Kevin Parker’s in Pittsburgh when he answers his phone. It’s early June and the 29-year-old Australian — the ambitious but self-effacing mastermind behind Tame Impala, one of the most critically gushed-over bands to rise to prominence in the 2010s — is on a bus en route to New York City. In a few days, Tame Impala, which is a five-piece onstage but Parker’s one-man venture on record, will end its most recent tour with a late-afternoon set on the final day of this year’s Governors Ball Music Festival — a booking that puts the psych-rock torchbearers not too far below top-billed behemoths like the Black Keys, Drake, and Deadmau5.
“Not too bad,” Parker says, when asked how he’s feeling. “Not too good, either.” That noncommittal answer, broken up by a sigh and a chuckle, is exactly the kind of unassuming sincerity one would expect from a guy who opens his feverishly anticipated new album with an all-will-be-well mantra called “Let It Happen.” The nearly eight-minute “Let It Happen” — with its snapping percussion, fidgety synth transmissions, and symphonic second half — surfaced back in March, kickstarting the hype and promotional cycle for Currents, Tame Impala’s third album and the follow-up to 2012’s lauded Lonerism. Rightly hailed as one of the year’s best songs, the single also reintroduced the project as something far more omnivorous than it had been in the past.
In its current incarnation, Tame Impala’s as likely to pull from R&B’s rhythms, disco’s flash, and dance music’s need to please than it is to reference day-tripping psychedelia (if not more so). And that horizon-expanding open-mindedness can be felt all throughout Currents, which is out today on Interscope. Already earning accolades as “a timeless classic” and “the purest distillation” of everything that makes the band a pleasure to listen to, the 13-track LP is a rich song suite about self-discovery; a work that brings people to the verge of tears; the vision of a self-described “grunge kid” who’s grown into “a much worldlier person these days,” as he puts it.
Parker discussed the making of Currents, the challenges of being a perfectionist in a creative field, and why he hoards deodorant in the below Q&A, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When you were putting Currents together, did you feel extraordinary pressure because Lonerism was so well-received? Or was it the usual kind of anxiety that comes with any new project?
I think the only pressure I felt was the pressure I put on myself — just the pressure to live up to my own expectation of what I wanted the album to be, and because I was treading new territory with this album. It was a suck-it-and-see kind of situation. I was like, “Well, I’m going to go into this and give it my all.” So, I wanted to successfully do something new, and even just have the confidence to go through with it. Because that can happen a lot of the time: You have grand ideas and then you just end up backing out and go with the safe option.
What’s your relationship with Lonerism like now? I understand why you would be burnt out on it — playing all of the songs so much and talking to the press…
Oh, it’s not even that; just finishing it was the burnout. Everything that followed was kind of fun. Because the live shows, they change. If we get bored of the song or the way the song is structured, we’ll change up, rearrange the song to fit the live realm better. But it’s only really now that I get to listen to it without some completely biased ear. It’s only a few years later that I got to appreciate it the way other people have.
When it came out and people started liking it — and this is the same with the first album — I couldn’t see why. Like, “Why do you like this album? Can’t you hear the drums f—k up at 1:23? Can’t you hear me singing out of tune at the start of the second verse of ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’?” So for me it’s been a long time not to just hear the flaws. And I thought people were just being nice when they said it was a good album. I thought all of the magazines were being paid by our label to give us good reviews. I’ve got a paranoid mind sometimes.
That record is part of the new canon, I think. It’s considered by some to be kind of a modern classic.
Oh, no, no, no.
Did you set any specific rules or goals for yourself with the new record?
I think — and this is going to come across as extremely cliché [laughs] — the only rule was to make an attempt to abandon the rules that I’ve set up in the past. [They weren’t] like conscious rules, or anything, but just boundaries that I’d put up for myself.
What kinds of boundaries?
Things like not using drum machines, not using certain effects that in the past I would have considered cheesy or musically taboo — but only from me at my most snobby, musically and intellectually snobby. Because the other part of me — I love all music that makes you feel good. All pop music. Well, not all pop music, I shouldn’t say that.
There are parts of me that would just make instantly gratifying music, and a part of me that is dedicated to making music with depth, something you can sink your teeth into, something that has layers and you can explore the dimensions of. There’s always those two sides battling it out — or getting along, if they want.
Your vocals are much higher up in the mix here than in the past — they’re not buried under as much reverb or effects. What was the impulse behind that? Was it for the sake of doing something different, or did you specifically want people to understand the lyrics on this record?
I put so much time into the lyrics and I feel like I bare my soul a little bit more with each album. With each album, I get more and more proud of my lyrics, of what I’m able to break off of myself and put into a song. And with the last album I was really proud of the lyrics; I wanted people to get the message of each song, but it so happened that I had a million other parts of the mix that I wanted to squeeze in there as well.
I guess I was a little disappointed in myself for how difficult it was to extract meaning from the songs by listening to it — which is why the lyrics were printed in the sleeve. I felt like you could still kind of understand what I was saying. I basically gave them a fighting chance by putting the lyrics in the booklet. And this album, for me, the message of the music is just as strong as the music itself. They’re basically hand-in-hand, whereas in the past, I think I started out making music with vocals just being treated as another instrument.