Published Feb 07, 2020There's a paradox at the heart of Tame Impala's enormous popularity.
On one hand, Kevin Parker records his albums in solitude, playing all the instruments himself and concocting psychedelic sonic worlds full of woozy phaser and dizzying echo. His music is tailor-made for private headphone listening, and he even released an album called Lonerism.
But the snag is that those same solitary recordings have catapulted Tame Impala into one of the most popular rock bands in the world: Parker and his live bandmates headlined Coachella last year, and The Slow Rush is one of the most anticipated records of 2020. So how does Parker feel about his introspective songs of melancholy becoming big-tent anthems?
"It's interesting that music that's so insular can be enjoyed in that kind of way," Parker tells Exclaim! of his blockbuster live shows. "I realized that if I didn't start enjoying playing live, and start grabbing the bull by the horns, then I was going to go my whole life trying to cover my face with hair and staring at my shoes while I played."
The transformative moment came in 2014, when Kanye West brought his Yeezus tour to Parker's hometown of Perth, Australia. Seeing West's larger-than-life performance made Parker reconsider what a live show could be.
"He was being Kanye, which is obviously very egotistical," remembers Parker over Skype. "He had that 'celebrate me' persona when he was playing live and everyone was loving it. But what I realized was that it wasn't him everyone was celebrating; they were celebrating the music. That's what people want. It seemed like it was all about him, but it wasn't really. The mood was more about the experience of everyone together."
In the years that followed, not only did Parker become a more outgoing live performer, but he also accrued collaboration credits with some of the world's biggest stars: he co-wrote songs by Lady Gaga, Travis Scott and West, and Rihanna redid his song "New Person, Same Old Mistakes." It was a big change from the solitary recording process Parker is used to.
The songwriter explains that his main takeaway from these collaborations was "the importance of making bold choices. In the past, at a fork in the road, I might have gone the more understated route — but now I'm like, 'fuck it.' Over the years, I've gotten more and more attracted to music that is bold. That has a really strong message."
Tame Impala's fourth album, The Slow Rush, splits the difference between the psychedelic enigma of his earlier albums and the boldness he learned from his famous collaborators. The arrangements are still intricate and dense, but they've become bright rather than bleary, with throbbing disco grooves and a cornucopia of hand percussion and synths. And yet, for all of the music's joyous qualities, there aren't any obvious sing-along choruses, and the lyrics mostly deal with cerebral topics like nostalgia and the passage of time.
"The mood of the lyrics doesn't always match the mood of the music, and I kind of like that," offers Parker. "I like that there's that juxtaposition. I've always liked melancholy lyrics over something that sounds quite upbeat and bright. I just feel like it gives it a depth."
That's certainly true of "Lost in Yesterday," which has a buoyant swing rhythm, confetti blasts of echo, and lyrics that tackle the inaccuracy of memory. Elsewhere, "Is It True" has the kind of bass-heavy groove that sounds like it might inspire a conga line on a cruise ship, except who wants to party to lines like "I tell her that I'm in love with her / But how can I know that I'll always be?"
These lush, emotionally complex tracks were meticulously written and recorded over a period of years since 2015's Currents (including a brief interruption in 2018 when the California house he was recording in was destroyed in a fire). Although Parker scoffs at the idea that he's an audio perfectionist, calling it a "myth," he also acknowledges, "I take so much time on my music."
With The Slow Rush finally complete, he's already set his sights on new projects. He is in talks to write the music for a fashion show, and he's begun thinking about his next Tame Impala album. This time around, he's hoping for a much quicker recording process.
"I definitely don't want to wait four years again, or five years or whatever it was," he says. "I kind of want to go in the complete opposite way and try to do something really quickly. I think that could be a good experiment for me."
He continues, "I love music that was made quickly. Some of my favourite songs were just thrown together. That can be such a beautiful quality in music. So I want to try that."
Perhaps a quick, spontaneous album could be the antidote Parker has been looking for. As Tame Impala has gotten more famous, it's become increasingly difficult for the songwriter to find the introspective solitude that his music is known for. Between all the A-list collaborators and his army of fans, lonerism doesn't come quite as naturally as it once did.
"It can slow me down sometimes, letting the pressure get to me — which, admittedly, it does from time to time," Parker says. "But I guess the way I deal with it is, I just walk away from music. I don't feel particularly inspired when the pressure is getting too much, so I kind of just don't. I just leave it. I don't force myself to make music when I'm feeling like that. But at the same time, it's also good. It's like a wave you've got to surf."