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Riding The Currents with Tame Impala

Tame Impala have become the face of modern psych-rock since dropping their full-length debut Innerspeaker in 2010. With a voice that recalled John Lennon at The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour peak and a fuzzy-guitar style that would fit snugly on the Nuggets box set, band visionary Ken Parker quickly earned acclaim from psychedelic pioneers like MGMT and The Flaming Lips. His 2011 follow-up Lonerism was an even denser art-rock exploration and helped established Parker’s Perth, Australia home as indie-psych incubator. So Parker shocked even his hardcore fans when he dropped the eight-might kraut-rock jam “Let It Happen” and soulful, Prince-inspired “Cause I’m A Man” as two the first tracks off Tame’s third LP, Currents. But Parker is quick to admit that he listens to way more Michael Jackson than Pink Floyd, and Currents may be the album that brings his band to arenas around the world. Shortly before releasing Currents, Parker spoke with Relix and Jambands.com about his creative process, not-so-secret pop obsession and why Tame Impala is really a one-man band. (For more on Parker, be sure to pick up the June issue of Relix, which is available here.)

It’s been couple years since you last released an album, Can you start by giving some background on when you started working on the songs which ended up on Currents ?

For me, that amount of time or that date or whatever is kind of irrelevant because I am always working on music. And it’s not even from the day I finished the last album. In a sense, it’s before I finished the last album. Even coming up to the end of finishing an album, you’re starting to realize what you missed out on this album, what you could’ve done differently. So you already start thinking of what it’s going to be in your head. Long before I finished Lonerism, I was kind of having thoughts and realizing what my new fantasies were.

I imagine those fantasies start as soon as you get the masters back of your previous album and think, “I should’ve done it like this.”

Story of my life, man. I think Lonerism was quite dense—by far the most dense album I’ve made. The first time I played it for Jay [Watson]—Jay is very direct with his criticism, he’ll give you the real deal. And I was feeling really paranoid about Lonerism before I brought it out. I’m always insecure about it, especially by the time I’ve finished an album. So I played him Lonerism, and he told me it sounded like just a big mess of drum fills and flanger. He couldn’t pick any melodies. So I was like, “Right, well there you go, that’s what the album sounds like.” So, in hearing that—I think I heard a Fleetwood Mac song around that time, and it was just so pure and so clean and so, like, throbbing at the same time. I’ve always loved pop music, especially ‘90s R&B—a TLC song and a Jennifer Lopez song. Michael Jackson—he just wanted to make music for everyone. He didn’t care about money. So one of the things I realized, was the narrow-mindedness of that view about pop. It’s so static, it’s so uninspired.

Did you record it at a proper studio, or at home in Perth?

At home. I recorded some drums in the country on the coast in the same house that I recorded Innerspeaker in. So I went back to that house.

Was there a sense that you wanted to return to your roots but with new ideas?

Exactly—going back to the old house. You know it. So I did a lot of drums there and a bit of other stuff, but almost everything else was recorded in my home. I’ve bought a house since the last album, so I was able to totally craft my own studio, which was also a big thing.

I usually let my subconscious do the thinking in terms of what kind of textures I give to it. Even themes, like song themes—I never know what a song is about until I’m halfway through writing it. I did have really a strong idea of what it was going to be about from an early stage, half dictated by the music, half dictated by my own feelings, perceptions of where I’m going as a person.

So would you say some of the uplifting stuff was a reflection of personal stuff?

No—even when I make an uplifting song, it’s never 100% uplifting, because I just can’t do that. It’s always got a darker edge. I think a big dig at my music is that people say it’s got a positive sound. They think it’s happy then they read the lyrics and, “Oh, this is some introspective shit.”

Since the last album, you worked as a producer for fellow Perth band Pond. Did that experience help you view yourself more as a producer versus a recording artist?

Well first of all, I didn’t actually produce Pond—they kind of produced themselves. I kind of just mixed it. But I think whenever I’ve worked as a producer for someone else—which has never really been anyone other than just my friends—then I’m in the role. But with Tame Impala, it’s impossible for me to distinguish between all the different roles because it is all the roles, just rolled up into one. And it’s impossible for me to distinguish. And that was something that was hard when I started working with other people. It’s like where does the artist end and the producer begin, and where does the producer end and the mixer begin? For me, it’s always just been the same thing—I just make the song. All the different times, I’ll sort of stop playing something and think what emotions this evokes, and at the same time I’m playing the drums, you know? So it all just happens together.

Can you pinpoint a moment in your career where you were confident enough to admit that Tame Impala is in reality your nom de plume?

Maybe like last month [March]? Certainly not any time before a year ago. Even Lonerism, I still said “we” recorded. We recorded “Backwards,” we recorded this.

In terms of the live show, do you feel like it’s evolved as a band, or is it still just your vision?

No, it definitely evolved. Even so many of the instruments sometimes take two people to play, just because of some crazy new fucking thing I’ve invented. For example, when we play “Let It Happen,” to do that vocoder part—which isn’t actually a vocoder, it’s actually a sampler thing, but we use a vocoder live—because I’m not playing a keyboard but I’m the one that sings it. But, Jay has the keyboard, he actually plays—you know, with a vocoder, it’s like someone hits the keys and someone just talks into a microphone, and it filters through the keys and makes that chord. That’s what a vocoder is. So, I sing it and he plays the chords in that bit. So, that kind of thing is pretty common.

You mentioned that Jay is often the first person to critique your records. What did you think of the initial Currents tracks you played him?

I’m getting better at picking the kind of things he’s gonna like. If there’s some weird synth sound that comes in, that’s his thing. But if it’s something more emotive, more kind of serious. He loves the kind of grimy, kind of novelty, weird shit. So he loves all those ones on the album. I sent a lot of mixes to Dom [Simper] as I was making it, and he was really supportive.

I think that it jumps between sounds while having an overall collective ethos.

That’s good to hear. I’m always paranoid about a few things for an album when I finish it, and one of those for this album was that it was too sonically schizophrenic. I was a little worried that I tried to fit too many types of songs into the mix. But I guess because it’s me doing it, it’s gonna have an overall mood—an overall perspective—within the music. So I had to kind of trust that.

Can you talk a bit about your decision to explore a funk side-project in recent years?

I’m into a lot of different types of music—I love different genres. And if I’m doing one thing for too long, I’m blowing on my musical brass instrument—you know how saxophones have a spit valve—just the other stuff, it’s just concentrated into something. I have to release that, release the spit valve, the saliva. So that was just the saliva of Tame Impala. The more and more I embrace everything I want to do, rather than what I think is right, the harder it gets to draw the line. So I guess that’s just a challenge for the future, to work out how to hone in and make it cohesive.

You were pretty immediately pegged as “psychedelic” music, not only you but the scene, in Perth and other places. Was there any kind of immediate reaction to that, like “I like other types of music, too?”

I wouldn’t say it’s reactionary. I would never get bogged down, bugged-out, by people saying that we’re this or that. However you want to interpret what I do is how you interpret it. You know, when Lonerism came out, I didn’t expect anyone to say it was psychedelic at all. Turns out that’s what it was. It’s kind of surprising when people assume I’m into things I’m not. It’s kind of like, “Oh, does it sound like Pink Floyd? I don’t even like Pink Floyd.” Like, I’ve never put on a Pink Floyd album in my life—my flatmates used to put it on all the time, and I would just complain. My friends think it’s hilarious.

Going back to the live show, one of the hallmarks of psychedelic music is improvisation. How much improvisation would you say is happening during the show?

These days there’s not a lot of it. There used to be a bit, but it’s slowly weeded out the more of a big production it’s become and the more the other elements of the Tame Impala live experience intertwine—like the visuals, for example. I mean, there are still times I like to have it completely broken down, even if it’s just me playing guitar. We have the oscilloscope behind us, which is kind of like a green laser. It draws a picture of the sound as it comes in, so I like to do a little guitar/oscilloscope solo. I’m mostly just making shapes with the laser and my guitar.

Like a painting.

Like a sonic painting, exactly. Moving the sonic painting. So I like to just totally break it down halfway through the set and do that. We didn’t get time at Coachella, but when we actually get time. So often, when time is that—

Time is of the essence.

Yeah, then it just seems like a waste of time to spend ten minutes doing a total improvised jam out when you can fit like three other short-chop songs in that people in the audience are gonna appreciate more than you just noodling on your guitar.

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