you insane. For me it's about the original form, the first splurt that just sort of came out ― I'm obsessed with that. So for the next two years, until the album comes out, I'm paranoid that I'll ruin this really sacred expression that came out first.
"Doing a song is weird. If I know I have another year, I know I won't bother thinking about lyrics until a week before mixing," he continues. "I will think about almost nothing for two years, and then a week, even sometimes an hour before it gets mixed I will record the vocals. I think I just procrastinate because I worry if I do it now, I might think of something a whole lot more inspired down the road, so I wait until an hour before it's due, that I have to fucking do it now or I won't have it when it gets mixed." (The mixer in question was the incomparable Dave Fridmann, who mixed both Innerspeaker and Lonerism.)
In the midst of Lonerism, Parker was also producing the Melody's Echo Chamber album, which meant working in both Perth and Paris, where his girlfriend Prochet is based. Maybe it was because of their relationship or maybe it's just that he didn't have to stress over deadlines, but Parker lights up thinking about his role as a producer for someone else.
"It was great, because I didn't have to think in any kind of artistic way. It was just me turning the knobs and making all the sounds," he says with delight. "For me, working alone is being able to express, which is the artistic part. The scientific part is trying to find a cool drum sound or making a really fucked up sounding guitar. That part doesn't require any solitude, it's just me having fun. It was really easy and fulfilling for me to just be the hands. Tame Impala doesn't rely on anyone else to do it, so for me it's just part of what I do. I don't really know what a producer does, except for what I did on the Melody's Echo Chamber album."
Prochet begs to differ. "Oh yeah, he's really modest," she says. "He totally sculpted the sound and the record with his wizard hands. I directed him a lot 'cause I know exactly how I want my music to sound, but what he achieved is definitely what I was dreaming to find. It's weird because it was so natural, spontaneous and organic.
"He's a sound wizard. The magic is in his hands and the way he thinks about the music. He knows exactly what he's doing," she adds. "He's the easiest person to work with and I had fun all the time. He's also really lazy though. We'd just record one thing a day and then he'd spend hours alone in his studio drawing patterns on his oscilloscope with sound waves."