The mastermind behind the Perth, Australia Psych band basically only thinks about drum sounds
New York City and Perth, Australia are directly opposite each other in both time and geography. When I call Kevin Parker, main man of Perth psych rock band Tame Impala, from New York it is 9:30 a.m. for me and 9:30 p.m. for him. He informs me that, in fact, if he were to tunnel straight down through the Earth he would emerge on the other side just a little bit outside the city. “I liked that it was New York. It could have been out in the ocean somewhere,” he says. But that diametrically opposed time difference isn’t the only reason it took us several attempts for us to actually connect on the phone. He’s also just plain bad at the sort of thing.
“I’m just absolutely shocking with forms of communication such as mobile phones. In fact the phone I’ve been using at the moment is one our manager gave us, but I’ve lost the charger for that and it’s dead,” he apologizes. It’s not that he doesn’t like the phone, it’s just that he isn’t very good at keeping track of things like when he has an interview scheduled. After talking to him a bit about Tame Impala’s new album Lonerism, it’s hard not to infer that this is because his focus is almost entirely on his music, specifically the production aspects.
“For me, that takes up ninety eight percent of the time working on it. I’ll record most of a song in six to ten hours and then spend the next two years adjusting the amount of roominess in the snare drum sound to make it sound extra groovy. I’m just perpetually feeling like I’m about to tweak this sound and then it will sound like the grooviest thing that has ever been made. But, of course, you never get there. You just spend as many years as it takes for someone to say, ‘Okay, you’ve got to release this album,’” the songwriter and producer relates.
Parker readily admits this approach has impaired his ability to do, well, anything else. “I’m a sad state of affairs these days. Since I don’t have to go to university anymore, I’ve developed a one-track mind for all kinds of making music. It’s probably irreversible at this point,” he laments, not really sounding very sorry.
Living in such a state of obsession, it’s easy to see how a man could miss a phone date here and there. He wrote the album, he says, alone at home subsisting on toast with Vegemite and avocado, utterly absorbed by the collection of musical equipment he’s amassed since the success of 2010′s debut Innerspeaker.
That first full-length was remarkable for its sonics, which created a strange floating sensation. The introspective psych tracks seemed to hover in the air. There’s a similar anti-gravity effect on Lonerism, but this time the songs are bigger, crunchier, like huge flying beasts or impossibly ornate airships drifting through the clouds. The difference, Parker says, is that he has vastly improved his arsenal between releases.
“The first time around I used basically the same thing I’ve been using since I was sixteen, which is like this eight-track digital recorder. I borrowed a lot of equipment and did it in the same manner that I was used to, you know, the way I’d been recording demos and stuff. I didn’t really know what I was doing and it sounded kind of thin. I love that thin, kind of lo-fi sound, but this time I started accumulating equipment and stuff of my own and just making things sound really sort of explosive and getting into the sonics of it and paying attention so that the music could have this body to it,” he says of making to Lonerism.
The one thing that made all the difference was using the production program Ableton. “It’s what DJs use. They use it to loop things and put massive effects and just totally mess with sounds. And I just completely fell in love. It changed my whole way of looking at recording music,” he gushes.
He wouldn’t dream of looking back or messing around with analog recording. “For me the infinite possibilities that arise out of being able to just totally manipulate everything trumps sonic purity,” is his categorical statement.
Never ones to shy away from new realms of discovery, his psychedelic rock forebears would no doubt approve of this wholehearted embrace of digital technology, especially considering how the brilliant colors on the album so accurately mimic psychedelic cartoons from the ’60s and ’70s. The super-bright, warm sound is hard to describe. Hyper-vintage, maybe? Part of the vintage sound comes from the vintage instruments Parker uses, such as his drum kit and the old analog synthesizer he picked up on eBay, but it’s processing their sound through state of the art production tools that makes the album what it is.
The process may have been laborious, but it was manifestly worth it. And all the other members of have their own bands anyway, so it’s not as though they’re standing around waiting for him. “In that sense, it’s not really a band,” says the multi-instrumentalist.
Band or no, perhaps the most refreshing thing about Tame Impala is that it is a deliberately psychedelic project. Parker doesn’t shy away from the term in the slightest. “We as friends and as a band, we use the word psychedelic all the time. It’s just a sound and a feeling. You can listen to a piece of music or, not even music, just a sound or seeing something, and it affects your brain in a way that’s psychedelic. If it makes you feel a certain way. If it makes you feel dizzy or it just sort of makes you have a different experience, whether it’s the slightest thing or complete and utter brain collapse,” explains Parker.
Still, Lonerism isn’t a record about getting lost in your head, even if it might facilitate that. Parker’s disembodied vocals may seem to reach our ears from another plane, but the album is lyrically focused on real relationships between people. Owing in part to Parker’s new-found love of Serge Gainsbourg’s narrative concept albums, Tame Impala’s sophomore album has a bit of a drama to it. “It’s just the individual tales of someone discovering the outside world and discovering other people. That’s the thing, it’s called Lonerism but it’s really about other people and connections with other people and lack thereof,” he reflects.
Of course, Tame Impala has spent a lot of time over the last two years on the road, and Parker, for all his obsession, isn’t really a hermit, though he does admit to enjoying the odd solo city walk. Still, it’s comforting to know while listening that, after all that time Parker spent wrapped up in the sonics, the sonics are still wrapped around a human story.