UTG INTERVIEW: Tame Impala, Casting a Spell Over ‘Big Day Out’

tame impala

2013 was a big year for Kevin Parker and his band Tame Impala. It was a year that saw the Perth, Western Australia based multi-instrumentalist and his band of psychedelic-rock proponents cast their sonic spell further than ever before, completing headline tours worldwide and making appearances on everything from Coachella to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to the advertising campaign for the Blackberry Z10. It was a year in which their second album, 2012’s multi-award-winning Lonerism finally reached the ears of the USA, earning them a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album, and several prominent, and no doubt lucrative, placements in major Hollywood films and premium cable TV shows, not to mention slots on almost every major festival that took place in the year.

Most importantly however, it was the year in which Tame Impala truly grew into themselves and in the process became synonymous with psyche-rock perfection. In the wake of such dizzying success, the band could be forgiven for cooling their heels a little and taking a well-earned break to bask in the warm glow of success. However, as we sat down with Kevin moments after Tame Impala completed a spellbinding set on the main stage of Big Day Out in Sydney, we discovered that taking a break could not be further from the band’s minds; they’ve still got too much left to achieve.

UTG: I managed to catch some of your set earlier; blew me away. I loved the fact that your live performances are more of a live re-imagining of your records, rather than just a straight play-through, is that something that you find audiences have responded to positively?

Kevin: Thanks, man. I feel like audiences would probably respond to us just playing the songs exactly as we know them actually. It’s really for us, the changing them up, so that it keeps it feeling fresh and inspired for us. In fact you have to kind of force yourself to play them the same way as on the album, because you yourself play the tunes so often that you feel like other people would become bored of the songs as well, because subconsciously you assume it’s the same people, but obviously in reality it’s not, it’s a different audience each time and they came to see Tame Impala play the songs they like off of the records, so you really have to find a happy medium between the two and hope that in some way you are able to please everyone, while maintaining that feeling of spontaneity and freedom that makes music so inspiring.

For us, we really like to change it up, put a different spin on it, almost like a remix, especially if it is a song that wasn’t a single but is more of an obscure album track, and we find that audiences are more open to that than if it was the single, so that seems to work out for us.

UTG: It’s interesting that you mention a remix, because a lot of the elements of your writing process seem to share a lot in common with electronic music production, while at the same time maintaining that raw kind of psychedelic feel — is that something that you’ve found helps or hinders when it comes to piecing together a live show, especially like a festival such as the Big Day Out?

It definitely helps, it helps in the pursuit of making the song different live from on the record, we just tend to think to ourselves “what would this song sound like if it was being pumped by a DJ at a beach trance rave or giant beach party?” or something like that and then we strive to create that feeling. Because I know personally I’d love to be at that beach, experiencing that experience more than I would be at a rock gig. Not that I go to beach trance rave parties or anything, but I just think it’s a funny thing to think about, this is like a song, and apparently it’s psyche rock or whatever, but how else could it sound? And I like to pursue those questions on stage as much as I can, because it keeps it fresh and keeps it feeling creative and I want and need to find out what those vibes are like in order to feel stimulated as a human being.

UTG: It’s interesting that you have such a youthful following, considering the music that you play has that kind of old-school throwback kind of psychedelic feel — is that something that has surprised you, that kids are into music that actually takes a bit of effort from the listener to absorb and get into, as opposed to them just embracing what’s fed to them via the radio and the music channels and adverts?

Oh, man, I’m clearly all about spoon feeding people exactly what they want and just giving them everything on a silver platter [laughs]. But in all seriousness, I never want anyone to have to think too hard or have to have absorbed any other cultural references in order to be able to relate to our music, so I always have that in mind, to want to write a song for people that they can live in and enjoy without having to work too hard for it, and I think that can be achieved without having to stick to the classic pop-song formula.

UTG: It’s a long way from writing tunes in a Perth bedroom to worldwide tours, international critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination, and most of that success, at least internationally has come on the back of your album Lonerism so my question is did you know that the album was going to have that kind of impact? Could you sense that it was a different beast to Inner Speaker or did it catch you by surprise?

Obviously I didn’t know that was going to happen. I mean you go in waves when you’re creating something- you go in waves from thinking it’s the best thing in the world to feeling just dejected by what you’re doing and think that those emotional leaps are a fundamental aspect of any creative process. I am sure any painter or any sculpture will love what they are doing at times, and they should, because it’s what they’re doing. If you’re good enough at creating something, you should be good enough to create what you want to experience and be a fan of your own work…and that was definitely the case when I was writing Lonerism. I mean there were flashes where I thought that what I was writing was the greatest thing I’d ever created and that the world would fall in love it, but then the next day I’d wake up and listen to it and think “how could anyone enjoy this?” I still feel that way about the album too at times.

UTG: It’s interesting that you say that because you kind of sent social media into overdrive the other day by being quoted as saying that you think the next album will make Lonerism look like amateur hour. How is that album different from Lonerism? What makes you feel that way?

I don’t actually remember saying that, but everyone keeps telling me that I did [laughs]. Like just the other night I was at a club on the Gold Coast and some rather inebriated girl came up to me and [mimics a drunk Australian girl] said apparently you said that Lonerism is going to make the next album look like amateur hour, and I was like wait, what? So yeah, I can’t remember saying that but for what it’s worth that is obviously how I feel right now, so feel free to re-quote that if you want to. I mean because it’s new and it’s fresh and you always feel that way when it’s new and it’s fresh and exciting. That’s the best part of being an artist, is that process.

UTG: How’s writing the album going anyway? How is it all progressing?

It’s good, I mean when you’re on tour it’s mostly just listening, because I don’t really get the chance to get into the studio or anything to work on it, so all that I tend to do is listen to what I have already laid down and then if I have an idea I just grab the guitar and a laptop and just turn the laptop microphone on and try to get the rough idea down, and it’ll sound horrible but then at least I’ll be able to remember it and work from there. What I have so far is sounding really good though and I am really excited about it, so I’ll be heading down south after this tour to record some drums and some other parts that I can’t really get down in a hotel room, so I’m really looking forward to that.

UTG: Being from Western Australia, there is this massive geographic disconnect from the rest of Australia, which seems to come across in most of the music that comes out of that region. Do you think that that isolation and just the unique cultural experience of living in WA has influenced your music?

Who knows, man? I mean, before I left Perth, I had no idea, I had no idea that there even was a music scene anywhere else and I traveled a bit and I realized that “hey, Perth does have something unique going on,” but then I traveled a bit more and I realized that it doesn’t matter where you are or where you are from, it is all the same kind of thing, just with some subtle differences. For example, I spent the last week in Melbourne and it’s the same kind of thing as in Perth- there’s emerging bands, established bands, overrated bands, underrated bands, bands with niche sounds, bands with popular sounds- it’s all the same kind of thing really, it’s just people trying to tell their story in a musical way. So at this stage I don’t really know if that disconnection is influencing our music anymore.

UTG: Under The Gun Review is based in the USA, so for the benefit of the readers who perhaps haven’t had a chance to hear your music before, what would you say is different about your band and the reason they should check you out?

I would say that it’s music if you love emotional electronic music but you didn’t like how robotic and pristine it sounded and how kind of artificial it sounded, and wanted that same rush but with a bit more of a raw feel, then we’d be the band for you.

UTG: You should work PR at your own label man, that’s a perfect encapsulation of your sound.

[laughs] Yeah I should, hey!

UTG: Now obviously we’re sitting backstage at the Big Day Out festival, so that leads me to ask, out of all the festival and touring experiences you’ve been blessed enough to have of recent times, what stands out as the most memorable?

Nowhere, man, it’s all a big blur. I mean, it only takes us a couple of weeks in some nice part of Europe to just do a nice run of festivals and every day we will think that the festival we’ve played is the zenith of the touring experience, but then the next day the next one will feel like the best experience and it all depends on so many different factors from time of day to emotional state to energy levels or the food you’ve eaten, the weather, if people are having fun, if people are on drugs, and if they are on drugs, what kind of drugs and so forth. It’s all of a blur that rolls into one great human experience.

UTG: Speaking of drugs, do substances impact your music?

In the long run I would say no, but in the short term I would say…maybe? I mean sometimes songwriting happens so organically and spontaneously that whatever mindset you are in at the time is going to have an influence on what you’re writing. I mean, you could just be tired, being tired is a drug in itself- it causes the same chemical changes in your body. So in the long run, it’s what’s inside of you. Drugs don’t play a large part in that, just sometimes they might bring it on a little bit quicker.

UTG: Nicely answered. Once again the PR man in you is shining.

[laughter]

UTG: Are there any acts on the Big Day Out that you are excited to see?

Deftones. I haven’t had the chance to see them yet, but I am hoping to get the opportunity to tonight because they don’t clash with us or any of my commitments, so I definitely want to see Deftones because they were such a massive influence on me and I was such a massive fan as a teenager.

UTG: Is there anything that you still hope to achieve from here with your music? Is there an obvious or defined next step that you’re looking to take from here?

Obviously yes, I mean being ambitious isn’t a character trait that simply stops when you achieve something, so as with any person with hopes and ambitions, mine continue to evolve and I think that’s perfectly natural. If you asked Kanye West if he had ambitions beyond his current achievements he’d say yes, and really if you’re an artist that’s how you have to be, because if you’re not ambitious, at least in terms of your own creation, then you’ve probably stopped creating and just started recycling and nothing good comes from that. So obviously ambition is a frame of mind.

UTG: As a band you’ve all got other ventures going on. Is finding the balance between those ambitions and those outlets providing difficult, or is it something that is unfolding naturally?

For me it’s not that difficult because my primary creative outlet is Tame Impala and all I really write for consistently is Tame Impala, so in that respect not much is overly complicated for me. However, for the other guys with Pond and the other projects they are associated with I think it can be a bit of a juggling act, but none of them have complained about it or anything, I think because they are all in the same situation they are able to make it work for them easier than perhaps some other bands with side projects might be able to.

UTG: Personally have you thought about working on anything outside of Tame Impala?

I have this thing now where I like to write songs and contribute ideas for other people, I really like that idea of being able to help write something that sounds nothing like Tame Impala and let my songwriting grow in that really organic way, without having to think about where it would fit on a Tame Impala record. Lately I’ve been writing with Mark Ronson a bit in a studio in London, so if when I am writing, if I think of a modern day funk riff or something, I’ll send it off to Mark to see what he can do with it, and so far it’s all sounding really good and I am really excited about hearing my creative output used in such a different way to which I have become accustomed.

UTG: That sounds amazing. Now tying us back to the Big Day Out to finish off, I’ll ask you a cliché question and hope not to get a cliché answer, so here goes. Why should people come and see Tame Impala today as opposed to going to see say “insert DJ name here” or “insert band name here.”

Because we make the daddest calls between songs of any act in the world. There is no other band in the world that can match us in the dad joke stakes. Our music might be hip and cool, but we sound like dads in between songs, so you know our hipster cred is rouge.

UTG: That is an amazing answer. You might have just encouraged some kids to bring their dads along as well. See, that’s that PR man in you coming to the fore again, expanding your audience to include dads, it is brilliant!

[laughter]

UTG: Speaking of PR, I can see your publicist needs to move you on, so thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, Kevin, good luck with the rest of the tour and with writing the new album. See you at Deftones.

 

Photo credit: Matthew Saville

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