Enjoying a refreshing Moscow mule on a sunny afternoon on Manhattan’s Randall’s Island, Kevin Parker, the one-man creative force behind Australian psychedelic rock project Tame Impala, fiddles with the wooden mala prayer beads wrapped around his wrist, one of many bracelets given to him by fans while on tour this summer. It’s a reminder of where he has been recently and a good indicator of how far he has come. “I used to think interacting with people in the audience, touching people in the crowd, was a total ego-based thing,” says the 29-year-old singer/multi-instrumentalist. “I never realized how fulfilling it would be. It’s more about being on the receiving end — it’s people giving. That’s a powerful realization.”
And a well-timed one. Parker and Tame Impala (which includes keyboardist/guitarists Dominic Simper and Jay Watson, bassist Cam Avery and drummer Julien Barbagallo when the band plays live) is lighting up 2015’s festival circuit, from the main stage at Coachella to Governors Ball to Lollapalooza. On June 26 at Glastonbury, Parker played special guest to Mark Ronson, whose hit album Uptown Special (yes, the home of “Uptown Funk!”) he sings and plays instruments all over. And on July 17, Tame Impala released its third — and best — album, Currents, which represents a sea change for Parker in sound and attitude, both personally and professionally. While the beachy, trippy vibe that has won Tame Impala a global following since its 2007 formation is still there, the sound is more polished, danceable and pop-leaning than ever. “Before, I was part of an indie way of life, so I saw everyone that was successful as silly — like, ‘Oh, they just want to be famous.’ I shut that out,” explains Parker, outfitted in jeans, a white T-shirt and a blue scarf double-draped around his neck. “This time I challenged myself. I didn’t obscure the melody. My old self would’ve seen it as too cheesy, too commercial, too top 40. The new me just sees it as what the melody wants to do.”
In the studio, Tame Impala is all Parker, a multihyphenate, multi-instrumental talent a la Beck or Prince. He lays down drums, guitars, keyboards and everything in between in addition to writing, singing and producing all the songs. “He’s a bedroom genius,” says Ronson, adding that he felt hesitant about approaching Parker to work on Uptown Special for that very reason. But his instincts paid off: Parker flew halfway around the world to join Ronson in Memphis, and his imprint can be felt throughout the album, from lead vocals on three songs (including new single “Daffodils”) to guitar and drums on others. “I don’t really know anybody like him,” adds Ronson. “I know a lot of talented multi-instrumentalists, but when you combine that with his taste and songwriting, it’s a really rare thing. It really feels like it’s Tame Impala’s time.”
Parker was born and raised on the west coast of Australia, in Perth — “technically the most isolated city in the world, though nobody there likes to talk about that,” he says. He began writing songs when he was 7, inspired by Michael Jackson; at age 11 he picked up the drums and soon began recording on his family’s two tape decks. “Conceptually, nothing’s changed since then,” he says, explaining that his music’s laid-back, sunny aesthetic was very much a product of teen life in Perth. “We’d drink, smoke weed and go to the beach. The music I was making was a soundtrack to what I was living.”
Parker’s father, an accountant from Zimbabwe, prodded him to pursue an academic major in college; Parker ultimately chose astronomy before dropping out. His father died a few years ago, just as Tame Impala began to achieve success. “He lived long enough to see that he was wrong,” says Parker.
While he has amassed a following worldwide, Parker still resides in Perth, working out of a home studio that’s 100 meters from the ocean. He bought his ramshackle 1950s beach shack for a song, literally — the fuzzed-out stomp of the single “Elephant,” off 2012’s Grammy-nominated Lonerism (which has sold 208,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music), paid for most of it. “When it rains, the roof leaks, so I’ve got buckets down,” says Parker. He records late at night after having a few drinks. “Things flow easier — the flow is the most important thing for me for recording.”
Swimming in the surf outside his door is also a key creative boost. “It’s the ultimate purifier,” he says. “The sound it creates — even though it’s just white noise, it makes a physical noise around you so that the noise within you can be amplified.”
Turning up that inner voice is part of what gives Currents its intimate but universal magic. “I feel like a brand-new person … finally taking flight,” he sings on “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” the pensive, six-minute-long final cut on the album. Parker turned 29 while he was writing Currents, and learning about the Saturn return, a massive life transition touted by astrologists, resonated strongly for him. “I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my life in the past and what’s ahead of me. To hear that [a Saturn return] is actually a well-known thing, a huge time of transition for people at this age, was fascinating,” he says. “I was halfway through making the album when I heard about it, and it gave what I was doing a lot more meaning; suddenly things made a lot more sense.”
Another marker of change in Parker’s life is worn on his forearm, just above where all those fan bracelets are tethered: a minimal “S” tattooed in honor of his girlfriend, Sophie, a high school crush whom he finally got together with a year-and-a-half ago. (She has a matching “K” on her arm.) Though she’s an advertising executive, Parker says her driving force parallels his. “Her job is all about triggering people’s emotions, finding ways of connecting with people. That’s exactly how I feel about writing songs.”
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of Billboard.