How Hong Kong-bound Tame Impala became world’s hippest guitar band
Latest Australian music sensation have gone from cult heroes to media darlings in space of five years and three albums, and judging by how quickly Mong Kok gig sold out, it’s going to be huge
Hong Kong boasts strong ties with Australian pop – the city hosted Kylie Minogue’s first-ever live concert, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence grew up in Hong Kong and Air Supply come so often they might as well live in the city.
Now it’s the turn of the world’s hippest guitar band: Tame Impala play the MacPherson Stadium in Mong Kok on April 19, and if the speed with which tickets sold out, or the success of the band’s latest record or the reception they got at recent gigs are any gauge, it’s going to be huge.
Now promoting their platinum-selling album Currents, the psychedelic dreamers are the closest thing the world has to an underground rock phenomenon. Over the course of three albums and five years, they’ve gone from cult heroes to tabloid darlings, notching up top-five chart positions around the world and winning a Brit award in the UK and a Grammy nomination in the United States.
Not bad for a band whose only permanent member, multi-instrumental genius Kevin Parker, was on the brink of giving up when the call to greatness came.
“I was walking around university, the exam was in 20 minutes and I was meant to be studying but I was thinking about this call’’ he was expecting from record label Modular, Parker told Electronic Beats website. “Then five minutes before the exam I thought, ‘I better start walking to the exam’, and then the call came on the way there and I was like, ‘Sweet! I’m out!’”
That call took Parker and the loose aggregation of mates he calls his band to a showcase in Sydney that ended up launching their career. Until then, they’d been jamming in a seedy Perth duplex with no idea that Parker’s catchy songs about personal neuroses and loneliness would in a few years win him the adulation of serious rock fans, screaming pop teens and peers alike.
If the next five years were not a whirlwind transformation, they did see at least a steady and inexorable climb. The band’s first album, Innerspeaker, won plaudits for its mind-bending psychedelia, which drew comparisons with the vocal style of John Lennon and the guitar virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix. Little did the pundits know, Parker had never even heard a Beatles album all the way through.
As he was honing his craft in Perth, he sought inspiration from other sources. “We listened to [Black] Sabbath, like, 18 hours a day,” keyboard player Jay Watson told Rolling Stone magazine. “Psychedelic music became a way of life,” Parker adds.
The druggy whirl of Innerspeaker gave way to a more direct pop sensibilty with 2012’s Lonerism, an album whose title, poignant and introspective lyrics and themes of isolation and alienation opened a window into Parker’s psychology.
The product of a broken home, the young Parker sought solace in drugs and petty crime before turning to music.
“I have almost no memory of my parents ever speaking to each other,” he told Rolling Stone. “They split up on bad terms. I assumed that’s what family life was like. Just essentially a soap opera.”
Like so many artists labelled a genius, Parker’s fractured psyche had difficulty dealing with the concept of collaboration in a band but felt equally too fragile to expose himself to the vulnerabilities of being a solo performer.
“I’ve always made music on my own, but I didn’t think there was a platform for that so I thought I had to pretend it was a band,” Parker told The Independent newspaper in the UK after the success of Lonerism gave him the confidence to emerge from his emotional palisade.
“It’s not a band at all, but I was too shy to say, ‘This is mine, I did it myself’. I felt like I had to hide behind the band. I kind of conned myself into thinking I was in a band. It’s only recently that I actually called them my albums.”
Lonerism’s bulging single Elephant cast the band as rock behemoths in the making, a prospect deemed a certainty as two years of touring hardened Tame Impala into a stunning live act.
And so it came as a shock that the first taste of new music after Lonerism was a banging dance track with nary a whiff of Parker’s trademark battered Rickenbacker guitar. Let it Happen, released last summer, was the galloping four-to-the-floor retro disco epic that quickly became the summer anthem of clubs, pubs and festivals the world over.
For those who believed Tame Impala were rock saviours, Parker was music’s new Judas, embracing the dreaded P-word: pop. “As a teenager I thought I was supposed to hate it,” he told Rolling Stone.
He explained to Electronic Beats: “I hate the term ‘going electronic’ or ‘going pop’. A lot of bands who have an established sound and a bit of success can become overly aware that people consider them to represent a particular brand of music. It’s a cool thing for them to throw those expectations out the window and make something totally obtuse. I find being inaccessible for the sake of it more of a cliché than going the other way.”
He hatched his pop master plan while attending a wedding and one of the guests put a Tame Impala track on the turntable during the reception party.
“The dance floor just cleared out,” he told NME. “But I just imagined, ‘What if I did something where a DJ could play it and keep the dance floor going but you could also listen to it in your bedroom with headphones?’ Combining those two environments for music was really important to me – music being danceable but also something you can disappear into.”
If Currents lost Tame Impala a section of their rock following it won them a world of new, young pop-minded converts, Rihanna among them, who recorded a cover of the album’s New Person, Same Old Mistakes. At the first of the Current tour’s huge gigs, in front of 10,000 people in London’s Alexandra Palace, the crowd of mostly millennials and twentysomethings swooned to the ’80s-inflected sounds of Current’s lighter moments and chatted through the psychedelic stormers that had piqued listeners’ interest in the first place.
But don’t expect the restless Parker to get too comfortable in his new guise. The next Tame Impala album is as likely to confound his new audience as Currents did his old followers.
“I don’t go out looking for my new sound,” he told Electronic Beats. “I wait for it to come to me. Music has always come from such an internal place for me. I have a hard time thinking about it any other way.”
Tame Impala, April 19, 7.30pm, MacPherson Stadium, 38 Nelson St, Mong Kok. Sold out.