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Kevin Parker: The Lord of New Psych

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Australian psych-rocker Kevin Parker on how his band Tame Impala facilitate his far-out ambitions

Watching Tame Impala share the stage with Mary J Blige, Theophilus London and Boy George as part of Mark Ronson’s Glastonbury set, it’s clear things have changed for cheerful Australian psych-rocker Kevin Parker. Where once his celebrity guestlist included Noel Gallagher and Kasabian, his average workday now includes duties such as co-writing three songs on Ronson’s Uptown Special album and collaborating with rapper Kendrick Lamar. Which, as it turns out, is all part of his plan.

“The music I’ve made is generally quite closed off, like headspace music, to listen to on headphones in a room or on a bus, in your own world,” he say. “But a frontier I’ve always wanted to conquer has been music that can be pumped out at 100dB for a field of people. I feel it’s empowering, to be the person who made that music.’

Parker’s journey is reflected in new semi-concept album, Currents, centred around a theme anyone who’s ever grown up will relate to. Namely, the turmoil the central character goes through when realising they’re undergoing a transition, before letting go and just, like, seeing where this crazy trip is going to take them, man. Rather than being a soul-searing intronautic odyssey, it’s more like Frozen for the festival-attending segment of society – but with much less annoying tunes – sweeping listeners along on a groovy inner tube along a lazy river of self-discovery.

“I love the idea of creating worlds, like little dioramas,” laughs Parker. “I love music that makes you feel like you’re somewhere else, which ties into psychedelia.”

The narrative of the album mirrors Parker’s own emotional pupation during its recording. However, as psychedelicists go, Parker scores low on the Jim Morrison scale of method insanity. An affable music nerd, Parker’s enthusiastic description of his writing and recording process is notably free of shamanic rituals, astral projections or mycogenous pineal kickstarts (although since he mostly writes and records alone in his Perth home studio, he might just be keeping all that stuff secret to make his tours less arrest-riddled). Instead, Parker’s journey has been about overcoming his self-imposed musical limits. 

“For me, control has always been a friend and a foe,” he say. “It’s always been something I’ve wrestled with. Because I make music alone, you become drunk with power. At the same time, I like the feeling of being completely powerless. To let go and allow things to happen naturally is a powerful thing, and a potent source of creativity.” 

Having freed his mind, Parker’s ass summarily followed. Previously best known for playing fuzzed-out psychedelic guitar pop, Parker has allowed himself to shift focus for his latest opus, breaking out the synths and spangly trousers to incorporate elements of dance music and R&B to his prize-winning mélange.  

“I’ve always wanted to embrace different styles of music,” says Parker, “Whether it’s R&B, disco, or even hip-hop, but I’ve been too afraid to before. I always felt like that wasn’t my world – that’s an area that I shouldn’t set foot on. I initially thought that if I tried, it’d just come off as naff, whereas now, I just said, ‘Fuck it, I like that kind of music, therefore I should be able to make it honestly.’ And if my love of that kind of music is honest, it should come out sounding honest. I just didn’t want it to feel like it’s contrived.”

Parker’s dancier leanings shouldn’t be surprising to fans who recall his 2009 cover of Blue Boy’s Remember Me, or have followed his disco-pop side project (and All Time Band Names Top 10 contender) AAA Aardvark Getdown Services. But this transformation has come at a price, with Parker experiencing his first taste of controversy as a result. Lead single, blissed-out dancefloor swoonalong I’m A Man deals with men’s habit of writing off our myriad emotional intelligence failings and keeping it in our pants as genetic hardwiring.

“Yeah, there’s a strong tongue-in-cheek irony to it,” Parker smiles. “It kind of amused me how obscene it was to say that kind of thing. It’s meant to highlight the ridiculousness of the excuse. It’s the worst excuse of all time; putting all these mistakes down to flaws in your character. I hoped people would see the ridiculousness of it.”

Double-ironically, Parker did a bit too good a job of his unrepentant loverman swagger, and the track has since been targeted as a prime cut of Draperian old-school sexism. 

“I’ve shied away from talking about it now because I don’t want to exacerbate the suspicions that I’m a misogynist, or I believe there are stern rules on gender that we can’t shake. I’m the first one to say that there’s no difference between genders in terms of moral base.” 

Coming from Robin Thicke, that line would sound cynically lawyerly, but from Parker it’s clearly honest. In person, it’s hard to imagine Parker doing anything offensive – he’s the kind of affable chap who’d apologise for being run over by a 4x4, supplying clean urine to beat the driver’s drink-drive test before crawling off to casualty. There’s even an element of group therapy to the new record, with Parker creating a musical environment for his fans to have ‘a communal experience’ within.

“I’m a useless DJ,” he says, “But any time anyone’s asked me to DJ, I love the idea of playing; being the person who’s the administer of the proceedings. It’s control, but it’s being a part of the puzzle. It’s like being the arbiter of reality.”

Currents is out on 17 July

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