“Negronis—if you have more than two you’re on the way down.”
Kevin Parker is speaking of his drink of choice. “That’s why I like them, though,” he says. “Toward the end of the night, when you’re with friends and you just want to seal the deal: ‘Negroni please.’” The frontman of Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala is sitting on a plush patio sofa backstage at Governors Ball on Randall’s Island, sipping a modified Moscow Mule—the bar backstage has no ginger beer. He has an indigo-dyed scarf slung around his neck and one of his deep blue flip-flops slipping off his foot. It’s not exactly the portrait of a no-fucks-given egomaniac. But Parker is nothing short of a rock star.
Thirty minutes prior, Parker, alongside bass player Cam Avery, guitarists Jay Watson and Dominic Simper, and drummer Julien Barbagallo, held close to 100,000 sweating New Yorkers captive on the main stage of one of the country’s youngest and most high-profile music festivals. “There aren’t a ton of young rock acts out there that you could say for certain will eventually graduate to bona fide headliner status,” says Jordan Wolowitz, one of Governors Ball’s founders. Tame Impala, he assures, are “more than ready to make the leap.” They took the stage ahead of Oasis leader Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and later the Black Keys. Maybe next year they’ll be ready to play when the sun goes down.
Barefoot and bright-eyed, Parker parlays comfortably between two microphones, two guitars, an array of pedals, and a can of beer tucked safely behind his amp. Their set offered up diffuse, dreamlike cuts from their Modular Recordings-released debut full length, Innerspeaker, as well as those from their Modular Recordings-released sophomore effort, Lonerism, including their breakout single, “Elephant.” But it was the songs from Tame Impala’s forthcoming third album, Currents, that gave the show its mainstream pop appeal. Two of the highly anticipated album’s lead singles, “Eventually” and “Let It Happen,” reverberated through Randall’s Island’s mud-soaked fields with heaps of smooth, psychedelic color. And the R&B-infused, tongue-in-cheek “’Cause I’m a Man” brought just enough sex appeal to mix with the crowd’s early-evening buzz and got people to dance.
“it takes years to finish an album. By the end you’re so doubtful that it’s as good as you thought it was, you convince yourself you were just delusional,
stoned, or drunk.”
Governors Ball marked Tame Impala’s last performance on a 27-stop marathon tour that took them from California, down through Georgia and Louisiana, up into Canada and the American Rockies, and back down to the East Coast. With two critically acclaimed albums under their belts, anticipation for their next release, due out July 17, is high. So much so that Parker was in a position to drop the fourth single, “Disciples,” during a Reddit AMA. During the AMA he also revealed that there are a million dollars in royalties owed from the first two albums, now at stake in a lawsuit between rights-management company BMG, Modular Recordings founder Steve “Pav” Pavlovic, and Universal Music Group and Universal Music Australia. But Tame Impala isn’t caught up. Whereas most bands hit the tour circuit in the wake of an album release, getting an early start made sense for the band. Parker aside, it gave everyone else in the band a chance to learn how to play their new album.
Increasingly, Kevin Parker is Tame Impala. The long-haired, jeans-and-tee-wearing Aussie looks more like your friend from college than one of the world’s most exciting new artists. While Watson received writing credits for two cuts on Lonerism, Currents is a singular expression of Parker’s musicianship. Sitting face-to-face with him, the apparent lack of self-importance makes it all the more impressive to know that he wrote, recorded, produced, and, for the first time, mixed and mastered every song himself. This album is infinitely more experimental than anything Parker has released with the group before. Elements of shimmering pop blend with whimsical, daring synthesizers before breaking into warbling ’70s funk and hip-hop-inspired production. Lyrics explore relationships and personal development in short, playful one-liners while the go-with-the-flow psych rock anti-structure lets the messages float by. When he’s doing it right, a deep session with Parker’s music leaves your perception of reality distorted, a bit hazier and less clear, but in a way that feels good. It’s sort of like being one Negroni in, maybe two if you’re blasting it loud.
Sitting down to talk to Parker about everything from respecting Kanye West to accepting your animal instincts, and making peace with the million dollars you earned but didn’t get, you get a contact high from his calm. Maybe it takes finishing one of the most talked-about albums of the moment, or nailing a headlining performance at a New York festival, or falling in love—“Shout out to my girlfriend, Soph,” he says. “She loves Complex.”—but the guy makes the case for loosening your grip on the control issues that plague the modern man, to simply let it happen.
How are you feeling?
Good, we just played our last show of the tour.
That performance was incredible.
The crowd thought so. Did you feel like it was?
For us, it’s completely impossible to tell what it’s like to see us. At this point we’ve played...I don’t know how many shows, and have been on tour for five weeks playing somewhere between 20 and 30 shows. We had fun and we played the songs, but after a while it turns into a feeling like you’re flying a plane. You’ve got to turn the pedal on, sing to the audience, play, strum a chord. It becomes this karate kata, like a sequence of ninja moves. Then sometimes you’re just too drunk and you’re like, “Ah, fucked it.” And you’re two steps behind yourself. Sometimes you’re just on it for whatever reason and you have the perfect amount of alcohol. Every move is just yep, bang, boom, sing, and then you say something and everyone around goes, “Woo woo.” We’ve become a pretty well-oiled machine.
I feel like you hit that ninja stride after the drum solo in “Elephant.”
That’s good. Ninja rock.
In the past you’ve been self-critical about your performances.
I always am. It’s important to be, otherwise you don’t evolve and you don’t get better. You’ve got to critique what you’re doing. It’s important.
Do you watch film of yourself?
No, I try not to. Sometimes. It’s always pretty cringey. Even if people say you look cool and you did well, it’s extremely cringey to watch yourself rocking out. It’s like listening to your own voice on an answering machine times a hundred, because you’re hearing your voice through a microphone outside of a PA at a hundred decibels. It’s not like a telephone; it’s crystal clear and you can see yourself move. Apparently Prince used to do that, and still does that. When he walks off stage he wants the video and the sound ready for him in the dressing room and he watches the whole thing from start to finish.
Like a football player.
Yeah, exactly, which to me sounds insane. I could never do that.
Let’s rewind. Before any ninja moves come into play and you’re just starting to write, where does a song come from?
It’s a melody and one of the key phrases. That’s what will come to me first. It can be at any time—any time a burst of emotion turns itself into music in my head. Every melody has its own sentiment, has its own personality. If you can channel it properly it will turn into words—words that help to describe the feeling of that melody. I don’t consider myself in control of that.
Once I’ve got something that I feel is strong, if I get long enough to think about it, it’ll turn into something. I’ll start thinking about the drums—what the drums are doing, what the bass is doing. Then, if I can remember it by the time I get to a recording device, it’ll turn into a song. If I get into a car or a taxi and the radio is on, it’s gone. It’s gone forever. It comes down to fate really.
From the outside, knowing that you’re doing everything, from writing and recording, to producing and now mixing the new record, I would think that the elements of control are intense. It’s interesting to hear that you don’t feel like you’re in control of it.
“Those are the times where I feel in control but wish I wasn’t. I wish someone else could make the decisions
Like maybe it already exists somewhere out there?
The only time when I feel like I’m in control is when I don’t want to be in control, when I have to make decisions right at the end. Like, what’s going to be the most focused part of the song? What does this song want? It’s only when I have to decide what the song is going to sound like to people for the first time when they hear it, which is tortuous. It’s torture.
Yeah, because when you sign off, that’s four minutes of music that can’t be changed. It’s set in concrete. Those are the times where I feel in control but wish I wasn’t. I wish someone else could make the decisions for me. You’re fighting off all kinds of demons, all kinds of dark second-guessing. To have a great idea is one thing, to follow through with it is a completely different type of skill.
During your Reddit AMA you talked about admiring Kanye West. Why do you respect him? What do you appreciate about what he’s doing?
When you’re in that moment where you’ve started doing something you thought was the best thing you’ve ever done—you’ve had this confidence in yourself like, “Fuck yeah, I’ve done something great.” But you have to see it through to the end, and it takes years to finish an album. By the end you’re so doubtful that it’s as good as you thought it was, you convince yourself you were just delusional, stoned, or drunk.
At that point, you wish you were the kind of person who could just believe in yourself. At those times it’s inspiring to witness people who have that seemingly brash confidence, who seem to just go through with whatever they want to do. They obviously do take into consideration that it could be bad, or that it might not be as great as they thought it was, but just to see it through, just to be like, “This is what I’m doing and if people don’t like it, fuck them, because I’m not doing this for the people who are judging me.” That’s the difference. When you start thinking about judgment it affects your perspective like a disease. It infects everything you do. If you were suddenly someone who was able to realize deep within yourself that you’re not doing it for the people who are judging, you’re doing it for the people who see the best in you, it’s inspiring.
Is there a specific time when you can confidently say, “Fuck them,” to the people who might be judging you?
Every day, but it’s a constant battle. It doesn’t matter whether it’s making an album on your own or putting a fucking photo on Instagram. Your brain has this mechanism where it’s a battle—between a self-conscious hesitation and your love of sharing. You just have to hope that you have it in you to overcome the hesitation. It’s in everything. I have that feeling every day, and with an album it’s on a grand scale. It’s on a mind-fuck scale. It’s on a depression-versus-arrogance scale.
Maybe that’s what being a rock star is: the true volatility of high-highs and low-lows.
Absolutely. I’m starting to learn that.
Has that intensified as you’re getting bigger?
Yeah. I’ve never been as confident in myself as I am now, but I’ve also never been as self-critical. The pendulum can swing either way.
What was it like working on Uptown Special with Mark Ronson? The record is No. 1 in the UK.
Oh good! “Uptown Funk” is doing so fucking well. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I can believe it, because it’s a great song. Never before has something that I’ve been involved with—not that I was part of that song, but I was close to the mothership—has something that I know how it was made intimately, been such a big deal. There’s always been what Tame Impala is doing, which is good and people get into it. But when it comes to people on that scale getting into it, people vacuuming the carpet to that song, I’ve never been involved in something like that before. I’m so proud of him. I’m so happy for him and so proud.
Are you and Mark good friends?
Yeah. I mean, we don’t get that much time to hang out and shoot the shit, but he’s an amazing person and a good guy. That’s why I’m so proud that he’s managed to get such success. There’s always this belief in your head that with the people and things that become so successful, there’s gotta be some “business” involved. For the No. 1 song, there are always a few songwriters, there are always a few producers. It’s like, “We’re making sure this song is a hit.” [Ronson] does it like someone who’s just getting their friends together and making a cool song. He does it in a surprisingly genuine way. I can imagine people have their assumptions about how much he puts in, like, “It’s Bruno Mars singing, so why is he calling it his song?” Not that I’ve read that, but I can imagine that’s what people say—he’s a DJ. On this album, he wrote most of the songs. Aside from that, the way he brings people together is impressive. If anyone else brought those minds, those big-shot minds together, you would never expect that to turn out well. It’s a too-many-chefs scenario. He has a way of putting people together and finding the right chemistry and it’s like, fuck, it works. If anyone else were running the show it would be a disaster.
Like a musical diplomat.
The “business” side of the music industry you referenced is so insane these days.
It’s crazy because nobody knows what they’re doing.
You didn’t get paid for Lonerism royalties. How are you dealing with that?
At the moment, if I get the million dollars, great. If I don’t, I don’t care. I signed off on not getting it a long time ago. I assumed it was gone and was like, “Fuck it, I don’t care.” I bought a house and I’m happy. This new album is coming out. There’s no point in worrying about the money I didn’t make on the last album. Well, put it this way: I’m not a millionaire. I have just enough to buy a house. If I got a million dollars I would then be a millionaire, but I’m not a millionaire yet. It’s not like I’ve got so much money that I don’t need it. I just don’t think it would change that much in the end.
Money is not a motivator for you?
As soon as I started getting interested in what was going on, the whole royalties battle, it turned me into a different person. I started caring about that at the same time I was writing songs, and when that happens it affects the songwriting. When you start thinking about dollars when you’re writing songs, it’s poison. I realized I had to switch myself off. Different frames of mind when you’re writing make you write different songs. When I found out that these royalties meant that and we get the money from this and an ad is worth this and radio play at this station is worth this much, it fucks with your head. It instantly makes a song feel like an operation. It changes it. It freaked me out.
Elements of that are in some of the lyrics and even the song titles on Currents, like “Let It Happen” and “The Less I Know the Better.” Is that a new mentality for you?
It is. I’ve been such a control freak of my own personality. I maintain that I’m not a control freak in the studio, but I’ve been a control freak of my own moral base. Things that I think I should hate, things that I think I should love, I’ve been so controlling over it. Recently I’ve learned to accept whatever it is that my brain wants to think. Whatever it is that my heart wants, I’ll do it, which is different than I used to be. I used to tell my heart what it wanted.
It sounds like that feels good.
It’s extremely liberating. Everyone has rules for themselves, what they think is bad. I used to hate iPhones. Before I got an iPhone, I used to be like, “What are you doing, sitting there on your phone. Join the real world, man.” I categorically disliked iPhones. When my friends got an iPhone, I was like, “Oh, we lost him.” This was a few years ago, and this is a small example. I thought having all these things that I decided I wasn’t into—I’m this and I’m not that—was making more of an identity for myself. Really, in the end, I was pigeonholing myself. I’m being extremely broad. That’s the mentality behind the album—don’t try to control what you are. You can’t control who you are, or who you are turning into, or who you become. It’s up to a greater force within you. Currents—you know?