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Tame Impala: Psych Wunderkind Kevin Parker

Kevin Parker

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

The scion of psych discusses the imaginative guitar work and unorthodox soundscapes on his new album, Currents.

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.

“The common thing with all the guitarists I respect and admire is they play the guitar as though it isn't a guitar."

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?

Parker applied white gaffer tape to the body of his vintage '67 Rickenbacker 335 and painted over it. Photo by Chris Kies

The bass guitar takes a front seat on Currents. Who influenced your bass playing, and how you get that signature bass tone?
I guess it has a lot to do with my good old Hofner bass, which I actually bought in Japan at the exact same time as the Rickenbacker. I didn't even realize it until I got back to the hotel room and my friends were like, “Aw, so you bought the Beatles starter pack!" That sums up a lot of the Beatles references we get. It's all a total accident and coincidence. I usually just send the bass through my guitar pedal chain. I didn't have enough pedals to set up separate boards for guitar and bass. But it worked well, so I've stuck with it.

What's on your pedalboard?
Just a compressor, a vibrato, and a reverb. I often run the bass with reverb, which a lot of people don't, but I like what it does. There's also this Seymour Duncan [KTG-1] rack unit. It's a preamp, and I run everything through it. I've never been able to find another one, though I'd love to get one. I think they made them for a few years in the '80s or '90s. To everyone else they must sound really shit, because no one on the entirety of the Internet seems interested in them. But I can't for the life of me find something that sounds the same.

“There's an organic sound that comes out of a guitar that nothing else can really replicate. It's almost like a human touch."

Who influenced you as a guitarist?

You know what? I've thought about it before, and no one immediately sprung to mind. When I was a teenager, I loved Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, Reine Fiske of Dungen. The common thing with all the guitarists I respect and admire is they play the guitar as though it isn't a guitar. A lot of the time when you pick up a guitar, your hands do the thinking, and it's just muscle memory. We've all got those blues licks we play almost automatically, you know? I try really hard to look past that. Sometimes I sing the melody in my head and try to play it on guitar, and I realize my hands really don't want to do that. My fingers would rather play it a different way, but I force myself to play it the way I hear it in my head until it feels natural. To me, that's what makes playing guitar unique to you—not just playing the kind of ZZ Top-esque licks that live in a lot of our fingers.

I've seen you perform on a Jazzmaster with a Roland synth pickup. How do you use it?
I used that a lot on the album, actually. It was a cheap shortcut to doing something I love: making a guitar sound not like a guitar. I've always been obsessed with tricking people into thinking that a guitar is actually a synth. I used to do it with octave pedals and different types of auto-filters and stuff, and then I'd play the instrument in a different way to make it sound like it's not a guitar. So when I started getting into guitar synths, it made it all too easy. It's a Roland GR-55, and a lot of the presets are totally nasty. They're almost stuck between a metal guitar and a saxophone. A lot of the presets Roland offers are terrible. But if you start from scratch building your own patches and then combine them with cool effects and outboard stuff, it starts to sound really cool.

YouTube It

Kevin Parker gets synth-heavy with his Rickenbacker 335 on “The Less I Know the Better" during a set at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, one of the oldest graveyards in Los Angeles.

There must be a lot more guitar on the record than is immediately apparent!
Absolutely. I spoke to a few people after they heard some of the new songs. Then they saw us play them live and they were like, “Oh! I didn't realize that was a guitar part!"

Could you point out specific instances of camouflaged guitars?
Well, for example, the instrumentation in the verses of “The Less I Know the Better" is all guitar synth. There are organs, pads—even the bass is going through the guitar synth. Other than the drums and vocals, everything you hear there is guitar synth, and it has this sort of '80s synth disco thing. The lead line halfway through “The Moment" is a weird, almost alien-sounding patch that's one of my favorite parts of the album. It's got this really crunchy, Himalayan-sounding lead.

I like that you went with a mountain range to describe the sound of a synth patch.
It just reminded me of standing on top of a mountain, so I figured I'd go with it!

YouTube It

Tame Impala plays the hit single “Let It Happen" from Currents on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

Tame Impala's Kevin Parker tunes his guitars a full-step down from standard tuning (DGCFAD). Photo by Rich Osweiler

Synthful Guitar: Kevin Parker's Gear

Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker's main guitar is a 1967 Rickenbacker 335, which he customized with painted tape. He also sometimes uses a Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster with a Roland GK-3 synth pickup, which belongs to Tame Impala keyboardist Jay Watson. Parker tunes his guitars a whole step down from standard: DGCFAD. Parker's Hofner bass was also a primary tool when making Currents.

Parker's pedals are divided between three boards. The first has a Roland GR-55 synth running into a Yamaha mixer routed to a Radial J48 DI box.

“I've always been obsessed with tricking people into thinking that a guitar is actually a synth."

The second board includes an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone (V4) and Holy Grail Reverb, MXR's Dyna Comp and Carbon Copy Analog Delay, an EarthQuaker Devices Terminal Fuzz, Boss's BD-2 Blues Driver and TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, and an Ernie Ball volume pedal. This board is routed to a Vox AC30H2 combo.

The third board employs a Boss GT-100 multi-effector, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb, Diamond Vibrato, Empress ParaEQ, and a Bogner Wessex Bubinga Overdrive. This board is also routed to a Radial J48 DI.

Parker created the patches he uses on his Boss GT-100 and Roland GR-55 guitar synth. The GT-100 patches usually approximate more complex effects chains used on recordings, which would require many more pedals onstage. Some GR-55 patches used live also appear on Currents and other Tame Impala albums.