Tame Impala: Swimming With the Currents

On his new album, Kevin Parker changes his sound and breaks up with a part of his personality

Music Features Tame Impala

The most obvious theme on Tame Impala’s new album, Currents, is transition. Not only has leader Kevin Parker entirely rethought his band’s sound, but the word “change” appears in four of the album’s 13 songs, along with phrases like “moving on” and “letting go.” But in the midst of creating an album all about change, Parker welcomed the chance to change up his own routine and work on three of the tracks on Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album. When asked if it was a relief to get away from the intense introspection of writing, producing, recording, engineering and playing all of the instruments himself on an album about personal transition to get into a collaborative environment, his relief is palpable as he says, “Yeah, absolutely!”

Paste Magazine: Not only did you write and record with Mark Ronson while working on Currents, but you also played Glastonbury and you’re joining him for all of his Australian dates, one of which includes a festival that Tame Impala are playing. How do you divide your anticipation for something like that?
Kevin Parker: Good question. I guess I just take it one step at a time. I mean, I’m a terrible planner. I’m terrible at actually sitting down and learning things. Even with Mark, I played guitar on the album but I’d forgotten what I’d been playing. It was on the same day as my rehearsal that I went and learned the chords and got to know the lyrics properly again.

Paste: It’s interesting that your name would be on two strikingly different projects within the span of a few months.
Parker: If you’re someone who makes music and you’re open-minded about what you can create, then there’s no reason why you can’t think of a bunch of completely different songs a day, or imagine playing in different bands every day. The way that I kind of cut my teeth in music was playing with a whole bunch of guys in Perth; the Pond guys, the Tame Impala guys. We’ve always had a bunch of different side projects on the go that were all kind of different genres, and we would often play gigs in Perth with one or more of the bands that we’re in on the same night. So like the first band that would be on might have been Tame Impala, and then I’d get off playing the guitar in this slack rock band and then play the drums for some other band. It’s something that we kind of grew up doing, which is embracing as many different things as we can, just for the fun of it, for the experience of doing it. Because the experience of doing it was more satisfying than just having this one thing we stick with and that being our musical identity.

Paste: Your musical identity definitely seems to be something you’re putting forth with Currents, although it’s a decidedly different musical identity than with previous Tame Impala albums.
Parker: Yeah, but at the same time I made it, I was just thinking it was the most sporadic, genre-flipping kind of thing. So it’s good that you say that.

Paste: It may flip genres and moods, but it feels like there’s a narrative through-line. Whenever I think that there’s something conceptual going on though, I have to ask. So is there?
Parker: Yeah, definitely. For me, personally, making albums, that’s something that’s become more and more important for me. Especially when I ask myself, “Why make an album? Why make an album and not just a bunch of songs?” The world we’re in, a group of songs is just as important as something called an album. Like, “Why should albums exist these days?” is what I ask myself. And I guess the way for me to answer that question is to have this complete picture, like with a whole narrative that fits together. For me that’s the way that I justify making an album and not just making a song and putting it out soon as I finish it, putting it on fucking SoundCloud or whatever. The way that I justify making an album is that it is cohesive and that it has this underlying story or theme to it that holds it all together.

Paste: Okay, so let me try to piece the narrative together: Boy loses girl on purpose, boy meets new girl, boy messes up and loses new girl and then thinks about getting back with the first girl. Am I anywhere close?
Parker: Well, I try to take the emphasis away from the romantic side of it, because as much as I sing about something that can be interpreted as a relationship starting or ending or whatever, if I sing about breaking up with someone, for me it’s equally about breaking up with yourself or breaking up with a part of your own personality. But generally the album is meant to have a consistent, ongoing theme of personal transition. It’s meant to be about someone that’s realizing they’re changing as a person in ways that they didn’t always want to or that they didn’t think they would change into. That’s what the title Currents was meant to mean, these unstoppable forces; the parts of you that are trying to change you.

Paste: There is that whole introspective notion of “breaking up with a part of yourself,” but listening to the album I just can’t help but think there is one person out there that would absolutely hate every song on here because it’s all about them getting dumped.
Parker: Do you mean like lots of people or literally one person? You mean my ex-girlfriend?

Paste: Well, when you hear a song like “Eventually,” with a refrain like “I know that I’ll be happier/and I know you will too, eventually” if that person it’s about hasn’t arrived at that happier place yet, then it must kill to listen to.
Parker: Yeah, that’s true. I guess that is something to wonder about. But I guess in the end, it’s not really the responsibility of the song or of the artist. I’m being cryptic here…But if I write a song, it can be applied to more than one time. For me it’s got to be a recurring thing that’s happened in my life. Because if it was just one time then I would assume that was the only time that someone would experience that and thus it wouldn’t really be relevant to anyone else. But it’s when it happens to me many times that it makes me realize, “Maybe this happens to everyone. Maybe it’s something that other people around the world can identify with.” So in the past times of my life, definitely, with a song like “Eventually,” it’s not necessarily saying that this is true, that you will necessarily feel better. It’s more the perspective of somebody that’s feeling that low, like the only way for the person to get through it is with this self-mantra. It’s more like something you convince yourself of. It’s that emotion of expecting there to be this light at the end of the tunnel. Whether there is or there isn’t is irrelevant. It’s about telling yourself that over and over as a way of getting through it.

Paste: We’ve been discussing lyrics and themes a lot, but I know you do everything else on this album, from playing all of the instruments to engineering and producing. How much of the time do you end up spending on lyrics anyway?
Parker: A lot! Lyrics are such a big part for me. I can never really divide between the times I’m spending on things though, like the times I’m doing the engineering, the times I’m writing, the times I’m recording and writing lyrics. For me it all happens at the same time. I could be sitting at the drums, literally playing the drum part to a song, listening back to the guide vocals and have an idea for the lyrics for the first line of the second verse, while I’m playing drums. Or I might think, “Oh, the bass guitar needs more distortion,” while I’m going for a walk, thinking of lyrics. It’s just the way I’ve grown up, making music on my own. All those things sort of exist as one. I’ve never really seen them as separate roles, as if you were a band or a studio producer.

Paste: I wasn’t looking for the exact breakdown, but that’s interesting. I had just realized we were spending a good deal of time discussing the lyrics, and that would have been silly if you just treated them as an afterthought. I find a number of the artists I speak with do approach the words that way. It kind of bothers me, to be honest. It feels like a cop-out.
Parker: Even for me it’s weird to hear that. But it’s so common for friends of mine who are in bands. And then they’ll go on a writing trip to Thailand or something and spend a week just writing. I’m like, “How can you just write a song and not be just absolutely itching to record?” It just confuses me that people can see all those things as individual processes.

Paste: Let’s talk about the timeframe of putting Currents together. How long did you end up spending from start to finish on it?
Parker: It was pretty much as soon as I finished Lonerism, but without knowing it. Because I’m always making songs but at the time I didn’t know I was making songs for the next album. The idea of putting an album together usually comes into consideration a little while after, when I’ve got 10 to 20 songs that I really like and that fit together. That’s when I start to think, “Oh, I’ll put them on an album.”

Paste: There was a video that you posted a little while ago of you working on the album. It’s like a sizzle reel of all the cool rooms in that place, and you drumming on the porch overlooking this vast and beautiful ocean…
Parker: A what reel?

Paste: A sizzle reel. You’ve never heard that phrase before?
Parker: No! Never!

Paste: It’s basically the highlights of something, like a movie trailer, but without narration, to get people psyched about something that’s coming up. I mean, that video was pretty much the definition of sizzle reel.
Parker: [Laughs] Wow, I’ve never heard that before! I can’t believe I’ve never heard that.

Paste: Anyway, was that video truly representative of your recording experience or was it not quite as cool as that? Because, really, that seems like an amazing place to spend months recording.
Parker: That house is where I recorded the whole of the first album, Innerspeaker. I was there for seven weeks. And this time I was only there for a week. I just recorded some drums and got some ideas. I didn’t really have a house or a studio at the time, so I just put everything in my car and drove down.

Paste: Whose house is it?
Parker: It’s an American guy who owns the house, and we just found it ages ago for the first album because we were looking for somewhere to record and I just told our manager that I wanted a cool shack by the beach, and she found that house. It’s just this house that families can rent out. But 20 years ago it used to be a recording studio and they used to have raves in this amphitheater area out in the back, and now it’s overgrown with vines and bushes or whatever, but they used to have raves there and a guy ODed and died, so they just suddenly pulled the plug. So for 20 years they just abandoned this rave area and one day I was walking down there and suddenly just found this caravan that said, “Drinks! Lemonade $2, Beer $4.” It was fucking weird. But it’s the most unbelievable house. It’s falling apart; when it rains the water just comes in and you have to cover all your gear with plastic.

Paste: And where exactly is this magical place?
Parker: It’s about four hours south of Perth. It doesn’t even have a town name. It’s near a bay which is called Injidup, which is this aboriginal area. It’s near Margaret River, basically.

Paste: Please tell me you have an anecdote about feeling this sort of doomed rave energy seeping into the recording!
Parker: I’d love to say that I was infused by the ghosts of the past ravers, but that’s not true. Unfortunately I’m not superstitious enough.

Paste: If not the ghost of a raver, then what do you think was your biggest inspiration for changing your sound so much? There’s that one line, “I can just hear them now: ‘How could you let us down?’” and it sounds like that’s one of those lines where you’re protecting yourself from people who might be criticizing this album.
Parker: I’m always inspired to make music. For me not to make music I would have to be anti-inspired. It’s just such an important part of my physical being, to be recording music and shedding off the emotions that I have that I can turn into music. For me it’s just like breathing. No, that sounds pretentious. It’s more like going to therapy. It’s kind of like I’m a musical mental person and I have to go to musical therapy, which for me is recording music. I never really need outside inspiration. Sorry if that sounds completely pretentious.

Paste: No, it doesn’t. I was just wondering if there was a eureka moment when you said, “This is the sound I want to go for!” I had come across a quote about you doing mushrooms and listening to the Bee Gees and being really affected by that. I think with Lonerism and “Elephant” especially, people thought that your next move would be to continue in more of a rock direction.
Parker: Well, that mushrooms quote was just taken way out of context. And I’m pretty disappointed with that publication for presenting that the way they did. Because what they chose not to include was that the mushrooms that we were on we practically took accidentally, because they were given to us. A fan gave us some chocolate bars, we were like, “Oh, sweet! Chocolate bars!” and as we were eating them we were in the back of our tour bus, with this guy from L.A. and he was like, “Ummm, do you realize that’s mushrooms?” and we were like, “Hey! What the fuck?!” Because they were these chocolate bars in the shape of a boombox, and we didn’t even realize. But, umm, we did keep eating them anyway! [Laughs]. We like chocolate, and we were like, “ah, fuck it, we’re halfway through it.” But that’s the kind of thing that I have to put up with these days. I told [the reporter] that story and then he turned it into us taking mushrooms intentionally and then I had this amazing epiphany that I was going to make disco music for the next album because I listened to the Bee Gees in the car. It wasn’t like that at all. I was just demonstrating the fact that music doesn’t necessarily have to be in the psychedelic genre to feel psychedelic. It’s all about state of mind. That’s all I was saying with that comment. And then he turned it into this fucking defining moment when I decided to start the next album, which fucking shits me when journalists do that, but that’s what they do.

Paste: Yeah, wait’ll you see what I do with that story about the 1995 rave ghost! I’m kidding.
Parker: [Laughs] Oh, I know, I just felt like I had to have a little rant about that, because I was just like, “Man! Really?!” I mean it was one thing to say it, but then all of these blogs jump on it and then all of a sudden the whole purpose of this album was us taking mushrooms and listening to the Bee Gees.

Paste: I don’t think the Bee Gees messed with listeners as much as this album does. There’s a bit of that going on, like in “Let It Happen” there’s that part that sounds like a skipping CD. Tell me about that trick and how you came to put that in there. Was that an homage to the fading era of the CDR or something?
Parker: Actually, I never thought of a CD skipping once when I was doing it. I’m not sure what I thought it sounded like, but I was just obsessed with that kind of thing, like any kind of glitch in a musical playback system. Records do it as well. But to answer your other question, I definitely do have a fetish for making people think something’s wrong in the playback. It’s all just ways of affecting people. For me, making a part of a song where it’s skipping in a way that the listener thinks is unintentional is the same thing as putting flanger on a guitar or making a song sound psychedelic or doing a chord change that makes people feel the same way. For me it’s all the same thing. It’s just to affect people, and for me, that’s the most important thing about making music, affecting people, maybe because I don’t have the social skills to affect people, socially. All those kinds of things are for me, just ways of moving people.

Paste: That song also has that one part, right before the glitch, that sounds like it should be on a Hooked on Classics album.
Parker: Hooked on Classics? What’s that?

Paste: Did those not come out in Australia? They were a series of well-known classical music compositions that were set to a disco beat, and I thought everybody’s mom in the whole world listened to them in their cars. But you’d never heard of them?
Parker: [Laughs] Wow! No way!

Paste: What is the ideal thing you want people to do to this music? Chill out with their headphones on? Dance? Get it on? Go jogging?
Parker: All of the above! All of the above at the same time! No, I’m joking. In the end, that’s what I don’t know. All I can do is hope that there is something that people actually do to these songs.

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