Photo by Neil Krug

The Unassailable Empathy of Tame Impala

Kevin Parker reaches up and out on The Slow Rush

A year and a half ago, I made the trip from Toronto to Moreno Beach, Lake Perris in Ontario, California for Desert Daze, the always impressive psychedelic rock festival. It marked the festival’s first year in a new home after previously being held at the mythical Joshua Tree Park. Tame Impala were the festival’s opening night headliner, followed by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and My Bloody Valentine. It was supposed to be a slam dunk.

But, stationed deep in the mountains of a region experiencing a multi-year drought, the festival grounds were overcome by an extreme electric storm with near torrential downpour to match. Less than half an hour into Tame Impala’s set, the show was cut off citing safety concerns. Piling onto the gargantuan task of attempting to evacuate thousands of people was the added challenge relieving an equally gargantuan traffic jam, estimated at six hours, that caused a particular logistical nightmare for the festival.

Groups of teenagers resorted to huddling under trees, blasting “Let It Happen” out of muddy phone speakers and singing along desperately. It was extremely corny, and just as beautiful, because for legions of kids, this was their band, and the show will always go on.

It’s a cheesy example, but a vivid one—a single case, and one of many, that illustrates exactly how popular the Australian psych-everything band from Perth had actually become. Because since uploading a string of singles to MySpace in 2007, Kevin Parker’s solo project has become big. Not popular, but properly big: As in, Rihanna-sampling; top tier-Coachella headlining; Grammy Award-nominating; platinum record-selling; Lady Gaga and Kanye West-collaborating; GQ Magazine cover star-featuring big.

And at the core of Tame Impala’s success is an ongoing question: why now, does this music resonate so broadly? Somehow—everyone from purists of genre and taste, expats from the hyper-precious era of audio exclusivity and microblogging; to a newer generation of fans who are frequent participants of Big Experiential Music Moments®, raised on a diet of precisely-formed algorithms capable of generating endless Tik Tok memes—have all been indoctrinated into the ecosystem that Parker has built around himself.

For the better part of the last decade, Parker has been on the frontlines of psychdelia’s most recent elevation to the top of the cultural forefront, which, historically, has been a reoccurring and resilient salve during eras of aggregate social and political uncertainty. And often superficially pegged as music made for private people and introverts searching for like-minded flock, Parker’s music has always gotten at something slightly more complicated and arresting.

Instead, he’s remained invested in exploring the limits of emotional intelligence, directed at the self and then utilized as a tool to understand an ever-confusing outside world. Starved for answers, Parker generously offers a reminder that answering big questions starts with addressing smaller, human-sized ones. By design, his music casts a wide net. “I wouldn’t write a song that I feel is only applicable to me,” he muses over a Skype call from Australia.

Resisting the urge to speak superfluously, but undertaking a comprehensive analysis of legitimate facts, Tame Impala are an unusual success story in a genre that’s long battled an identity crisis. Though bona fide “rock star” might not have been in the initial blueprint, it’s Parker’s reality now. After years spent gracing festival stages with his eyes fixed on the ground, now he looks up and out.

“I used to have a massive imposter complex and it’s funny, I didn’t really cure my imposter complex until I realized it was a ‘thing.’ I heard this word ‘imposter complex’ and I was like ‘holy shit. I have that.’”

“It was a real turning point for me. I still see a tour poster, or see a festival poster, and it’s like: ‘Tame Impala headlining’ with a picture of my face, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you getting this fucking idiot to headline your festival, that doesn’t make sense.’ I still think that, but I’m trying to outsmart it—I’m trying to push back equally as hard and counsel myself into believing that I do deserve it, you know?”

I used to have a massive imposter complex and it’s funny, I didn’t really cure my imposter complex until I realized it was a ‘thing.’ I heard this word ‘imposter complex’ and I was like ‘holy shit. I have that.’

Over the phone Parker is warmly conversational and comfortably adept at catching a question that’s morphed into a sprawling statement, then releasing an answer that goes even further, capable of really going there. It’s a useful skill, evidence of an understated confidence necessary for trusting the outcome of one’s curiosity that’s become foundational to his music.

Innerspeaker, the band’s 2010 critical breakthrough, utilized the weight of climactic, soaring riffs to sympathize with the rigors of merely slogging your way through ordinary life. His sophomore effort, Lonerism (2012), saw Parker nudging his aspirations larger, exhuming the textures of 70s synths to take a stab at pop splendor. And 2015’s Currents refined his interest in sanding down any lingering, discernible grit from the project to produce a near-pristine, airtight container of hyper-lush psych-pop.

Parker’s newest album, The Slow Rush, is a sprawling inquisition into a sonic environment Parker has been hinting at for years, and has now finally given himself the license to execute. “When I actually felt like I wanted to make another Tame Impala album, I had gotten so many new perspectives on music that I realized how much more I could be doing with Tame Impala.”

“Everything I did was eye-opening, so the goal was to kind of blow it open and embody a lot of the qualities of people that I’ve worked with in myself,” he remembers. “[Working with] Travis Scott, I learned not to sweat the small stuff, which helped me realize that self-doubt doesn’t get you anywhere, [and] doesn’t help anything or anyone.”

As a result, The Slow Rush is largely ambitious—weirder, compelling, and frayed at the edges. And still, specifically crafted for both the airwaves and the dancefloor. Album opener “One More Year” finds Parker gripping a mic stand with both hands while dealing in a heady Baleric melody—Parker’s own decadent take on Screademelcia-era Madchester—that, inch by inch, superimposes a metallic, galactic melody over top an unhurried revelation, declaring a short-term strategy for long-lasting love.

“Breathe Deeper” is a bouncy support anthem, drenched in the, now, nostalgic, spirit of peak chillwave, before collapsing into an industrial, IDM-adjacent breakdown; “Tomorrow’s Dust” plants a deliberately disordered rhythm over a propulsive Latin guitar riff; “It Is True” grinds its hips into both a slice of dancehall and an identifiable homage to 80s funk that even Prince might appreciate; and “Glimmer” wraps itself around the irresistibly pulsating panache of shiny 90s euro-house, complete with a spoken word intro.

Throughout all of it, Parker sounds well-travelled because he is. Yet, still capable of remembering to drop his anchor on the shores of the clearly defined vista he’s built around himself. But, as always, The Slow Rush reaches a little further.

Neil Krug

Responding to a world that often feels consumed by micro and macro fires, too insurmountable to easily locate a site of relief, there’s a new urgency to Parker’s lyricism. With lyrics like “troubles keep falling in my life, yeah/ but strictly speaking, I’m still on track/ so tell everyone I’ll be alright,” it’s almost as if he’s working double time, and against mounting external forces, to validate the fact that the seemingly mundane parts of life—life-sized aspirations that often feel not only unreachable, but unimportant; like trying to atone with your parents (“Posthumous Forgiveness”), or really and truly believing in yourself (“Breathe Deeper”)—are worthy of the time necessary to figure out.

It’s possible to imagine that when these songs are heard under spindly, neon strobe lights, or under a sea of confetti cannons rivalling Beyoncé, that they might exist as an affirmation in an unsuspecting place: a suggestion that investigating the root of the small stuff is mutually exclusive with all the big stuff, and that you can concurrently try to save the world, while figuring out how to save yourself in the process.

Speaking slowly and thinking carefully, he pinpoints the foundation of this ethos with a clear-headed self-description: “I’d like to think that I’m one of the most empathetic people I know. But I’m pretty sure that there are people I know that think I have no empathy. Which is kind of weird.”

He continues, acutely observant of his own limitations. “I think to some people I can come across quite cold because I’ve always been quite a withdrawn person. Music is the thing that I channel my emotions into the world with, because I’ve never really been good at doing it personally.”

“I enjoy the idea of seeing things from other people’s perspective because there’s no more valuable trait than to see that the way that you see things isn’t objective.”

Perhaps purposefully, the lines of his protagonists are almost always undefined, capable of taking on a character profile selected solely by the listener. It’s possible that this is the root of his empathy: In the face of unrestricted and unusual levels of success, removing yourself from the center of your own party feels like an enduringly selfless act.

“I want the best for Tame Impala. It’s bigger than me now. I just…feel a sense of responsibility; not to make it as big as it can be, but to make it as whole as I can. That’s kind of my job.”

A few weeks out from dropping the album that’s taken Parker nearly half a decade to create, he’s already shelved it — he’s still recovering from the mental, creative, and physical exhaustion it required to construct. 

“I can’t listen to The Slow Rush now, it just doesn’t even make sense.” Though he’s resolved that now’s not the time, he’s certain that it will come later. “I know I’m going to put on my album that I made two years ago, and I’m going to enjoy listening to it. [With] each album, I get a little bit wiser at outsmarting my doubting brain.” 

It rings of a relationship with time, its passage, and the effect of both on archiving memories of the past, present, and future that feels uncannily familiar. Because in our current cultural zeitgeist, who hasn’t had a moment where they’ve yearned for the past, dreaded the present, and decided that levelling expectations for the future might be the only way to deal to deal with a taxing reality? 

A few days before our interview, I listened to an interview with climate justice writer and activist Emily Atkin on the Slate podcast “What’s Next” with Mary Harris. Speaking about the often futile-feeling task of getting the entire world on board to enact a focused plan in time to outrun a loudly-ticking clock, she called to attention a relatively straightforward, and wildly effective Civil Rights-era strategy: launching a counterattack on present institutional violence by visualizing a better future. 

Atkin describes the benefit of imagining a world that’s not terrifying and unpredictable, but exists in the image of our own choosing, where rather than expecting inevitable destruction, we can anticipate a society where we rely on renewable energy sources, all our friends bike, and things might not be the worst. 

Though Parker is admittedly a total “nostalgia-addict” (“It’s almost like it’s like a drug, you know?”), he’s delights and believes in this kind of future thinking. “I had this idea of like…you know how people live in the past? What if it was a “thing” to be living in the future? Like, what if you lived as though you were five years from now looking back? How would that dictate your actions? I was just thinking it could be like a really beautiful thing.”

Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush is available now via Universal Music.