Interview: Tame Impala
Published on June 20th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
You wait years for a dreamy, melodic, otherworldly, fuzzy, hallucinatory pop band to make serious waves on these shores and, suddenly, Tame Impala arrive all at once. The Perth quartet’s debut long-player Innerspeaker was Rocksucker’s Album O’2010, so it was with eyebrows in the air that we discovered (only very recently, to our shame) it to be chiefly the work of front man Kevin Parker.
Having performed, recorded and produced the majority of the record himself, Parker handed mixing duties over to legendary producer Dave Fridmann [The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, MGMT], resulting in the kind of sprawling, psychedelic masterpiece that you would expect from not just a full band but a full band at the very peak of their powers. That Innerspeaker is merely an opening salvo blows our fragile little minds and leaves us nothing less than rabid with anticipation for its hopefully imminent successor, which Parker has billed as being a more collaborative affair.
Rocksucker caught up with Parker ahead of his group’s headline show at London’s prestigious Roundhouse venue on Wednesday, which will be swiftly followed by a set on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage this coming Saturday
He was in Germany at the time, thus landing a series of inconvenient five-second delays in the midst of our telephone conversation, but he was to his immense credit only too happy to oblige our decidedly fanboy-ish line of questioning…
How’s it going out in Berlin?
Yeah, good. We got here a couple of days ago. A couple of our friends actually moved to Berlin so we’ve been catching up with them and it’s been really good. Berlin’s an amazing city with a really liberal feel. Everyone’s just doing whatever they want, having fun, playing weed games in the park. It’s magical. (Laughs)
Are you looking forward to coming to the UK? Rocksucker is very much looking forward to watching you at the Roundhouse on Wednesday.
Yeah, it’s going to be good. It’s a really different tour for us this time in Europe as we have a tour bus this time, so we’re living a rock star lifestyle! We’ve also brought a few of our friends with us: my friend Cam who I live with and who’s also a musician, as well as a couple of our girlfriends and other friends. We’re essentially just packing a bus full of our friends and travelling like a bit more of a musical jamboree, so I guess when we roll into London there will be a few more shenanigans. We’ll even get them onstage sometimes for various covers and things so, yeah, it’s going to be cool.I keep hearing really amazing things about Roundhouse. My friend was telling me that his uncle played there with Jimi Hendrix a long time ago so that makes it an historical experience! Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to knows a lot about that place. I’ll say, “We’re playing the Roundhouse,” and they’ll be like, “Woah, really??”
Do you get much time to enjoy yourself when you’re out on the road? Is it hard being away from home so much of the time?
It really depends on who we’re with, how we’re feeling about the music and how we’re feeling about each other. Sometimes I’m really happy just to chill out with some headphones on, playing with my eight-track or my laptop; sometimes I can just zone out from the whole tour and the whole world and be completely oblivious to everything that’s going on around me. Sometimes it’s the four of us doing our own thing and sometimes it’s like one big party. This one is showing signs of being of the party/fun times variety, which is good! We bring recording devices with us so we’re always being creative and making music where we can.
Do you find that the travelling informs your writing? In other words, does the music you come out with seem to change depending on where you are in the world?
Ummm…it’s hard to say. Sometimes that is the case but it’s such a subliminal thing that it’s hard to tell what is influencing you from where you are and that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, it’s a totally internal thing but things from the outside world definitely do creep in, yeah. I can definitely sense different things about music from the last few months or years I’ve been on the road.
Rocksucker has been listening to Innerspeaker for quite a while now and we were stunned to find out recently that it was in essence more of a solo project than the group effort that we’d taken it for. How does one man dream up such soundscapes on his own? Do you find yourself having to think like a band, suggesting the insertions of unusual time signatures to yourself and the like? It’s worlds away from your average singer-songwriter fare…
It’s hard to say because I’ve been doing it myself for so many years but maybe at times I do imagine it to be a band. I mean, I play in bands all the time so I have an idea of how bands work. It’s hard to explain, I just got better and better at doing it over the years. Sometimes when you’re recording a song bit by bit it does feel like you are a band at four different times: You’ll record the drum part and then when you put down the bass part you’ll really feel like you’re a bass player playing along to someone playing drums. The difference is that you know exactly what the drummer is doing, exactly what kind of drum fill is about to happen, so you can copy it exactly. It really can feel like you’re jamming with yourself so, in that regard, it can really feel like a band with a time machine or whatever!
Can you see yourself at some point launching a ‘proper’ solo career to run parallel with your band activity? Something which would allow you to keep recording like this, seeing as Tame Impala is heading in a more collaborative direction…
At this stage there’s no real need for that because I’m very much respectful of the Tame Impala thing as both a live band and a recording project. The other guys in the band sometimes helped out with the recording. Dom [Simper, guitar] was very much a part of Innerspeaker, he was there the whole time to bounce ideas off and suggest things, stuff like that, and the other guys were very much an influence on it.At the same time, they’ve all got their own musical and creative endeavours that they do away from Tame Impala so we’ve got respect for each other’s things and each other’s individual tastes. We all know the drama of not being able to get your own way in a band, having your own ideas stifled by other people, so rather than having to compromise all the time it’s nice being able to take complete control.
There are some really otherworldly chords and guitar effects in your music. Are you into alternative guitar tunings? What kind of effects pedals do you like to use?
Yeah, I’m very much into that kind of stuff. As I said, I’ve done it for a long time and I’ve slowly gotten better at producing sounds and I use a different tuning to the standard guitar tuning. I tune all the strings down a little bit to make them a bit floppy. I really love to experiment with sounds and different noisemaking things; I’m really obsessed with taking common objects which anyone could buy and making them sound really otherworldly.It can be something as simple as putting a distortion pedal on a reverb pedal. The standard thing is to play distorted guitar and then make it sound like it’s being played in a church by adding a reverb pedal. There you’re imitating an overdriven guitar played inside a church but you can do something as simple as putting a reverb pedal before the distortion, which makes it sound like you’re playing guitar inside a church, then you’re stuffing that church inside a box and exploding it! Know what I mean?
How’s album two shaping up? Are you going to be recording it in the mansion in which you recorded Innerspeaker? Is Dave Fridmann going to be involved?
Dave’s probably going to mix the second album. He wasn’t involved in the production of the first album, he just mixed it, which is a very influential thing on an album anyway: it changed the sound so much. It’s being recorded in my own studio, which is just the room next to my bedroom. The mansion isn’t really like a mansion to us, it’s more like a big, wooden house; the roof was leaking and the power was so bad that it kept turning off and I kept losing drum tracks! I lost a whole day’s worth of drum tracks one day while recording Innerspeaker. Sometimes the power would go off for a second, which was enough to kill off my eight-track, and I lost everything! We also had plastic on top of everything because the roof was leaking so bad. This is just me trying to dispel the rumour of the mansion, I guess! (Laughs)
On the iTunes version of Innerspeaker, the bonus track ‘Island Walking’ is seventh in the running order. Was that intentional? It completely works, it just seems unusual for a bonus track to appear in the middle of the album…
Yeah, it was intentional. To be honest, I didn’t expect them to accept that offer – I thought they’d just stick it at the end like everyone else – but I had a problem with the whole ‘bonus track’ thing from the start. To me, the last song on an album is a really important thing, certainly the last two or three songs; it’s meant to wrap the album up. The idea of this other song suddenly appearing just after the last song has died off really grinds my gears and I can’t understand why it happens so much.’Island Walking’ was originally going to be on the album but first of all it made the album way too long and it was the song that I was the least happy with after everything, that it would be better as the song that you get on the special version of the album, the iTunes version or whatever it is. Originally it was going to be ‘Island Walking’ followed by ‘Jeremy’s Storm’ and then ‘Expectation’: ‘Island Walking’ is this sunshine-y island song, then there’s a storm on the island, then the clouds clear and there’s ‘Expectation’, which has a psychedelic guitar thing at the start that was meant to be like the sun coming out. That’s kind of how I envisioned it so that’s why ‘Island Song’ goes there.
Hearing Innerspeaker made Rocksucker realise that we’d been waiting years for a band like Tame Impala to come around, all fuzzy, dreamy, psychedelic pop music. Could you recommend any other bands in a similar vein?
Let me see…there’s Caribou, whom you’ve probably heard of. Also Dungen…
…the Swedish band? They’re fantastic!
Yeah, they’re a really big influence on me. Not that many bands do that kind of thing as a genre. I’m not even sure where my influence comes from a lot of the time.
Finally, would you be able to name – as of this very moment – your top three albums of all time?
Funnily enough, I think about that all the time. My top three would definitely be: Breakfast in America by Supertramp, Abbey Road by The Beatles and the other one would be…ummm…maybe…uuuuhhhhhh…I would say Led Zeppelin I but that’s only got a few songs that would be amongst my favourite songs of all time, rather than being one of my favourite albums of all time. So my third one would be 4 by Dungen: in terms of how I was feeling when making Innerspeaker, that would have been one of my favourite albums of all time at that stage of my life.
Tame Impala perform a headline show at London’s Roundhouse on Wednesday June 22nd, followed by a set on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage on Saturday 25th. For more information and a list of further live dates and festival appearances, please visit tameimpala.com