Yes I’m Changing: The Bold Metamorphosis Of Tame Impala’s Currents
Kevin Parker was still working when the taxi rolled up to his home. The sun was setting over Perth on one of those early March evenings when a Southern Hemisphere summer is inching into fall. In just a few days, Parker was expected to be in Los Angeles to play Tame Impala’s new album, Currents, for executives at Interscope, the world-famous psychedelic rock band’s new label home. But first Parker — the group’s singer, guitarist, songwriter, producer, and all-around auteur — was flying halfway around the world to New York’s famed Sterling Sound to have the project mastered. Mastering is the final step of the recording process, the sonic equivalent of applying the finish to a completed paint job. There was just one problem: Parker hadn’t completed the album yet. Two songs, the ones that would become “Reality In Motion” and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” still needed lyrics.
Parker was due to land in New York at 9PM local time and was expected to hand over the album at Sterling Sound the next morning. So he frantically grabbed his belongings, hopped in the cab, and asked his longtime manager, Jodie Regan, to book some overnight studio time in Manhattan. Throughout the flights from Perth to Sydney to Los Angeles to New York, Parker didn’t sleep, instead attempting to cobble together lyrics while quietly humming vocal melodies to himself. After about 36 hours, he and Regan landed in NYC and headed straight to the studio. By the time Parker had loaded up his mixes and fine-tuned the equipment to his liking, it was 1AM. Two hours of subpar vocal takes later, he was in full-on freak-out mode. Two more hours passed, and his voice completely gave out; he tried and tried, but “there was nothing left of me.” At 6AM he retreated to his hotel and slumped into bed. The album wasn’t done.
“It’s the closest I’ve come to actually having some kind of nervous breakdown,” Parker remembers. “It was that one day where I realized how people become alcoholics. I’ve never been able to actually understand something like alcoholism. On those few days, I was like, ‘I get it now.'”
So he was relieved when mastering engineer Greg Calbi said they could proceed with the songs that were finished and fix up the last two tracks later — even more so when the Interscope brass noticed his duress and told him they could push back the release date until he was comfortable with the final product. The plan was to have the album out before Tame Impala’s tour launched in May, capitalizing on the momentum from a pair of high-profile Coachella sets. But when Parker’s perfectionist streak butted heads with a carefully plotted promotional timeline, perfectionism won out, and Currents was pushed back to July. As Parker recalls it, “I was like, ‘This is going to be on my album. This is going to be around for the rest of my life. Why am I so obsessed with finishing this in the next two hours?'”
Amidst all that turmoil, Tame Impala released a song about ceasing your internal struggle and going with the flow. The eight-minute electronic-psychedelic treatise “Let It Happen” is the album’s opening track, lead single, and statement of purpose. It’s about giving up the fight against your own transformation, submitting to the real you rather than scurrying to maintain a carefully curated version of yourself. And it practices what it preaches, unapologetically injecting heavy doses of electronic dance music into the sweeping guitar panoramas that have become Tame Impala’s trademark.
Parker says the song “initiates this kind of grand transition of someone.” The rest of Currents follows suit, its musical evolution mirroring Parker’s attempts to follow his arrow — or, rather, his arrows. “My personal life, my musical life, my life as an artist — almost everything has pointed all these little arrows that make up which way I go as a person and what I feel comfortable as my identity,” Parker says. Plentiful allusions to the end of a romantic relationship suggest Currents is a breakup album, but Parker rejects that label as incomplete. “That’s another little arrow in the school of fish. That’s one fish in the school of fish that are going in this one direction.”
Parker’s songs have always sounded like John Lennon exploring a hyperreal dream world on the other side of the looking glass. “Let It Happen” maintains that aesthetic but alters it in ways teenage Parker would have scoffed at before dropping the needle on a Blue Cheer record. Garish neon synth melodies soar atop programmed beats. Parker’s vocal harmonies get the Daft Punk robot treatment. There’s even a drop — not a comedically violent digital bass explosion, but a drop nonetheless. Coming from a lifelong studio rat whose first two albums were called Innerspeaker and Lonerism, it’s a bold transfusion of music’s most communal genre.
At a time when festival kids are more likely to flock to the DJ tent than gather around some blokes with guitars, the song’s hallucinogenic rave-rock ideal could be mistaken for a canny strategic move. But for Parker, who has always labored to keep Tame Impala’s music within his own strict understanding of what psych-rock should sound like, songs like “Let It Happen” represent the end of strategy. It’s about “just being able to play that sound and just dive down that rabbit hole and just see where it takes you, see where you end up, see what the other side looks like,” he explains. “In the old days I never would have dived down that rabbit hole. I would have peered up from the top and run low, maybe put an abseiling rope on the top and gone down a bit, not actually just like jumped off and seeing where I end up on the other side. And that’s kind of what I did this time.”
Parker is a soft-spoken introvert, but he’s always thought of himself as a rocker. That’s evident in the way he’s dressed when we meet up in May on the day of Tame Impala’s Columbus tour stop: scraggly curtains of shoulder-length hair, denim jacket, a colorful scarf draped casually across his T-shirt. The rock ‘n’ roll identity traces back to his teenage years, when he fell hard for ’60s and ’70s psych. Having honed his guitar and drum skills in a preteen cover band, he moved on to solitary home studio sessions channeling psych bands both famous (the seminal English blues-rock power trio Cream) and obscure (the jazz-informed German krautrock combo Brainticket). The resulting song-suites stretched Sgt. Pepper’s lysergic sugar rush to Dark Side Of The Moon proportions and thrust them into a sparkling modernized context. He’s a great songwriter who elevated his songs by putting them in state-of-the-art sonic environments until they feel less like musical compositions than levels in a video game.
The approach served Parker well; in less than a decade, Tame Impala rose from an astronomy student’s private home-recording project to the defining psych-rock band of his generation. Yet as much as Parker loved those old records he pillaged for inspiration, he often found himself stifling other creative impulses because he deemed them perilously uncool. They didn’t fit within his strict definition of himself, and he feared that allowing them to influence his music would render him a laughingstock. That resistance could only last for so long; Parker’s version of psychedelia has always turned decidedly retro influences into revolutionary sonic wonderlands. To remain much longer inside the insular virtual reality he’d constructed would have rendered it a prison. So, having conquered that realm once and for all on Lonerism, he set out to apply his forward-thinking touch to a more populist sound on his next project. All that required was getting over some old biases that many of his peers have long since dispensed with.
“I was thinking a lot of R&B, just stuff that reminded me of stuff that I made myself hate when I was a teenager growing up,” Parker says between swigs of Dos Equis, perched on a couch backstage at LC Pavilion. “When I was a young teenager — that was, like, late ’90s, early 2000s — stuff that I used to think I wasn’t meant to like because I was a grunge kid. Not even grunge and rock or whatever. I was a musician and I was a music guy. And music guys aren’t allowed to be into R&B when they are teenagers because all the teenybopper kids blast that shit in their cars, so that would mean I was categorically opposed to it, you know. And I guess it just took me about 15 years to realize that it had nothing to do with the music, it was just the association with people and types of people. So when I learnt that, it was an extremely liberating time because I felt like I could do anything, I could embrace anything.”
That’s a common epiphany in this day and age, but in Parker’s case it has yielded deeply uncommon results. Tame Impala’s music has always been transportive, but Currents truly sounds like nothing else. The closest equivalents in recent memory are Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s kitchen-sink micro-psych and the ethereal synth-blurts of Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips, but even at their saddest, those bands have a mischievous playful spirit that makes them feel like cartoons compared to Currents’ live action drama. By allowing himself to assault the boundaries of taste, Parker has done for soft rock, dance-pop, and R&B what he used to do for prog, psych, and krautrock: boil it all down into prismatic future music.
EDM is only the beginning of Tame Impala’s new frontiers. Currents bears traces of everything from Michael Jackson to REO Speedwagon to Boyz II Men, yet the album’s influx of pop never scans as ironic appropriation or even earnest revivalism. Instead, as ever, Parker innovates, refracting his source material through his own unique perspective. His unique sonic point of view is the main connective thread between Currents and Tame Impala’s previous records. It’s just that this time out Parker is pillaging decades’ worth of MOR radio hits rather than decades’ worth of uber-hip experimental rock records, and you’re more likely to find yourself humming a funky bass line than a gliding vocal melody. Over the course of 13 tracks, Parker tries his hand at finger-snapping echo-chamber AM gold (“The Moment”), boom-bap synthpop (“Reality In Motion”), psychedelic disco-funk (“The Less I Know The Better”), and a dreamy soft-rock power ballad worthy of an android Richard Marx (“Yes I’m Changing”). Even though he hasn’t completely abandoned his art-rock origins — the squealing peals of feedback on early interlude “Nangs” are pure My Bloody Valentine, and “Past Life” features a computerized voiceover worthy of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” — fans will be split about the wisdom of such a radical stylistic departure. Lovers and haters alike will have to concede that Currents is Tame Impala’s boldest evolution yet.
Producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson deserves at least some of the credit for Tame Impala’s transformation — or, if you’re a jilted psych-rock zealot, some of the blame. Parker made three guest appearances on Ronson’s recent Uptown Special, and the Tame Impala leader says the experience helped him loosen up. “It inspired me to embrace different methods of recording, definitely, because Mark’s open to anything,” Parker says. “He comes from that world of sampling music. So I guess for him, it doesn’t matter where something comes from. I guess it just matters that what comes out of the other end it cool and feels good basically.”
If Parker appears to have switched sides in the eternal rockism/poptimism debate, he hasn’t entirely abandoned his old prejudices. When I suggest that his new album’s egalitarian genre hybrid seems seems like a reflection of the modern festival environment, he flatly responds, “Don’t say that. That’s terrible.” When I press him to elaborate, he offers this anecdote:
“If that was in any way my intention, the album would sound a lot different because that — getting 16,000 people to jump up and down to your music — in the end, is not a very difficult task. I learnt that really early on when we used to play in bars. We’d be playing as Tame Impala; we’d be playing some of the songs we’d play now even. You’d see a singer-songwriter get up, start stomping his foot, start playing these strong chords, start going like, ‘Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh!’ And the whole fucking crowd, the whole fucking pub would start pumping their feet, climbing up on bars. And everyone would be into it. And then we’d get up and play this sort of washed-out psych-rock and everyone would be sort of like subdued again. And then I was like, ‘Well, I could go down that road.’ It was tempting because there were girls in the bar, like, ‘If only I could get this audience on my side.’ But I guess we just endured with what we did and I guess that guy is still doing what he’s doing. I guess it’s just something that I had to resist.”
Within a few hours of uttering those sentences Parker is on stage with his hands above his head urging his audience to clap along to “Let It Happen,” so he might not realize how much he and the foot-stomping pub singer now have in common. His lyrics, though, are far more self-aware. Currents trumpets personal metamorphosis from start to finish, but it never pretends change comes easy or without collateral damage. “Yes I’m Changing” and “Eventually” brace for the unpleasantness of ending a romantic relationship. “Disciples” mourns the disintegration of a close friendship. And closing track “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” brings the text and metatext together at last, anticipating criticism of Tame Impala’s new direction with lyrics like “I can just hear them now/ ‘How could you let us down?'” and “I know that you think it’s fake/ Maybe fake’s what I like.”
The latter line, Parker says, is not about disappearing into fantasy: “It’s actually telling someone, ‘I know what you think I’m doing is fake. I know you think it’s like a sellout move. You think that this isn’t real, but hey, you know what? Maybe I like fake. Maybe I’m allowed to like things that you think are disposable.’ When I say ‘you,’ it’s someone battling themselves inside their brain. It’s the last song on the album; it’s like this final showdown between this side of you that is embracing change and there’s a side of you that’s resisting it.”
The sound of Currents is bound to be controversial, but one song in particular has already incited some quarrels due to its lyrics. On a surface read, the smoldering slow jam “‘Cause I’m A Man” seems to excuse Parker’s bad decisions on account of his brutish masculine nature: “‘Cause I’m a man, woman/ Don’t always think before I do.” With a coy smile, Parker says that’s not what he meant, though the phrasing is confusing on purpose. “It’s really meant to be interpreted more like ‘I’m a man’ as in ‘I’m a human. I’m merely a man,'” Parker explains. “I understand how it can be perceived as sexist, almost misogynistic, but put it this way: I know deep in my heart, I am not in any way sexist. And I knew there would be people who would think that. There was a small part of me that was excited about ruffling some feathers ’cause I never do that, you know? I’m not that kind of person.”
So, has Parker learned to ride life’s waves with the carefree grace of a Finding Nemo sea turtle? Yes and no. There are certainly signs of taking it easy: He’s recently expressed indifference about getting paid for his records, a sentiment backed up a few weeks after our interview when news broke that Modular Records founder Steve “Pav” Pavlovic owed Tame Impala almost half a million dollars in unpaid royalties. Parker expressed contentment about his financial situation and said he was surprised the rights management agency BMG was suing Pavlovic on his behalf. Furthermore, when his desire to keep working on Currents past the deadline screwed up Tame Impala’s carefully plotted album rollout, Parker made the best of it.
When I sit down with Parker in Columbus, Currents is still two months from release, but about a third of the record has gone public already. “Let It Happen” was supposed to kick off a quick pre-release campaign culminating in rapturously received album and a triumphant victory lap around North America. That didn’t play out as planned, but Parker still wanted to play new songs on tour, so Tame Impala spent the spring sharing tantalizing new singles in quick succession. The steamy R&B apology anthem “‘Cause I’m A Man,” the bright and punchy pop tidbit “Disciples,” and the titanic soft-rock breakup jam “Eventually” further stoked fans’ frenzied anticipation. Then: no climax for the foreseeable future. Stoking fans to a fever pitch only to leave them salivating for two months was not an ideal promotional strategy, but you won’t hear any complaints from the ones who were in the room this spring, who had the privilege of being subsumed by the mammoth chorus of “‘Cause I’m A Man” and watched their bodies turn into beams of light during “Eventually.”
On the other hand, Parker’s death grip on Tame Impala’s artistic direction has only gotten tighter. Whereas keyboardist Jay Watson had two songwriting credits on Lonerism and was clued in throughout that album’s creation, Parker made Currents “99 percent” by himself in Perth and is the only writer credited on all 13 tracks. He is eager to remind me that the rest of his bandmates are scattered all over the world these days and that “it has always been a total solo affair, really, when it comes down to it, so nothing has changed there.” And anyhow, his unilateral control of the band is paying dividends on stage. When I saw Tame Impala open for MGMT in 2010, their noodly performance exhibited none of the crisp dynamics and otherworldly swoop that sold me on Innerspeaker. These days everyone pretty much plays what Parker tells them to play, and what they lack in agency, they make up for in triumphant execution.
Even if he’s a lone mad scientist during the recording process, Parker gives his bandmates and crew all due credit in the concert setting. He compares Tame Impala’s wildly colorful stage production to a NASA launch; pulling off these hallucinatory mini-symphonies and their accompanying visuals night after night requires a certain degree of mental clarity. For Parker, who claims he uses “as many drugs as a regular person about five years younger than me,” that means landing on the right amount of liquid courage. “I just try and achieve the ever-elusive balance of not drinking enough and drinking too much,” Parker says. “Because not drinking enough is you’re too sober on stage. I can’t go on stage sober, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is. But going on too drunk is a recipe for disaster. You wouldn’t send a drunk astronaut into space, but if he’s too nervous he might forget which controls to use.” He smiles sheepishly at his analogy. “See, I’m just rolling with this.”
Photos by Nick Fancher/Stereogum. Currents is out 7/17 on Interscope.