EIGHT MILES HIGH IN THE LAND DOWN UNDER
In the last year Tame Impala auteur Kevin Parker has gone from trippy bedroom Lonerist to beloved global psych savant. MAGNET journeys to the Land of Oz to press an ear up to his inner speaker.
By Jonathan Valania
Kevin Parker, the one-man-band psych-rock wunderkind who records under the name Tame Impala, lives across the street from a professional magician (and sword swallower) in a quaint cul-de-sac of houses ringed with lemon trees in Freemantle, a charming seaside town of 25,000 in Western Australia. He shares a granny flat with Melody Prochet, his beautiful and cool French girlfriend, who is the singer/songwriter behind Melody’s Echo Chamber, which is also cool and beautiful and French.
His possessions are few: a navy blue hooded peacoat with toggle buttons, a drum kit and a collection of vintage oscilloscopes. His favorite band is Supertramp. He knows this bothers a lot of people. He doesn’t care. “I think he lives on another planet sometimes,” Prochet said on a recent Tuesday, sitting on the porch in the slim shade of a lemon tree.
“I really think that 97% of the time he’s thinking about music and sound and creating new kinds of sounds and new kinds of ways of making music. He’s completely obsessed with it. He’s dedicating his whole life to that.”
He’s been all over the world many times, and lived for a time in Paris, but he’s decided to come back home, for a while at least. The city’s molasses pace and lilliputian scale suits him. Staying here is the path of least resistance and the 27-year-old Parker is, by his own admission, a lazy man.
Despite its brief history as a British penal colony in the early part of the 19th century, Freemantle is better-known in certain circles as the town where Bon Scott grew up. Until he choked to death on his own vomit in 1980 after an epic night of binge drinking, Bon Scott was the original singer of ACDC, which, in the ensuing 33 years has set the standard for rock n’ roll badassery. There is an appropriately cheesy statue erected in his honor in Esplanade Park, Freemantle’s de facto main square, that portrays the legendarily leather-lunged singer standing atop an guitar amplifier, screaming into a microphone, decked out in his trademark sleeveless denim jacket.
Parker is re-setting the aesthetic standards of what constitutes a statue-worthy local boy who grew up to become a famous musician. Sonically speaking, Tame Impala is as far away from ACDC as Australia is from Philadelphia. Plus, Parker is tall enough that they won’t have to perch him on a speaker when they make his statue. All he has to do is die.
Freemantle, like Australia itself, is far away from just about everything. It was a 35-hour Homeric odyssey, spanning 11,000 miles, three oceans and 12 time zones to get here from Philadelphia. Everything about Australia seems the exact opposite of pretty much everywhere else. For starters, it’s a summery 70 degrees right now, even though it’s the dead of winter here. Everyone is very nice and without exception white — barring the aborigines, who are invisible, and like Native Americans have been herded into remote and desolate reservations and have been almost completely decimated by alcoholism. There are no discernible signs of poverty, no homeless, no ghettos. Nick Cave songs are found in tourism ads instead of hipster iPods. News of the demise of the newspaper industry has not yet arrived on these shores. The Rupert Murdoch-owned The Australian, which is sort of the right-tilting USA Today of the land down under, was a whopping 133 pages on a recent Wednesday. The Progessive Insurance ad gal is named Kitty instead of Flo and speaks with an Aussie accent but she has the same trademark beehive hairdo and white uniform. Contrary to the TV ads in the states, Fosters is not “Australian for beer, mate.” In Australia, like pretty much everywhere else, they just call it ‘beer.’
The only real downside I can see is that it’s really, really fucking expensive. At the Norfolk Hotel in Freemantle, where Kevin Parker asked me to meet him tonight, a pint of cheap domestic beer will set you back a princely $12, a pack of cigarettes costs $18 (and is emblazoned with horrendous pictures of mouth cancer and shriveled fetuses). A personal pizza, the cheapest thing on the menu, is $24.
Parker apologizes for inflationary cost of living in his hometown. He blames it on the thriving mining industry — coal, gold, diamonds, iron, copper and uranium that’s sent to places like China, Iran and Iraq via an endless parade of massive freighters on the horizon. “It’s a rich place, [Freemantle] is a really expensive city and that’s why a lot of young people leave,” he says. “Especially for bummy musos, it’s strangling. I kind of just grit though it because I’m really lazy. It’s the mining. There’s so much money in the mining industry. I did it for a while. It was part of my university degree. People make $100,000 a year just for holding a stop sign.”
Not that he’s been here much as of late. Thanks to the constant touring Tame Impala has done in the wake of the still-swelling success of Lonerism, released 11 months ago, this is only the second full week he’s been home in 2013. Next month Parker and his live band — guitarist Dominic Simper, keyboardist Jay Watson, bassist Cam Avery and drummer Julien Barbagallo — will return to the US, for the 10th time this year, to co-headline an East Coast tour with the Flaming Lips. It should be noted here that the first album Parker ever bought with his own money was the soundtrack to 1995’s Batman Returns, which features The Flaming Lips. Parker was eleven years old.
Not that the Lips made much of an impact at the time. It wasn’t until five years ago, when Parker saw the Lips perform — in all their mirror ball/confetti/bubble walking psychotropic brain-melting glory — in Japan, on acid, that Parker became a disciple of the Okie space cadets. “I wasn’t really much of a fan,” says Parker. “But then they all come on stage through a giant, pulsating vagina. Then Wayne comes out in his big, inflatable bubble. I was like, ‘What the fuck!’ Then they burst into “Race For The Prize” and it was the most amazing life music experience of my life. Half way through the set I was like, ‘This is insane!’ During “Do You Realize” I turned around and saw 60,000 Japanese people crying. I was like, ‘This is too much!’” The next time he saw them play, he was onstage with them, dressed up like a gecko and dancing merrily along with all the others in gecko and Santa Claus costumes.
It takes a lot for new bands to get on Parker’s radar these days, he rarely listens to other people’s music. Though he describes himself as a huge My Bloody Valentine fan, and even saw the re-activated band perform twice in recent months, he has yet to listen to their new album. Likewise he hasn’t heard more than the first 10 seconds of the Kanye West/Tame Impala mash-up (“Black Skinhead”/”Elephant”) that surfaced back in July. “This sounds very selfish and egotistical, but I’m thinking about music so much that to actually put on someone else’s music would mean that I’m out of ideas, it would mean I don’t have anything to think about,” he says. “I always have something to think about, so it’s kind of just background noise. If we’re driving somewhere and no one’s put on the radio, I’ll probably think of a melody just in that car trip. I’ll be building it up and trying to think of a bass line to go with it. If someone puts on the radio I’ll lose it and it’ll be gone forever. It happens almost every day.”
For as long as he can remember, he’s made up a new song every day. “I try to make rough demo as quick as I can,” he says. “If it’s strong enough I’ll remember it anyway. If I forget it, I figure it was probably pretty forgettable. I have a Dictaphone with like 200 ideas on it. The problem is that when I think of them they’re so vivid in my mind; I’ve been doing it for so many years that I’m good at imagining what a song would sound like. I can almost hear it. If I try to pick up a guitar and write a song, it’s going to be terrible because my hands are doing the thinking. My hands are doing the writing and my hands aren’t as good as my brain. It’s not as original because it’s just muscles [doing the creating].”
The constant touring has taken its toll on Parker’s songwriting, or the lack of it, in the past year. There are currently zero songs in the can for a new album. When Innerspeaker came out in 2010, he was already writing and recording songs for the next album. He’s not even sure he wants to make another album.
The ideas still come every day, but he has limited access to recording gear or the time and space it takes him to gestate new material. “I’m very rarely around a drum kit and very rarely around the instruments that I need,” he says. “I just have my laptop or my dictaphone, so the best thing I could do on tour is tap out the melody on the keyboard of my laptop, which is even worse because then it turns into this tacky laptop/keyboard melody.”
He doesn’t want to burden his bandmates on the road with the painstaking task of working out new songs during soundcheck. Besides, there’s only three people that write Tame Impala songs beginning to end: Me, myself and I. “I love the idea of collaborating, it’s a beautiful thing making music together, but it doesn’t work as well as making music on your own, with 100% creative freedom,” he says. “I guess it’s just because I grew up that way. If I was a lot more open about my creativity when I was younger I probably would have learned to communicate my ideas to other people and maybe would have started thinking my ideas are strong enough for people to care about sooner. That came very late in my life. It was only a couple years ago. Until then, I thought that it wasn’t worth anyone else’s time.”
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