Tracing the Evolution of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker

The shift from psych-rock to pop highlights why he’s such a remarkable songwriter

Tame Impala at Austin City Limits 2019, photo by Amy Price

To say that a polymath like Kevin Parker is prolific would be an understatement. The Australian songwriter-producer behind the indie-pop act Tame Impala has been involved in a wealth of projects. In his earlier days, Parker produced for or played in bands like The Dee Dee Drums, Pond, Mink Mussel Creek, and Melody’s Echo Chamber, and more recently he’s collaborated with artists such as Lady Gaga, Travis Scott, Kanye West, and Mark Ronson. The latter half of that sentence would have been utterly unexpected if this were 2010 and you had just heard Innerspeaker for the first time, but while Parker’s transformation from psych-rocker to pop artist has been colossal, it’s also been gradual.

Tame Impala’s first releases were a set of EPs in 2008, both of which are self-titled. The first EP, also referred to as Tame Impala [H.I.T.S. 003], is a collaboration with Canyons, an electronic duo from Perth, and two of the EP’s remixed songs appear in full on the second EP. The third track, “The Sun”, showcases Parker’s psychedelic proclivity and ’60s/’70s-inspired guitar tones. The drums are dry and unvarnished, reminiscent of the music that inspired Parker to write songs to begin with. The second EP, Tame Impala, even opens with “Desire Be Desire Go”, a different version of which appears on Tame Impala’s full-length debut. These two releases solidified Parker as a psych-rock multi-instrumentalist to be taken seriously. They introduced ideas that would become staples of his career: phasers, modulated drums, and fuzzed guitars.

However, these EPs lack the layer of polish that would later come to define Parker’s production style. Even 2010’s Innerspeaker, which is considered to be the Tame Impala album that draws most heavily from rock influences, is much brighter and warmer than its predecessors. Songs like “Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?” and “Solitude Is Bliss” possess a sense of clarity and distinction where each instrument is given ample space to breathe. It was on Innerspeaker that Parker developed an even sharper ear, and his sense of layering expanded as well. Whereas the self-titled EPs had roughly three of four instruments, the band’s debut LP merges myriad textures to craft sonically complex walls of sound. Although he’s not a shoegaze artist, the influence is apparent. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, he mentioned that he’s “always been in love with the wall of sound as employed by My Bloody Valentine.” The penultimate track, “Runway, Houses, City, Clouds”, makes a perfect example, as delayed guitars permeate the mix while noise experimentation and feedback run rampant in the background, all sprawling over a seven-minute runtime.

Two years following the release of Innerspeaker, Lonerism aggrandized Parker’s foundation of psychedelia. This is made clear from the few opening moments of Tame Impala’s sophomore record. Opener “Be Above It” eases the listener in with glitchy, brisk drums and an eerie, whispered mantra, and some synths enter the periphery just afterward. “And I know that I gotta be above it now,” Parker sings over ever-increasing hallucinatory textures. From this track alone, Lonerism revealed that Parker wanted to be even riskier, but, simultaneously, the band’s second album welcomed a pop-forward songwriting structure that led to widespread radio play with singles such as “Elephant”, which ended up paying for half of his house. That’s not to say that Lonerism consisted of pop songs, but Parker’s keen understanding of melody made for a batch of unforgettable choruses. Even tracks that are way more rock than pop, like “Mind Mischief”, revolve around verse-chorus song structures that many pop songwriters adhere to. But with the phased synthesizers, frequent drum fills, and harmonizing, fuzzed guitars, “Mind Mischief” incorporates an indie-rock-focused instrumentation. Because of this, Lonerism is the perfect mix of fleshed-out psych-rock experimentalism (“Apocalypse Dreams”, “Endors Toi”) and pop songwriting (“Elephant”, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”), the latter of which is a precursor to Tame Impala’s 2015 release, Currents.

Nevertheless, Currents may also have been inspired by something other than Lonerism’s songwriting style. In early 2015, Mark Ronson released Uptown Special, which, as you could guess from its title, had a notoriously popular song on it. Aside from the inescapable Bruno Mars feature, Ronson also collaborated with Parker on numerous tracks: “Summer Breaking”, “Daffodils”, and “Leaving Los Feliz”. He mentions in an interview with Stereogum that Ronson inspired him “to embrace different methods of recording, definitely, because Mark’s open to anything.” He continues: “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 is cool and feels good basically.” With Ronson’s sense of rhythm, Parker definitely sounds looser on Uptown Special, despite how tight the grooves are. Considering the crisp percussion heard on Ronson’s record, the drums on Currents hold a similar density. They’re punchy and taut, but in no way are they rigid.


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