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.
The major theme I get from the record — and I might be projecting here — is that it seems to be about a person entering a new phase of adulthood.
That’s a broad way of putting it, but you’re spot on. At the same time, it can mean anything for anyone. I hate the idea of ruling out other people’s interpretations. But yeah, it’s about this deep feeling of transition in your psyche.
A lot of it seems to be sung from the perspective of someone who is aware that they’re going through a transition but they’re mostly calm about it. Is that your natural state? Or do you have to fight with yourself to achieve that kind of peace?
There is an internal fight, but for a lot of the album, the mood of that internal struggle is accepting it. It’s coming to terms with it, really, and deciding not to fight it anymore. That’s why track one is called “Let It Happen” — because he’s decided not to fight it anymore, and he’s just going to go with it. And the rest of the album: There’s optimism, there’s pessimism, there’s guilt. It’s the roller coaster of emotions that go with realizing that you’re changing as a person, and the things you leave behind as well — the people.
Are you prone to nostalgia or do you not have much time for that?
I definitely am. It’s a powerful, powerful thing, hearing a song you haven’t heard in ten years or something that just takes you right back to a moment that you’ve forgotten about. Or smelling a can of deodorant that you haven’t used since you were 14 or something. Sometimes I feel like I find those experiences more profound than people around me.
I keep a box of all my empty deodorant cans with one or two sprays left in them. I’ve got a box under my bed with every deodorant can I’ve had since I started buying deodorant when I was a young teenager. It’s just like going on a trip — spraying it on your skin and smelling something you haven’t smelled in years. I just find it fascinating what it does to you, what your heart goes through.
How difficult is it to balance inspiration with deadlines? I’m always curious how artists negotiate that part of the creative process.
I definitely need deadlines. I would keep working on it forever, I would never stop. So I set myself a deadline and found myself racing towards it. I’m a procrastinator. I always think I’m going to do something twice as inspired tomorrow, so I’ll hold off.
Have you ever really tested that? Have you thought, “I’ll give myself one more day,” and then something on the level of “Let It Happen” just comes to you?
That’s a dangerous question to ask myself — because if I find some sort of validation for procrastinating, there go my hopes.
Is there any specific thing on Currents that you wish you could go back and change?
[Laughs.] Don’t ask me that question. I could list off a bunch of things, but I could have listed off a bunch of things for the other two albums. There’s always immediate regret: I could have pushed the bass guitar up one decibel, I could have made the song more of a successful structure. The list is endless. That’s the nature of making an album. It’s like that saying: “You never finish an album, you just run out of time,” and that’s what it is. But it’s a blessing in disguise because it forces you to make decisions there and then. Which in the end makes for good art. I hate being pushed for time, but at the same time it makes you lock things in.
Tame Impala’s at the center of a lawsuit regarding unpaid back royalties. How’d you first hear about this?
To be honest, I haven’t had a big part in all of this. It’s been mostly lawyers, label execs — I’ve been way on the outside. I still don’t really even understand fully the details. My manager told me that some s—t was going down, that we haven’t been paid for these royalties, blah blah blah, and I was like, “Oh, that sucks.”
I’ve always felt like you’re in that business where you expect to get ripped off anyway. It’s just that classic story of the rock diva getting ripped off — it just seems fitting. I’m just letting the suits do their thing. The one thing I do understand is that it’s an extremely drawn-out process. I’ll put it this way: It’s been bubbling under the surface for a lot longer than you think.
Last question: Are you burnt out on this album the same way you were burnt out on Lonerism?
Making songs and talking about them are two completely different things. Like I’m burnt out as s—t on making the songs and making the album and mixing it. Mixing is always the hardest part. It’s always the most draining part. But that’s a sign that I’ve put my all into it. If I didn’t feel like a completely emptied-out sack of an artist, if I didn’t feel like a tube of toothpaste where every single drop had been squeezed out, I probably wouldn’t be as satisfied. There’s something sickeningly satisfying about knowing that you’ve got nothing left in you.