Tame Impala's Vision Quest

Kevin Parker is a psychedelic monk with talent to burn — now can he learn to loosen up?

The door to room 1226 at Austin's Hilton Garden Inn is propped open. Kevin Parker is in bed, and the room is a mess — empty cans of Tecate litter the tables; underwear, skinny jeans and scarves spill from a suitcase. Hangover cures — Advil, Tums — rest on the nightstand. "I like a messy hotel room," Parker deadpans in his thick Australian accent. "It's a little slice of home." His memory of last night is hazy, but he knows he climbed down from a second-floor balcony at the hotel and ended up in a nearby creek, where he sat on a rock and watched the sunrise. Today, he wants to take it easy: "Fucking codeine and South Park."

But it's the day before Tame Impala's five-week summer tour kicks off at Austin's Psych Fest, and Parker, 29, has work to do. So he struggles out of bed and helps his sound man lug laptops and keyboards into his room. They sit at a desk and connect a MIDI keyboard to a Mac, then turn on an oscilloscope machine, a device that measures electrical signals. They're typically used to check whether a TV or a medical scanner is working, but Parker discovered that if you plug an instrument into one, it produces trippy images. He's been projecting them on a huge screen during Tame Impala shows ever since.

Some bands hire a production team to handle onstage visuals; Parker does it himself — along with just about every element of Tame Impala. He played almost every note on the band's three albums by himself before bringing the songs — paranoid, self-critical head trips buried in a haze of psychedelic riffs and spaced-out synths — to the rest of the group to execute live.

The results have been impressive: Tame Impala just played main-stage slots at Coachella and Governors Ball and will headline Radio City Music Hall this fall. Paul McCartney's a fan, and Mark Ronson has called them his "favorite rock & roll band." "Sonically, they're making some of the most exciting albums right now," says Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and fun. "They sound like a really exciting blend of future mixed with the early Seventies — this incredible, bizarre blend."

Parker's iron grip on his band's creative process has a downside. He spent months in a Paris apartment making Tame Impala's 2012 breakthrough, Lonerism, a process he calls "torture." "I felt like I was going insane," he adds. "I wasn't looking after myself, mentally, nutritionally." He tried to put less pressure on himself for the band's new album, Currents. "But I wound up falling down completely the same hole again."

On much of the new album, Parker struggles with an identity crisis; he recorded the album after a breakup and as he chose to embrace life as a young rock star. "I've always had these morals I've sort of put on myself: that excess is bad," he says. "I used to be into Buddhism and stuff. I was vegetarian. I was all about shutting things out." This applies to his music too — the record trades rock riffs for more electronic and R&B influences. "I grew up in the grunge era," he says. "I've always resisted the idea of being part of a machine, wanting just to be an artist in my own right. But at some point I just realized shutting things out took more energy than just letting it in."

Parker's phone rings; there's a car waiting to take him to hear the vinyl edition of Currents for the first time. As he leaves his room, there's a note under his door — a fan in 1212 is wondering if she can get a picture. "That's weird," he says, quieting down when he realizes that room is across from his. "Maybe I'll knock on her door. That's never happened before!"

A day earlier, Tame Impala stood on an Austin soundstage rehearsing, smoke machines and all. The mood is light — between songs, a few band members plan a visit to a New Orleans strip club, and Parker sarcastically wonders why some crew members have disappeared around 4:20 p.m. Parker suggests several tweaks to the songs: a little more bass drive during "Feels Like We Always Go Backwards," and for drummer Julien Barbagallo to play "a little more sensitively" on a new song, "Eventually." When the drummer doesn't quite get it, Parker takes a seat and demonstrates the part himself. 

As the clock approaches 8 p.m. and the band runs out of beer, his tone grows stern. "We're running out of fuck-around time," he says. "Let's try to play them in a way that doesn't sound embarrassing." When multi-instrumentalist Jay Watson suggests they figure out one of his keyboard parts at soundcheck tomorrow, Parker barks, "There is no soundcheck. It's a fucking festival."

He doesn't sound like a dick, just a taskmaster, and the band is used to it. "He always wanted to control every element," says Watson, who also plays in the Tame Impala offshoot band Pond. "Like how hard I hit the cymbal. It took a few years to be comfortable getting told what to do all the time." (Watson doesn't complain about his job: "I get to drink beer midday!")

Parker has always preferred to work alone. He grew up in Perth, a sparkling city on Australia's west coast that's one of the most remote metropolises in the world, 2,000 miles from Sydney and Melbourne. He calls himself "essentially an only child." His parents split up when he was four; he went to live with his mom in the eastern suburbs of Perth, while his brother went to live with his wealthier father, an accountant for a gold-mining company. "I have almost no memory of my parents ever speaking to each other," he says. "They split up on bad terms. I assumed that's what family life was like. Just essentially a soap opera."

By the time he was 12, Parker was experimenting with multitrack recording. As a teen, he loved the Smashing Pumpkins, Silverchair and even Korn ("I think I had a lot in common with the lead singer. He had kind of family issues"). But Parker calls his first Flaming Lips show a spiritual moment. "It completely fucked me up," he says. "I'm really into the way music can affect you, emotionally, spatially. The idea that music can make you feel like you're not standing with two feet on the ground is really interesting to me."

Parker briefly studied engineering and astronomy in college, but spent most of his time at a run-down duplex apartment with several future members of Tame Impala. The house became the center of Perth's weird, avant-garde psychedelic scene. "We listened to Sabbath, like, 18 hours a day," says Watson. They grew a huge weed plant in their backyard. Parker would get high and record kids playing baseball, then distort their voices through delay pedals. "Psychedelic music became a way of life," says Parker.

Because Perth is so isolated — "People are generally content to just impress the other people in Perth" — Parker was shocked when he was asked to play shows in Sydney and Melbourne after he put some of his original songs on MySpace in 2007.

In 2010, the band's first LP, Innerspeaker, earned it prime U.K. festival spots, and publications like NME started comparing Parker to John Lennon. In fact, Parker has never listened to a full Beatles album – he's more likely to play Daft Punk and Timbaland on the bus. Parker decided to embrace those influences on Currents, which adds slow-jam falsetto, vocoder and disco beats to their sound. While recording, he listened mostly to Nineties R&B: "As a teenager I thought I was supposed to hate it." Between sips of rosé at dinner one night in Texas, he spends several minutes talking about the Swedish music producer Max Martin. "He's my idol at the moment," Parker says. He excitedly shares that only McCartney and Lennon have written more Number One hits, and notes that Britney Spears' " .  .  .  Baby One More Time" was originally written for the Backstreet Boys. He starts singing the chorus: "You can hear it, right?"

"It's always been my fantasy — this idea of [being] someone behind the scenes, pulling strings, writing these fucking amazing songs," he says. "It gives pop music this intellectual side. It makes it more like a craft. It inspires me."

I survived," Parker says in the lobby of Tame Impala's hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a month after our Austin meeting. The band is about to play New York's Governors Ball, the final gig of its U.S. tour. Parker's wrist is covered in wristbands from other recent festivals. He's not that impressed with the Gov Ball site. "It looks similar to a lot of the other festivals we've been doing," he says.

Parker just finished listening to a recording of the previous night's show in D.C., and he thinks the band has made a lot of progress in the past month. "It feels like the end of some epic movie." He can't wait to get home to Perth to see his girlfriend, an old friend from high school who works in advertising.

The band members eat a late breakfast, and hours later they're on the festival's main stage. "Holy shit," Parker says, gazing at the crowd. As frantic circular projections he designed dance behind him, Parker straps on a Rickenbacker and launches into a roaring Sabbath-like riff. He grows more animated throughout the show, which peaks with the Zombies-like "Apocalypse Dreams." During a drum solo, Parker lifts his guitar over his head and steps onto the drum riser before collapsing to his knees, and then rolls onto his back as he keeps strumming.

Parker says he used to avoid "classic-rock-show moves" like these — he'd cringe whenever he saw a frontman venture into the crowd to touch the audience. Recently, though, he had a change of heart. "I did it once," he says, "and all these hands reached out and touched mine, and the looks on their faces was sheer joy. They were happy, they were stoked, and it kind of made their day. Then you have this weird sort of like moral dilemma — on one hand, it's a cliché rock move, but on the other, you made a lot of people happy for whatever reason. So maybe it's not such a bad thing. What's so bad about it?"