In the back of a day-dimming tour bus, parked on-site in Dover, Delaware for Firefly Music Festival, Kevin Parker is absentmindedly noodling on an unplugged electric guitar.
Tame Impala’s set is in a few hours, but the band’s founder doesn’t pull out his instrument and start playing with any sense of duty or preparation. It is an involuntary reflex, like pushing his long golden-brown hair out of his face.
As muscle memory guides his fingers up and down the guitar’s neck, the 30-year-old Australian is relaxed, at ease–a surprisingly calm figure in an anxiety inducing profession within a perennially uncertain industry. Tame Impala exists in a time when modish genres change on a daily basis, when the best promotion for an album is sometimes no promotion, and when people don’t really pay for music anymore because it’s seen as a basic human entitlement rather than an artistic commodity.
This worries a lot of musicians, or it at least makes their jobs more nuanced, but for the Tame Impala frontman, uncertainty is an opportunity to explore. On Currents, his band’s third album, Parker incorporated broad influences from pop, R&B, and electronic arenas into his psychedelic instincts and emerged a winner from every angle. Critics and fans ate it up, and Top 40 listeners became more familiar with the group when Rihanna included a cover of “Same Ol’ Mistakes” on her 2016 album Anti. It is no longer a bold claim to say they are rock stars.
With his continued experimentation, Parker has his feet in multiple camps, but he’s easily keeping his balance because these factions are closer together than they’ve ever been. Parker thinks this is because rock is more a state of mind than a genre, because the way fans consume music is different than it once was, and because “pop” isn’t so much a dirty a word as it is an aspiration.
“If I’m recording a song and it’s kind of fuzzed out but I’ve got this super candy melody,” Parker explains, “I feel nothing but freedom that I can just sing over the top, and it will be appreciated. It won’t be like, ‘What is he doing?'”
And though he is right–we’re never ones to question Parker’s end results– we can’t help wondering how he got here. In the back of his dark tour bus, we tried to get to the bottom of it.
“I feel nothing but freedom that I can just sing over the top…It won’t be like, ‘what is he doing?'”
Nerdist: It seems to be a common fear that rock as a genre is dying. Do you believe that?
Kevin Parker: It depends what you call rock on every level. To me, rock and roll is like an ethos or a state of mind. The spirit of rock and roll, I believe, lives in other genres. Well, it lives in other genres at the same time as rock. Especially these days, where someone would argue that rock and roll is strictly guitars. Some people would argue that hip-hop is rock and roll, that hip-hop embodies the rock and roll spirit that was in the ’60s and ’70s. People would argue that Tame Impala is rock. I don’t even know if I would argue that. People would argue that Daft Punk is rock. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t think it’s dead.
Nerdist: Would you say it has a place in everything that’s happening, sort of like an origin species?
KP: For sure, which is a result of music today. Music is far more complex in its categories and definitions today more than ever, and people are just growing up with that. People that grow up with music these days must be far more switched on to different parts of music, and styles, and bits of equipment, than I would have been. When I grew up, I was like, “I play drums, I play guitar. I don’t play keyboards; they suck.” I feel like people are more switched on these days, which is a result of us continually wanting to evolve.
Nerdist: Branching off that, you know how Kanye West has been changing The Life of Pablo after its release? What are your thoughts on the ever evolving release cycle for albums and how things are put out a lot differently than even ten years ago?
KP: I hate that he’s changing stuff. I also feel his pain. I also would definitely have done the same thing if I had the power, and I’m pretty sure every artist who is that meticulous about their output would absolutely kill themselves to be able to change the music once it’s out. When “[Feels Like We Only Go] Backwards” came out as a single, I argued until I was blue in the face with the radio stations, trying to get them to play a new mix I had done. I was like, “I’ve done this new mix, it’s gonna sound better on radio. The album version sounds shit on radio, I got a better one.”
I did the same thing on this album, and it sounded better. I tried to get them to play the new one, but they just said, “Dude, let it go.” That’s another side of me, the “Dude, just let it go.” People are going to hear the song, they’re not going to question how it could have been different. They’re just going to enjoy it. Kanye is doing what everyone wants to do. He just can because he’s Kanye.
Nerdist: He just has the balls to do it, which very few people have.
KP: Exactly. On one side, I’m like, “Kanye, stop. It’s perfect. You don’t need to change it.” I guess that is a sign that the whole roll-out release thing is a completely different beast these days, because you can just go back and alter the file that everyone is continually sourcing from, which is cool. I’m down for all that kind of stuff. I’ve never been one to dig in my heels and argue that the way it was ten or twenty years ago is better.
“When I grew up, I was like, ‘I play drums, I play guitar. I don’t play keyboards; they suck.'”
Nerdist: That old man wagging his finger.
KP: I think I used to be. Up until I was 19, I was totally that person: “Everyone’s doing it wrong.” You know what I mean? I’m all up for the way we experience music to evolve because as history has shown, there’s no one best way to do it. People argue that it’s too convenient now. People don’t fully digest an album or a song when you can just flip to the next. But at the same time, I don’t think people love music any less than they did as a result.
Nerdist: It’s just different.
KP: If people love music, they love music. There are still people that listen to Tame Impala from start to finish. They still respect the medium that is an album. And if people don’t, that’s just the way it goes. If pop stars just release songs one after the other, that’s arguably a way that people could experience songs more in depth than an album. I’m not saying this is my argument, but you could argue that if you throw an album at someone, it’s overwhelming, whereas if you give them one song every few weeks when it’s finished, they’ll digest each one individually.
Nerdist: You stated you wouldn’t necessarily call Tame Impala rock, and there are plenty of pop and R&B influences on Currents. What are your thoughts on contemporary pop music?
KP: For me, pop melodies are their own thing that have their own emotion, but they don’t necessarily belong exclusively in a pop song. I’ve always argued that all Tame Impala melodies are pure pop. It’s just that Lonerism, for example, is a completely rumbling, fuzzed out psychedelic rock album. But for me, it was just pop music produced the way that I like to produce it.
Nerdist: People are so much more open to music incorporating many concurrent influences. It can have a broader appeal that way too.
KP: I think people prefer a more diverse listen these days. People prefer it when they need to use hyphens to be able to describe what a song is. I don’t think people are as simplistic these days. People don’t like to say they listen to rock or dance. They like to use hyphens!
Nerdist: Pop songs are written by teams of ten, twenty or more in the studio. Would you be able to produce music in that environment, where it’s not just your hands on it? Or is it too personal for you?
KP: No, I would, and I’m learning to. It was something that was extremely foreign to me up until a little while ago, when I just threw myself into the deep end. I literally just forced myself to enter this world because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to make music with other people; I just haven’t been able to.
Mark Ronson, a good friend of mine, was like, “Hey, do you want to come in and do this thing? You want to come work on the album?” That [“Summer Breaking / Daffodils”] was my entrance into that world, and he showed me the way that songwriting can be a collaborative thing. Tame Impala as a musical project will always be a solo thing, but I won’t always just be doing Tame Impala.
Images: Abby Gillardi, Beau Garrett