Tame Impala
Who Killed the Dinosaurs?
by Kevin J. Elliott

For Perth, Australia quartet Tame Impala, aspirations of being stadium-filling hard-rock troubadours in the same pomp and circumstantial realm as bygone acts like Supertramp and Yes isn’t really that much of a stretch. Here it was late afternoon in Columbus, Ohio, and the unassuming 20-somethings were doing their best to satiate a swelling crowd as openers on a whirlwind tour with current pop darlings MGMT. It all started less than two years ago when singer, guitarist, and songwriter Kevin Parker, who had played a part in many local bands in Perth, embarked on his own solo journey, holing up in the studio to create Tame Impala’s debut, Innerspeaker, piece by piece until it was everything he had first imagined. What resulted was a mammoth psychedelic masterstroke filled with epic peaks and valleys, radio-ready crispness and deft plundering into the classics, recalling everything from Pink Floyd to the Beatles as well as lesser-known jam heavies like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Sir Lord Baltimore. For any fan of the latest crop of revivalists, of which Sweden’s Dungen takes the prize, Innerspeaker’s impact is apparent, and those with a taste for adventure should also note that the album’s closest cousin is that of the Norwegian powerhouse, Motorpsycho, a band who has taken psychedelic exploration to dizzying new heights.

What places Tame Impala’s music above the average sepia-toned stoner riff barrage is Parker’s noticeable knack for melody and texture, but unfortunately on this night, Tame Impala’s lush intricacies and face-melting power was lost on the impatient audience. The Aussies are more suited for late-night dives and intimate performances, where volume exceeds chatter and the group’s mellower vibes take hold rather than get carried off in the winds of an outdoor setting. Then again, in talking with Parker and drummer Jay Watson, Tame Impala are ambitious enough to become one of those monolithic forces, with an arena-ready stage show and the eight-minute prog workouts to back it up. You could call them dinosaurs, as they certainly mine some anachronistic visions that could be seen as worn thin, or at least, without hipster cred. But there’s something buzzing in Tame Impala’s sound that transcends the retro tag and makes their goals, as lofty as they may be, not all that impossible.

I’ve read that you said Innerspeaker is a “projection of the lo-fi sounds reverberating in (your) head.” Given that the record is of a more hi-fi, almost epic range, can you explain what you meant by that?

Kevin Parker: It’s meant to give off the idea that the sound was inspired in the beginning rather than reached accidentally. It’s the method that most songwriters use: where an idea is triggered in the brain and you can map out all of the parts from there. I guess the extreme of that is Brian Wilson, who just wrote down all of the parts as they came. Innerspeaker, for me, was more on the Brian Wilson side. Not to compare myself in the slightest to Brian Wilson, but I had an idea for every different part on the record. The lo-fi bit is just what I like. The sound has a different quality. I find that a sound that is a bit rough around the edges has a different feeling to it. It’s kind of...

Jay Watson: Wholesome? I think that’s why more often than not these days people are interested in lo-fi, because it’s keeping it real in some way and not dolling it up.

It sounds like each and every corner of this record was labored over, with no expense spared to make a truly ambitious modern psychedelic record. Was your method surgical and precise, or was it a lot of live recording and maintaining the energy that way?

KP: Very much the former. The album was very much assembled by me. Dom (Simper) was there as the co-producer, I suppose, but for the most part, it is a pieced-together album. These guys were off making their own albums, so I really didn’t have anyone else’s input. It was kind of like I was apprehensive to try new things. I didn’t know what it was about my songs that made them good. It was almost like a Jenga block: if the wrong drum beat happened, the whole song would dissolve. It was all a very neurotic thing to make the album and not at all being open-minded to recording music spontaneously. It had to be perfect.

Do you think there’s a lack of this kind of psychedelic music these days? I suppose I mean a lack of craft and a lack of giant sounds and concepts.

JW: Well, the best bands, the bands that we like the best, are always like that, like the new MGMT album or Caribou. The jammier they are the better. But are there really any jam bands anymore?

KP: I think we’re just a little obsessed with that kind of studio masterpiece idea. We’re eternally fascinated with the ability to infinitely layer things in the studio.

JW: I just like the sound of ambition. I like when bands decide to have a 42-piece orchestra.

Was working and mixing the record with Dave Fridmann something that you prompted? Were there records that he produced that influenced the sound of Tame Impala?

KP: All of the above. It was an accident. I was going to mix it myself and realized I was in over my head. I couldn’t get that impact or explosion in the sound that I knew he could do. I was about to freak out, but found out he had a few weeks free to do it. If it was any other person who wanted to mix it, I would have told them to take a running leap. But this was someone who I had admired since I was a teenager. The label was kind enough to send me over to his studio to do the mixing with him.

I’m always interested in what Australian musicians feel makes Australian music unique. Of course, there are a ton of British records—from the Beatles to Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin—that find their way into your songwriting and production, but were there specific Australian groups that informed what you do?

KP: I think Australia has the least influence on us.

JW: Australia is always far less important than people think. Our generation is so streamlined because of the internet. A band from Columbus is probably online reading about the same bands as us, listening to the same music, and we are half a world away. I was born in 1990. By the time I was 13, the internet was up and running. There’s no sense anymore of your place being important, because it’s really all connected these days. But being from Perth, it’s a small town and there’s not too much to do, so there’s a small community in that.

Your voice is distinctly Lennon-esque, something that I think separates you from other hard rock outfits. I have a theory that no matter what a player of rock music says, the Beatles have an indirect influence on what they do, and it’s something that’s inherent, in your blood if you grew up around those records. Do you agree with that theory, or do you go out of your way to express in interviews or through songs the importance of the Beatles?

KP: They’re not much of a conscious influence.

JW: We never put them on anymore because we all went through that Beatles phase in high school and wore those records out. I think your theory is correct, though, because you’d have to be pretty cynical to say that you don’t like the Beatles and that those albums and songs have no merit.

Do you have any ideas of where you’d like to take the Tame Impala sound? Are there any dream scenarios for recording the next album?

KP: We’ve got a lot of demos we’re working on. I’m actually more excited for this next record than Innerspeaker because that one was basically forced out of me. I’m making a concerted effort to not put any stops on our guilty pleasures. I’ve put restraints on myself in the past. It was all wholesome and good, but lately I’ve been listening to most sickly sweet pop music.

JW: I think it will sound like hell’s fucked-up, sonic version of Supertramp.