When the lineup for Coachella was announced in January, two of the headliners — Ariana Grande and Childish Gambino — stood out as instantly recognizable pop music behemoths. And then there was the third headliner, Tame Impala, a very popular and acclaimed indie rock band that hasn’t yet crossed over as a household name. Will that change in 2019? Along with the Coachella booking, Tame Impala’s fourth album is expected to be released some time this year. While no music from LP4 has been teased yet, all signs point toward Tame Impala continuing its evolution from psych-rock outsiders to electro-pop would-be world-conquerers, an arc that’s emblematic of indie’s overall shift in the 2010s from proud, willful obscurity toward an enthusiastic embrace of the mainstream.
Tame Impala’s output this decade — 2010’s InnerSpeaker, 2012’s Lonerism, and 2015’s Currents — is as good as any indie act. Each album can stand on its own, though when you listen to them consecutively it’s easy to pick up on an obvious progression, from the record collector rock of InnerSpeaker, to the ecstatic fusion of psychedelia and electronic-music methodology on Lonerism, to the pared-back R&B-flavored pop of Currents.
This sequence also acts as a microcosm of larger trends that Tame Impala somehow intuited rather than merely followed, reflecting an overall shift from the guitar-based classicism that remained a touchstone for indie bands in the ’00s, to a sound that is more vibe-y, more concentrated on the bottom end, and more palatable for festival audiences and streaming-platform subscribers content to zone out rather than rock out. Studying Tame Impala’s development in the ’10s won’t tell you everything about how indie changed this decade, but it’s a good place to start.
Here’s where I should stop referring to Tame Impala as a collective identity. From the outset of Tame Impala’s recording career in 2008, singer-songwriter Kevin Parker has been understood to be the band, performing all of the parts himself in the studio and then using other musicians to essentially play act as a group on stage. This also makes Tame Impala a handy reference point for what’s become the norm in contemporary indie — as is the case with the War On Drugs, Car Seat Headrest, Snail Mail, Jay Som, and many others, Tame Impala represents the end of the conventional, four or five-piece democratic unit as the standard archetype in slightly left-of-center rock. Bands are now fronts for individuals, who are easier for record labels and PR firms to promote and sell in the marketplace than an unpredictable, potentially combustible, multi-headed unit.
Of all the indie auteurs who have outed themselves as benevolent musical dictators, nobody has embraced the mantle of “loner genius” more than Parker. A mainstay of his interviews and magazine profiles is Parker describing his own “agonizing” and even “psychotic” levels of perfectionism in the studio. When he was making albums like InnerSpeaker and Lonerism, this naturally brought to mind icons like Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett, who pioneered the “loner genius” archetype in rock back in the ’60s. Journalists were also quick to compare Parker’s slight and fey vocals to “Strawberry Fields Forever”-era John Lennon, further fortifying Parker’s budding reputation as a throwback.
But that image was always reductive. One of the standout tracks from Lonerism, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” has a chorus that sounds lifted from a Magical Mystery Tour outtake. But the drum loop is more reminiscent of the RZA than Ringo Starr, and the droning swirl of noise floating between the gritty rhythm track and Parker’s sleepy vocal sounds utterly unlike a rock band blasting away on stage. It’s more like a sonic collage made by an electronic artist.
Unlike a true traditionalist like Jack White, Parker has always had a thoroughly modern sensibility when it comes to how technology can replicate the feel of rock music without actually being rock music in the old-fashioned sense. “There’s a lot of talk about, ‘Is it a guitar or is it a synth?’ I don’t even see the difference, because for me it’s the same thing. It’s just one has a slightly different texture,” Parker told me in 2015.
I met Parker in Los Angeles during the week between Tame Impala’s twin appearances at Coachella that year. It was about three months before Currents came out, but Parker was already thinking about the next Tame Impala record.
If Parker had ambitions to eventually headline the festival, he wasn’t acting like it. He admitted to me that he boozed heavily before Tame Impala’s slot during the first weekend of Coachella, only stopping about an hour before showtime. Several days later, he was still smarting over the band’s sloppy performance. Nevertheless, the guy still looked like a star, with his sandy brown hair, Jesus beard, and gentle eyes. If he wasn’t yet a full-blown rock god, he could definitely pass for a Southern California cult leader.
At that time I was struck by how smoothly Parker had transitioned to the sleek, lush pop sound of Currents, an album that’s markedly different than InnerSpeaker and Lonerism and yet doesn’t feel like an abrupt change of pace, a la the many “sellout” records that ’90s alternative bands put out to capitalize on flukey hit singles. Out was Lennon as the go-to reference point, and in was Michael Jackson, whose influence is obvious on “The Less I Know The Better,” currently the most popular Tame Impala track on Spotify with nearly 278 million streams.
In the ’00s, when Parker was part of the psych-rock scene in his boyhood home of Perth, Australia, he bought into the indie politics of the time, turning his nose up at pop and positioning himself far outside the commercial mainstream. But a decade later, when I spoke with him, Parker had done a 180, just as the indie world at large had, dismissing the “indie snobs” who will probably always insist that Tame Impala peaked with Lonerism.
During our interview, Parker was quick to criticize Lonerism, which he decried for being too loud and too trebly, with “sizzling guitar” and “sizzling synths.” With Currents, Parker “wanted to make an album that you could just turn up really loud, with a throbbing rhythm to it,” he said.
Beyond sonics, Parker also made a pivotal turn away from the macho aesthetic of Lonerism‘s breakout song, the swaggering “Elephant,” a lumbering come-hither rock track that sounds like Marc Bolan fronting Goldfrapp. “Elephant” is the closest that Tame Impala has ever veered toward full-on rawk, a lane that White owned for years before recently ceding ground to the shameless revivalists in Greta Van Fleet. When I spoke to Parker, he expressed embarrassment over “Elephant,” even though “that song paid for half my house,” thanks to numerous commercial syncs.
But for anyone who loved InnerSpeaker or even Tame Impala’s self-titled 2008 EP, “Elephant” was hardly an anomaly. It might have even seemed like a culmination. Revisiting those early releases now, they seem so much heavier in comparison to Tame Impala’s later work, with songs like “The Bold Arrow Of Time” and “Half Full Glass Of Wine” drawing on extremely unfashionable classic rock influences, such as the Eric Clapton-led ’60s power-trio Cream. Surely, there are Tame Impala fans who wish Currents had included one “Elephant”-like banger amid a surfeit of velvety bedroom ballads like “New Person, Old Mistakes,” which was swiftly granted an extremely faithful cover by Rihanna on 2016’s ANTI. But it’s hard to imagine that Tame Impala being tapped to headline a major music festival alongside Ariana Grande and Childish Gambino.
Whether by canny design or serendipitous coincidence, Parker’s artistic changes have kept Tame Impala in tune with the times, putting them in the rare position of being a commercially and culturally relevant rock band. The irony is that as Parker has ingratiated himself with the pop world, the pop world has typecast him as a psych-rock accouterment, a sort of living and breathing equivalent to a swelling mellotron lick. In the past few yearsParker has collaborated with many A-list stars — Lady Gaga on Joanne, Kanye West on Ye, Travis Scott on Astroworld — though the results tend to sound like slightly trippy amalgams of his work on Lonerism and Currents.
“I would hope it’s not that linear or predictable — that I’m the ‘go-to psych rock producer,'” Parker told Billboard in 2018. “I would never want to be that. I don’t want to do too much of the one-trick pony.” Will fear of being viewed as a “one-trick pony” push Parker even further from Tame Impala’s bedrock sound? Or will Parker be able to intuit the next great shift in indie, and push Tame Impala in that direction without repeating himself? For now, the possibilities for Parker’s creative and commercial growth seem as wide as a Tame Impala soundscape.