Tame Impala: “Lonerism’s good, but it’s not that good”

“I used to do a lot of shoplifting when I was about 12 to 14.” Ahead of their appearance at Groovin The Moo, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker tells DAVID SWAN probably a little more than he should…

When I think of one-man bands I tend to automatically think of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins; an all-singing, all-dancing act with multiple instruments attached to every limb, good for a novelty but ultimately an unsustainable artistic model. You need a band, man. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker has well and truly proved me wrong. Not only is he every bit as charming and talented as Van Dyke’s Bert, but his inspired layering of grooves, fuzz, drums and psychedelic vocals combined to make one of 2012’s most acclaimed albums, not just in Australia but anywhere.

Parker is on a seemingly unstoppable roll towards even greater heights, and we caught up with him just a week before Tame Impala’s huge Coachella set to talk about dealing with critical acclaim, shoplifting, and why the future of the band is not exactly certain.

How are you going, Kevin?

Good, man.

Where are you at at the moment?

Fremantle, near Perth. It’s really sunny, I didn’t think it was gonna be this sunny this late in the season. Beachworthy, in fact.

Let’s talk a bit about Lonerism, what exactly did you tap into with that album? Was it the themes of isolation, or was there a void in good rock music, or maybe good Aussie rock music more specifically?

[laughs] I dunno. Your guess is as good as mine, really. Um, I think it just sounds a bit different to a lot of other stuff. Maybe it’s something to do with the approach, for me, I know that doesn’t sound this way to most people, but to me it’s an electronic structure. That’s how I approached it. I’m using the computer to do it, recording beats and bass lines and vocals and putting them all together. So it’s that layered thing, but it’s not really an electronic sound. It’s an electronic way of piecing it together.

I read that you were writing the album using a persona, do you think the albums that you write have to be written that way, are you scared of being honest? And does that tie into having distorted vocals and things like that?

I guess a little bit, now that I think about it. I probably just need to distance myself from myself I guess, I feel more liberated just pretending I’m singing about someone else. I’m not consciously thinking of another person or a persona, it’s just a subconscious thing. The lyrics are from the heart, and from the soul, but you just don’t consider it as you for some reason. It’s like you’re watching a movie or something. It’s a parallel universe version of yourself.

“I feel more liberated just pretending I’m singing about someone else.”

Does it touch on actual events and experiences then from your life, or is it more distant than that?

I think usually there’s some personal experience, definitely. I wouldn’t feel as proud of the music if it wasn’t real. For me it has to be real. It can’t be made up or completely plucked out of the air, it’s gotta come from somewhere. It’s gotta come from somewhere, and the only way I can be confident enough with the songs is knowing they come from somewhere deep.

Have the new songs and the album changed for you since their success, and playing them live and having all the critical acclaim, the top 10 end of year lists and things like that?

I guess it makes me think more and more what the big deal is, with the music. If no one cared, I’d be like, “Oh come on, it’s pretty good.” But if everyone hated it, I’d be like, “Come on, someone’s gotta like it?” … And when a lot of people rave about it, I’m like, “Well hang on, it’s not that good.” [laughs] “It’s good, but it’s not that good.”

So it caught you by surprise then?

I guess so, yeah definitely. I don’t know if it’s surprise exactly, but that’s the thing, I don’t even know if I was expecting it or not. Sometimes you’re working on a song and you’re so deep in it, and you think it’s the best thing that’s ever been done ever. You’re fully in love with it, and you think it’s amazing. And then other days you’ll think [it’s] beige hogwash, and you cant imagine anyone liking it. So there’s a whole range of ways of interpret it, and ways of listening to it and appreciating it. So I couldn’t answer whether or not I expected that kind of thing, because at different times I expected different things.

Does that make it harder then not having a band, because you’re the one that has to self-censor and your opinions will always change, whereas having a band you’d have people around you that can decide what’s shit and what’s not?

Yeah, it makes it a complete headfuck [laughs]. But that’s part of the ride. Having absolutely no perception, it’s kind of one of the beautiful things about it.

Do you see the arc of your career as continuing to rise? For example, can you see yourselves becoming a stadium band, or is that at odds with what you want to achieve?

Yeah, hopefully not. I like that more people are digging it, but the thing is, on a purely physical level, the bigger the venues you play, the shitter they sound. I don’t wanna talk down the venues we’re playing on this tour, but the Horden Pavillion, it’s gonna be a cool show if enough people rock up, but it’d just a bigger challenge for the sound guy to make it sound cool, and not just like you’re pumping music out of an aircraft hangar. That’s the only thing I have against being more popular.

Yeah, you don’t have a moral thing against “selling out”?

No, well it’s difficult to imagine the “arc of our career”. As far as I’m concerned, until I think of a batch of new songs, there is no Tame Impala. It could end, I could run out of songs tomorrow, or I could keep going forever. I don’t actually know. I think I could keep going, but who knows. I don’t know.

Are you writing new stuff at the moment then or focussing more on the shows?

A bit of everything. I’m constantly thinking about new things, which I guess is a good sign [laughs]. Even at the moment I think I’ve got too many new ideas for directions in the music. In fact, if I went headfirst into it now I’d find myself following too many different paths, I think. So if I made an album out of that it’d sound like this fuckin’ mess of genres and ideas. So I think at the moment I’m just allowing it to settle in my brain before I physically start recording anything.

What about Pond, do you think it’s inevitable you’ll have to make it entirely separate, with separate dudes in each band?

Who knows, we’ve kinda always had this theme where we’ve got a number of bands running at once and one month is one band and the next month is the other band, or something like that. I guess we’ll just cross that bridge when we come to it. I think the Pond guys have more or less wrapped up for the year, but they’re still recording, because that’s what they do. There’s too much Tame stuff on now, but once there’s a lull they’ll get back to doing stuff. I don’t think they’re too precious about having enough time, we just do what we do when we can do it.

Can we talk about your childhood, it seems like it doesn’t get brought up a lot. Do you feel like you had a weird childhood?

I don’t know, I always thought I was a pretty normal kid, but looking back to the kinda person I was around other people made me realise I was a bit of a freak [laughs]. I was a bit of a freak and no wonder what happened.

Socially, with your mates and stuff?

Yeah, and just other people. I mean, I can’t really put a finger on why it was, or what it was exactly I was doing that was weird. I guess that kind of delusion of thinking that other people are as into things that you’re into, as much as you, which isn’t true. I wanted to be a social kid, you know, I wanted to be one of the “gang”, in a gang, but I dunno, I was too weird [laughs].

Do you have any particularly bad stories?

Yeah, I got mixed up in the wrong kinda crowd for a while. I used to do a lot of shoplifting when I was about 12 to 14, I was just looking for a way to get excited basically.

Did you ever get caught?

Yeah, I got caught. That’s why I stopped doing it. I got taken home in a police car one day. Me and my friend Keith got caught stealing wallets from a surf store, cause Keith accidentally left the barcode on and it went off on the beeper. And now every time I walk into a surf store and I smell the surf store, I get a massive phobia. And I can’t walk through metal detectors, they freak the shit out of me man. Anyway, the guy called the cops and I went home in a police car, so that was the end of that.

“Between ‘Innerspeaker’ and ‘Lonerism’ a few of us had to get jobs because we weren’t touring, and we had to get money, you know. We’re not super rich.”

Were you still mates with Keith? He fucked up pretty bad.

Yeah, I was pretty pissed off. It was actually a bunch of my friends, but I was the one with the backpack, so they ran off and it was just me left. That was a heavy day. I was no longer an innocent child at that point.

FL ran an article recently on how much musicians really get paid, and public perceptions of that. What’s your position now, are you full-time and did you feel like you needed to make it overseas in order to sustain being a full-time musician?

From what I know, which isn’t much, it’s different for everyone. Some bands can sell out massive shows in Australia and then if they leave Australian shores no one’s heard of them. Some people tour around a lot, or you know they don’t tour much, or not many people go to their gigs, but for some reason they sell lots of merch. They sell lots of merch in India, just random things like that seems to be what happens. And I don’t even know how we fit in, but we’re doing alright, we don’t have extra jobs really anymore. We did there for a while, between Innerspeaker and Lonerism a few of us had to get jobs because we weren’t touring, and we had to get money, you know. We’re not super rich.

You’ve just been in the States, have the overseas crowds been getting on board as much as your Australian fans?

Yeah, America’s always been great. They’re all such music fans. Music fans of America are music fans to the core, they just really love music and they’ll show up hours before the gig. And for the first time ever we had people coming to each show, they did the whole “following the tour” kinda thing. We’d see them outside the venue each night. They’d jump in their car after each gig and drive to the next one. There was one guy who went to seven or eight shows, all across America. It’s insane.

Do you have any other side projects in the works now that people need to know about?

Well, Jay [Watson, synths] and Julien [Barbagallo, drummer] played a gig once [with] their imaginary band. It was kind of a joke but then they played a gig so it wasn’t much of a joke anymore. Anyway they’re gonna release an album of that show. That’s something to look forward to. And I think Gum [Jay Watson’s] recording a new solo album. Everyone’s just kind of doing their own solo music as well. I think Nick [Allbrook’s] working on stuff, everyone’s working on stuff. But in terms of actual band – let me think. Julien and I have a band and we hope to play more gigs for. We’re called Relation Longue Distance … It’s French for “long distance relationship”, and it’s just this little project we were doing in Paris for a while, we played a few shows. We played at David Lynch’s bar [Silencio], but we kept it kinda under wraps. We were just messing around.

Are you looking at doing a bit more with that?

Hopefully, we want to. But unfortunately Julien still lives in Toulouse, France.

It is a long distance relationship then isn’t it.

Exactly. We may do the gig via Wi-Fi. It would be the first ever Wi-Fi gig. That’s a good idea actually…

Write it down.

I’m definitely going to write that down [laughs].

Do you have a favourite memory from the journey so far, and any regrets?

Well the big regret – there’s no one instance – but for the first couple of years that we were touring I wasn’t having very much fun onstage. I forgot to have fun. But I don’t even regret that, because once I realised that playing live was about having fun, it was kind of a grand awakening. That was just my own personal journey [laughs].

Were you just trying to control everything a bit much?

In a way. I was just kinda bugged out about the live sound, and live bands and the way the Tame Impala studio recordings converted to a live band. I was just basically wigged out about that transition. Nowadays I’m just totally at peace with it. I’ve accepted they’re two completely different things, and embracing the qualities of both. It allows you to make music in two completely different ways.

Any high points?

Any of the festivals we’ve played have just been really beautiful, let me think. I think we played a festival in New Zealand that was really beautiful, and looked like Middle Earth, that whole thing [laughs]. Basically any gig we get to play and there’s a wide open sky.

Related: The Growl – On the road with Tame Impala

Tame Impala Groovin’ The Moo sideshows:

Friday, April, 26 – Festival Hall, Melbourne

Thursday, May 2 – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney

Wednesday, May 8 – Convention Centre, Brisbane

Thursday, May 9 – Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide

Saturday, May 18 – Belvoir Amphitheatre, Perth

FL presents Groovin’ The Moo 2013:

Saturday, April 27 – Showgrounds, Maitland

Sunday, April 28 – University, Canberra

Saturday, May 4 – Prince of Wales Showground, Bendigo

Sunday, May 5 – Murray Sports Complex – Cricket Grounds, Townsville

Saturday, May 11 – Hay Park, Bunbury