Tame Impala: ‘I wondered if I was ever going to finish the album’
Kevin Parker talks about album delays, plagiarism and gender equality in music
Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker: ‘It’s the hardest choice when you’ve made something that you know was an original thought, and has come out sounding the same as something else’
A five-year gap between albums is usually no biggie. The path of rock ‘n’ roll is littered with acts like Tool and The Avalanches, who build anticipation of their next offering into double figures. Still, with Tame Impala’s teasing headline slot at Coachella Festival last April, a Glasto one soon after, and a tour that came to Dublin sans new material, The Slow Rush feels aptly named.
“I still wake up thinking in disbelief, ‘Shit, the album’s finished’,” says Kevin Parker, the man behind the band, in his light Australian accent.“There were some points last year when I wondered if I was ever going to finish the f***ing thing.
“I desperately, desperately want to have the album out for Coachella, and wanted to play all our new songs there. And that didn’t happen. Then I thought absolutely no matter how prematurely it’s released, I want to have it out by Glastonbury and play the songs. I missed that. Then, I said no matter what, I don’t want it to be out next decade…”
My inner teenage brat: when I feel like something is expected of me, I go the other way, dig my heels in, and resist
We’re talking in central London at the turn of the year, watching his final milestone come and go. Dressed in an oversized fuzzy jumper with grungy hair, there’s a touch of the Cobains about him today, aesthetically speaking.
He’s chilled enough that it feels nothing could phase him, and certainly seems to have made peace with the “disappointing” delays. With the 20/20 vision that hindsight affords, he explains that procrastination prompted a late start on the album. “I only really began it towards the end of 2018,” he says, pulling at his sleeves. Part of the cause was “the emotional burden” of creating an album that dug deep into his psyche, but there was also “my inner teenage brat: when I feel like something is expected of me, I go the other way, dig my heels in, and resist”.
So after Currents – the record that upgraded Tame Impala from midweight to major – he spent time producing and remixing other artists, like Mark Ronson, Kanye West and Lady Gaga, and DJing. Once Parker began the album and the milestone festival slots loomed, it was a case of “songs not feeling like they’re finished, because of how long they are, or maybe they were too long, or here’s too much in a song, or there’s not enough…”
A listen to The Slow Rush, his fourth album as Tame Impala, suggests that delays were ultimately a good call. The album feels his most accomplished yet, even with a shift in direction. Its loose theme is that of the passing of time, as depicted in its cover artwork and songs like Posthumous Forgiveness (about Parker’s relationship with his father) and On Track (an ode to missing deadlines). Borderline, the signature tune released last year, will already be familiar. It’s a pulsating dance floor track that’s indicative of the album’s less-is-more electronic rock with a dialled-up grooviness – elsewhere on the album, Is This True could almost be a Chromeo track if you squint hard enough.
In the years between albums – and indeed since the Tame Impala journey began in 2007, soon after a stint in the Australian psychedelic rock outfit Pond – life has been eventful for Parker. Now 34, he married his long-term girlfriend last year, escaped the Malibu bush fires (we speak before the Australian fires, but he donates 300,000 Australian dollars to the relief fund), created a set-up to split his time between Perth and a new home in the Hollywood Hills, and repeatedly got up close and personal to the business end of the music industry: along with his rights management company suing his former label and its owner for missing royalties, Parker was accused of plagiarism by 1970s funk group Skull Snaps and Argentinian artist Pablo Ruiz.
“I think he just wanted some publicity because it had been a few years,” Parker says of Ruiz. “When I was working with Lady Gaga, I was in the studio a lot with BloodPop, who also produced tracks like Sorry by Justin Bieber. We were talking about success and he asked me, ‘Are you ready for the lawsuits?’. I didn’t understand so he said, ‘Man, let me tell you: the day you have a number one single is the day you’ll wake up with five lawsuits on your hand’. Because why not try and get a pay-out? People are like that, apparently.”
I cite Ed Sheeran’s many plagiarism lawsuits to suggest that even if not intentional, it could be a mere overlap in a finite number of radio-friendly note combinations?
“I don’t see that as true,” he says. “The blues scale has less notes in it than the major scale or the minor scale, and the chords are usually the same. But blues artists weren’t suing each other in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s – that was never a thing.
“It’s also about the emphasis put on different notes, and the words that you’re singing. Consider that there’s a popular note combination going from the suspended fourth to major third,” he adds. At this point he sings the following songs and I’d urge you, dear reader, to do the same, as it’s really quite uncanny: Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball (“I came in like a wrecking ball”), Kelly Clarkson’s Since You’ve Been Gone, (“since you’ve been gone”), Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know (“but you didn’t have to cut me off”), Toto’s Africa (“it’s gonna take me a lot to take me away from you”). Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved is full of them.
“You’ll hear it all the time now,” Parker says. “It’s a little motif that gets us emotionally. It will get used again from now until the end of time. No one’s ever going to get bored of it, because when you say it with different words and different emphasis, it sounds different.”
Finger firmly pointed at our litigious culture, I wonder if it changes his creative decisions?
“It’s a consideration, definitely. Especially because I want to make something new. But it’s the hardest choice when you’ve made something that you know was an original thought, and has come out sounding the same as something else. That’s when you that’s when you have a moral dilemma: you know you weren’t thinking of this particular song, but it’s by chance or you’ve subliminally ripped them off.
“Some people are like ‘well f*** it’ – there’s no point in trying to avoid that because music is always taking from music. I’m halfway between. If something is exactly the same, I’ll change it. But I’m not going to let that dominate me.”
I think that explaining the idea of systematic, inherent inequality with different groups is something that a lot of people just don’t compute
Of course, that’s not the only issue that the music business is currently grappling with. It’s fitting that the week we meet, the multi-talented Charli XCX is in the news, talking about sexism in the music industry and saying that “if I was a man I’d be hailed as some sort of music industry god but as a woman I’m just – doubted”.
Parker looks quizzically when he hears this. “She isn’t seen as a music industry god?”
Perhaps not with the authority assigned to her male counterparts.
“I guess that’s the sign of the inequality that is inherent in every industry in the world. To some extent, I have a bit of male guilt. I’m a white male producer, so I’m part of the group that are the most privileged without realising it.
“Definitely women should be getting more credit. By artists like Charli XCX and Björk [who’s also discussed the double standards, especially when it comes to technical ability] having the bravery to make that a topic, the world is starting to take notice. Like a lot of things, it hasn’t been on people’s radar.
“I think that explaining the idea of systematic, inherent inequality with different groups is something that a lot of people just don’t compute,” he adds, inadvertently addressing to the “anti-woke” backlash that’s since reared its head. “I have to admit I didn’t realise. When my wife was working in the advertising world, she has, numerous times, explained to me when she’s experienced sexism in the workplace, when there were times that men were paid attention to differently. Because I’d never had that explained to me, it took me a long time to realise how glaringly obvious it was.”
I wonder if the gender balance of producers has changed in his time?
“I don’t know about producers because I’m not really part of that scene,” he says. “But I imagine it’s more open to equality as it’s separate to the pop world where the roles are defined: a female pop artist has these things expected of her, and a male pop artist has these things expected of him. I hope producing doesn’t have anything to do with gender – it’s just being behind the scenes and creating music. But I’m not I’m not in a very authoritative position. I can only speculate from being a male, which is insufficient.”
Returning to his own work, after the release of the album and the promo that goes with it, he’ll return to the road. An extensive US tour is already marked out, with a festival circuit no doubt be revealed. And this time, we’ll have the new songs to hear. Good things really are worth waiting for.
The Slow Rush is released on February 14th on Fiction