Tame Impala and the lonely pursuit of perfection

Kevin Parker, the Australian multi-instrumentalist who is the core member of Tame Impala, has a reputation for being obsessive about recording details. But even by his own impossibly high standards he went over the top in making Tame Impala’s second album, “Lonerism” (Modular Recordings).

Parker has recorded both Tame Impala albums essentially on his own in Australia. Then he flew from his home base in Perth to rural New York state to mix both albums with Dave Fridmann, who has worked with two of Parker’s favorite bands, the Flaming Lips and MGMT.

“The worst time for me is in the final few hours of taking a track that you’ve worked on for two years and bouncing it down to the final stereo mix,” he says. “The overwhelming emotion for me is complete and utter fear that I’ve made a mistake. I’m scared. Afterward, I obsess endlessly about it. Did I make the right decision? Were the vocals on that track too washed out with too much delay? All these cascading fears make it excruciating. You just have to get through at the end.

“I’ll tell you how bad it gets: At the end of the first session of mixing with Dave on this last album – we spent two weeks in New York – I went back to Perth and realized there’s too much I want to change, and scheduled another mixing session. So I mixed the album twice. It takes a whole day to mix a song, because Dave has to reconfigure his machines for each song. At one point, Dave said to me: ‘The changes you’re making are like picking lint off the back of a song in outer space, and expecting people on earth to notice the difference.’ It’s psychosis.”

Parker can laugh about it now, in part because the results are so persuasive. After establishing himself with the psychedelic tapestry of “Innerspeaker” in 2010, he took Tame Impala to an even denser, more complex space with “Lonerism.” It’s an album about alienation and loneliness disguised as pop music with glorious crescendos and sunburst choruses.

The singer dismisses notions that the album is all about his personal sense of disconnection – sort of. “It’s got nothing to do with Perth, isolation or me recording alone,” he says. “It’s all about situations with other people and the outside world -- as in being a member of the human race and trying to connect with people. It’s more about that than physical isolation.”

As he was writing the album, Parker says, he realized all the songs were pointing in the same direction: “This person realizes he’s a born loner, he doesn’t belong with other people.”

In many ways, the key track is “Keep on Lying,” which suggests a party in full swing, with our hero at the center of it – at once in the middle of the crowd and a million miles away.

“It’s about lying to your girlfriend while trying to get up the courage to tell her you don’t feel anything because you’re destined not to be in love with anyone, ever,” he says. “I went around the room with different instruments, and eventually decided they all wanted to be soloing at different times. The sound of all that aimless jamming made it sound like this ambient, loungy, jam session. And then putting all these voices on top would create this atmosphere of an ongoing ambient party. The guy in the song feels alienated from all this, he’s not part of the party even though he’s in the middle of it. There are all these people, all these voices around him, and he can’t hear what they’re saying.”

Read into that what you will, but “Lonerism” doesn’t come off as depressing or solipsistic. It’s strangely uplifting, as buoyant a take on disconnection as you could possibly imagine. That bittersweet feel, Parker says, is in his musical DNA, in part because of his extensive exposure as a kid to the music of – believe it or not -- Supertramp.

“I’ve always been a massive fan, though for a long time I never thought they were cool enough to inspire anyone besides me,” he says. “I thought I was the only one (of my generation) who liked them, then one day I realized I didn’t care. I removed the filter. So yeah, to me, most of these songs have a strong Supertramp vibe. People seem to be surprised. They expect Pink Floyd or whatever. My dad was a big fan. One of the first albums I can remember hearing was a Supertramp best of, with mostly ‘Breakfast in America’ songs on it. It’s kind of the same thing as the Flaming Lips, where there are these really melancholy lyrics and melodies yet it’s extremely uplifting. They’re like a nonfuturistic version of the Flaming Lips. The songs have all the parts I love, but because they were a ‘70s hit singles band, the production isn’t as explosive as it potentially could be, in the way the Lips are. All the pieces are there, though: Huge, stadium sound and really emotional songs about questioning your own life. I can relate to that.”


Tame Impala: 9 p.m. Tuesday at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., $19 (sold out); metrochicago.com.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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