Tame Impala’s ‘Currents’ at five: Kevin Parker takes us inside the breakthrough disco-pop opus
Album three took the indie star from introverted studio hermit to rave-starting pop behemoth. He guides Thomas Smith through the highs and lows of one of the decade’s most influential records
Kevin Parker has never been jilted at the altar, but he’s definitely experienced some wedding-day heartbreak. Before the production of third album, 2015’s ‘Currents’, he was pranked by some school pals at a wedding reception, when they conspired to ask the function’s DJ to play a Tame Impala song to a dancefloor of strangers. It was a homecoming prank tinted with pride, but mainly intended to embarrass Parker.
“The dancefloor just cleared out,” Parker laughs over Skype from his Perth home. “It was such a rude awakening. It was awful! I was like, ‘Whaaaat? No-one wants to dance to Tame Impala?’ The idea that my music would clear out a dancefloor definitely made me feel like something was missing from my work. That was one of the moments where I was like, ‘Fuck this – I wanna make music that people can dance to.”
This is just one of the many little moments that influenced Parker’s spectacular third album. Like the time that he was riding around Los Angeles high on mushrooms listening to the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive, or when he recorded over 1000 vocal takes for one of the album’s killer tracks (he can’t recall which). The pop opus that had been brewing inside Parker was ready to burst out of him. All it took was an unappreciative wedding disco crowd.
- READ MORE: Every Tame Impala song ranked in order of greatness
Released on July 17, 2015, the 13-track record was a revelation. The trippy fusion of rock, electronica, pop and disco took this once-introverted stoner dude from Perth into a worldwide festival headliner. His previous releases, 2010’s ‘Innerspeaker’ and 2012’s follow-up ‘Lonerism’, are both now considered modern-day psych-rock classics, but ridden with anxiety-ridden, insular listens. ‘Currents’ couldn’t be more different.
Not only is ‘Currents’ Parker’s most-successful and best album to date, but one of the decade’s most influential. It landed Parker his first Number One album in his native Australia, and he turned the heads of Kanye West, Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky and Lady Gaga – all of whom he’s now collaborated with. It’s so good, in fact, that Rihanna closed her 2016 album ‘Anti’ with a cover of cosmic-R&B banger ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ and changed almost nothing except swapping Parker’s vocals out for her own.
Half a decade on, it remains a spectacular listen and sees Parker fully embracing his love of rave culture and classic pop. Take the ‘70s strut on ‘The Less I Know The Better’, or The Chemical Brothers-indebted ravedelica on ‘Let It Happen’ as proof of his emboldened creativity. Those tracks are complemented by bewitching instrumental interludes (‘Gossip’), sultry slow-jams (‘I’m A Man’), psych-surf-pop (‘Disciples).
“Mixing ‘Currents’ drove me fucking insane. It was just torture”
When NME calls him to celebrate the fifth anniversary, Kevin Parker in a chipper mood. He’s tinkering with a few projects, and when it comes to corona-induced lockdown he’s mainly a “glass half-full” kinda guy. ‘The Slow Rush’, his fourth album and follow-up to ‘Currents’, was released in February 2020, and he managed to play four live shows before the tour was pulled due to safety concerns around COVID-19. As the world takes a breather, Parker is able to do the same and reflect on his past.
“The longer it’s been since ‘Currents’, the more it becomes an enjoyable and nostalgic experience,” he says. “Five years feels this sweet spot where I can really enjoy it. When I look back at that time, I get a snapshot of who I was, what I was feeling and what I was going through. I can see myself so clearly when I listen to it.”
“I got a kick out of the fact that I’d be shaking the snowglobe up”
So who was Kevin Parker when he made that album? He’d been on the road since 2010 in support of his two-released albums, gradually working his way up festival bills and bigger crowds. But the latter’s willingness to dabble with slinky R&B (‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’) and tub-thumping rock (‘Elephant’) spawned support slots with Arctic Monkeys and critical acclaim. NME named his second album, ‘Lonerism’, as its Album of The Year in 2012.
Still, it’s an anxious listen. The sound of an introverted genius who loved the craft of making music, but less so with the world at large being interested. So how did we end up with bombastic party album like ‘Currents’?
“When we started touring, the outside world kind of intimidated me,” he says. That shit just terrified me. The anxieties and self-doubt on ‘Lonerism’ – both thematically and musically – was something inside of me that I just had to get out and with that album I felt like I’d fully flushed that side out of me. With ‘Currents’, I had this burst of confidence. I decided that I wanted to make weird pop music, and I wasn’t afraid to make pop music and stand behind it. I just wanted to make silky disco-pop and anyone who says that they don’t like that kind of music is missing out.”
Parker credits that mindset shift on a few reasons. He says that the perception of pop as “profit-driven” by music snobs had largely been eradicated. “I think people have realised that it’s not that clear cut. Just because someone who makes something that is alternative-sounding or just isn’t pop, doesn’t mean that they are any more intelligent than someone who makes pop.”
Another was his work with British producer Mark Ronson on his 2014 album, the ‘Uptown Funk’-featuring ‘Uptown Special‘. Parker lends his vocals to three tracks on the all-star collection and ‘Daffodils’ – a wobbly, hypnotic disco-pop number – is as slick as anything to be found on ‘Currents’. “Mark’s a big reason why I had the confidence to do what I did with ‘Currents’. He showed me how pop music could have such a craft to it.”
It helped solidify what he knew and wanted Tame Impala to be. It’s a solo project in all but name and across his four albums, Parker has played almost every instrument and produced every single song. “Whenever I’m recording with lots of people, like we did on ‘Uptown Special’, it makes me think about how solitary my process is. It puts into perspective just how alone I am when I’m working. It’s such a deep, dark well making a Tame album. I love doing that, but it makes me realise that Tame Impala will never be that communal experience.”
“With ‘Currents’ I had this burst of confidence”
It emboldened him to trust his instincts and embrace the uncertainties in his professional and personal life. On the surface it may seem like a simple break-up album – Parker split from musician and partner Melody Prochet during the writing process – but ‘Currents’ embraces change in all its form. Throughout, Parker sheds the skin of the man he used to be and the expectations he had to satisfy. The album’s mind-melting artwork – inspired by the process ‘vortex shedding’, a physical reaction caused by fluid hitting a bluff object – shows an object surging forward in the name of disruption and change.
“People think that all of those songs are about breaking up, but I’m really singing about breaking up with myself and another part of myself. All of those things – the touring and instability that comes with it – coincided in my life at that time and I found the idea of moving on and making change really romantic. There’s no point in making music unless you’re discovering a new part of yourself.”
Parker began working on the album at his beach-side studio in Fremantle, Perth all on his tod. There was no producer or engineer to ask for guidance or advice, but he still felt barriers in what he could do sonically.
“I was always afraid to try dance music in case I failed. I didn’t grow up going to raves – people in the psych-rock scene like I was in smoked weed and listened to vinyl all night instead of going out,” says Parker. “I always assumed that if I tried dance music it would seem really ingenious. But making music that I wanted to listen to was something I always forgot.”
When Parker gives into the temptations, ‘Currents’ is mind-blowingly good. Take album highlight ‘Let It Happen’ a seven-minute monster that mixes bassy-grooves with strobe-ready synths. The second-half’s CD-skipping breakdown has the same wicked smile as a DJ pulling a prank on mashed-up ravers waiting for the drop. Oh, and it opens the Tame Impala live show, providing a snowstorm of confetti within the first five minutes.
“I always thought it was this weird Frankenstein-of-a song,” he laughs. “To me it just never flowed. When we released it, people emailed me and were like, ‘Holy shit, Kevin!’ and I thought they were lying to me and just being nice. I think two years later, when I was drunk or stoned or something, I finally heard what was good about this song.”
The disco-sheen of ‘The Less I Know The Better’ has had the biggest impact. At the time of writing, it has clocked up 574m streams on Spotify and the song was named as Triple J’s Song of The Decade back in January. Not bad for a pop ditty about being spurned by a lover by some guy called Trevor. “When I was writing it, I didn’t necessarily think it was the best song, but I knew that it ought to be a smash hit’,” he laughs. “I’ve never thought that about another song since that one.”
But working completely solo comes with some slight hiccups. ‘Currents’ was the first album that Parker mixed as well as written and recorded, his previous two ‘Innerspeaker’ and ‘Lonerism’ taken on by Dave Friedmann (MGMT, Flaming Lips’). A proud studio hermit by nature, this decision was indicative of Parker’s commitment to his craft, but it came at a price.
“Mixing it drove me fucking insane. It was torture,” he grimaces. “By the time I was finishing some of the songs I had lost all perspective. You start working on an album you’re wide-eyed and ambitious and confident. But by the time you finish an album, you completely lose perspective and you start hearing songs that you used to love as pieces of shit. Like, I thought ‘Let It Happen’ was a seven-minute borefest. I stopped hearing the magic in ‘The Less I Know The Better’. I was just buggin’ out.”
“By the time you finish an album, you completely lose perspective. You start hearing songs that you used to love as pieces of shit”
In his defence, he had good reason to be freaked out – here’s a sharp divide in where Tame Impala fans joined in the journey. Plenty who’ve been in from the start are steadfast that Parker’s focus should be one grimy, psych-rock joints. Others, particularly those who clocked on around ‘Currents’, welcome the shimmering innovation. It was a line that Parker wanted to tread carefully.
“I always knew that ‘Currents’ was such a new kind of sound to me,” he tells NME. I knew that I loved it, and I knew that I wanted to do that, but I knew a lot of Tame Impala fans were going to turn their noses up. I needed a lot of counselling from my friends and my girlfriend at the time. It was the first time that I knew that I’d let people down, because there were people who wanted ‘Lonerism’ 2.0.”
“But I got a kick out of the fact that I’d be shaking the snowglobe up. All artists get a kick out of that – it’s fun to ruffle feathers. I always wanted that and I was enjoying doing it, but when it came to releasing it I just felt bad. I’m always doubting the stuff I make, but with ‘Currents’ it was the most amount of doubt.”
Following its release – when he finally let go – time and touring helped heal those wounds. The ensuing tour in support of ‘Currents’ took Parker to festival headline slots and arenas across the globe. A 45-show run last summer continued to dine out on that album’s appeal, and the dazzling live show continues to be revolutionised by the cosmic, electronic aspects of that album. Last year NME fondly dubbed Parker the master of “the slow rave”, a down and dirty club night played at half speed.
“When we first started touring I was embarrassed to play [the songs],” he admits. “It took me a while to enjoy playing them. But the longer the time since the song has been out, the more I feel like the song belongs to my fans, it doesn’t belong to me. ‘The Less I Know The Better’ – I don’t feel like it’s my song. It belongs to the people who like it, so when I play it I feel like I’m playing it for them.”
Embracing those fearful emotions and messing with the expectations people have of you worked wonders. The lessons he learned from it may come across simplistic, but if ‘Currents’ is anything to go by, it’s about living in the moment, no matter the consequences. “I learnt to just give it a shot. Don’t think about what could be wrong with it. Don’t think about what could be wrong with it; think what could be right.”