Locate Your Innerspeaker: Tame Impala Interviewed

Glen McLeod talks to Tame Impala singer Kevin Parker about solitude, nostalgia and being pelted with money

As this hot, languid summer takes hostage the streets of London and beyond – it’s hard to listen to Tame Impala’s debut album Innerspeaker and not hear it as the perfect musical accompaniment. Its swirling psychedelic grooves contain, at their core, perfect pop songs somewhat hidden beneath waves of tube fuzz and rolling snare. The album has a sheen not present on their previous recordings, which usually means a band has polished their sound to a point where they have removed some of the original charm. Tame Impala seem to buck that trend, instead using the studio to help widen their scope, revealing new vistas and propelling the listener further into a sun-stroked, dream like state. Some of this sheen could be attributed to the band enlisting the help of Death In Vegas man Tim Holmes to engineer the record, and psych-pop-super-producer Dave Fridmann to mix it. Although from most accounts, guitarist and vocalist Kevin Parker who produced the album is probably most responsible for capturing the band’s sound blossoming on record.

Estranged out on the west coast of Australia is Tame Impala’s hometown Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world. This isolation may in part explain riffs which have lineage back to classic 60’s rock bands like Cream over more modern influences. This can be dangerous territory – other bands mindlessly emulate a sound from the past bludgeoning what came before in their wake. But Tame Impala seem to use specific reference points to create something which evokes a feeling of days of old, rather than being a paint by numbers homage. We caught up with Kevin from the band who are currently in the middle of a US tour to find out about walking this tightrope, the dimensional portal of Dave Fridmann’s monitors and finding one’s innerspeaker…

Your new album Innerspeaker is about to be released here in the UK – what can you tell us about the recording process?

Kevin Parker: It was mainly just a couple of us in a house we rented a few hours drive from Perth. There was usually a pretty defined idea of how the song was going to turn out before we started, so it was a process of slowly putting layers on whilst trying not to be distracted by the scenery.

How did the approach differ from the first EP which was culled from home recordings?

KP: It was the first time we’d recorded a group of songs as a whole, like, one big arrangement. It was also the first batch of recordings we’d done with the intention of actually releasing them. So there was a definite effort to try and adopt a slightly more professional attitude. I think we were kidding ourselves though.

The album was mixed by Dave Fridmann who amongst other things always seems to make drums sound really interesting – was this one of the reasons you chose him?

KP: Yeah I think drums are a pretty important part of the sound whether people realise it or not, and no one makes drums sound like Dave Fridman does. When you’re in his control room with his monitors they sound like someone is drop kicking you into a black hole and then pulling you out and kicking you back in on each beat. Anyway, I had tried mixing the album myself for a while and our record label was trying to convince me to get someone professional to mix it, to which I kept saying no, until Dave suddenly popped his head up. Then it was kind of obvious.

The album feels like a piece as a whole. Are there any particular themes you were exploring or places you were hoping to take the listener?

KP: I still can’t decide whether the album is a sit-down-and-listen-to album or a soundtrack-to-your-life album. I like the idea of the latter a lot more, I think that’s when music is its most powerful. I also like the idea of music as a way of getting more out of human experience – like, if you’re walking down the street, it’s not just walking down the street, it’s all the movement and vision and feeling that goes along with it. That’s a very simple example I guess…

What is one’s innerspeaker?

KP: It’s kind of just a silly term I came up with the try to explain the feeling you get when you’re at your most inspired, the idea that it just appears to you vividly and if someone plugged a stereo into you brain they’d be able to hear it. It’s a very short thing though, I’m not like Stephen Hawking or Brian Wilson or anything…

The song ‘runway, houses, city, clouds’ has a particular resonance with me and actually helped me get through a recent break up (the cyclical nature of the song and the mantra like lyric ‘it’s true some things have to change’). What do you think of people drawing their own meaning from your lyrics and music?

KP: I think it’s pretty essential. I couldn’t bare the idea of people hearing the lyrics and just thinking about me, like they’re watching a movie or something. It’s the highest possible compliment when someone says that your song really made sense to them, or that they felt like the song was written for them.

Your sound often gets compared to 60’s psychedellia. Is this something you listened to growing up?

KP: Not really, not other than Beatles, Beach Boys etc. I don’t mind the comparison though, the feelings that 60’s psych melodies evoke are pretty rare in other styles. They’re kind of emotive and childlike and fucked up all at the same time.

You achieve a sound which is pretty authentic to that period – is this through the use of vintage equipment?

KP: Not really. I have a few vintage things but I’m not dependent on it. I think people also get confused between retro vintage sound and just plain lo-fi. A lot of the crustiness that Tame Impala recordings have is just digital equipment distorting, which most sound technicians hate, but I love.

There is a thin line between nostalgic facsimile and using existing tools to forge something new. How do you make sure you remain on the right side of the two?

KP: You can never really be sure, all I know is that I am a person of this generation or whatever, and if something is relevant and significant to me then it’s relevant and significant to the world around me. You can never really quantify how old or new something is. If I see a band that I think is REALLY just doing the retro thing, I just feel sorry for them, but if they’re really popular then I guess it’s just SAYING something about what people NOW like. Anyway, thinking about that kind of thing too much can put you in a loony bin.

There is live footage of you doing a cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Angel’ which sees you take that song to a whole new place. Are there other modern influences which you see filtering into your sound?

KP: Yes but influences are largely subconscious. Especially modern influences, who are around you all the time, so it’s everyone from Portishead to Kylie Minogue.

You have achieved a certain level of success within your home country Australia – how are you hoping to replicate this around the rest of the world?

KP: Actually I think the rest of the world has ‘got’ what we’re doing a lot better than Australia. In Australia, if you can’t play in a pub to win over 100 rowdy beer drinkers you’re not in with a good chance. There’s this artist called Lisa Mitchell who has a song is called Coin Laundry which has the lyric "Do you have a dollar?". She can’t play that song anymore because people throw dollar coins at her.

You are currently touring the US supporting MGMT and playing some shows of your own. What has the response been like so far?

KP: It’s been really startling, especially at our own shows. ‘We actually have dedicated fans! In another country? Are you serious?!’

Can we expect to see you this way anytime soon?

KP: Yes, very soon indeed.

The first single from the album is called ‘Solitude is Bliss’ – does this sentiment make even more sense while you are touring?

KP: YES. A hundred times YES.

On your website your sound is described as ‘the slime from a snail journeying across a footpath’. Aren’t you worried this slime may wash away in the rain?

KP: Yeah but then it would sink into the ground and turn into vegetation which some other snail would eat to fuel his journey across some other footpath.

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