As Tame Impala, Kevin Parker plays the world’s biggest stages to one of the most devoted followings in music. But four years on from the last album, and with fans growing restless, he’s still grappling with an all-consuming creative process – one that means pushing himself to new extremes.
Kevin Parker seems surprisingly composed for someone under enormous pressure. In a few hours, the 33-year-old will play to nearly 20,000 people at London’s O2 Arena, many of whom are desperate for him to make an announcement.
It’s been four years since the release of Tame Impala’s third album, Currents: a glorious fusion of dance, psychedelic rock and electronica that became an international hit, clocking up hundreds of millions of plays online. The trajectory behind that has been an improbable rise – one that’s forced a solitary stoner to get comfortable with the demands of success.
Growing up in Perth, Western Australia, Kevin would tinker with music in his bedroom as a way to keep his head together. His parents (his dad was an accountant from Zimbabwe who played music in his spare time, his mother a “free-spirit” from South Africa) divorced when he was four, only to briefly reunite 10 years later. The emotional fallout from that helped shape Tame Impala: a one-man studio band whose introspective anthems now warrant stadium tours and collaborations with the likes of Lady Gaga and Kanye West.
Along the way, Kevin’s fanbase – one of the most fervent in contemporary music – has grown impatient for more. The anticipation intensified earlier this year when an appearance on Saturday Night Live coincided with two new singles, setting up a run of live dates including prime-time slots at Coachella and Glastonbury, as well as back-to-back nights at Madison Square Garden. Some interpreted this as a sign that a new album must be imminent. Others have grown increasingly despondent at the lack of a title or release date, wishing he’d spend every waking moment finishing the job. No tours. No collaborations. No media appearances. Just the next instalment.
Before this interview takes place, it’s suggested (politely) that not asking about the new album would be for the best. Evidently, its release was expected to coincide with a summer full of shows… but things didn’t quite pan out that way, leaving Kevin little time to continue working on it during this schedule. Afterwards, he would tell the crowd at the O2: “We'll be back very soon, and with a bunch of new songs to play” – prompting fans to deconstruct what exactly “very soon” could mean.
What’s clear is that it will not be rushed. Conjuring a Tame Impala album means pushing himself to the brink of burnout – staying up all night to record alone, caught somewhere between crippling self-doubt and obsessive drive.
Yet today, in a high-end hotel bar overlooking the River Thames, he seems perfectly grounded: the kind of personable, self-aware figure who’d make good company in any social situation. Wearing a denim jacket over a white T-shirt, black jeans and a pair of Saint Laurent high-tops that a stylist let him keep, he leans forward with elbows rested on his knees – ready to open up about his state of mind... even though it’s probably the last thing he needs.
How has success impacted your window for creativity?
At the start, I only ever used to make music for myself. I’d make it in my bedroom with the knowledge that no one would be hearing it except me... and maybe my friends. I had ambition; I dreamt of the whole world hearing it. But to actually be successful, by definition, means that there are now lots of people anticipating it. That changes the creative process because I don’t feel like I’m making it just for me any more. I’m making it for everyone. But it’s impossible to have changes in life without it changing the music anyway, whether it’s success, where you are geographically or who you hang around with.
Your dad once warned that if you did music full-time, it would lose its magic. Have there been moments when you felt like he might’ve been right?
He was right sometimes, but he wasn’t referring to doing it as a full-time job in the way I’m doing it now. I think he meant it as me being a struggling musician. I know he wanted the best for me but I don’t think he thought I would become this successful. Not in a million years.
Do you think he would have loved to be where you are right now?
Totally. He had ambitions, the same as I did... but he didn’t really have the creative spark to write his own songs. He was a bit more pragmatic about everything.
As a teen, you went from a delinquent phase to being more in your shell. What do you think brought about that shift?
I got caught smoking weed by my dad when I was about 13, and he barred me from all my friends. He also called all their parents and told them they’d been smoking weed. That was catastrophic for my social life, absolutely catastrophic. I wasn’t allowed to see them, I wasn’t allowed to go to their houses, so I basically just lost all my friends and had to make new ones – which, when you’re that age, is no easy task. So that contributed to it. I lost some braggadocio – that early teen swagger – and descended into that self-questioning, overemotional side to being a teenager. I lost my mojo, basically.
I guess the best thing about being an introvert is that you enjoy your own company and there’s a sense of independence – which I think [2012 album] Lonerism celebrates. But you’ve also talked about this moment when you were 15, brushing your teeth one day before bursting into tears at the thought of how lonely you were. Where do you think that came from?
Oh, there was some heavy shit going on in my family. I was basically kind of abandoned. Me and my brother were just brushed to the side, in a way. We didn’t have a good year. I was about 14 or 15; he was two years older. I felt like I had nobody. I mean, teenagers can feel like that even when they are loved, so being that age just compounded things.
When people would ask what you wanted to do with your life at that point, was it a source of anxiety or self-doubt?
Well, here’s the thing... At that time, when family life was in the shithouse, the reason why all I could think about was becoming a famous rockstar is because I thought people would actually respect me, people would love me. So I’d just play guitar and write a hundred songs – it came pouring out of me. I became transfixed. By the time I actually signed a record deal, I was living in a shared house with a lot of other musicians. I kind of got comfortable with who I was and I had friends around me who shared the same interests. I didn’t need to be famous any more. I was quite happy just doing that. I guess you could say the music was purer then because I wasn’t driven by these grandiose ambitions.
Do you have anything left to prove now? What’s the self-applied pressure like?
There is always something to prove – just for myself, if nothing else. Even if you’ve done great things in the past... if you haven’t done something great lately, then none of that matters. I’m proud of all the music I’ve done but the more time passes, the more it doesn’t matter. It’s like that Janet Jackson line, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I heard Josh Homme say that once and it kind of resonated with me.
But I’m sure all your favourite artists have reached that point and it wouldn’t change your respect or admiration for them.
Hopefully not. That’s just a thought process. Obviously, logically, if you’ve done great things then they’re always there. They don’t go anywhere. When I was working on Currents, I was like, ‘Oh, shit... This is hard! Okay, I’ll just get to the end of this album and after that I won’t care. If I can just finish it, I won’t put this pressure on myself ever again because I know I’ll have achieved what I need to achieve.’
But it’s a lie, isn’t it?
It’s a lie! It’s an absolute lie. I mean, well… I was wrong because fast-forward four years and I feel exactly the same. I told myself, ‘Do this album and then don’t feel this pressure again because you’ll have done three great albums.’ But that disintegrates. All that lack of having something to prove disintegrates. That’s what I’m talking about: sooner or later you feel as if you’ve got something to prove all over again. As long as you desire to evolve and feel accomplished, then that will always be there.
“When you’re at the top, it’s like you’re trying to hold on to everything. That feeling of trying to keep everything in place is extremely stifling. It feels like if you make one wrong step, you’ll lose it all.”
You’ve talked about this approach where you need to feel worthless in order to make music. From a distance, that sounds unhealthy. Where do you think that impulse comes from?
When I say ‘worthless’, I mean in a day-to-day sense – not in the depths of depression that I know a lot of people experience. When things are going well, I just don’t have the same creative spark. It’s difficult to describe. I guess it’s when you feel like, ‘Well, I’m already at the bottom, I don’t have anything to lose. The only way is up.’ But when you’re at the top, it’s like you’re trying to hold on to everything. That feeling of trying to keep everything in place is extremely stifling. It feels like if you make one wrong step, you’ll lose it all. Being creative is about being bold and fearless and not caring what the consequence is. You just want to express yourself.
Often you drink wine or smoke weed when you’re making music. What are you tapping into through those altered states?
I’m not sure it’s necessarily tapping into something; I think it’s more escaping.
Letting your guard down?
Yeah, letting your guard down. I realised that I drink alcohol to escape the pressure and I smoke weed to escape overthinking. I obviously don’t want to seem like I’m advocating weed, especially in a country where it’s still illegal, but there’s a potency to music when you’re stoned. I don’t know what it is; there’s probably been countless scientific studies, but to me it’s undeniable. And as much as I don’t want to influence young kids who are reading this and might think, ‘That’s really great,’ make no mistake: I don’t need weed or alcohol to make music. Some of my best songs have been written stone-cold sober. ‘Let It Happen’; ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.’ So it’s not like it’s a gateway or essential at all. It’s more about removing yourself from that day-to-day cognition, that rigmarole your brain has got itself into just by being in the world and having to think rationally.
Do all these forms of pushing yourself to extremes not take it out of you?
Absolutely, but that’s also part of it. If I didn’t feel drained after I’d finished a song or an album, then I’d know that I wouldn’t have given it my all.
So you think that burning yourself out means that you’ve done a good job, in a way?
I think it’s essential. Well, maybe not for everyone... but it is for me. Especially because it’s only me doing it. If Tame Impala was 10 different people – a five-piece band, a producer, a mixing engineer and a pair of songwriters or something – then obviously the load would be shared... But it just wouldn’t be Tame Impala, and I think my fans would pick up on that. They’d be like, ‘Oh, this is not fully him.’ So this is the system I’ve backed myself into and I’m fine with that.
What does your wife think about the way you invest yourself in this?
I think she worries about me when I have to go to extremes with it. But at the end of the day, it’s kind of always what I do. I’m never in a concerning state. I think I do a pretty good job at managing to keep my head above water emotionally and physically.
Do you have a particular way of managing that?
No, I don’t. In a way, that’s what music is for me – it’s keeping myself in shape. If I didn’t have pieces of music that I was really proud of at the end of the process, then I’d be a bit concerned. I’ve had ups and downs in my life with family and that kind of thing, and I know a lot of people who have experienced similar things and haven’t turned out as good. So I think I’m an interesting case [study] for having music as an outlet. Music has always been my stabiliser. It almost doesn’t matter what else is going on in my life. If I’ve got music as an outlet for expression – for emotion, for pain – then I just don’t feel it. It doesn’t weigh me down in the way it might with other people.
You were once asked how you know when an album’s finished – and you answered, “When someone says, ‘Time’s up.’” You’ve reached a point where no one’s going to force your hand. Do you think you could make an album forever?
Yeah, very easily – and that is a danger. The more power and control I have over the music, the more freedom and respect I’m given by my record label, then the more I don’t have them going like, ‘Right, you’ve got to fucking finish this.’ So that is an issue.
Well, Kanye started tweaking and revising his album digitally even after it was released. Could you see yourself doing that?
It’s dangerous. When I first heard that he’d done that, I just went, ‘Oh, no! That’s gonna be me.’ When [new single] ‘Patience’ came out, I can’t tell you the number of things I wanted to change. I held myself back… well, actually, I didn’t. I asked if we could [make changes]… so that’s deadly. But at the same time – and this is me enabling myself even more – the way we release music has changed so much. What’s inherently wrong with an artist changing a song after it’s been released? Are there rules that we’re not able to look past because we’re stuck in our ways? What if releasing a song was fluid? What if there wasn’t this set period of time when an artist works on a piece of art and they pick a day to share it with the world and it can’t be changed after that?
“When family life was in the shithouse, the reason why all I could think about was becoming a famous rockstar is because I thought people would actually respect me, people would love me.”
Well, people get attached to one version.
That is true. That’s a very good point. If Da Vinci kept changing the Mona Lisa, everybody would’ve been like, ‘Dude, just stop!’
Before Currents came out, you called it ‘completely unlistenable’. That obviously wasn’t true, but it reminded me of my own creative process. There’ll be eureka moments where I feel like I’ve nailed it… Then when I come back to it later, it feels like the biggest piece of crap ever made. I call it a process of self-betrayal. Do you get that?
If that’s what it’s called, then that’s what I get. It’s chronic. You get the soaring highs of having that eureka moment, as you say, from working on a song that you think is the best thing you’ve ever done. It’s going to change your life, it’s going to change everyone’s life! ‘How could anyone not think this is life-changing?’ Then it comes out and it’s the exact opposite: ‘How could anyone think this is good?’ I’m starting to accept that’s just how it goes. Maybe there is a cure but now I try to tell myself, ‘I’m going to hate this song when it comes out but maybe in two years’ time I’ll love it again.’ I love Currents now; I get why people like it. But I didn’t at the start.
Let’s say you have a song that comes easily and, at the time, you don’t think it’s a standout moment. Yet you gradually see it become something that everyone loves. Could that lead you, even unconsciously, into second-guessing creative decisions?
I think that would just open the doors to making shit you don’t like... and that no one else will like either. But that was the case with ‘Elephant’. I put it on [Lonerism] as a kind of joke, as filler, because the rest of the album was so wishy-washy emotionally and I just wanted to have a psych-rock stomper. It almost didn’t make it on the album. But the label was like, ‘No, no, this is definitely the single’; everyone who listened to it was like, ‘Dude, it’s a single.’ I just said, ‘Okay, if you say so.’ Even now I’m like, ‘Oh, that song is so meat-headed’. But, actually, you know what? I’m just starting to come around to it.
When you made Lonerism, the process was also agonising… but you discovered a sense of confidence and freedom in making it, too. Why do you think that was?
I think because I hadn’t sung about those kind of [personal] things before. I hadn’t felt confident enough. That really wasn’t on my colour palette until then. The lyrics were more abstract. Then I started using the elements of psych rock as a vehicle for me to sing about insecurities. I’d always known that psychedelic music was kind of explorative and introspective, but not in that way. So when I started singing about how it felt to grow into being the loner personality that I was, about feeling this alienation with other people, that felt really good. [laughs] It felt great.
It’s this idea that you have to chop a little bit of yourself off and share it with the world, which can feel like a sacrifice.
That’s it, a hundred per cent.
Are you more comfortable with that now? Or is there still a reticence?
It’s still tough, because by the sheer definition... chopping a bit of yourself off is chopping a bit of yourself off. But no pain, no gain, I guess.
Recently you revisited that spot in Paris where you took the photograph which would become the cover of Lonerism. Did you feel a chill going back there?
Absolutely. That’s why I went. I didn’t go there just to take a picture for Instagram. I wanted to experience that feeling of, ‘Hey, I’m back in the same spot.’ I’m not superstitious or someone who believes in spirits but I could almost see the ghost of myself all those years ago, standing there with that camera and wearing that fuckin’ duffel coat I had. I wanted to feel that feeling of nostalgia, that moment when you get this kind of glimpse of everywhere you’ve been since then.
Way back at the start, when a record label called you to confirm their interest, did the timing feel significant? What do you remember about that day?
I remember hanging out at the university library. I had [astronomy] exams at the time, and there was one that I really didn’t want to do. Glen, the guy from Modular [Recordings], had got in contact through MySpace and said, ‘Hey, I’m really into your stuff.’ We’d been messaging back and forth; they were deciding whether they were going to go ahead, but nothing was confirmed. I’d totally mentally checked out from uni long before that, anyway. But on that particular day, I was expecting a call from them. It just so happened that the exam I was dreading was about to start. I kept looking at my watch, looking at my phone, thinking, ‘Okay, which one’s going to happen first?’ I think he called with 20 minutes to go and I just said, ‘Yeah, sweet. Sounds good.’ I put my books in my bag like, ‘Fuck this!’ and never went back.
What mistakes have turned out to be a good thing for you?
Probably being stubborn and unwilling to do things any way that’s not mine. That’s always been my stumbling block: I’ve got my way of doing it and any other way is just poison, which is obviously not true. You should always be as open-minded as possible. But on the other hand, all of my albums would sound completely different if I had taken people’s advice. Lonerism sounds the way it does because I was completely unwilling to learn how to properly record something.
Maybe it’s a bad moral to the story, but I think Lonerism sounds so unique because I didn’t listen to anyone. Even the fact that Tame Impala is completely a one-man operation is another product of me being uncompromisingly singular… I have so much respect for people who can work on something and embrace lots of other inputs but, for me… [he trails off] This is getting deep! You’ve tapped into some deep shit here. I don’t know what it is, it’s not like it’s arrogance; it’s not like, ‘Oh, I can do it better.’ It’s just like... this is not me unless it’s all me, 100 per cent my expression.
That’s the way it’s always been. I’m constantly wanting to learn new things, to expand my way of doing things… I love playing instruments, writing songs, mixing, producing, playing with sounds – all of it. I wouldn’t want to give one of those tasks to someone else because then I’d miss out on doing it. At the same time, I do often have a longing to share the job I’m doing with someone. It would be nice. But I guess I’m just not good enough at knowing how to do that.