Lonerism: Tame Impala in the Studio
The story behind Tame Impala’s one-man production process.
Some kids create imaginary friends. Kevin Parker just replicated himself. Parker is Tame Impala, a one-man psych rock band in which he does the lot: sings, drums, plays guitar and keyboards. And he records it all himself. So convincing is his act, that unlike sample-based artists, or bedroom DJs, there’s no distinguishing between the recorded ensemble constructed of versions of himself and a real live band.
But even after the year-long solitary confinement in his bedroom that resulted in Tame Impala’s second album, Lonerism, Parker says he never actually gets lonely going about it the way he does. “I’m usually thinking and doing so much I feel like I’m in a room full of different versions of myself, all having a big conversation about the next step,” muses Parker. “It’s pretty egotistical now that I think about it!”
The crux of Parker’s recording methodology was formed at an early age — 11, 12, maybe — between the heads of two tape decks. His older brother had pioneered the way, recording tapes of himself playing drumbeats. Not quite at the same level of proficiency on drums, but inquisitive nonetheless, Parker followed suit. Then in the annoying way that younger siblings do, he one-upped his elder. Once he’d laid down a rudimentary backbeat, he dug up another tape deck, realising he could dub the contents of the first onto this new device, all while adding a single-note Casio keyboard solo.
In retrospect the genre-less minute of one-finger clunking wasn’t as spectacular as the young Parker thought, but at the time it was the most “fantastical discovery”. He became obsessed, not because he’d figured out how to dub, but because he was jamming along with himself. “I couldn’t even play for shit. But it was amazing!” Said Parker. “There’s been no real structural change since then, I’ve just slowly gotten better at it.”
By ‘better’, he mostly means as a player, drumming especially. On the technical side, he still admits it’s a game of trial and error. “I still do things where a professional would have a heart attack,” said Parker. Taboo moves like plugging microphones into unbalanced laptop line inputs, with the help of some makeshift jack adaptors sticky-taped together. The result was a completely out of phase vocal take, that while sounding trippy in ill-placed stereo speakers, had no chance when summed to mono. Not even psychedelic maharishi mixer, David Fridmann, could fix that one. “There are so many things I don’t know, and I just do them anyway,” he continues. “I’ve just gone blindly into the dark, because if I enjoy listening back to it right there and then, then I’m happy. I don’t feel a need to be as good as real professionals.”
His pet area is drums. Perfecting the art of playing, recording, and mixing them in the Tame Impala mode is like an addiction. It’s a ’70s revival sound that dovetails perfectly with his Lennon-like vocals and fuzzy guitar. “I do love the idea of getting an awesome drum sound. I spend literally months on them,” he said. “If you tallied up the hours I spent on the drums for this album it would be ridiculous. Probably more time than the vocals.”
And it’s worth it. Each track on a Tame Impala album is treated to a cleverly constructed, and perfectly fitting drum track. His fluid style works because he doesn’t track the drums first, preferring instead to wait for inspiration to strike, rather than committing to rigid rhythmic structure. “I’ll do the drums when I start feeling inspired to do a drum beat,” he said. “If I’ve got the guitar down, and there’s a drum beat playing in my head, then I’ll just go on the drums and try and play along to it until it sounds cool.”
When you’re recording on your own, emulating that feeling you get feeding off the energy of other musicians is the hardest part, especially when you’re trying to track energetic rhythm sections. Though Parker doesn’t bother with elaborate monitor mixes, he just turns it up. “If you’ve got it up loud enough in your headphones then the headphones are going to start distorting, which gives you a kind of natural compression,” said Parker. “But that’s the thing. When you’re in a room with a drum kit, it’s so f**king loud that it doesn’t need to be compressed. The natural sound of a drum kit is so bad ass that it doesn’t need the effects when you track it, you just need to be feeling the groove. You just have to do whatever you can to enjoy what you’re listening to while you’re doing it. If it’s in any way annoying, or you have to endure it, you’re not going to get the most expressive take, which is what it’s all about. So you have to set up your environment so you’re in love with what you’re hearing as often as possible.”
As for how he mics them up, he wouldn’t give too much away. The bulk of it is three mics, though not in any Glyn Johns-style arrangement. It’s basically a Rode K2 valve condenser (given to him by a friend that felt sorry for Parker’s mic collection) as a mono overhead, and Shure SM57s for kick and snare. Where he puts the snare mic, he says, is top secret. And while he draws the ire of engineers for using a 57 for the kick, it achieves exactly what he’s after. Parker: “Our sound guy always says, ‘It’s not a very good mic to use. Are you sure you don’t want to try something else that’s meant for a kick drum?’ But I just love that ‘bop bop’ sound of the kick. I hate the kick drum sound that’s way too clicky.”
As for the K2, he says, “I’m not even sure if you’re meant to use that as an overhead. I think it might be a vocal mic or something. But it works, and at the end of the day, even if you’re doing it wrong, the fact that you’re doing it wrong is going to make it sound different to how everyone else used it, which is ultimately a good thing. If you make it sound different in some way, then it’s going to give it a flavour different to everyone else that’s using the gear as it should be used.”
IF IT’S GOOD, IT’S GOOD
His total disregard for convention is admirable for a guy that’s been recording music since his childhood. You can only have respect for someone that goes completely his own way — technical proficiency be damned — yet still manages to release two of the most stimulating records of recent times. The latest of which, Lonerism, just debuted at #34 on the Billboard charts, #14 in the UK, and #4 in Australia. And he’s not worried about anyone judging him for a perceived lack of technical nous, because “if it sounds good, it sounds good.” Too true.
With all this cosmic mangling of sound and makeshift technique, you’d think Parker would also be allergic to capturing natural sounds. But he doesn’t see it that way. Take the drums. To him, the typical sound of drums in a room is so loud that it’s “bad ass” and already compressed. So, naturally, he uses a lot of compression.
Parker: “Compressors are what make awesome drum sounds. So I have a couple of vintage compressors. One of them is a dbx 165 that’s pretty much responsible for making the drums sound like John Bonham. I got it purely by chance. I bought it just before working on Innerspeaker because I felt like I should get some boxes with knobs on them with the album budget. I thought, ‘alright, I’ll just go on eBay and get a vintage compressor.’ I didn’t even know what I was doing the first time I used it, but I put the drums through it and it sounded pumping, like hip hop — it sounded awesome.”
As for vocals, Parker usually holds on to a Sennheiser 421, and either sits or stands, depending on how his mood grabs him. It’s nice to know too, that even someone who regularly sounds like John Lennon reincarnate, hates his voice on record too: “I usually double track it because I hate the sound of my voice on its own. If I’m still hating it after that I’ll just lob it into the great sea of echo.”
Parker recorded Tame Impala’s first full-length Innerspeaker in a rented mansion entirely on a Boss 16-track digital recorder his dad bought him when he was 16. Not exactly the most spec’d out of interfaces. Fridmann, who has mixed both Tame Impala albums, got in his ear about upgrading after the first album. “I still love them. But Dave was encouraging me to try a more versatile recording format, rather than just a physical multi-track,” said Parker. “I just kept it until someone gave me something else to record with.” That ‘something else’ ended up being a copy of Ableton Live recommended by his friends because it was, ‘full-sick, and you can make electronic music and stuff.’ From the outside, it seems an odd choice of DAW platform for someone that’s mostly recording live psych rock, but Parker started fooling around with it, and fell in love once he realised he “could make Tame Impala music with it”.
He doesn’t delve too deep into Ableton’s onboard synths though, and if he did, they would be treated to the typical Tame process of “putting it through some really crazy things, just to make it sound f**ked up.” For the most part he uses analogue synths,:
“The first one I got was a Sequential Circuits Pro One. There’s a lot of that on the album,” said Parker. “I fell in love with it from the first moment I pressed down a key, and it pretty much kicked off my love of synths. Then I got a Roland Juno 106 and one of those Radioshack synths. I just love the way they have this completely different origin of sound to something like a guitar. After all the effects and everything they can both end up in the same place, but the way the sound is produced makes you think a bit differently about how you’re going to play these chords, this melody, or whatever. They have this laser beam kind of sound that makes me want to cry every time I hear a chord played.”
David Fridmann, also being the custodian of the Flaming Lips and MGMT mixes, is the perfect engineer to harness Tame Impala’s cosmic energy. The issue is finding the balance between creative sonic arrangement and listenability. Parker supplies Fridmann with the tracks in a state that’s “sometimes totally raw, sometimes post-‘me messing with it’.” But he usually knocks up at least a rough mix to give Fridmann an idea of what he’s going for. “I’ll do a mix of the song as best I can with all the weird shit that I’m dreaming about, which is another thing that takes me so much more time than it should,” he said. “I’ll spend weeks and weeks trying to get a good mix of the song that’s not even going to be used. I don’t even know why I do it. I usually give him a drum mix to use, and the individual drums if he wants to poke them in there. He usually replicates it, but in a way that’s so much more dynamic, and with crunch and groove in all the right places. Whatever it is that he’s doing, he makes it sound 10 times better than I ever can. It’s crazy and cosmic, but still listenable.
“When I play it to Dave he says, ‘Alright, cool. But what the f**k is that flange on the whole mix?’ My methods usually aren’t conducive to a ‘pleasant’ sounding mix.
“Sometimes he goes totally rogue and throws in a wild vocal delay that lasts for the rest of the song once it’s set off. The effects and sounds are pretty important to the song. I usually start adding those kinds of things while I’m still writing the song, so they totally influence the evolution of it. For example, about halfway through Mind Mischief, a giant sweeping flanger falls over the whole mix, it’s at this moment that the chords change and it gets really emotional for me. That flanger coming in is just as important to the overall feeling of the song as a new lead melody or any other instrument part coming in.”
SELF TURNED PRODUCER
Ironically, Parker’s production and mixing skills are now sought after by like-minded artists. Particularly for his drum sounds, but obviously also for his incredible ear for what sounds good, and experimental nature. Good friends, Pond, who Parker also plays drums for, have got him turning the knobs. Which could be a very regular gig, seeing as Pond has intentions to release albums every six months for the foreseeable future. And his latest efforts for Melody’s Echo Chamber have so far been highly rated. “Luckily, so far I’ve been really good friends with the people whose music I’ve mixed/produced, so we already have a great communication about music and sounds, and I usually get what they’re trying to do,” said Parker. “And messing with sounds is easily my biggest hobby, so that makes it pretty fun… not having to think artistically and just being the guy with the hands on the knobs and switches.”