We’ve Got A File On You: Tame Impala
Kevin Parker on A-list collabs, pale imitations, & loving acoustic covers of his songs
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Kevin Parker chose wisely. In March, when it became clear most people around the world would have to hole up for a while to combat the spread of COVID-19, the Tame Impala mastermind and his wife, Sophie Lawrence, were faced with a significant decision: Stay in LA or make a break for Parker’s native Perth? “We were like, what do we do, what do we do?” Parker recalls. “Because if we were going to go back to Perth we were going to have to fly — two flights, three airports, which were all potentially coronavirus areas.” Faced with the prospect of borders potentially closing, the couple figured they had to move quickly or not move at all. Ultimately, they opted to quarantine Down Under. “The health system in Australia is really good,” Parker reasons. “So we were like, if we’ve gotta go to a hospital, let’s go to a hospital in Perth.”
Thus far hospitalization has not been necessary. When I reach Parker over Skype in early May — him starting off his Friday morning, me wrapping up my Thursday night — it is not yet fully clear what a prescient move he made by getting the hell out of California. Despite a recent surge of infections on the other side of the country, Australia has largely had the pandemic under control for months. Meanwhile Los Angeles County continues to set new daily records for confirmed cases. Although Parker would rather be touring in support of this year’s grand return The Slow Rush, the Fremantle Harbour vicinity is a good place to be right now.
That’s especially true for a notorious studio rat like Parker. At the time of our call, he’s been more or less in his element, spending his days alone in the studio working on recording projects he’s not at liberty to discuss. Occasionally he’ll be bummed out by a calendar reminder on his laptop alerting him to which city Tame Impala should have been playing that night, but overall he’s been in good health and good spirits. “Honestly for me, it’s kind of business as usual because my studio is like two blocks from my house,” he says. “I just go to the studio every day and do my thing.”
He’s been doing his thing for a good solid decade now; Tame Impala’s debut album InnerSpeaker reached its 10th anniversary a couple weeks after our call. In the time since that album dropped, with a boost from creative and commercial level-ups like 2012’s Lonerism and 2015’s Currents, Parker has gone from an obscure retro psych enthusiast to one of the gods of the modern festival-scene. Alongside his own band’s accomplishments, he’s become an in-demand producer frequently tasked with lending his unique sensibility to songs by A-list pop and rap stars. In our interview, we hopped and skipped across his career, discussing various superstar collaborations and bizarre twists in the Tame Impala story.
Guesting On The Streets’ “Call My Phone Thinking I’m Doing Nothing Better” (2020)
KEVIN PARKER: He just got in touch and said he was doing this project. I didn’t know what it was, ’cause I knew he had stopped making Streets albums in like 2009 or something? And I used to be the biggest Streets fan. I still am. A couple of his albums were such important albums to me growing up. They taught me so much about storytelling in songwriting and having such a strong personality in your music. Yeah, he just got in touch and asked me to do something. And I met him really briefly at a festival in, I think it was Belgium, just recently, which was a trip because I’d always wanted to meet Mike Skinner. And then fuckin’ two months later he was at my house in LA, shooting a video!
STEREOGUM: Where did the concept for that song come from? That hook you sing, “I was gonna call you back” — was that something he had already that you built off of, or what?
PARKER: He had most of the lyrics done, and he was like, “Can you sing something over it?” So I just sang the first thing — and it was funny because it’s such a cheeky thing for a song. ‘Cause his first lyric is like, “You’re calling my phone thinking I’m doing nothing better, I’m just waiting for it to stop ringing so I can use it again,” which I thought was hysterical. It’s classic Mike Skinner ’cause it’s kind of funny, it’s kind of true and poignant at the same time. So it just reminded me of all the people that I never got back to [Laughs]. Which is something very close to my heart because I’m rubbish at getting back. I’m just rubbish. It’s this fuckin’ guilt that I carry around with me. Obviously on the scale of things to feel guilty about it’s obviously not something that I should, but it is. So I just sang the first thing that came to my mind. Yeah. “I was gonna call you back, I swear.” [Laughs]
Tame Impala’s US TV Debut On Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (2011)
PARKER: Around that time everything was new. Everything we were doing was a new experience. We were just starting out, young guys from Perth, all fairly socially inept, so everything was pretty intimidating — which I wish it hadn’t been. My main regret in those days was that I was the opposite of a brash young kid not giving a shit. I gave a shit. I really gave a shit. It was still fun, though. I mean, yeah, first TV thing, we were just kind of like “What the fuck is going on?”
STEREOGUM: Nowadays you work with so many famous people, but you mentioned being a shy kid when you were starting out. Did you get starstruck back in those days being around celebrities?
PARKER: What’s funny is I didn’t know who anyone was. We would literally be hanging out in our backyard listening to old music constantly. We didn’t know who anyone fuckin’ was. Like when A$AP Rocky got in touch the first time, I didn’t know who he was. The only people we knew were, like, Noel Fielding and, I dunno, Kings Of Leon or something. I’m joking, obviously. We knew who people were. But in terms of people who were big on Fallon — I didn’t know who Jimmy Fallon was. And that’s not indicative of a regular Australian person. We were particularly closed off.
Collaborating With A$AP Rocky On “Sundress” (2018) And At Coachella (2019)
PARKER: He actually made contact a lot sooner. I met him around the time he released his song “Fuckin’ Problems.” I had heard he used “Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?” in his tour video, which I was pretty impressed by. Like, “Oh fuck yeah” — because an American rapper was using my song. I thought that was cool. It’s funny because that’s the song he ended up sampling for “Sundress,” which was like six or seven years later. But yeah, he used that song in his tour video, and we were told he was a fan. But I didn’t meet him until like a year later, whenever “Fuckin’ Problems” came out.
STEREOGUM: With “Sundress,” was that strictly a sample, or did you have some creative input on that track?
PARKER: Yeah, we did a studio session together. I was there with the rest of the A$AP gang. I guess it was like 2018 or something? I was working on a bunch of stuff, just kind of playing some clips of music that I had. He played me the song he’d been working on, “Sundress,” which had the sample, and we messed around a bit in the studio. I played some kind of synth on it, I think. There’s some bits and pieces on top of it that I played, which was funny because I hadn’t played along to a recording of that song since InnerSpeaker, which was like 2010. So yeah, there I was in the studio with Rocky, playing along to my own song for the first time. We did a bunch of stuff, but as with all things, I’m not sure if any of that will surface.
STEREOGUM: And then he came out and performed with you at Coachella.
PARKER: We did “Sundress” and his song “LSD,” which was really fun because we got to practice just doing that, just taking a hip-hop track and doing it in a live band sense. Which can go catastrophically wrong. It can be extremely lame. It’s been attempted many times before, so it’s kind of a challenge: “We gotta try and do this, and do it well.”
STEREOGUM: How do you make it not lame?
PARKER: I guess I was just using all my producer power to make us, a rock band, not sound like a rock band. Which is kind of like my M.O. anyway in a lot of settings. I was trying to make it sound less like a rock band. You’ve just got to have some restraint because hip-hop is about making space in the mix, having things behind you but also keeping space. Like hold up on the distorted guitars, you know? Distorted guitars and hip-hop sometimes go well, like Kanye and Mike Dean, and they can also be a disaster. But yeah, Rocky came through a few days before, and it was such a good vibe. We were immediately really pumped for it.
Contributing To Kanye West’s “Violent Crimes” (2018)
STEREOGUM: You have a writing credit on this song, but as with so many Kanye tracks, there are so many people credited that it’s hard to know who did what. What was your contribution?
PARKER: I just did the drums. I think that song started out as something completely different that he was working on, which me and a friend programmed the drums for. And we programmed a bunch of other stuff. I guess that’s how Kanye works, he just takes bits and puts them where he wants. He’s not afraid to axe an entire part of a song, which I think is amazing. So he ended up taking the drums from a different song and using them in that one. I was working on some other different pieces too that he didn’t use.
STEREOGUM: When you’re programming drums for a rap record, do you approach it differently than if you’re working on a Tame Impala record? Does it just differ from song to song? What’s the determining factor on how you approach it?
PARKER: At the end of the day, it’s the same. It’s this dance between making a rhythm — it’s hard to explain. It’s about making the choice of where to put a beat. It’s just choosing where to put beats and where not to put them. Not like a beat like a rhythm, but like where to hit and where not to hit. Which at the end of the day is the same whether you’re playing drums or programming them. That’s the difference it comes down to. The Tame Impala stuff I’m playing the drums, and with hip-hop I’m programming them. Which is different in how you go about it, but mentally it’s exactly the same. Choosing what rhythms to play. For me it’s everything in a song. It’s everything. I spend by far the most amount of time on drums and rhythms of my songs than any other part.
That’s why I like hip-hop so much, and that’s why I find hip-hop so intriguing, the way it’s made. Because with programming things, it has nothing to do with how good you are at playing the drums. Nothing. It only matters where you decide to put those kick drums. That’s all that matters. Oh, and what kind of kick drum you use, obviously. The best beat makers in the world, they have exactly the same software that some kid in their bedroom does. They have exactly the same software. And so the difference between the best person in the world and a total novice is just where you decide to put those kick drums and those snares. And it makes all the difference. Which is wild to think about.
“The Less I Know The Better” (2015) Ripped Off In A Chinese Blueberry Milk Ad (2017)
STEREOGUM: How did you find out about this?
PARKER: I think someone in my record label or management flagged it. I don’t know.
STEREOGUM: They so clearly had just re-created “The Less I Know The Better.” Had they approached you, and you turned them down?
PARKER: No, they were just doing a soundalike. A soundalike is a thing. You hear it all the time. I heard a soundalike of “Someday” by the Strokes on the new Ricky Gervais After Life trailer. If you play that, there’s a soundalike of “Someday” in there. So if I were the Strokes I might go, “Hey.” But the reason it sounded like me is because it’s the art form, making a knockoff of the song and making it sound as much like the song you’re trying to knock off as you can without it being a copyright infringement. That’s just what this was. But I felt like they overstepped. I wasn’t posting it because I was like flagging it for everyone, like trying to rally up support. I just thought it was hilarious. Like I honestly thought it was hilarious. I wanted people to hear this hilarious version.
STEREOGUM: So did you end up suing them?
PARKER: No, they voluntarily compensated me. I think the label got in touch with them, or maybe because I put it online and it became this kind of public thing, they got in touch with us and they were super apologetic. They were very clear about it, actually. They were like, “We wanted a copy of it, so we just did this, and we’re really sorry.” And they paid me whatever I would have normally got paid. Which was surprised everyone. Everyone was telling us, “Don’t bother going after them because in China copyright law is heaps more loose. So it’s not worth going after.” But no, it was a happy ending.
Being Impersonated On The ARIAs Red Carpet (2017)
STEREOGUM: A few years ago Triple J sent a Kevin Parker impersonator to the red carpet at the ARIAs. Did you see that clip?
PARKER: I saw something. I think I looked away as fast as I could because of how cringey it was. It’s not the kind of thing I waste my time on or can even stomach. I was also, I think I was a bit offended by the choice of, like, everything. [Laughs] I don’t know, I don’t know. I think someone used that guy’s photo as a picture of me for something like a year later. Like they found a picture of Kevin Parker and it was that guy.
STEREOGUM: Like, by mistake?
PARKER: Yeah. It’s one of those things that… I literally can’t deal, or whatever it is.
Playing SNL With Travis Scott & John Mayer (2018)
STEREOGUM: Before this Saturday Night Live performance you worked on Travis Scott’s Astroworld album. What’s the vibe with him in the studio?
PARKER: It was great. It was really good. Just super big energy, you know? Nothing was half-baked. It’s kind of like ever since then, now I see that as like the ultimate studio environment. Because there’s zero second guessing. There’s no bullshit. He’s just really into what he does and is so dedicated. I feel like my perspective of being in the studio changed after that.
STEREOGUM: Like you were willing to try more things? How did it change?
PARKER: I realized I wanted to have that kind of attitude in the studio, like, “Fuck yeah, we’re doing this!” And not, like, doubting everything constantly, going like, “Let’s not try this,” or, “Let’s not go ’til five in the morning.” Like fuck it! Let’s go ’til five in the morning. You know? That’s kind of just how I want to approach it, just not being self-aware. Because he had such a big pressure. There was so much pressure on him to deliver an album that was going to perform the way it did after Birds In The Trap. There was tons of pressure on him to deliver his breakout album, or his album that’s going to take him to the next level. But it didn’t show. It was still just like all he wanted to do was make an awesome album. And he was really into it the whole time as well. We only listened to it at like max volume. There was no working on any music at low volume. Which is kind of like me now. I’ve caught that bug. I can’t work on music at low volumes — it’s like, why am I doing this? I know it’s ruining my hearing, I’m damaging my hearing because I work at high volume, but it’s worth it because it carries you to the finish line of finishing music, loving the music more. It just does.
STEREOGUM: How did John Mayer become involved in the SNL appearance?
PARKER: I think he got him to play on a couple of his songs, and Travis just wanted him to be there. ‘Cause we played a medley of my song and another song, and the other song was one that John Mayer played on. But I think Travis just wanted him to play. ‘Cause you know, John’s a good interview, and he’s obviously a great guitarist. So I think in Travis’ sort of grand vision of everything, he’s like, “Oh we’re doing SNL. Fuck yeah, I’ll get the guy from Tame Impala and John Mayer on bass and guitar. Fuck yeah, let’s do it!” You know? And that was that. Which is what I fuckin’ love about him.
STEREOGUM: Mayer’s a big fan of yours. He posted a few years ago about Currents being his favorite album of the past few years. So he was probably stoked to be there with Kevin Parker.
PARKER: He was, he told me he was too — “I’m really happy we’re doing this because I’m a fan.” He’s an extremely articulate guy, extremely. And extremely intelligent, which admittedly I didn’t expect. He has amazing insight into things.
Ongoing Creative Partnership With Mark Ronson & Their Shelved SZA Collab
PARKER: We met by chance on a festival circuit in Australia. But it’s the kind of thing where we were always going to be musical buddies. We just have really similar perspectives on music and taste. Not always taste-wise as in being into the exact same artists, but we just think the same things are sick. We’re kindred spirits.
STEREOGUM: What are some things you saw eye-to-eye on or connected on?
PARKER: We bonded on everything from like ways to mic a drum kit to weird ’60s songs. But we’re also both into the way that old music could be used in a modern sense. That kind of search, the quest — we were both on this quest to recontextualize old music and make it relevant. Something we both care about deeply is making relevant music. But we’re both retrophiles and audiophiles and all that. We love drum sounds. We have old-fashioned tastes, but care about nothing more than making relevant music.
STEREOGUM: Years ago you guys did some work with SZA, but it never emerged. Do you know if it’s going to come out?
PARKER: I don’t know, man. Hopefully one day, but I’ve been saying that now for years. I’d love to — that song was fire, so I hope that there’s some way we can. At the end of the day, I think it was right at the time when SZA’s career was taking off. It’s been in limbo for two or three years now. I really, really hope that we are given an opportunity to finish it and release it.
Writing & Producing On Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” (2016)
STEREOGUM: Working with Ronson is also what led to the Lady Gaga record you worked on. That was one of the first big mainstream pop things you worked on. How different was the creative process from your own? I can imagine the squad of writers and producers all working together was a culture shock for someone who famously records his own music in isolation.
PARKER: Mark was producing the album, so he’s not into that as a format anyway. I think he loathes and detests that format. So I think it was only ever going to be really homegrown with Mark producing it. I think Gaga too, that’s probably not something that makes her feel artistically fulfilled. With Gaga, that’s what drives her is feeling like a true artist. So 10 songwriters in a room spitballing ideas, I don’t think that’s something she would be into. I can’t speak for her, I don’t know. But this wasn’t that.
There was four of us, really, ’cause it was BloodPop. He had his own room set up, and we’d be writing lyrics in one room and recording some music, and we’d send bits of music in to BloodPop’s thing, and he’d chop it up and sort of play around with it. It’s funny because the song, it’s this kind of high-tempo thrash pop-rock, I don’t even know what genre it is. It was so much fun.
Rihanna Covering “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” On Anti (2016)
STEREOGUM: One of your other biggest crossovers into the pop realm was when Rihanna covered your song. It was almost like karaoke. When did you hear about that? Did somebody send you a completed track and say “What did you think?”
PARKER: No, no. Her label got in contact and asked if they could have the stems because Rihanna wanted to do something with it — which, I was amazed. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. So I did the best damn fuckin’ stems printing I’ve ever done.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know that much about the art of production. I know producers release their stems and say, “OK, remix my shit,” but when you talk about “stems printing” — I didn’t realize that’s something that could be high or low quality. Is there an art to printing stems?
PARKER: It’s kind of just the amount of care you put into it, really. I hate doing stems because you have to send the song out in pieces, basically. Which takes a lot of work, and you have to have high attention to detail. And usually you just kind of press a couple buttons and give them whole sections, but I gave them every little bit of it.
STEREOGUM: So it’s a question of how small you want to make the slices?
PARKER: Yeah, something like that. I just put a lot of care into it.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever talk to her or meet her or discuss the track at all?
PARKER: No, I think she was in quite a hurry to finish her album. So there was no back-and-forth. She’s obviously a busy person, so no, I didn’t chat with her.
STEREOGUM: Have any other covers of your work stood out to you as particularly interesting or changed your perspective on your own song?
PARKER: There’ve been some really nice ones. Honestly my favorite ones are just like when I’m drunk and listening to people’s ones they’ve put on YouTube. I really like the acoustic ones I’ve heard, like acoustic covers, ’cause I’m not capable of doing an acoustic song. I hate my voice too much, and my producer brain just immediately wants to flood it with sounds and noises and drum sounds and shit. So I love it when someone’s reinterpreted them as kind of barebones. And if they have a nice voice, it’s nice to hear what my songs would sound like if I was a good singer. ‘Cause I’m not. I’m honestly not a great singer, but I do what I have to do to make it sound good.
STEREOGUM: So maybe some of you YouTube strivers out there have been visited by Kevin Parker unawares.
PARKER: Oh, many, many have been visited.