There’s this binary image of the archetypal lead singer. One is a power crazed, swaggering narcissist and the other is awkwardly insular; plagued as much as enriched by a domineering creative spirit. Both personalities are dangerously Weberian in some respect and though it may be unfashionable to embody the ‘golden mean’, it’s perhaps right that Tame Impala’s lead singer, guitarist and creative director, Kevin Parker does; the optimum amount of confidence to be self-assured rather than self-concerned, the ideal amount of humility to be humble as opposed self-deprecating.
He didn’t just find himself at this state though; he struggled towards it in his testing ‘uncool’ youth. Lonerism, Tame Impala’s second album, is essentially the ontology of Parker from adolescence to early 20s, “it’s about someone who discovers themselves as not destined to be around other people… discovering the outside world and learning that they are not someone that belongs in the centre of everything…as the album progresses it’s someone discovering that they are meant to be on the outer rim, like someone from the outside looking in, rather than… I don’t know, maybe that doesn’t make sense…” [laughs]
The band has just played Australia’s Parklife Festival in their home city of Perth. At his end of the phone there’s a lot of shuffling in the background but it’s hard to tell if the group and their entourage are at the cusp of a wild party or just winding down. The only thing that’s crystal clear is what Parker is saying and I give him that assurance, “I get what you mean – like someone who realises that they aren’t meant for the mainstream world – they’re on the periphery?” He replies, “Yeah exactly, and with the ups and downs and the situations that arise from that kind of persona.”
Though he struggled with these ups and downs, he didn’t take the easy route to assimilate to this mainstream world, rather he chose to accept his distant position. Even now, despite Tame Impala being undeservedly lumbered in the contemporary 60s pastiche category, they go against the popular music tide. Of Parklife, Parker states with reflection, “I think we’re like the token guitar band of the festival because we’re surrounded by a whole bill of electronic acts – but it’s good though.”
One thing you’d be unlikely to see is Tame Impala morph into an electronic band in order to attune to popularity. In fact, the success of their debut album Innerspeaker suggests that people will always look beyond fads if you produce quality. For Parker, that album marked an epiphany of sorts, “if you do what you love, it will reach the people that love that kind of thing, no matter how you do it or how it’s marketed or whatever, all that stuff doesn’t matter. If you do what you love, the people who love it will seek it out.”
This sudden realisation caused a change in Tame Impala’s direction for Lonerism. The phrase ‘a subtle seismic shift’ may sound oxymoronic but it’s the closest to encompassing the sound of the album. The lustrous psychedelic sheen is still present in abundance but a pop sensibility has sneakily infiltrated the core of the Impala sound. “I really love how pop music has this effect on you. Recently I’ve been less restricted in singing pop melodies and not feeling guilty about it.” He continues, ”In a way, this is more Tame Impala because it’s kind of just natural. For me it’s more what I have dreamed about doing rather than what I’ve calculated or thought would be the best thing to do for the people around me and my friends and stuff. This one’s the music that I’ve dreamed about making but have felt a bit too shy to do.”
Why would Parker have reluctantly ignored pop music’s bellowing call before? Perhaps the subconscious fear that appreciating the universality of pop music is, in some dogmatic way, the antithesis of cool for the uncool – a sectarian pressure to stay in the same realm as ‘people like him’. Still, this kind of musical populism is a weighty shackle and once Parker relinquished this mind-set, the far reaching possibilities of music opened up to him, “instead of me having this really formulated idea of a rock band set up, it was more me using every instrument that was available and using it whenever it was needed in a song – whether it was for the whole song or just two seconds. Using instruments as pieces in an orchestra rather than a band recording where everyone is playing the same instrument for the whole time”. From his childhood love for prog-rock band Supertramp (“they were like my guiding light”), Parker and I discover a shared love of Caribou. The latter is known for his liberal instrument usage. Even so, he contends that he isn’t so directly influenced by specific artists, “it’s pretty subconscious”.
It wouldn’t be wrong to describe Parker as a self-conscious guy, mind. Throughout this interview he makes an effort to ensure his words match exactly what he’s trying to communicate; when it seems he’s finished answering a question, he develops it further into more nuanced, revealing and honest territory. It’s also a trait that is evident in Tame Impala’s music. On Lonerism, like Innerspeaker, there isn’t that instant gratification that you’d find on the average pop record, but it’s a cumulative reveal that’s well worth the anticipation. “I generally think that Tame Impala music is ‘grower’ music instead of ‘right then and there’ music. With some music you love the first instance you hear it and I think Tame Impala music, it kind of takes you a while, so when I read reviews of people who have only heard it once I’m not really concerned by it – I’m generally not really concerned by it anyway but especially not with people who have just heard it once or whatever.”
More of Parker’s personality traits are evident throughout Lonerism. The vast majority of Tame Impala’s music has been his solitary work and while listening to both albums you are essentially a fly-on-the-wall to his creative sanctuary. So it may not be evident on this melancholic album that he opened himself more during its creative process. The image of the long suffering yet supremely talented artist may be the stuff of cult adoration, but as Parker realised, it’s not fun if you are that person. “I was just more open because I hadn’t written a song with anyone else before with Tame Impala and I felt comfortable with what I’d already done by myself so I felt free to let other people’s opinions come into it like Jay [Watson, Drummer] who I totally respect and I love the songs he writes and stuff like that. I felt like it would be cool to do something fun. I kind of became envious of people who do music as a fun collaborative thing rather than this kind of lone, artistic outlook.”
In some ways ‘lonerism’ is a state of being and the ‘lonerists’ are that fairly prominent demographic present in American teen flicks: the quintessential shy, unpopular kid with deep, colourful thoughts that gets picked on by the quintessential cool, sporty ‘jock’. So if Lonerism, the album, was to become this demographics’ soundtrack and the soundtrack for those who just love Tame Impala’s music, what would he hope they got from it? ”Just something I guess – just bringing things to the surface that aren’t usually brought there naturally, so if music kind of… helps it come back to the surface naturally – then mission accomplished, I guess”. When it comes to music Kevin Parker is sure of himself in a humble sense and now more than ever knows where he fits in. It seems apt then, that when I ask him to describe Lonerism in 5 words or less, he replies “Cool sounding music for losers”.
Lonerism is available now via Modular People, and the band will be heading to the UK to play the following dates:
30 Oct – London, UK – Brixton Academy
01 Nov – Manchester, UK – Ritz
02 Nov – Sheffield, UK – Leadmill
03 Nov – Glasgow, UK – ABC