Sound Track web extra: Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker

In advance of Tame Impala’s sold-out Friday, Feb. 22 show at The Orange Peel, Xpress spoke to front man Kevin Parker. The Australian-based psychedelic/indie-rock band is his project — he sings and writes and plays all the parts on the studio recordings. We talked about Perth and Paris, digital distortion and really long plane rides.

Mountain Xpress: A lot of people work with analog distortion, but you do a lot more digital. How did you get into that?
Kevin Parker: I guess it’s just because that was the only thing I had. I was never given the opportunity to compare what it sounded like when an analog piece was distorting and when a digital piece was distorting. For me it was like, this is all I’ve got. If I keep turning this up, it sounds like something breaking. It sounds like something behaving how it’s not meant to. Which is really what distortion is. Like tape distortion, back in the day when they first discovered it. People who were using it, that was their only medium. That sounded terrible to them. That sounded totally rogue and unpleasant. And now people talk about tape distortion being a really wholesome thing and digital distortion being really terrible. But really it’s the same thing. And in 50 years there’s going to be some new way of recording, and digital will be wholesome and retro.

Since you go into the studio and record all of the parts yourself is it hard as an artist, when you translate that to a full band, to relinquish control?
No, because I’ve had my fix of unblemished self-expression. Once the recording is done, I’ve had my fill of doing everything myself. By the time it goes to the band, it’s taking on a new life. If I’m satisfied with the recording, then the only thing that I feel that I need to do with that song is bring it into a new form of being by playing it with my friends. So it’s really just exciting. It’s a new way of looking at the song. It’s a challenge. It’s a different thing.

I guess I have to battle myself. There is that urge to keep controlling it but really, it’s not doing any good to try and like, taskmaster everything. For the songs to sound right when they’re being played by the band, everyone’s got to be feeling it; everyone’s got to be enjoying it.

Either in the studio or when you’re translating songs to the full band, do you have in mind the audience that you’re playing for?
I think I’m only really imagining one person who would be listening to it and thinking it’s just the greatest thing ever. I lock onto this one person. I think of, in a way, myself when I was listening to music as a teenager. Not that I’m not in love with music anymore, but I just had such a romantic way of listening to music when I was a teenager. For some reason your emotions are riding high and everything is magical. I remember how much music was this massive part of my life. Music gave my life meaning. [So] I imagine someone like that, whether it’s a girl or a boy. I imagine the person who’s going to benefit from it the most. That kind of fuels my way of how I think about it.

Obviously, sometimes I think about critics or whatever. As soon as I start thinking about that, I just walk away from the song. I go and take a break. I hate thinking about people who are going to analyze the music. It’s the least creative mindset to be in.

Sure. Often when people are listening to music that way, it’s because it’s a job rather than for the sheer joy of experiencing a song.
Totally. I respect that that’s probably just their way of getting meaning out of music. But that whole sort of breaking down music into its cultural commentary and really intellectual stuff. For me, it’s not the way I like to think of music when I’m creating it.

What do you think of remixes? I know you’ve done some, and other people have remixed your music. But that’s another way of looking at a song.
It’s another way of the song having a new life. I used to be kind of skeptical about remixes, and sometimes I still am. There can be really polar opposite perspectives on remixes. Some people, the remix really hoping to give the song a new life, trying to present it in a new genre or whatever, because they genuinely love the song and want to do something new with it. And then there are people who’ve got $1,000 to do that, so they spend a couple of hours chopping up the tracks on their computer. You can totally hear when it’s either of those cases.

I was actually bumped into Erol Alkan last night, actually. We were chatting about remixes. He does really awesome ones.

What was his perspective? He must be in favor of them.
Oh yeah. He has a really good musical ear. He’s an electronic producer and he gets a massive kick out of doing remixes. It shows because he does really awesome ones.

Have you ever heard a remix of one of your songs that gave you some new understanding of the music, or changed your relationship to the song?
In a way, yeah. Going back to Erol Alkan again, even before her remixed it, I was thinking this song was probably going to … I was trying to give it an electronic, hypnotic feel to it, when I was recording it. Because I had a drum kit and guitars and stuff, it was never going to sound like a dance track. I remember thinking that if someone ever remixed this, it was probably going to sound like really cool. And that’s exactly what he did — he made it this club track, basically. Which seemed to be an environment that it suited really perfectly.

[Alkan remixed “Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?” from Innerspeak. Listen to it here.]

I understand that when you were working on Lonerism, you did it part in Perth and part in Paris. So, did the two different locations affect the album differently?
Yeah, subtly. Well, I guess completely (laughs). Most of the songs I started in Perth, and I recorded most of the drums in Perth. I guess the big thing with drums is in Perth, everyone has their own house and you can just set up a drum kit in the living room or bedroom or whatever. But in Paris I totally couldn’t do that. It was just an apartment. The one song I started recording in Paris was “Be Above It,” the first track. It isn’t a real drum track, it’s juts a sample that I took from a song on the first album, actually. I had no way of recording drums. I just had to find some other way of putting a rhythm track on it. I ended up just taking a drum loop from another song, so that song ended up sounding really different from the rest of them. I like to think it sounds kind of electronic. Whatever other people hear, I don’t know. It had this completely different feel. It’s the song that’s least like a normal song structure. It’s just a drum and vocal loop going round and round and things coming in and coming out.

Why did you choose Paris?
Well, I moved there to spend time with my girlfriend [Melody Pinochet, of Melody’s Echo Chamber, with whom Parker records]. It just happened to be where she was living. It could have been anywhere — I never really chose it.

It kind of chose you.

Do you speak French at all?
A little bit. I’m forgetting more and more every day. I like to think I was pretty good at my peak (laughs). Until you find yourself talking to young people in a pub with the music blaring. They you’re like, aw fuck, I’m dead in the water.

It’s such an incredibly inspiring city, because of all the art that’s happened. There are so many layers of art and history, it seems like that would have to seep into any creative project you take on.
There is this kind of dark side to the city, that being that a lot of people are saying the whole city is going to shit. There are just so many people and almost everyone there is poor now. There are homeless people on every single street corner. It can be really depressing. It’s this amazing, beautiful and inspiring city until you start to sort of scratch the surface of the headspace of everyone around. And then you realize everyone is really kind of depressed. No one’s nice to each other on the metro. Everyone’s being a dick to each other (laughs).

So do you identify yourself or Tame Impala as a Perth band? Does that send of place feel important, or not so much since you had international recognition early on?
Strangely enough, I think it’s getting more and more a thing. I never used to be patriotic in any way about the city I was from. I used to have the cultural cringe. I’d be like, aw, Perth, whatever. It doesn’t really fucking matter where you’re from. In a way that’s true. People from outside of Australia have always said, “yeah, they’re this psychedelic, summery, washed out band from Perth.” Which makes sense, because Perth is a beachy city. But at the same time, there are so many bands from Perth that are making so many different kinds of music that aren’t summery or beachy in any way. There are goth bands and avant-noise-rock bands. There’s everything. It just sort of happens that we play that sort of music.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve grown more and more attached to Perth. Being proud about being from Perth and realizing why I do what I do, whatever that is.

Do think that being able to spend large periods of time away from Perth has given you that connection to it?
Totally. Totally. It’s funny, I think everyone gets that. Pretty much everyone in Perth is always talking about getting out of Perth. It’s the hot topic. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m getting the fuck out of Perth. I’m sick of it.” Because there’s nothing going on here and it’s boring or whatever. It’s funny how everyone spends a year away and then they end up coming back because they realized what they love about Perth is that it’s so fucking laid back. You know? They think Perth is just a normal city, but boring. But you spend a week in any other city and you realize how frantic, how fast-paced the rest of the world moves. Everyone who’s gotten used to living in Perth realizes they’ve become accustomed to moving at that relaxed pace. Perth is blessed with that, for whatever reason.

I’ve been wondering, since you’ve been flying back and forth between the U.S. and Australia a lot, what do you do with all that time on the plane?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. It’s this blank time that seems to get swallowed up somehow. Most planes have the TVs in the back of the seats these days. Which chews up a good hour. After awhile you sort of watch one movie and get sick of watching stuff. Actually, I do love to just sit and think and stare blankly at the seat in front of me. For me it’s kind of like sitting on the toilet. It’s this absolute nothing time where you can just sit there. No one’s about to run in the room and grab you and pull you. There’s no obligation to be doing anything else. That’s what it is: there’s no obligation. There’s no interruption. You know you’re going to be sitting there for ten hours with no one talking to you and you can just explore the depths of your consciousness. As wanky as that sounds. If I’m trying to think about — it can be something not even that deep and spiritual. It can be something to do with the live show. Whatever. Yeah, it’s just like sitting on the toilet.

I read that you had written some songs for Kylie Minogue, and I wondered if anything had panned out with that.
Nothing at all, no. The thing is, they were never written for Kylie Minogue. I told someone about these sort of pop songs I’d written awhile ago, which I was writing at the same time as the album, but they were just too pop. I love writing pop songs, and sometimes they just come to me. I realize I could never make this a Tame Impala song because it’s too cheesy. I love it all the same, but it could never be a Tame Impala song. So I just record a quick demo before I forget it and lock it away in a vat somewhere. The vat has slowly filled up. I was telling some interviewer about it awhile ago. I mentioned a name like Kylie Minogue or something. I’d love to get a pop singer to sing them so I don’t have to sing them. From that it became this thing like I’ve written an album for Kylie Minogue — it’s not true. I could so easily sing them myself, but I feel like it would be so much more satisfying to hear someone else sing them. Because if I sing something, I end up covering the whole thing in delay and reverb and effects because I can’t bear the sound of my own voice. If it was someone else’s voice, I could really push them up in the mix and make it a real pop song.

Photos from the band’s website and Facebook.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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