How ecstasy and Travis Scott inspired The Slow Rush, Tame Impala’s new album

Rock’s most compelling auteur opens up about psych rock, SZA, and his exhilarating new album The Slow Rush.

February 13, 2020
How ecstasy and Travis Scott inspired <i>The Slow Rush</i>, Tame Impala’s new album PR

No matter how introspective or emotionally specific his music has been, Kevin Parker — the producer and multi-instrumentalist who records as Tame Impala — has always found a way to draw a kind of surreal, wobbly ecstasy out of it. In a live setting, he used to use dazzling accoutrements to get him there: textural projections that intensified the hypnotic side of his sophomore album Lonerism, fireworks and confetti cannons that turned Currents’ synth-kissed breakup ballads into moments that were ecstatic and joyful. Listening to his fourth record, the long-awaited The Slow Rush, one gets the sense that Parker won’t have to resort to outside forces in order to draw out that feeling of jolting, kinetic pleasure any longer: after years of gesturing toward the trappings of dance music, rock’s most compelling and occasionally confounding auteur has turned in an album seemingly designed to dilate pupils and increase heart rates.

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The Slow Rush’s unusually psych-leaning early singles don’t define the tone of the album. For the large part, Parker’s latest dispatch is an odyssey of glassy, beautiful house and disco, a record of dance music quite clearly composed by someone with reverence for the form but little skin in the game. It sparkles with the pop bona-fides of Daft Punk’s Discovery and crackles with the abrasive cheek of Daft Punk’s Homework. It is a crude point to make, but if Parker’s previous records felt indebted to weed and acid and, of course, “Nangs,” The Slow Rush owes its intoxicating gloss to MDMA, amyl, and every other manner of party drug, and will surely one day find its rightful place in sweaty clubs and protracted parties.

In its most striking moments, The Slow Rush sounds not like great party music but like the memory of it, as if Parker is trying to recall his greatest nights out. There are, of course, more introspective passages in The Slow Rush, but, for the most part, this is a record that indulges in the most hallucinatory and mercurial aspects of dance music — in the way a hypnotic four-four beat can seem to stretch and expand time, changing our memory in the process; how it can make the most traumatic evenings seem euphoric. On opener “One More Year,” over a track of gurgling acid house, Parker worries that “what we did one day on a whim will slowly become all we do,” before promising to himself, as the track swells, that he has “one more year” to change things. “Breathe Deeper,” an experiment in spare disco inspired by Parker’s first time taking ecstasy, turns hesitant, youthful affirmations into a kind of mantra. And “Glimmer” — the record’s stunning, metallic highlight, and its only pure house track — seems to look toward an alternate world in which Parker can “let it all go.” Put plainly: The Slow Rush manages to, once again, make familiar tropes sound uncanny, unreal, and beautiful.

Speaking over the phone from his home in Fremantle, Australia, Parker tried his best to explain how “primitive house,” Travis Scott, and new modes of music-making influenced The Slow Rush.

“Working with Mike Dean and Travis Scott made me see the big picture of what I was doing.”
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Obviously the record draws so much from dance music — was there anything specific you were kinda referencing when producing songs like “Glimmer” or “One More Year” or “Breathe Deeper”?
I wouldn’t say anything specifically. I’ve always had such an immense respect for dance music and such an admiration for it. Before I started the album I’d been listening to random bits and pieces of acid house, [which is] this kind of primitive house music. It had this innocence to it, in a way. It didn’t come with all the baggage and culture that’s come with house music, it was just so primitive. It kinda sounded like it was made in a bedroom. That Larry Heard kinda thing, you know. Other than that, I love The Chemical Brothers. But to say something like “Glimmer” was specifically influenced by anything would be misleading.

On the last record you had “Nangs,” and on this one I hear it, instinctually, as pinger music. Do you conceptualize your music in relation to drugtaking?
It’s something I consider, because I’ve had meaningful music experiences on drugs. To ignore it completely would be narrow-minded. It happens, y’know, it’s a thing. I like to imagine what my music sounds like if you’re stoned, if you’re on ecstasy. That’s just one of the things I like to consider. I guess this album, more than ever, I’ve given it a consideration, more than other albums, that it could be MDMA music. I don’t think it’s something that you should focus your music attention on, but I do think it’s worth considering, because it’s something that happens.

Has there been anyone you’ve collaborated with over the past few years who’s changed the way you yourself approach making music?
Everyone, in some way. Working with Mike Dean and Travis Scott — Mike Dean was the main producer on ASTROWORLD — was pretty inspiring, because it just made me see the big picture of what I was doing. Those guys just focus on a quality that they’re trying to get and they don’t sweat the small stuff.

“I understand why people think I’m a perfectionist, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I believe strongly in the benefit of randomness in the studio.”

Is there anything you particularly resent, or see as untrue, in the way you’re perceived?
I guess that I’m a perfectionist. I don’t resent that, because I understand why people think it, but for me, it couldn’t be further from the truth. There are so many things in my music that are imperfect, and so many things that I’ve spent like, two minutes on, and then just used. I believe strongly in the benefit of randomness in the studio. I’ll use a synth sound, or a sample of something, that I’ve done before, and I’ve thought about it for like, ten seconds, and that’s it. I’m a perfectionist of the vibe, not of the actual parts themselves. There’s some things that I’m a bit of a control freak on, and they’ve gotta be perfect. If I was an actual perfectionist, my music would sound a lot different.

I’m really interested in the moment kinda towards the end of “Breathe Deeper” where you can hear a snippet of a psych song, and then it hits back to this real space-y disco — when I heard it it felt almost responsive to fans who want you to make psych rock again.
Ha! No, responsive would be the wrong word. I like to use that as a color in my brush, in my palette of things that I can use. That kind of AM Radio, seventies stadium rock, whatever that sound thing is, I can do that so easily. So I just like using it as a brushstroke. I like the idea that I can just cut into it and cut back out of it, as If you were just flicking through radio stations. Not because I can do it well, but because I love that sound. Almost like hitting a sample, but it’s not a sample, it’s me. I also just wanted that song to be disorientating, because it’s this kinda tripped out [track]. That song, I guess, is meant to carry a kind of MDMA experience. The song is kinda inspired by the first time I took ecstasy.

Do you ever feel a want or need to kinda go back to that style of music?
Not at the moment. It wouldn’t be exciting. Making music for me, I do it because it’s exciting. I get excited by the idea of making music that’s something I haven’t done before. That’s where the joy of creativity comes from. If I did psych rock again as the way that people know that I do psych rock, you’d be able to hear that it wasn’t me testing the boundaries. You’d be able to hear that it was something I already know how to do. I wouldn’t want to give people something uninspired, even if they think they want it.

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The Kevin Parker drum sound has become so specific, and when I hear it in another song — say, for example, SZA’s “Normal Girl” — I’m always surprised when you haven’t contributed. Are you protective of your specific sounds or techniques?
I’m protective of my methods, yeah, because at the end of the day, they’re all I have. There’s not a lot of things that I am protective of. At the end of the day, though, I could tell you how I make drum sounds and it still wouldn’t give you much of an idea of how to do it, without giving you a YouTube tutorial. For me, drum sounds are so nuanced and there’s such a touch to it, so many delicate details. It’s not a secret recipe. It’s funny, that SZA song, she told me that she was really inspired by me, for that song. It was partially inspired by Tame Impala, which I thought was nice.

There’s this thread on the record of the idea that time is malleable, in the sense that memories are constantly changing. But in music that idea is manifesting in this much more concrete way now, where record tracklists are being changed on Spotify or alternate mixes are being uploaded. Does that new malleability change how you see your records?
Yes. I’m interested in any way that music is released, you know. The first time I heard that Kanye was changing his mixes after they were released I immediately knew it was a dangerous piece of information, because I knew I’d wanna do the same kind of stuff. I’m all for the way music is released and consumed evolving. There are some songs that no one would ever want to change, and so if an artist changed them it’d be terrible for everyone. But I think it could be a cool thing if, in the future, there was a music format that changes. It’s like when an electronic song comes out, and there’s a bunch of different remixes for it, and the most popular version might be the fourth remix that was done. I like that idea, because it’s like, when the song is released, that’s the beginning of its life, it’s not the end of it. I like that there’s a different way to look at it like that.

When you think about pop culture or music now, do you see your influence?
No. People have told me that they can hear it, and I’ve heard bands that have obviously taken influence from me, but I don’t think I’ve done anything seismic. Maybe in the future. Also, I’m really bad at being able to hear that kind of stuff. The things that I do are just things that are so close to me. My music is so well known to me, it’s kind of like I’m deaf to it in other peoples’ music, if that makes sense. I’d like to be more influential. Not like, I’d like to be, but I could handle it, maybe in the future. I would like to do an album in the future that leaves a real mark.

How ecstasy and Travis Scott inspired The Slow Rush, Tame Impala’s new album