Kevin Parker is shy. Or at least that’s what the 32-year-old producer and singer-songwriter insists several times over an hour-long interview, in which he discusses his recent shift from fronting psych-rock project Tame Impala to producing for a slate of A-list artists. But for someone who jokes that he “took a long time to not just be...totally awkward” among industry players, his schedule now boasts quite the rolodex of collaborators.
In recent months, Parker contributed to chart-topping albums from Kanye West and Travis Scott and collaborated with ZHU (“My Life”) and Kali Uchis (“Tomorrow”). In 2016, he helped Lady Gaga explore new sounds on Joanne and found a fan in Rihanna, who covered Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” on that year’s Anti. His resume continues to grow: Days before our conversation, Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner put out an ask to collaborate that quickly went viral (“let's float, Kev”), to which Parker tells Billboard, “anything is possible.” It’s a fitting motto for someone who says he’s sitting on an unreleased song with SZA and Mark Ronson and offhandedly mentions hitting the studio with Kendrick Lamar.
As he nurses a hangover in Los Angeles one recent afternoon, far from his home base in Perth, Australia, the musical polymath comes to the phone to offer a rare glimpse inside his world.
'KANYE WANTED SOMETHING PSYCHEDELIC'
You’re credited on Kanye West’s recent song “Violent Crimes.” How did you get involved on ye?
It was [through designer and creative director] Willo Perron. He’s been a longtime collaborator with Kanye West, with his stage design and I think album covers as well. He was working on the Tame Impala live show, so I got pretty close with him. One day he said that Kanye wanted something psychedelic. He wanted some psychedelic guitars. Willo was like, “Oh, you’ve got to meet Kevin, then.” So he took me out to [West’s] studio one day, and we just chatted for a bit, and it kind of went from there. Everything after meeting up with him once was over the phone, email and stuff, because I was back in Perth.
What were your first impressions of Kanye when you met him at the studio?
I was completely starstruck, obviously. I was numb with excitement. He was in the element. He was super chilled-out. I guess the first impression I got was how into music he is. He loves to just wax lyrical about music. To him, a lot of the creative process is just talking about it conceptually. I hate to say too much -- I don’t want to give away his methods or whatever. I feel like I was so privileged to be in the room. He wasn't totally head-in-the-clouds. He seemed really switched-on and lucid. Even though you can see him [being] all over the place, musically I always knew I was in safe hands.
What did you learn or take away from your time together?
I guess just how malleable an idea can be. You can have a whole song with all these beats in it, and you can just isolate one bit and take that out and put it into something else and scrap the rest of it. Someone else who’s like that is Wayne Coyne from Flaming Lips -- they’re not sacred about how something has come to be. They can be quite ruthless with ideas. That’s something I’ve always wanted to be able to do more. Famously, with Yeezus, the album was a lot more dense, and two weeks before release, he just stripped it back completely.
I heard you didn't even know for sure which song you were credited on. Why was it so confusing?
I mean, I kind of assumed it would be that way. I knew that he was working on it down to the wire. When you mess around with ideas and chop stuff out and put it different places that quickly and that much, [informing] all the people who had ideas must slow you down. I’d been told, and I’d assumed it to be that way, that I’d just hear the album and hear my bits on it. It wasn't a surprise.
What was it like to listen to the album without knowing where you’d come in?
I got a couple of messages from a friend of mine. Someone was like, “Oh, your song’s playing on the livestream.” I was giving a phone interview at the time. I was like, “I’ve just been told my song’s on the Kanye album!” And then I went and I listened to the song, [and] I realized that my beats weren't on it. So I said in an interview that my song was on the album, and then I found out it wasn't. The publication had already posted a thing, and we got them to change the article. The next day, I was listening to the rest of the album, and my stuff was on another song. It was kind of a mess. My contribution ended up being some drums on the last song [“Violent Crimes’].
That’s one of the strengths of hip-hop: It can be an absolute collage of sounds and flavors and ideas. In no other genre of music can things from so many different worlds come together and sound great. I’m being very narrow-minded here, but rock ‘n’ roll music’s kind of got to be rock ‘n’ roll, you know what I mean?
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I don’t think too many fans would have predicted you’d end up working in hip-hop.
For sure. I probably would’ve said the same thing. I would’ve been like, “I couldn't imagine doing hip-hop,” just because I didn't come from that world. I never really looked at it as something I could do. Even on the things I’ve collaborated with, they’ve still got me star-crossed.
Do most artists come to you way Kanye did, where they say, “I’m interested in doing something psychedelic,” and you’re the guy for it?
I hope not. [Laughs.] If that’s what gets me in the game, I’m cool with that. Whatever gets me there. But I would hope it’s not that linear or predictable -- that I’m the “go-to psych rock producer.” I would never want to be that. I don’t want to do too much of the one-trick pony. But I know that’s what I’ve got to offer at the moment.
'THE AIR WAS THICK WITH BLUNT SMOKE'
You co-wrote and co-produced Travis Scott’s “Skeletons.” How did you become part of his Astroworld project?
His manager got in touch and said he was a big fan [and suggested we] meet up if I was ever in L.A. So I went to a few sessions with him. We hung out and played some stuff, and he really liked what ended up being “Skeletons.” That definitely got the biggest reaction out of him. I could tell he liked it. I remember going through this stuff to play to Travis, and just thought, “Oh, this is actually really up his alley.” I know Travis likes his psych-rock. He likes his crusty metal guitar sound. I was struck by how much I thought it would fit Travis’ thing even though it’s not hip-hop-sounding. So much hip-hop is cycled from music that sounds like that -- crusty-sounding ‘70s rock. There’s so much of that, that kind of King Crimson stuff.
What was Travis like to work with?
I did a lot of sessions with him, actually. What’s cool about people like Travis is that they’re just getting a bunch of people in the room and seeing what happens. For a lot of it, I was just a team player. At some points, there were 10, 20 people in the room. You could just be there and hang out and not do anything for like an hour. And then something perks your ears up, and you can be like, “Oh yeah yeah, plug me in, I’ve got an idea.” We’d go for hours until three in the morning.
But it’s not intense. Well, it’s intense because it’s the loudest shit I’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard music played that loud in my life, and possibly never will. I’m talking huge speakers. These studios have these speakers that are like, 12 inches each. And they were blowing out. Your eardrums rattle. Even the hi-hats kind of make your ears rumble a bit. That’s fuckin’ intense. After about a half-hour, I think your ears close up a bit so you can deal with it more.
That’s exactly how I would expect being in the studio with Travis to be.
It was everything I’d hoped it would be. Even listening to the album for the first time, hearing a lot of the songs I hadn't heard, I had immediate flashbacks. I could smell the blunts. [Laughs.] The air was thick with blunt smoke. It was such a potent vibe that I just had full-on flashbacks. Even listening to “Skeletons” now, it feels weird to listen to it at moderate volumes, because it was so eyeball-shakingly loud for all the times up until then.
Who else was in the room, then?
Well, the producer Frank Dukes, he’s a super switched-on, smart guy. Chaz [Bear] from Toro y Moi was there for a bit. I feel like maybe I’m not meant to talk about who was there. [Laughs.]
Do you have a favorite collaboration you’ve ever done?
The Travis one has probably been the most artistically-satisfying, just because it was over a long period of time and had a lot of sessions to it. And it was fulfilling to watch. A lot of other collaborations, you kind of put something in, and then you don’t really hear or see anything until the final product.
That’s another thing about hip-hop -- the pace of releasing music is often quicker.
Yeah, but that’s what I love about it. Especially coming from my world of being this control freak, everything’s gotta be perfect -- working with hip-hop artists has taught me so much about not being precious about every single sonic detail. There’s a big thing in the recording world: professional sound snobbery. Like, “You shouldn't use these microphones for this.” Like, “Real albums gets made with real gear.” There’s that kind of preciousness about it. But I’ve made my albums for dirt cheap. Hip-hop will just take stuff from anywhere. It doesn't matter where it comes from, it just has to sound good. A beat can get made in 20 minutes. I feel like that’s a big element of musical snobbery: [the idea] that songs that get made in a day are not as good as songs that were labored over for months. Which I just find so narrow-minded. Some of the best music that has been made has been made quickly. Like that song “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. It was made literally in the last minute, and it ended up the lead single. People always try to find ways to quantify music. Like, what makes good music? But music is one of those things where you can’t attribute any quantity for whether it’s good or not.
'JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT THE ARTIST DOESN'T MEAN IT’S NOT EXTREMELY IMPORTANT TO YOU'
Do you remember what first drew you to production?
I’ve always unknowingly done it, and I’ve also been a producer of my own stuff. I never really considered what I did “production,” because it was just making the music, you know? But I guess I wanted to see what I could bring to other artists. I’m a highly curious person. I can be consumed by curiosity.
Mark Ronson was a big producer mentor for me. He was the first one that convinced me that I could take it seriously, or that what I had was special. Up until then, I figured I wouldn't really know how to incorporate what I do with other artists, especially ones I don’t know personally. I think he was pretty pivotal in that.
How did you two meet?
We met at V Festival in Australia. His album Record Collection had just come out, and I was a huge fan, and so I was kind of fanning out to him, and he was kind of fanning out to me. It was kind of that aahh! thing.
What is it like to have people “fan out” to you?
A few years ago, before I knew how to deal with compliments, it felt wrong. I always felt like people had the wrong idea. I’m used to it now. I’m a pretty shy person; I was a pretty under-confident kid. So it took me a long time to not just be...totally awkward. [Laughs.]
What does producing give you that you don’t necessarily get from being on the frontlines?
Just absolute freedom. Not worrying about the artistic consequence. Your career’s not resting on it. Conceptually, it’s like, “Oh, you can be a producer, it doesn't really matter if it turns out good.” But at the end of the day, it absolutely does matter that it turns out good. So that’s been the learning experience over the last few years: Just because you’re not the artist doesn't mean that it’s not extremely important to you.
So the pressure is off.
Yeah, totally. And it just gives you great perspective. Especially me doing Tame Impala, I’m just wrapped up in my own world of doing it, and I’ve rarely gotten to see outside of that. Seeing how other people tick and how other artists do it gives me a lot of perspective.
'IT SOUNDS LIKE SOMEONE AT SPOTIFY FUCKED UP'
How did Rihanna come to cover a Tame Impala song for Anti?
From my end, we got an email from her manager saying she wanted to do something with [“New Person, Same Old Mistakes”]. I can’t remember how they worded it. They didn't say “cover.” We thought she wanted to sample it or remix it in some way. We didn't really know. So it was only when the song came out that I was like, “It sounds like a cover.” I thought, “That’s cool, I guess that means she thought it didn't need changing in any way.” It also meant I got 100 percent of the publishing, so I was like, “Fuck yeah!” Someone was telling me that SZA got her into [Tame Impala] -- actually, I think it was Kendrick Lamar. I did a session with him once, and he was like, “Oh, do you know how Rihanna got on to your stuff?” I was like, “No.” He was like, “Oh yeah, SZA played it to Rihanna late at night at my session.” She was like, “You’ve gotta check out Tame Impala.” I guess that’s how she knew.
So you’ve never actually talked to Rihanna about it?
No. I’ve never met her. And apparently, when that album first came out, if you Shazam’d her [cover before she starts singing], Tame Impala came up. It’s kind of funny, because when I was writing the song, I imagined a female R&B voice singing it. And I forgot about that when I was finishing the song. So when I heard Rihanna singing it, I was like, “Oh, wow, the song is how I originally imagined it.”
What else was going through your mind?
Obviously, when it first came out, it was just blowing my mind. All these wires were crossing in my brain. Track one played, and then another, and then suddenly, the last song off my album would start playing, and I was like, “What the fuck? It sounds like someone at Spotify fucked up and uploaded the wrong file.” As time has passed, now I can appreciate it as its own song.
I guess it comes back to appreciating ideas being malleable and being able to imagine music in different worlds. And you know what else that teaches me? Context is everything. You can take a song that was on a psychedelic rock album and put it on a Rihanna album. You can stand back and say, “Hey, it kind of fits.” That just tells me that context is everything. It doesn't necessarily not fit just because they’re from two different worlds. That blows my mind.
You mentioned Kendrick. What were you doing in the studio with him?
Oh, we met up for like an hour. We were kind of playing each other some stuff. It was before DAMN. came out. He was working on DAMN. I don’t think anything came of it, necessarily. I mean, it wasn't anything huge. I worry now that people might think I have something coming. I don’t necessarily think anything is. He wants to do sessions with people all the time. He’s obviously an open-minded artist.
SZA, too. You have worked with SZA on material, but nothing has been released, right?
No. I don’t know if it ever will, which makes me really sad. It makes me extremely sad.
Why wouldn't it come out?
I don’t know, exactly. I don’t want to point fingers at anyone. It never got finished, for starters.
How much music is there?
It’s basically just a song we were working on [with Mark Ronson]. We DJ’d it when we played Governors Ball [in 2017], and I think there was a mobile phone recording of it, and that’s what’s been out there. We were in the studio the day before recording it. So we only had half the song, bits of ideas, and we just played that. So it would need to get finished first, and then everyone would need to agree to put it out. Put it this way: SZA, she’s got to be busy -- when we were doing [the song], her album [Ctrl] was about to come out. I don’t think even she anticipated how much it would blow up and that she’d be all over the world. In the way that you probably imagine that I have people flooding my inbox with requests to work, she’s gotta have about five times that.
‘YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE THIS BLOWN OUT PERSONALITY TO EXIST IN HOLLYWOOD'
Going forward, how do you choose which people you work with? Do you feel you’re able to be more selective?
Yeah, I mean, you’ve got to be. And that’s kind of something that I had to learn along the way -- how to say no. As a shy guy, I never really knew how to say no. I always wanted to be polite. I didn't want to disappoint people and hurt people’s feelings. But I guess the more popular you get, the more you absolutely have to learn how to say no, which is hard. Not that I’ve had to a lot -- it’s not like people are pouring in to get me to produce stuff. But I don’t really want to fill up all my time with producing anyway. Tame Impala is my absolute thing. It’s my absolute...whatever you want to call it. That’s me, first and foremost. And to keep the magic of doing collaborations and stuff like that, I don’t want to turn it into a job. People who do it full-time as a job -- there’s still magic. But for me, to keep the mystery, I don’t want to overdo it.
It does seem like you’re getting a lot of requests, though. Just yesterday, Arctic Monkeys talked about wanting to work with you. What’s your response?
I’m going to keep this going in the public realm and just see how far it gets. But yeah -- anything is possible.
Dua Lipa has also expressed in interviews that she’d love to work with you.
Someone told me about that. It was in an interview she did, and the TV person that was interviewing her obviously didn't know who Tame Impala was, and it was actually kind of awkward. [Laughs.] I was watching Bruno Mars when she was supporting him, so I saw her show. It was really cool.
Is there anybody you would love to work with but haven’t gotten the chance to yet?
That was Kanye. Kanye held the number one spot there -- he was the answer to that question for a long time. But that’s been ticked off. The other one is I guess Daft Punk. I hold them in absolutely legendary regard. They’re so god-like to me, but I don’t even know what I’d do or how I’d do it with them.
Earlier in your career, you expressed discomfort with the idea of being part of the Hollywood scene. Have you grown more comfortable in that world?
Yeah, I have. I guess it’s just realizing you can be yourself. You don’t have to be this blown-out personality to exist in Hollywood or L.A. or whatever. It’s also seeing people you’ve always thought were larger-than-life and realizing that they’re just normal people, too -- realizing that someone like Lady Gaga is a human being and can be shy or can be nervous. It’s a nice lesson to learn, that you can be yourself and still do things outside of the worlds you thought you belonged in. You can be your awkward self in a session, and it’s not like, “Who is this guy?”
Do you have any plans for new Tame Impala music in the works?
I can’t say too much. But it’s my main focus right now. All I can say is it’s gone back to being my main focus.