Kevin Parker plays his No. 1 guitar, a ’67 Rickenbacker 335, during Tame Impala’s set at the 2015 Sasquatch Festival. Parker says older Rickenbackers have something new ones don’t. “They just have this pristine crispness to them.
They just sing to me, you know?” Photo by Debi Del Grande
Amid the massive resurgence of psychedelia in recent years (though you could argue that it never really went away), no single artist has transcended the confines of the genre the way Australia's Tame Impala has. Perth’s heir-apparent to the psych throne, Kevin Parker, effectively is Tame Impala. A well documented and self-professed control freak, Parker has single-handedly written, produced, and tracked the entirety of Tame Impala’s recorded output, which now includes the band’s anxiously awaited and critically lauded third full-length, Currents.
While Parker’s dedication to solitary work may be off-putting to some, the young scion of psych is more focused on articulating the musical visions that exist in his mind than on the glory his labors yield. Despite assembling a monster team of musicians to bring his records to life on the road, the calculated, meticulous drive at the heart of Parker’s endeavors can’t be overridden, and has even pushed him to create the visuals for Tame Impala’s performances.
Currents is a sonic departure from the sun-soaked, ’60s-informed sounds of its predecessor, Lonerism, especially in its reliance on classic prog-synth sounds over the more traditional guitars that characterized previous Tame Impala records. Still present are the saccharine melodies and dreamy textures that are Parker’s calling cards, but on Currents, everything is juxtaposed against dance-ready rhythms and placed in the chasm between ’60s psych and modern pop, earning the album near-universal acclaim.
At first listen, Currents can give the impression that Parker has abandoned the guitar in the name of synths. But further examination reveals an album cleverly littered with guitar synth and otherwise processed guitar sounds that speak to Parker’s new approach to writing and recording with the instrument.
We gained an audience with Parker, who opened up about his writing process, early influences, and approach to getting the unique guitar and bass sounds on Currents.
The guitar seems less prominent on this album—or at least far more processed than on your previous records. What took you in that direction?
One of my favorite ways to use a guitar is to find new flavors with it, but there’s an organic sound that comes out of a guitar that nothing else can really replicate. It’s almost like a human touch. I liked the idea of that making cameos every now, rather than being this chugging base of the song this time around. The way the album was going sonically and texturally, I wound up processing the guitars more. There are guitars on every track, but they come in every now and then, more as an outside element or answer to other sounds.
Did you approach writing those guitar parts differently to navigate all of those big synth sounds?
Yeah, but I’ve always written songs that feature synths and guitars working together. The style of music on this one is more ... modern, for lack of a better word. Some of the chord progressions and rhythms are more R&B, and when you put rocking guitars on top of that, it can ruin it. So I had to be really careful with how I played the guitar—what types of chords I used, the types of licks I’d play—so that it worked with those other ideas.
Besides his trusty Rickenbacker, Parker’s other live guitar is a Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster with a Roland GK-3 synth pickup, which belongs to Tame Impala keyboardist Jay Watson. Parker is shown here playing Saturday afternoon in Chicago, IL, at this year's Lollapalooza festival. Photo by Chris Kies
Was the guitar still an important writing tool on Currents?
Not so much. I’ve been getting better at playing keyboards, which means I’m now much more flexible about which instrument I write on. But the instrument I write on might be the butt end of it. It’s really just whatever is sitting around when I think of the song. The most important part is getting the song out into the real world before I forget it, rather than finding the right instrument to write it on. I’m just so worried that I’ll forget the song, so I grab whatever instrument is closest, and that inevitably become the bones of the song. For whatever reason, I had a few more synths around me this time. And we were touring so much off of Lonerism that my guitar and pedals were usually halfway between one continent and another while I was at home. We’d finish one tour in say, Europe, go home for two weeks, and all our gear, including my guitars and pedals, would be on their way to South America. I didn’t even have my favorite guitar, my Rickenbacker, with me a lot of the time, so that was a factor.
What’s the story behind your Rickenbacker? I haven’t seen many photos of you performing without it.
Not in the last few years, for sure. I bought it in Japan a few years ago—must’ve been 2010—and it was the first real, vintage, proper guitar I bought. I have a mongrel Stratocaster that’s got like a Mexican body and a U.S. neck, and my other guitar I got for Christmas when I was 15. The Rickenbacker a ’67 335 model, and it sounds like nothing else. We travel with one of the reissues as well, which Dom [Simper] sometimes plays. But for some reason, those toaster pickups on the old ones just sing to me. Maybe they have less output than the new ones.
So you painted the body of a vintage Rickenbacker?
Sort of. I was actually more sensible than that: I laid down white gaffer tape on it in the shape of what I wanted and then painted over it. But I’m pretty sure that once I pull that gaffer tape, all the paint under there is going to come with it, so I effectively did deface it.
I appreciate that personal touch, even if it makes collectors squirm.
Well, I knew I’d never get rid of it. I’ve written so many of what I think are my best songs on that guitar, and it’s been involved in everything I’ve done. I would never sell it in a million years! I’ve just made it more mine, personalizing it like that. It belongs to me even more deeply because of the paint, you know?