Tame Impala Embraces the Joys of Lonerism
There are plenty of places in the world to disappear, but most are too forbidding to even consider. The Arctic? Too cold and too dark. The deserts of Africa or the Middle East? Too hot and too dry. Perth, situated on the southwestern tip of the Australian continent is a far more inviting prospect. Located more than 1,300 miles from the nearest major city, Adelaide, it has the distinction, literally, of being one of the remotest places on our lonely planet. The place was clearly designed to keep the rest of the world out: in colonial times, mud flats and sand bars made passage by water impossible, more than a few ships ran aground on reefs and rock formations, and the sea itself roiled up in a fury to ward off encroaching mariners with storms and gales. Perth clearly wanted nothing more than to be left alone, even though no one wanted to allow it the pleasure. And when you figure in its 19 sugar-white beaches and its 3,200 hours of sunshine a year, you’d be hard-pressed to blame it.
In short, Perth was tailor-made for solitude, and that suits the freewheeling Aussie bohos of Tame Impala perfectly fine. The lush environs and bright weather permeate every last dimension of the band’s kaleidoscopic noise. At the core of their mind-bending sounds is 26-year-old resident Kevin Parker, for whom Tame Impala is a largely private endeavor. When he and his band mates aren’t rehearsing, recording or touring, you’ll likely find them lounging seaside, or communing over a joint. Solitude, as Parker so famously noted on the song of the same title, is bliss.
But lately, that’s been a difficult commodity to come by. “We’ve barely had a moment to scratch our own asses!” Parker laughs. In the wake of Tame Impala’s first LP, Innerspeaker, critical accolades and best-of-everything awards from WAMI and Triple J avalanched in, and the band soon found itself performing for throngs of thousands at the Coachella, Parklife, Reading, Leeds and Outside Lands festivals. More recently, they braved the brutal heat of Lollapalooza. “We had an insanely hot day, to the point that half of our shit melted and stopped working,” moans Parker, whose proclivity for performing barefoot presented another dilemma. “The stage was so hot I had to stand on a towel! It was truly insane.”
More significantly, Lollapalooza marked the culmination of the two dizzying years leading up to the arrival of Innerspeaker, a magical mystery tour through the land of Oz. But Parker still has his doubts about the album. “I thought everyone would hate it,” he laughs, casting blame on what he dubs “end-of-album finishing paranoia, when the magic sort of dies off a bit because you’ve been working on it so hard. It’s difficult to hear what people will hear, what people will love. All you hear is what’s been going over and over in your head, and it’s difficult to enjoy it.”
Given Parker’s penchant for endless tinkering, it’s somewhat of a miracle that Tame Impala songs are ever finished at all. If he had things his way, he’d work on them forever. “I heard someone say once that albums never get finished – you just run out of time,” Parker laughs. “Which is actually pretty true. There are always things you can do to music. It’s very rare that you can actually listen to a song and say, ‘Right! It’s finished. There we go.’”
Like Innerspeaker, Tame Impala’s second electric Kool-Aid acid test, Lonerism (Modular), encapsulates Parker’s inner-directed creativity and youthful energy. He’s a quintessential muso, a committed headphonist who’s happiest in his home studio surrounded by a cluttery hodgepodge of new and vintage guitars, keyboards, effects pedals and every other fun trick noisemaker within reach – “whatever works, whatever can serve a purpose,” he says.
Parker’s growing interest in keyboards, which were mostly relegated to background harmonies in the past, stands front and center on Lonerism, most strikingly on “Enders Toi” and “Music to Walk Home By.” “I was really obsessed with those sounds when I was doing the album, more so than the guitar,” Parker recalls. “I was really into the way of making completely outrageous sounds with them. I’d taken a break from guitars as my main instrument and was trying to explore that synth world. It’s more of a laser beam. When you play a melody it’s more like a beam to the face than the guitar, which is more like a wall of clanging and distortion.”
An intense, consuming lava-lamp swirl of space echoes, fractals, fuzzbox distortion, samples and phased guitars, Lonerism chipped away ever so slightly at Parker’s singular ways. Drummer Jay Watson, his musical cohort since their early teens and a fellow member of the Tame Impala side project Pond, was a natural choice. “I kind of had this idea that it would be a lot more collaborative,” Parker remembers. “It started almost like it was going to be a duo album. But then, slowly, I just recessed into my own usual reclusive way of doing things.”
For anyone who maintains an artistic career of any sort, time spent alone is a matter of necessity. It’s an ideal modus operandi for the square pegs among us. Parker is at his most productive under such conditions, and understands that aloneness need not translate into loneliness. And when you come up empty-handed after a long search for like-minded souls, retreating into a universe of your own is a natural impulse.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to make this kind of music with lots of people, with a band,” Parker confides. “I generally don’t have very [much] communication with people when I’m working creatively. I’m not very good at communicating. I’m the most creative when I’m alone. That’s when the sound in your head starts to become the loudest, the most bold.”
That’s Lonerism in a nutshell, so gloriously loud and so brilliantly bold that it’s a shame to confine it to a set of headphones. It’s an album that demands to be played at a ribcage-rattling volume, preferably under the influence of your favorite intoxicant. Where Innerspeaker gloried in the fruit-flavored tones of mid ‘60s bands like the Electric Prunes and the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Lonerism inches the band toward the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and the Who, Cream and Pink Floyd. Led Zeppelin drums send “Be Above It” on a stampede across the wild Australian outback, and the synthesizers that so intensely captivate Parker lend depth and texture to “Endors Toi” and “Music to Walk Home By.” As Parker observes on the piano-driven “Apocalypse Dreams,” everything is changing.
Except, of course, his isolationist tendencies. Innerspeaker touched upon the concept of aloneness, but Lonerism confronts it head-on. “This particular album is really about feeling alienated, feeling like a foreign entity,” Parker says. “I guess that ties into the way I’m working.”
Such a method, however, is not without its drawbacks. “When you’re working on your own, layering instruments over the top of each other, there are infinite things you could put on top of the sounds,” he explains. “It’s extremely hard to tell whether it’s got enough, or if it’s too empty or too full.” And while the laborious nature of his music might reek of perfectionism, Parker firmly rejects the label. “I think people say I’m a perfectionist, but I wouldn’t necessarily agree,” he says. “At this point I am pretty satisfied with the songs. I wouldn’t actually change them.”
It’s a good bet that no one else would, either. “I feel like I’ve made the album that I’ve wanted to make,” reveals Parker. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something that I would have wanted to make a long time ago, but was too scared to, I guess.” He pauses. “I don’t know how to say it without sounding like an asshole,”
And as always, the proper setting mindset – and the requisite solitude – remain essential. “You have to do whatever you can to get there to shut out the outside world and get the voice in your head the loudest,” Parker says. Lonerism at its finest.