Tame Impala: Inner Visions
Holed up in a Sydney hotel room, Kevin Parker from Tame Impala talks to DARREN LEVIN about moving up in the world, his preference for budget recording techniques and how he taught an old dog like Dave Fridmann some new tricks.
“Wait. What day is it today?”
It’s midway through Tame Impala’s recently completed national tour – the band are currently in the US supporting MGMT – and frontman Kevin Parker is full of a cold. “I’m stuffing my face with Vitamin C and painkillers,” he says down the phone from his Sydney hotel room, “so I might just fall asleep.” Parker nevertheless sparks up when talk turns to his new album. No, not the band's debut Innerspeaker – the one he’s supposed to be spruiking today – but another, more synth-based effort he’s been writing with drummer Jay Watson.
The album, influenced by Todd Rundgren’s 1973 opus A Wizard, a True Star and a bunch of analog synths he purchased on eBay, doesn’t just signal a shift in sound for Tame Impala, but approach. The band is essentially Parker’s home recording project, but has recently become a more collaborative affair with the increased involvement of Watson, as well as bassist Dominic Simper and guitarist Nick Allbrook (aka Paisley Adams), who augment Tame Impala live. The foursome live a commune-like existence in a sharehouse in Perth, where they collaborate on several other projects including the Watson and Allbrook-helmed Pond, which features Parker on drums.
Late last year, they shifted digs to an “enormous” mansion on the coast, about four hours south of Perth, to begin work on debut album Innerspeaker. Released on May 21 through Modular, it’s a woozy psychedelic effort that reflects, among other things, Parker’s esteem for Dungen, ’70s prog and lo-fi recording techniques.
I noticed there’s a few Pond shows interspersed on this tour. Is that normal for you guys?
If we can do it, yeah. We did it in Japan a while ago … We may as well do it. It’s something else to do other than sit in your hotel room and smoke weed. It’s good having that outlet where you’re not playing a gigantic Forum show, you’re just playing a small club gig – I’m playing drums and having fun, and Jay [Watson] is playing guitar and synth.
It’s not draining for you, especially on a long tour?
Not at all. It’s a completely different beast. With Pond I have absolutely no apprehensions before the gig. I’m not nervous in the slightest. It’s just me having fun and I get to play with my friends.
Do you typically get nervous before Tame Impala shows?
[Pauses] It’s weird. With the really big shows, I don’t get nervous, but with the small ones I do. I get nervous about an hour before, but half-an-hour before I’m fine.
“To me, a recording that’s considered lo-fi by everyone else, just sounds more real than the latest Guns N’ Roses album.”
Did you ever imagine you’d sell out a venue like the [1500-capacity] Forum [in Melbourne]?
Not in million years. The situation reminds me of that video game GTA [Grand Theft Auto], or some movie, where this gangster starts out owning a small club, some dingy thing on the corner in a ghetto. He drives past the hottest club in town and someone says to him [in a low voice], “One day you’re going to own this place” … When we first came to Melbourne we saw a Presets show at The Forum – actually we just got there at the end of it. I remember standing on the stage at the end of The Presets show and thinking, “Whoa.” Just knowing that we’d never play it, but it was still fun to pretend we would – and then we did.
I think you’ve just described the latest season of Underbelly.
[Laughs] Yes yes, that’s what I was going for. That kind of gangster, moving up in the world thing. I haven’t actually seen the latest season of Underbelly, but that’s probably spot on.
In that sense, I really like how you’ve stuck to your guns and made a lo-fi sounding record.
Was the temptation there to go big studio, big budget?
There was a big temptation to make it sound a lot more hi-fi, but there was never a temptation to go to LA. That was a no brainer for us. The idea of going to some flash studio where there’s some stranger telling you how to arrange your song is pretty absurd to us … I started out wanting it to be really crusty and raw, but by the time we finished I wanted it to be really hi-fi and slick, so I’m glad there was something stopping it from being hi-fi, which was the microphones we used.
There was a great description of the album you gave in your Age interview as a “low rumble”, with all the frequencies clustered together.
Definitely. I love that sound. It sounds more cohesive, like an organism.
What does lo-fi offer you aesthetically that hi-fi doesn’t?
That’s a hard one. As you said, the frequencies are more clustered together, so there’s less of the bottom bottoms and less of the top tops [frequencies]. It’s more in the middle, just this crusty rumbling thing. I really just like that sound. To me, a recording that’s considered lo-fi by everyone else, just sounds more real than the latest Guns N’ Roses album.
Or the latest Wolfmother album.
Yeah, exactly. I think at some stage in the evolution of recording rock bands, it went from trying to get the most accurate representation possible to making it more than what it sounds like. When you listen to the kick drum of a modern-day rock recording, it doesn’t sound the way it does in a room. It sounds like something else. So that gives me confidence that I’m not making a false representation of what it sounds like in the room. I have an attachment to reproducing the sound as accurately as possible. I think a lot of professionals strive for absolute clarity. That’s why it’s nice doing it ourselves, because there’s no one there telling us we have to.
It’s interesting to me that you grew up in a generation of Pro Tools and GarageBand. Where does that [lo-fi] obsession come from?
I think it just sounds more fiendish [laughs]. When you listen to something that’s lo-fi, it sounds on the verge of unlistenable. Have you ever heard of Wavves?
Wavves with a double “v”?
Yeah, that pretty much sums up what I’m talking about. It’s just so much more fiendish. It has a different emotion to it, it brings out a different feeling when it’s absolutely blaring at you. It sounds like it was recorded at a million decibels, but it obviously wasn’t.
I’m interested in the transition from Tame Impala as a home recording project. Is it more a collaborative thing now?
It wasn’t for this album. It was very much how it used to be. Dom [Simper, bass] was there to help out, but Jay and Nick [Allbrook, guitar] weren’t really there at the recording, because they were off working on a Pond album. In the future it will be. Jay and I are writing songs together now. I’m really excited about the new album.
The next album?
Oh, yeah yeah. We’ve written a lot of songs for it. I’m more excited for the next album than Innerspeaker, I guess. With Innerspeaker I had a lot of tension worked up in my brain, I was quite careful and now that that’s been laid in we can do whatever we want, give into any temptation we have. I’m loving these new songs we’re doing. Jay is writing a lot, and it’s been really good.
That’s good to hear. We’ve seen a lot of young bands release a debut album and then flog it for two years, like Children Collide or The Temper Trap.
Well, it’s all we really do at home: think about music or record music in some way or another. Pond are always making albums as well, so I feel like Tame Impala have to keep up with their prolific rate of making albums. I couldn’t imagine sitting on a bunch of songs for that long. It feels natural to move on.
You spoke before about a sense of tension when making the record. Was that a result of expectations from listeners or your label [Modular]?
Not so much. The only expectation I had was from my friends. I wanted to make an album that was as good as theirs. If anything, it was expectation from myself. I had this idea of what it was going to sound like, and what it was going to be like, and I didn’t want to deviate far from that. I was close minded. If I had some crazy idea, I’d dismiss it and do what I originally thought of. It gives the album its character, but it also has its limitations.
What’s the genesis of a Tame Impala song?
I’ll have a sudden, spontaneous vision of a song, have all the parts mapped out in mind, and do my best to record it as quick as I can. I’ll find my eight-track and do a quick demo of just the riff, or a verse or a chorus. The song will go for like 30 seconds. I’ll have a whole bunch of them [demos] and then I’ll just choose which ones to make into full songs.
Do you jam the ideas out with the band?
Not usually. I’ll just listen to the demo and think about which parts are going to go where. The only jamming that’s done as a band is done a long time after the song is recorded for the sake of the live environment. It’s good for us, because we can take a song that’s been recorded and do what we want to it: slow it down, speed it up, make it 10 seconds or 10 minutes long. It gives us a lot of freedom.
Tell me about the mansion you recorded the album in?
It’s a house on the coast, about four hours south of Perth, kind of in the middle of nowhere. It was on top of a hill, so we could see a gigantic, 360-degree view of the scenery and the coast. It was a really amazing house. I vow that if Tame Impala makes any money I’ll buy it.
How long were you there?
About seven weeks. I went a bit delirious. I didn’t leave the house for two weeks. The weather was rainy so I’d go two weeks without even stepping outside.
Were you the only constant in the house? Did the others drop in?
The only constants in the house were Dom [Simper] and I. Tim [Holmes, Death in Vegas] – the engineer – was there a lot of the time. Everyone just came and went as they pleased, to see how we were getting on or to party for a bit.
Given your DIY ethic, what was the logic in getting Tim involved?
It was the label’s idea, but at the end of the day, it was really good having him there, because he encouraged me to use better microphones and better equipment. You know, I’m quite stubborn with my methods and he encouraged me to step up the professionalism a touch. Tim was really laidback. He let me do my thing and helped out when needed. Otherwise he went fishing, read books, drank tea and smoked [laughs].
Sounds like a pretty sweet gig.
Ah, yeah. He was stoked [laughs].
Dave Fridmann mixed the album. Was it difficult handing over the tapes to someone else?
It was weird, because I’ve been a massive fan for a long time; he’s my idol in a way. But I was torn about instantly handing over everything, because I knew he’d turn it into a masterpiece, and still being stubborn and not wanting to give it to anyone. It took a while for us to establish a communication, because we’re from two ends of the earth and have a different musical upbringing and way of describing sounds. But in the end, there’s no way in hell I could’ve made the album sound as good as Dave made it sound.
Did you do it by correspondence?
Actually I went over there for a couple weeks. He’s got a log cabin in Cassadaga, about 500 miles north of New York. It’s still in New York State, but in the woods.
Did [tour mates] MGMT set up the mixing session with Dave?
I think they may have given him a heads up [laughs]. I’m not actually sure how it came about. We gave our EP to [The Flaming Lips’] Wayne Coyne at Summer Sonic [music festival] in Japan and we though it was Wayne who suggested it to him. But I think it was actually the label who contacted his manager and gave him the demo. He liked it and got back to the label saying he’d do it.
What did you learn from Dave?
Oh, so much. His teachings have only rubbed off on me now after I’ve finished the album. When I was doing it, I was quite stubborn about not using generally accepted techniques, making the album sound better with Auto-Tune and beat correction – they’re all things that correct human errors. He generally encouraged me to open up to those kind of worlds, because the objective is to make a better album. You shouldn’t close yourself off to those things. In terms of how it actually sounds, his teachings were invaluable. I feel like I’ve taken a giant leap forward as an engineer. In fact, I have this weird way of miking up the snare drum, which everyone else seems to tell me is the wrong way, but he told me he’s going to cash in on my method [laughs]. Actually, I shouldn’t really say that. That’s a ridiculous claim to make [laughs].
You’ve recently toured with MGMT, who’ve had a similarly meteoric rise. Have they given you any advice?
It was relieving to find out they’re just normal guys. They’re not full of themselves…
Have you found it hard staying grounded as well?
We’re doing really well. If anything, we think the music industry is utterly hilarious [laughs]. There are cliched personalities all around us, and sometimes we just laugh and laugh.
What are you hoping to get out of the US tour?
I have no expectations for it. It’s hard to think about a tour that’s coming while you’re on another tour. But I love being a support band for a good band. There’s nothing to lose. You get to go up and do your thing, get off and then watch your favourite band.
Is there much interest over there?
Our manager keeps telling us there is, but I’m not in America so it’s really hard to tell what’s going on.
I just wanted to return briefly to the next album. Are there plans to go into the studio soon?
We’ll probably record it at home. We’ve written a lot of stuff for it, a lot of demos, so we’re just compiling at the moment.
Is it a departure from Innerspeaker? Oh, yeah. A major major departure. It’ll be the kind of music that I felt as though I wanted to make during Innerspeaker, but I felt that it was too much of a jump. Back when I was doing Innerspeaker, I felt like I should make an album with only guitars, and use no synths, because I felt like it was a compromise to what we do. But I now know that it’s not. There’s no easier way of making music. On this next album, it’s going to open up completely what we can do sonically and songwriting [wise].
Have any influences prompted the new direction?
I’ve been buying a couple of analog synthesisers on eBay. They’re so much fun, they’re really taking the music to another level. A big influence of mine is Todd Rundgren, particularly his album, A Wizard, A True Star.
So you’re making a concept album of sorts?
Any of that kind of stuff can happen now. I feel that with Innerspeaker it wasn’t allowed to have an obvious concept. It had to be a modest album with modest songs. With this album we can give into any temptation, have a reprise, all that kind of stuff. I’m just really inspired to do things that I wasn’t allowed to do before.
Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker is out now through Modular.