Kevin Parker Tame Impala
Culture

Space, Time, and Psychedelics with Tame Impala's Kevin Parker

The man behind Tame Impala shares the long and strange journey behind his latest album.
18 February 2020, 8:15am

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

Kevin Parker would be feeling a lot less hungover right now if it wasn’t for last night’s beach rave. He’s been out celebrating his birthday until the early hours somewhere on the sandy coast of Fremantle, Western Australia. Although, he’s got every right to celebrate. After a five-year process, Tame Impala's new album The Slow Rush is finally released.

The world has been waiting for this record. And Kevin—an infamous perfectionist—is, at last, ready for the masses to hear it. That’s why, on a blue-skied summer afternoon, he’s invited me to meet him at the home studio where he willed this album into existence. Hidden between surrounds of watercolour terrace houses, a weather-beaten fish’n’chip shop and a second-hand furniture store, the average passerby would have no idea that some of the most influential music to come out of Australia in the past decade has been made between these walls.

Inside is a cornucopia of peculiar instruments, analogue synths, and recording gear. An old tape machine sits by a mixing desk. A sprawling collection of rare Roland drum machines line the wall. There’s guitars and leads and keys and just about everything else one would need to lock themselves up inside this place for a year and emerge with something sonically brilliant. But only one person has the ability to make all these tools sound like Tame Impala—and that’s Kevin. I ask him what a typical night in the studio looks like when he’s deep in the throes of making an album.

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“It’s like having a party by myself,” he says. “I bring booze, weed and food and I'll record all day, every day.” Parker has always been one for solitude. The joy of isolation has been a defining theme of Tame Impala’s music since it emerged as Perth's heir apparent to Australia's burgeoning psych-rock scene. Of course, a lot has changed since then. Once upon a time, Tame Impala played house parties. Now, the band headlines Glastonbury and Coachella. But as Tame’s profile grew, the anxiety Parker felt to succeed did so too.

"The way I see it, I drink to escape the pressure and I smoke weed to escape overthinking things," continues Kevin. "At about 5pm, I’ll have a drink and a spliff and keep recording. I try to enjoy myself and wait until something comes to me, recording until I fall asleep—going deeper and deeper into that process. Because for me, it's a good way of escaping the pressure. It's almost like getting back to when I was a complete space cadet as a teenager.” He describes the feeling he’s chasing—when his overthinking tendencies are finally pushed away—as “raw, unhinged inspiration.”

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Kev offers me a beer and invites me out onto the back porch. The glistening chrome of three pointy ARIA Awards catches my eye. They're haphazardly aligned on a shelf next to two framed, Platinum-certified pressings of Currents—Tame Impala’s last album, released in 2015. The success of Currents proved a double-edged sword for Parker. Thanks to a stream of career-defining singles, the record elevated Tame Impala to a level of superstardom seen only generationally by Australian acts. That success is also at the root of the anxiety Parker was trying to escape while making The Slow Rush.

“I couldn’t even think about new Tame Impala music for a long time,” he explains. Instead, he spent his time DJing and producing for other artists. “Those things were just... they didn't have that pressure. They didn't have the weight of responsibility that Tame Impala has.”

On my way to the door, I wonder how heavy the ARIA Awards are to hold. I wonder if the Platinum records—a tangible sign of industry-sanctioned success—ever become stressful to have around. Outside, we recline onto couches beside a broken piano. There’s a small tin boat nestled among lush overgrown grass, ornamenting an otherwise empty backyard.

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To kickstart the creative process of what would ultimately become The Slow Rush, Parker rented an Air BnB in Malibu with a panoramic view of the ocean. The plan was to lock himself inside before emerging with a direction to take the album. But on a fateful night in August 2018, the hills of northern California—in which Kevin was residing—were 24 hours away from the most catastrophic wildfires the area has ever endured.

“It was apocalyptically windy,” Kevin recalls. “There were signs on the road blowing back and forth. I couldn't even go outside and smoke a spliff.” Instead, he went indoors and lost himself in a sea of drum loops and basslines until 5am. The next morning, he awoke alone to a menacing sky of crimson, brown and blue. Something was amiss.

“I went to turn on the TV and the power was out,” he continues. “So I went outside and there's this massive plume of smoke coming out over the hill. I was kind of hungover. Still in a daze. I couldn't tell if it was these weird cloud formations or if it was smoke. So I got on my phone and Googled ‘Malibu’. That's when this red banner came up: SOS. Evacuation Immediate. Malibu-wide.

In a "weird panic", Kevin ran back inside. It was then that he remembered a voice at the front door occurring at 8am that morning. “I was like, This is a private Airbnb. I'm not supposed to be getting visitors. So I went back to sleep.” In actuality, it was the fire marshal telling everyone in imminent danger to get out, fast. As the gravity of the situation started to set in, Kev grabbed his vintage Hofner bass—an instrument that’s featured on every Tame Impala record—and his laptop, containing the demos he’d been working on and left. As black smoke billowed across the mountain behind him, Kevin escaped—driving the Pacific Coast Highway back to LA. By the day’s end, his rented house and everything else inside it would be nothing but ash.

“I was hypnotised by it,” says Kevin. “Flames were twice as high as these double-storey buildings that were right next to it.” He unlocks his iPhone and shows me a video he took that day. Emergency sirens howl. Lashes of fire and smog suffocate the horizon. The Californian coastline is upended into sheer chaos. It’s apocalyptic.

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In a sense, The Slow Rush is bookended by major natural disasters. While Kevin and I are talking in his studio’s backyard, two years on from California’s wildfires, Australia is being engulfed with devastating bushfires of its own. I’m reminded of the album’s cover-art, a hauntingly beautiful photograph of a home that's been overrun by tonnes of sand. At first, I thought it was photoshopped. But the place the photograph was taken in—named Kolmanskop—actually exists. To document it, Kevin and his photographer Neil Krug trekked deep into the Namib desert to enter a restricted area in southern Africa.

“As soon as we got there, we knew this album cover couldn't have come at a better time,” says Kevin. In the early 1900s, Kolmanskop was immensely wealthy from the precious diamonds that lay abundant deep in the earth below. But over decades, the land was mined barren. Slowly, the town became overrun by unforgiving desert sandstorms. Mountains of sand poured through doors. Dunes swallowed up buildings. Eventually, the desert consumed the town whole and rendered it uninhabitable—as if the Earth was taking back the land for itself. One could interpret this as a visual metaphor for Australia’s own relationship with mining, and the inevitable retribution that our climate may one day bring.

“It really says so much about how people are feeling right now,” Kevin continues. In response to Australia’s own climate crisis, Tame Impala will donate $300,000 to bushfire relief efforts from their forthcoming tour. He slows for a second. “At this point, I think it's the responsibility of everyone to realise how urgent the situation is.” Among the peace and quiet of Kevin Parker’s backyard, I forget for a moment that fire, ash rain, dust storms and flash floods ravage the country as we speak. Kevin asks if I’d like another beer. I accept.

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In many ways, The Slow Rush is a meditation on the strange nature of time. Throughout, Parker sings from alternate realities; from future tense and past. He sings of lives lived and lives imagined. He sings of the way we revise memories on an infinite loop until—for better or worse—they become a photocopy of a photocopy of our original experience. Like most of Tame Impala’s music, it’s trippy—created through a beautifully warped lens of psilocybin and synthesizers.

Parker has long held a fascination with time and space. As a kid, he poured through yellowed pages of Stephen Hawking books. At university, he studied astronomy before dropping out to follow music. When I ask him about psychedelic experiences that have poked holes in his conscious understanding of time, he describes a transformational acid trip.

“I had this feeling,” says Kevin. “It's funny, because it actually stuck with me. I kept having flashbacks of it for years afterwards.” He pauses, searching for words that might translate the transcendental into something lucid. The only way I could describe it is like, ‘God’s hit record.’”

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Of course, psychedelia is a hallmark of Parker’s music. On The Slow Rush, the prime example of this is Posthumous Forgiveness. A heady suite that takes place over two distinct halves, sung from two entirely different perspectives. Taken together, it creates a dialogue where hindsight and heat-of-the-moment feelings can collide. A masterful track, it took him ten months to complete. Ostensibly, the song deals with Kevin’s complicated relationship with his father. A child of divorce, Kevin “moved around a lot” when he was younger. He was split up from his brother because of it too. When his father died of skin cancer in 2009, the pair still hadn’t been able to see eye-to-eye.

“The first half of the song is confused rage,” says Kevin. “This sudden realisation that someone's fucked you over. The second half was deciding to forgive someone—the light after the storm; the clouds clearing. The song was a documenting of me finding that peace within myself. About how I got over it—which was realising that humans do things because they're human. The way to forgive someone that's dead is to just forgive them. It's not a conversation, it's a decision.”

The sun is at its highest point in the sky now. Light is streaming into his backyard. Kevin and I head back inside, finish our beers and get ready to head out for a walk. As he goes to pull on his beaten-up Saint Laurent sneakers, a small mountain of sand spills out of them and onto the floor. He laughs. Last night’s beach rave strikes again.

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As we walk through the quiet coastal backstreets of Fremantle, I understand why Kevin is so comfortable here. Passers-by go on walking their dogs and offer a friendly hello; the town’s resident rock star largely left to his own devices. “At the age I'm at, it's easy to fall into a life where you're just going in circles,” says Kevin, unpacking the album’s opener One More Year. “Because by the time you’re in your late twenties, you've found your place. It's easy to get into a state where there's no new things coming in because you've found your comfort zone. The only way to break out of that is to say, ‘Right, fuck it. Let's do what we do for one more year, and then we'll get our lives in order.’” As he talks, I think about the countless millennials, now on the precipice of real adulthood and responsibility, whose youth has been soundtracked by Tame Impala’s evolution. I think about my own life, and how much it’s changed since I first saw Tame play a side-stage at the Big Day Out in 2010.

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The conversation turns to the album’s closer. In it, Kevin imagines himself exactly 365 days into the future with one hour left in the year. For a man who’s famously been associated with isolation, there’s something special in this song we haven’t heard from Tame Impala before—the idea of inviting others into your world, and enjoying the process of growing older alongside them.

“It's about being on the edge of starting a new chapter. Stepping out into the world a new person. It’s about thinking, ‘How am I going to do this? How can I move forward? How am I going to go on with the rest of my life?’” For Kevin, the answer to those questions are simple: “Be yourself,” he says. “Do the things you like to do.”

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We walk towards the pier, through the docks and into the full force of oceanic winds. Kevin tells me about his favourite old-school Italian restaurants in the area; he peaks through the window of an abandoned Chinese restaurant. He tells me how great the Batman Forever soundtrack is. He tells me a story about renting a metal detector to search for a friend’s wedding ring lost at last night’s beach rave (they found it) and about the ingredients to feel at home (“a weird concept, but where life moves the slowest pace.”) Finally, he tells me about overcoming the anxiety that lead up to releasing The Slow Rush—and what ultimately motivated him to start writing for Tame Impala again.

“It’s everything to me,” says Kevin. “Something I can call my baby. Because nothing else that I do in music is my baby as much as Tame Impala music. In a way, it's what my entire sense of self and purpose rests on. I realised that there’s something I get out of making Tame Impala music that nothing else can give me. It just took time for me to value what I wanted to get out of it, more than what I thought people were expecting from it.”

Tame Impala's new album The Slow Rush is out now.