Tame Impala’s Cosmic Healing – Rolling Stone
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The Cosmic Healing of Tame Impala

How an anxiety-ridden child of divorce embraced his inner stadium rocker and built one of the biggest young bands around

kevin parker tame impala

Photograph by Kelia Anne for Rolling Stone. Location by Miramonte Resort, Indian Wells, CA

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One fateful night last fall in Malibu, Kevin Parker was stoned and tipsy in an ocean-view rental house, writing music and marveling at the ferocious Santa Ana winds. “It was apocalyptically windy,” he says. “I couldn’t even stand outside to smoke my spliff.” The 33-year-old mastermind behind the blockbuster psych-rock act Tame Impala, Parker had a drumbeat going on an endless loop as he gazed at the Pacific, hit his joint, sipped some gin (or maybe it was wine; he alternates between the two as his hangovers dictate) and waited for inspiration. “I can sit there with a beat playing for hours,” he says. “Sometimes nothing comes to me, but sometimes I get a melody I’m obsessed with.” He was about halfway through work on the new Tame Impala album (likely out this summer), experimenting with what he calls “crazy, weird” strategies for discovering new sounds: Recently, having failed to devise a melody to match a chord progression, he decided to put the chords on repeat while he slept, letting them seep from the speakers into his dreams. “I just wanted to see what it would do,” he recalls. “And it might be placebo, but an hour after I woke up, I had my melody.”

That night in Malibu, Parker submerged himself in weed smoke and drum drones “to escape the consciousness of what I’m doing, because in my straight, sober mind, I’m thinking about the pressure.” Parker — who writes, performs, mixes and produces almost every sound on every Tame Impala release — is prone to extreme self-doubt and overthinking, whereas the songs he writes in altered states strike him as “my purest. The most natural and effortless. So this time around I’ve been like, ‘Fuck it, let’s dedicate to that being a process: spaced-out nights on my own where I go until the sun comes up.’ ”

When Parker awoke the next day, however, the city was in flames. It was November 9th, 2018, and the historic Woolsey fire was raging through L.A.’s northwest end, on its way to killing three people and untold animals; destroying roughly 1,500 structures and thousands of acres of natural habitat; and causing an estimated $6 billion in property damage. Parker rose groggily around 10 a.m. to a concerned message from his manager, which prompted him to Google the fire, which sent a “wave of panic” over him. He evacuated with just his laptop and his cherished Vintage Hofner bass — “the only thing, really, that I care about losing.” Down on the Pacific Coast Highway, “I could see the whole hillside on fire. At first I kind of just thought it was epic, so I stood there filming for 10 minutes — then I saw the flames start to lap up people’s houses, and the sky started to blacken.” The rental house, and all of Parker’s abandoned gear, were incinerated. “It might have been a different story,” he says, “if I didn’t wake up when I did.”

Right now it’s mid-April and Parker is at the five-bedroom house he bought in the Hollywood Hills a month after the fire. He comes from Perth, in western Australia, “the other wildfire capital of the world,” as he puts it, and so even though the experience shook him, it wasn’t enough to put him off L.A. for good. We’re out on a patio, where he’s wearing a denim jacket, black skinny jeans and a pair of Saint Laurent sneakers he scored free from a stylist at a TV performance. The new Tame Impala album is still unfinished, because Parker has been interrupted by several events of which the fire was, by far, the least happy. In February, he married his girlfriend of five years, Sophie Lawrence, whom he’s known since they were both 13. In March, Tame Impala played Saturday Night Live for the first time. And just a few days ago they performed the first of their two 2019 headlining Coachella sets. The music sounded great, with Parker’s longtime touring band helping pump out his signature trippy, poppy, fuzzed-out grooves. Their over-the-top stagecraft included “moving light towers,” Parker notes, 18 confetti cannons, something like $500,000 worth of rented lasers, and an enormous flashing ring that hovered overhead, UFO-style, changing colors and belching smoke. The ring cost a “gargantuan amount of money,” he says, and “I was told we won’t even be able to use it again — that no stage will be big enough to hold it, at least until we get to Glastonbury.”

Kevin Parker performs during weekend 1 of Coachella. Photograph by Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

Parker during weekend one of Coachella. Photograph by Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

Tame Impala are something of a contemporary rarity, if not an outright oxymoron: a massively popular young rock band. Their success surprises Parker as much as anyone. “I’m always trying to work out why people love us,” he says. Part of it, doubtless, is the lush danceability of their sound, exemplified on their shimmering new piano-house single, “Patience.” But when Parker came off the Coachella stage, he was gripped by familiar feelings of self-doubt: “Ranting and raving about things that went wrong. Which is classic us. Australians don’t sugarcoat things. We said, ‘Well, that was pretty fucked. What happened with the drums? What happened with the confetti?’ Only nine of the confetti cannons went off until the very last chorus!” Parker, it emerges, takes confetti seriously. “We had about 300 kilograms” — a third of a ton. “We wanted more, but they told us we had to dial it back. I was stomping around bummed, like a confetti diva, but my manager told me we were still beating Beyoncé’s confetti record by double. So I felt better.” By the time he left the festival, cheered up by friends who raved about the set, he upgraded his rating to a 9.

Parker is still getting comfortable, in other words, with the fact that when his fans look at him, they see a rock star. (Also the fact that said fans include Travis Scott, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, all of whom have sought him out as a collaborator.) A self-described introvert who started his career as a bedroom noodler, making meticulously scuzzy garage rock in one of Australia’s most isolated cities, he’s learning to open up to his increasingly enormous, increasingly adoring crowds. “Being a personality onstage, that’s something I’ve been growing into,” he says. “Saying fuck it and being that person who can rile up the audience. That’s someone I never saw myself as.”

Parker mentions hearing that Rihanna doesn’t rent lasers for her shows — she owns them outright. That may or may not be true, but the notion stuck with him. “I own my own lasers,” he intones, only partially joking as he gets a feel for how that phrase sounds coming out of his mouth. “That’s something I’d love to be able to say one day.” The day might come sooner than later. When Coachella offered Tame Impala this year’s headlining Saturday slot, vacated by Justin Timberlake, owing to injured vocal cords, “I didn’t immediately go, ‘Fuck yeah, I can do this,’ ” Parker says. “But it’s part of my new outlook on life. If you get an opportunity, even if you don’t think you’re fully ready for it, you’ve got to go with it. Say yes. Suck it up. Or is it ‘soak it up’?”

He laughs. “Somewhere in between.”

There’s a half-eaten takeout-sushi container on Parker’s kitchen island, beside some rotting bananas. Splitting time between Perth, L.A. and the road, he hasn’t had a chance to settle in here, to the extent that there is literally zero furniture in the entire 3,400-square-foot house, besides a desk where he’s been recording vocals, and a mattress where he’s been crashing. Below a picture window with stunning city views sits a lone snake plant. “It’s felt crazy — like I’m squatting in my own house,” Parker says.

Parker is accustomed to living in a state of flux. When he was four, his parents divorced. He went to live with his mother, whom he calls a “free-spirited” woman, while his brother moved in with his father, a more straight-laced mining-company accountant. “There was drama in my family, even after the divorce,” Parker says. “The divorce wasn’t the end of it.” After a few years, he explains, his dad actually left his stepmom and reunited with his mom — only for them to fall apart a second time. “Me and my brother got the shittiest deal. It was confusing for us,” Parker says. (His father died in 2009, at 61, from skin cancer — Parker coped, in part, by taking acid and reading about Buddhism. After a period of estrangement from his mom, they reconciled.)

All that childhood turbulence turned him into a “sensitive kid. I liked being on my own, playing video games, exploring on my bike. I didn’t watch violent movies — those were too intense. Maybe because I didn’t have that solid foundation beneath me.” In adolescence, he acted out. “I was lots of different people in high school. I started out a rebel. Started smoking weed when I was 12. Vandalized — did a bit of graffiti. I would go to the hardware store and steal staple guns, ’cause that was the most badass thing I could find. Then halfway through high school I kind of went into a shell. I got shy and withdrawn. And by the end of high school, music became my identity.”

Parker in the studio with Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson. Photo credit: Lady Gaga/Instagram

BloodPop, Mark Ronson, Lady Gaga and Parker in the studio. Photo credit: Lady Gaga/Instagram

This life of tumult helps explain why the word “change,” or some variant of it, appears at least once on every Tame Impala album: 2010’s stoner-rock-heavy Innerspeaker, 2012’s more trippily expansive Lonerism, 2015’s still catchier and dancier Currents. Parker says the new album will be his most stylistically varied yet. “The way I’ve dabbled in influences in the past? I’ve been unafraid to go there all the way this time. To challenge what Tame Impala is in terms of how wide it can go.” For example? “I’ve been embracing my love of weird Seventies stadium rock,” he notes, “like, epic Meat Loaf stuff.”

The overarching theme preoccupying Parker lately is a close relative of change: “the passage of time. This feeling of ‘Wow, time is rushing.’ Suddenly getting this glimpse of the rest of your life. Have you read 100 Years of Solitude? Márquez? I had no idea where it was going till the last page, and it gave me this overwhelming feeling that history is doomed to repeat itself.” He grins. “That’s from Wikipedia, but it explains what I felt. It follows generations of this family in a small town, through 100 years, and at the end it gives you this feeling I can’t put into words, but it inspired me on this album. I’m not sure what brought that on. I just got married, so that might be in the mix. That makes you think about the rest of your life. But I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of time.”

This obsession, he says, was a source of childhood comfort amid his unstable family life: “Just going to bed and seeing the same constellation that I saw the night before was something I loved to do.” Later, enrolled as an astronomy major in college, Parker liked to “find a star that’s the same number of light-years away as my age, which means I’m seeing it as it was when I was born. Which is trippy.” Which is a fitting fixation for the guy behind Tame Impala, whose best songs take shape as cosmic consolations, full of ethereal synths, pillowy grooves and softly sung mantras about acceptance and renewal.

After dropping out of college, Parker moved into a quasi-commune in Perth with several musician friends, all of whom formed various bands together. He was suspicious of ambition then, with no intention of ever playing to crowds much bigger than the ones at the local bar. But after he threw some tracks onto MySpace, Tame Impala won more and more fans — first nationally, and then, once he scored a rec-ord deal, worldwide. “There’s a big ‘tall poppies’ thing in Australia,” he says — a prevailing cultural attitude, that is, that if you grow too large, others will cut you down. Which can make returns to Perth occasionally fraught. “I was at my favorite pub right after Currents came out, and this guy came up to me and said, ‘Have you heard the new Tyler, the Creator album?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been meaning to check it out.’ And he said, ‘Great. It’s better than anything you’ve ever done,’ and walked off. I was like, ‘You motherfucker!’ It put me in a bad mood. I feel something kind of changed with how I feel in my own city.” He still sounds palpably bummed. “It’s not necessarily why I moved to L.A. But I was like, ‘That’s why people move to L.A.’ ” He knows that guy’s mentality firsthand, of course: Parker himself used to scoff at bands in the Perth scene who rolled through with, as he’s described it, purposeful haircuts and expensive gear. Now, he concedes, “I am that.”

Parker pulls up at a Burbank rehearsal space to meet the rest of his touring band. His go-to drummer, Julien Barbagallo, is expecting a baby, which means he’s going to miss a bunch of summer gigs, and so Tame Impala are breaking in a stand-in named Loren Humphrey, who plays with Florence and the Machine. “We were practicing here another time and saw Paul McCartney,” Parker notes as we walk in. “One of the guys asked him for a picture — and he said no!”

tame impala kevin parker

Photograph by Kelia Anne for Rolling Stone. Location by Miramonte Resort, Indian Wells, CA

The band launches into one of Tame Impala’s biggest hits, “Let It Happen,” a nearly eight-minute track that starts skipping, on purpose, about halfway through. “On the record, the whole mix repeats,” Parker says, “but when we’re playing it live, the band has to do it” — to make their instruments hiccup, in effect, en masse and on beat. They cue up the skipping section and give it a go, then another, then another, with Parker using a delay pedal to trigger the stutters — throwing them at the band like a track coach throwing hurdles at his runners from the back of a pickup truck while they sprint full speed. It’s a moment demanding intense precision and control, which is funny given that the song is about “how you have to let go of the things you’re holding on to and let the currents take you.”

Letting go is easier said than done. At one point, Parker tells me about a night he spent at home with friends in Perth a couple of months ago, tripping on magic mushrooms, which he calls mushies. “I decided to bury one of my ARIAs in the backyard — an Australian version of a Grammy, basically. Maybe someone was holding one, and I said, ‘Let’s fucking bury it. Deep.’ I can’t remember which one it was — maybe Best Rock Album, for Lonerism.” He laughs. “I can’t imagine when that thing will ever resurface. You know? This metal, triangular, prism artifact — how long into the future will that thing be lying beneath the ground? And if it gets pulled up, who will pull it up, and will they be human?”

I tell Parker it sounds like he wanted to demystify a totem of success, transform it into mute scrap metal — discovered, if ever, by unknowable beings with no idea what the award, or the words inscribed upon it, signify. But I’ve misinterpreted his intentions. “That was actually part of it,” he says. “I want them to read it and say, ‘Kevin Parker. He lived here.’ ”

 

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