You wouldn't know it from watching them perform, but Tame Impala exists as the creative arm of one man, 26-year-old Kevin Parker. He's only just released his second album, Lonerism, a psych-infused pop masterpiece drawing equally from Serge Gainsbourg and harder influences like Led Zeppelin. But the roots of Tame Impala really go all the way back to when Parker began self-recording in his parents' garage at age 12.
Parker and his bandmates grew up in Perth, an isolated Western coast city of Australia, which is also home to a booming scene that includes popular dance-rock acts Pendulum and Empire of the Sun. In the swanky VIP area at New York's Webster Hall, where Tame Impala decimated a sold-out crowd last Saturday, he describes his hometown as the kind of place where people are always saying, "I'm going to get out of here." From the title of his new album, one would expect the lyrics to be mostly about actual loneliness, but Parker disputes that.
"It's amazing how different people's perceptions of the album have been. Some people think I must have been really depressed, but a lot of people think it's much happier than the first album," he says. Elaborating on the title, Parker says it's more about feeling alone in a crowd of people rather than just being lonely, which is how he says he started to feel in Perth while penning Lonerism. With most of the album already written, Parker took off to finish it in Paris, where he also produced the first full-length from his girlfriend's band Melody's Echo Chamber and lived just around the corner from Serge Gainsbourg's former home.
Something of a Francophile, Parker delights in the close proximity to one of his favorite singer-songwriters' old haunts. Hints of the dewy pop style that Gainsbourg established can be found throughout Lonerism, particularly on "Sun's Coming Up," a moody piano ballad that finds Parker touching on the death of his father. Even more than the songwriting, the production on Lonerism maintains an uplifting, atmospheric feel, similar to that of Parisian duo Air, who Parker also counts as an influence. Talkie Walkie, he says, is one of his all-time favorite works. "There's something so clean about that album," he says, "but it still just fucks with your head."
The result of this combination of influences is a strident departure from Tame Impala's first album, but it takes a look beneath the surface to identify some of the key differences. Lonerism is poppier, yet somehow more experimental than the band's 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, released not long after Parker dropped out of college to pursue music full-time. Since the stakes weren't as high this time, Parker says he felt more freedom to take risks, particularly in regard to production and song structure.
The clearest example of this is "Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control," a meditative seven-minute jam containing a bit of inspirational dialogue inspired by teen romantic comedies. At about two minutes in, the music is muffled and you hear Parker's girlfriend say, "What are you doing out here? You're out here thinking about everything aren't you? I know it's crazy, but don't think of it like that. Nothing has to mean anything." Parker says his intention was to make it sound like it was taking place outside of a party or a high school dance. It's one of the strangest and most flooring moments you'll hear in rock music this year.
Every song on Lonerism is written, recorded and performed by Parker, and you'd think they'd be difficult to recreate for a live show. Luckily the touring members of Tame Impala are just as seasoned as Parker and help expand the songs even further outside their original bounds. During the show at Webster Hall last Saturday, "Half Full Glass of Wine," from their first EP, stretched out to nearly ten minutes for a gripping one-song encore. When Parker goes in for the solo and lapses into periodic trances a la Jimmy Page, bassist Nick Allbrook is right behind him keeping things steady on a vintage Hofner. Most of the members have known each other for over a decade, and when he's not touring with Tame Impala, Parker lends a hand on drums in Allbrook's band Pond.
Parker confirms that his move to Paris helped make Lonerism a more personal affair. The album is clearly more narrowly defined as a concept, and though there's a through-line of existential angst and uncertainty, he seems cheerful discussing its warm reception. Parker says he set out to originally make an album that critics would hate, so the glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and Spin are unexpected. When asked if it's difficult adjusting to the isolation that songwriting requires, he says: "I have to be alone to be able to write the type of music I want for Tame Impala." Clearly there's an upside to being a loner.
Tame Impala performs Friday, Nov. 16th at the El Rey Theatre and Saturday, Nov. 17th at the Fonda Theatre.
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