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Tame Impala: Middle of Nowhere

Tame Impala’s desolation rock crosses over.

One way to understand Perth is to read hometown hero Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, an earthy novel about two families that occupy a great, creaky house in the city during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. In the second half of the book, Rose Pickles, who grew up in the house, discovers a cosmopolitan lifestyle while working a switchboard at a department store. She begins dating a pedantic journalist who explains Perth to her like this: “Perth is the biggest country town in the world trying to be a city. The most isolated country town in the world trying to be the most cut-off city in the world, trying desperately to hit the big time. Desert on one side, sea on the other. Philistine fairground. There’s something nesting here, something horrible waiting. Ambition, Rose. It squeezes us into corners and turns out ugly shapes.” He’s explaining how difficult it is to live in a city that is perpetually attempting to grow, but never quite does. Progress butts up against isolation, and your options are either to own the place you’re from or move somewhere else.

Or you could make a temporary escape, like Kevin Parker, the man behind Perth-based psych band Tame Impala, did. In August of 2011 he headed to France to visit his Parisian girlfriend, and while there, recorded the bulk of Tame Impala’s sophomore release, Lonerism. He played all the instruments himself, alone in a place where he barely spoke the language, a seclusion he often gravitates toward. “I’ve been aware for a while now that I do love to be alone,” Parker says. “I only really realized it a couple years ago. I was alone a lot in Paris on a whole new level as well because I would go to the shop to buy some food and say the few words I can to get some bread or whatever and hope that they don’t ask me some weird question that I’m not used to.”

After 10 months in Paris, Parker returned to Fremantle, a small harbor city just outside of Perth, where he grew up, to begin working out the live versions of the album’s tracks with the rest of Tame Impala—Jay Watson, Dominic Simper and Nick Allbrook, as well as new addition Julien Barbagallo, whom he met at a bar in France, and has since become Tame Impala's full-time drummer. In Perth, Parker is effectively homeless. When the band goes on tour again, he’ll give up the house he’s been renting, where it seems he doesn’t ever eat, sleep or do anything but write songs. The place—filled with musical equipment, a tiny TV and clothes scattered all over the bedroom floor—looks more like a glorified storage space than a home.

In early August, just a few days before Tame Impala is set to head to the United States for a small run of shows, and on his first day off from band practice in weeks, Parker heads over to The Norfolk, a hotel and pub with a venue in the basement. The Norfolk was home to Tame Impala’s earliest shows, and they practice there now. Tonight, though, people are packed wall-to-wall to see Pond, Watson and Allbrook’s other band. Parker is in the crowd, chatting casually with friends, his brown hair hanging in tendrils just down to his shoulders.

If Tame Impala’s meticulous songwriting is a study in musical control, Pond works on pure beer-chugging-with-your-arms-around-your-bros energy. Offstage, Allbrook, who plays bass in Tame Impala, is tiny and fidgety, but as a frontman he swells, losing his jitters by unfolding his body into a mess of stretched limbs, screaming lyrics in a hoarse rasp. Pond aptly hits all the marks of ’70s rock excess, but they know enough to make fun of the guitar god thing, too. “I remember getting really bummed out about the fact that everybody thought we were a joke band,” says Watson. “Then I realized that so many awesome old bands were completely silly. In my mind, a band like Jesus and Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine, in their own way, is just as cheesy as Poison or Guns N' Roses or whatever. Pond and Tame Impala are just as cheesy as those bands with our own barefoot, long hair and wah-wah pedals stuff.” If Tame Impala is rock idealized, then Pond is its reality—messy, worn-down and all over the place. “My natural predisposition is to want unhinged music,” Allbrook says. “I’m still going to get fucking weary. At some point in Europe, I was doing a few Pond shows and was standing there with my hands in my pockets. You just get pissed off at everything at some point. You can’t help it. But Pond is pretty good at riling me up. I’d go into some gigs just determined to be lazy and uninspiring—like I’m just going to stand there and do as little as possible—and then you start playing, and you’re like, Oh, this is pretty cool.”

After the show, there’s broken glass all over the floor. People are either wasted and stoked, or just stoked. Fans rush Pond’s merch table. Drummer Cam Avery gets badgered by a woman asking him to give her drum lessons but he brushes her off, explaining that he doesn’t “really know how to play.” Parker quietly heads for the stairs. Before he gets more than a couple steps up, a crowd of girls accosts him: “Oh my god, is that Kevin Parker?” Suddenly there are cameras flashing; it’s a paparazzi moment in miniature. Parker ekes out a merciful half-smile, his body still turned to the door. Jodie Reagan, manager and de facto mother figure for both bands, looks over and groans, “Oh god…poor Kevin.”

It’s winter in Australia, and slipping into Fremantle’s chilly night, Parker looks bemused. Outside, where people are spread across the sidewalk in a post-show sweat glaze, he is engaged with his friends, but detached, like he’s watching himself interact with them from five seconds in the future.

About a 30-minute drive away, Ryan Grieve and Leo Thomson, better known as psych-disco duo Canyons, are DJing a nightclub in downtown Perth, which feels like another world entirely. Every street is packed with miniskirted girls and dudes pumped up on too much Red Bull. Canyons are playing a party that promises a tropical theme, but that mostly amounts to the promoter wearing head-to-toe Hawaiian print and a couple of blow-up palm trees onstage. It’s fun, but the crowd would clearly be a lot happier to hear radio hits than the duo’s set of lo-fi funk and disco rarities. Watching them DJ on the tiny triangle of a stage, it’s pretty clear that they couldn’t comfortably carve out a space to do what they enjoy in Perth. So in 2008, they moved to Sydney. Not long after they packed up and headed east, Grieve and Thomson were responsible for getting Tame Impala their earliest exposure. After hearing Parker’s music when he was in a slightly different iteration of the band, called The Dee Dee Dums, they offered to put out a record on their budding Hole in the Sky label. “We needed to have more artists on the roster to get a distribution deal, because all these distributors were like, We want to see six months of releases and your roster of artists,” Thomson says. “We were like, We don’t have a roster. It’s just us.”

Though they’ve gone different directions musically and geographically, Grieve and Thomson remain friendly with Parker, and he lent guest vocals to Canyons’ debut LP, Keep Your Dreams. That album feels like a concrete distillation of Australian music. Genre-hopping from post-punk to disco and populated by cut-up animal sounds, Keep Your Dreams captures the country in all its dangerously beautiful glory. It follows the very Perth plot line that, rather than letting your ambition contort you into something you never wanted to be, it might be worth embracing where you already are.

Parker’s music is a great example of this geographical acceptance. His singular vision for Tame Impala stems from the fine line between being a loner and being lonely. It’s not that he doesn’t have people he loves in his life, it’s just that most of them exist at arm’s length from what’s going on in his head. It’s Parker’s willful isolation, paired with his love of rockstar tropes, that makes for a romanticized view of the artist as an island unto himself. “The only time I was really ever myself was when I felt truly locked away,” he says. “Just the idea that I was making music that potentially no one was ever going to hear and I could pour my heart and soul into it with absolutely no consequence—no one was going to call me a weirdo for singing weird shit.”

Tame Impala’s debut, Innerspeaker, danced around ideas of alienation, but Lonerism makes itself at home in them. “A lot of this album was me really indulging in every sense of the word,” he says. “I kind of put a lid on it in the past. I’ve been like, I gotta make the lyrics a little bit obscured and hold back on that stuff. You can be vague or you can just say, Fuck it. You can blow smoke in someone’s face or you can inject them with it. I just had this urge to inject everything rather than fluff about.”

As direct as Parker might think he’s being, he’s still smuggling his sadness into syrupy hooks, his voice laconic and miles away from sounding tortured. It’s confessional music that buries the confession. “I know I have miserable songs, but when it’s underneath huge, bouldering drum fills it give it this kind of power. I have so much admiration for people who can sit down and explain their lyrics. I don’t know why I can’t. Even when we’re in practice and the guys are singing backing vocals and are like, Okay, so what are the lyrics? I’m just like, Oh fuck, why don’t you listen to the song and try to work it out? I’m infinitely closed off. I feel perpetually closed off from releasing the part of me that’s not in music form.”

Now that Parker’s made a career playing music and is actually responsible for the livelihood of others, his songs’ blue moments reflect the worries of success. If Tame Impala fails, other people suffer. It’s easy to understand why so much of his music examines the treacherous nature of change, but he’s trying to shake concerns that will never really go away. While working on Lonerism, the inevitable pressure got to him. “I let this album nearly drive me insane,” he says. “I’ve never experienced that before—music actually sending you around the bend. I actually thought this album was going to kill me, which sounds really stupid. For a while, I had this weird insomnia. I couldn’t get to sleep until like 10 in the morning because I was thinking about how many choruses are back-to-back in this particular song and the chord change…I started getting vertigo, I kept thinking I was going to fall over. I was really unhealthy. I’d been a vegetarian for five years and I started eating meat because I was like, What the fuck’s wrong with me?”

Hearing this, it’s not hard to imagine Parker as a mentally frazzled, Brian Wilson-esque figure, debilitated by his obsession with making an album that lives up to his personal vision. “When we play music, it’s always gotta be fun, so we get drunk or stoned or whatever,” he says. “I was doing that on my own, and I was so into the music that it was almost like I had all these other people with me in a weird way. I was zonked out by then. I’d go record a bit and listen to it and go out and have a spliff and a beer and think about it, talk about it with myself. I was so into it that it didn’t occur to me that the whole night I hadn’t actually spoken a word, apart from the vocals I sang. I hadn’t actually uttered a single word.”

But as much as Tame Impala is Parker’s project, he still needs the help of his bandmates for it to materialize. Luckily they’re not as subsumed with doubt. When they talk about the band, it’s like they’re fans instead of contributors. “We’d like to think that the 15-year-old guitar nerd version of ourselves would think that we are cool,” says Simper, who looks quite a bit like Johnny Depp. “That’s what we consider when we put together an album. Would we think these guys are good musicians and would we look up to them? I think that’s who we’re trying to please more than anyone else.”

Maybe Tame Impala can offer a whole flock of teens a local band to love instead of a distant musical world far beyond their reach. For the members of Tame Impala, Pond and Canyons, though, Perth is defined by what it didn’t offer them. If he didn’t grow up so isolated, would Parker still be so obsessed with being alone? Would Tame Impala even exist? Tim Winton’s Perth is full of characters straining to find their place in the world, and even as Parker embraces the limitations of the city, he keeps pushing against them—moving to France, touring constantly, escaping inside his mind by making music. Being isolated is never easy, but it seems like Parker’s found a solution that defies all logic: get even more isolated, cut yourself off as much as you can. Play music nonstop, and when you’re not playing it, get so deep into the details that just talking about it consumes you.

Huddled in a lawn chair in his overgrown backyard, Parker is in the middle of one of these transportive moments. His mind is back in the studio as he explains the process of recording Lonerism. It’s clear out, and the stars are making themselves visible one at a time, like distant bedroom lamps being clicked on, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “I was recording new songs on this, like, organ thing at the front. The first album, I was kind of like—’’ and then he points upwards. “Oh, there’s a satellite…look at that. See it up there? Probably don’t see a lot of those in New York, do you?” Looking up, expecting to see one rapidly-moving blink, there are two whole pieces of the thing coasting through the sky, brighter and more visible than anything else surrounding it.

Tame Impala: Middle of Nowhere