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Kevin Parker has become one of the most in-demand producers and collaborators in the industry, working with artists including Kanye West, Mark Ronson, A$AP Rocky, and Travis Scott.
In this year’s publication of Daily Splendour, Monster Children bring us the story of Tame Impala and provide us with a deep-dive inside the mind of Kevin Parker.
By Erin Bromhead
Back in 2010, less than a month after Tame Impala released their debut album, Innerspeaker, they played a Monster Children launch party in Brooklyn. It was one of their first shows in New York, and it was a big deal to have them there. Right before the first song, Kevin Parker walked up to the microphone and said, ‘We’ve got no idea what Monster Children is,’ before launching into their set. ‘That sounds like something I would’ve said,’ says an amused Parker when I recount the tale to him over the phone.
A lot has happened in the nine years since, with Tame Impala going on to release two Grammy nominated albums—2012’s Lonerism and 2015’s Currents. Meanwhile, Parker has become one of the most in-demand producers and collaborators in the industry, working with artists including Kanye West, Mark Ronson, A$AP Rocky, and Travis Scott. In 2016, Rihanna covered ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ on her multi-platinum album, Anti, hardly changing a note from the original track. So yeah, I guess you could say things have worked out okay for Tame Impala since that night in Brooklyn.
By the sounds of it, Parker’s stage banter has evolved enormously, too. ‘Overall, I think it’s improved out of sight. I think if you asked anyone, especially in the band, they’d concur,’ he says. ‘But it’s actually really unpredictable, I hate to say. Some days it’s like I’m chatting to my next door neighbour, and some days I’m a deer in the headlights, you know? I used to be really afraid of talking to people and talking to the audience because I used to feel like I was getting up on a stool and doing a speech at school.’
When Tame Impala first started playing festivals—their Splendour debut was in 2010—they were slotted in for afternoon sets on smaller stages while other huge rock acts like Interpol, Queens of the Stone Age, the Arctic Monkeys and the Black Keys dominated the main stages. Now, the band is headlining some of the biggest festivals in the world, including Coachella, Glastonbury, and of course, Splendour in the Grass. But it’s not just their set time that’s changed—the musical landscape is entirely different, too, as hip hop and dance acts now dominate most festival lineups.
These days, Tame Impala are usually one of the only headlining acts that play live guitar. ‘I don’t feel particularly, like, proud or bitter that the landscape has changed that way,’ says Parker. ‘I mean, ever since we have been playing festivals I always remember thinking that rock bands, like sonically, they don’t stand a chance against dance acts where all the music is kind of pre-recorded and they’re not fighting against the flaws of microphones and feedback and things like that, y’know? It’s just absolutely pumping out of the speakers, which I always thought was amazing. I was completely enthralled by it.’
‘But, it’s two different things I guess. Like, once you’ve had enough of one you want the other. Once you’ve had enough of like good, clean, sub bass, perfect sounding electronic music, you want it rough around the edges. You want some half drunk, out of tune singing,’ he laughs. ‘I dunno, I feel like I’m a spectator to that whole shift in music like everyone else, I don’t feel like I play on one side.’
Parker’s recent collaborations with hip hop artists like A$AP Rocky and Travis Scott are evidence of this—an unexpected merging of genres and styles that somehow work together perfectly despite their differences. On his third album, Testing, A$AP sampled Tame Impala’s ‘Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?’ on the track ‘Sundress’, and on Travis Scott’s hugely successful 2018 record, Astroworld, Parker produced and co-wrote the track ‘Skeletons.’ Obviously, Parker is a huge hip hop fan. ‘Yeah, absolutely. And above all else, I’m like, insanely curious with parts of music. I want to try everything. I hate the idea that there’s a world of music out there that I have no idea how it’s done, I don’t have any part of it, you know? Like, I want to dip my—what is it? Fingers in all the pies? Or whatever that saying is. [Laughs]. Even if it’s something crazy that I’ve never done.’ Even country music? ‘Ahhh, that’s pushing it. But hey, sure, why not?’
When I explain to Parker that A$AP has long held a coveted seat at my hypothetical table of ultimate dinner party guests, he confirms that I’ve made a good choice.
‘Oh definitely, definitely. He’s a really sweet guy. I think that like a lot of great artists, he has lots of different modes, you know? There’s, like, sweet Rocky, and then there’s badass Rocky.’ (His seat remains reserved.)
Working with so many artists over the years, Parker has had the privilege of observing some of his favourite musicians in their private creative environments. As the solo creator and producer of Tame Impala’s entire discography, he’s got his process pretty locked down. But he’s picked up some invaluable lessons from working as a collaborator, too. The one that’s impacted his own creative process the most? ‘I think to be as open as you can be with the people that you’re working with. I say that because I’ve always come from a place of being really closed off to other people and only opening up to myself—which has made me who I am, but a trend that I’ve noticed amongst working with extremely successful artists is that they’re amazingly emotionally open. They’re not afraid to really spill their heart into the room, whether it’s one person they’re working with or ten people.’ I imagine it’s pretty hard to be that vulnerable, though? ‘Yeah, totally. ‘Cause that’s what it is, it’s being able to be vulnerable because you’re all there to make music; you’re all there to make art. The idea that that’s a time that you can’t be vulnerable is silly, you know?’
By now I think a congratulations is in order to you, dear reader. You’ve made it this far without so much as a single mention of what we’re all so desperately pining for—official word on the new Tame Impala album. Here’s the thing. Though it might sound like Kevin is a super outgoing guy (he is) who’s down to talk about anything, there are a few cards he keeps agonizingly close to his chest, and information about new music is one of them. Back in March, he dropped the first new Tame Impala track in four years, the cheekily titled ‘Patience’. The song opens with the line ‘Has it really been that long?’ to which every fan of the band responded with a resounding Yep. About two weeks later, we were #blessed with another single, the heavily bongo-driven ‘Borderline’. And then? The crickets returned to their scheduled chirping. Instead of hitting him with a straight-out, ‘When is the new album coming?’ question, I try to trick him by asking what the band’s plans are once they headline Splendour and wrap up their other touring commitments. But he’s onto me. ‘Um, well I guess whatever is actually physically scheduled is what we’re doing, and obviously I’m working all the time… any other time of the year that’d be a really easy question to answer but unfortunately right now it’s not.’ It’s an impressively vague deflect. ‘Anything could happen, though,’ he continues. ‘As I said, apart from where I’m physically contracted to be, like, geographically… [Laughs]. Other than that anything could and will happen.’
So, yeah, shockingly it sounds like he’s not ready to give me an exclusive on the new album name and release date. What he is happy to talk about, though, is the newest music that we have heard, and how it came to be. Like ‘Patience’, for instance, where Parker was excited to debut his newly acquired skill of playing the piano with two hands. When I ask if he had made a conscious effort to master the keys for this song he replies, ‘Oh, not a conscious effort. Barely anything I do with a conscious effort. But it definitely was a little celebration of my new ability to use two hands on the piano, for sure!’
The song kind of grew from there. ‘I had the piano riff, but I think it was going to be for something else—I probably imagined that piano riff being for a different kind of song, maybe like R&B or something, and then I got really into this idea of starting a song with big bold piano, like a really overconfident stadium rock sort of sound, you know? So that song just builds off that, and the rest is just me doing what I do, messing around in the studio trying different things.’ And there goes the other card, right up back to the chest again.
Before the release of the two singles earlier this year, rumours of a new album intensified last November after Parker posted a photo to Tame Impala’s Instagram (which he runs) lamenting that the Malibu house he had been staying in had burnt down in the California wildfires. The photo showed a bunch of gear that didn’t make it out. ‘The thing is, I didn’t know how fast I had to evacuate,’ he says. ‘I just saw the evacuation thing on Google after I saw all the smoke and thought, “Ooo”. I think I actually slept through the fire marshall coming and knocking on my door, because I’d been up so late the night before. They probably assumed there was no one home. So I didn’t know if I had like, one minute or one hour to get out, or six hours, you know? In the end I think I was about two hours away from having to literally run out the door.’ Though he says he wasn’t really thinking about the gear when he heard that the whole house had burnt down, he was relieved that he grabbed his laptop and Hofner bass. While his followers expressed their sorrow to hear about the house and gear, everyone was secretly wondering, ‘What’s on that laptop, though, Kev?’
Speaking of Instagram followers, there’s an unlikely pop star who counts @tame__impala as one of hers. ‘I love Mariah Carey,’ Parker declares somewhat defensively when I ask him about it. ‘She’s kind of just swanning about on private yachts and doing what Mariah Carey does. She’s living her best life.’ And tonight, when Tame Impala turn Splendour into a psychedelic wonderland of sight and sound, you will be too.