This one is pretty exciting. Had the chance to interview the incredible Kevin Parker, aka Tame Impala. We talk about synths, making music and more, below.
Synth History: What got you into synthesizers?
Kevin: That’s a good question. You'd think I'd have thought of that answer by now for this interview. I think it's a few different occurrences in my life. I spent my formative years in music in a share house, playing mainly rock-based music, psych-rock, it was all kind of guitar driven. I started out my career with that kind of anti-synthesizers mentality. It took me a while to embrace them. I liked to think that whatever sound you could get with synthesizers, you could get using a guitar. I kind of got off on making sounds that you couldn't tell were a guitar, that sounded like a synth.
But there was one time where I was at a friend's studio and they had a Sequential Circuits Pro One. I must have leaned on it or something and I hit a key (laughs). It’s a monophonic synth and was set to portamento, I'd just hit a few keys and it had this gliding sawtooth sound. I just thought it sounded incredible, you know? The Pro One to this day is still one of my favorite synths. I guess just because of that reason, because of that time. It had this sound that I just fell in love with. It sounded like crying in outer space. I went straight to eBay and bought one. Didn’t have a lot of money, but managed to get one.
Synth History: Any other first synths?
Kevin: A little Casio keyboard that I basically inherited. My dad had this little Casio, which I’ve had forever. I mean, that’s technically a synth but it wasn’t like ‘a synth’. Once I started playing the Pro One, I was obsessed. The first few things that I wrote on that ended up being songs on Lonerism. That album, my second album, was basically the sound of me discovering synths. I didn't go crazy, but all the synths kind of define the sound of whatever song they're on.
Synth History: Any particular music that got you into synthesizers?
Kevin: Getting into Air was the first time that I appreciated synthesizers as something that could be part of a craft, rather than synths being a sort of tool to get the most laser-beam-like present sound. I always just appreciated Air for having all these amazingly lush sounds. I guess, as me being a sort of young, ignorant stoner-rocker, I never really associated synths with “lush”. That kind of changed it for me.
Synth History: What are your current go-to’s in the studio?
Kevin: I try not to have a go-to. I've got a rack of keyboards close to where I sit and whatever is on that rack gets used. If I have to think too much about what synth I have to use for a part I’m recording, then the inspiration is gone. It's part laziness, but also momentum in the studio is so important for me. If I lose momentum, then we’re done for the day.
Synth History: What do you think of drum machines?
Kevin: I love them. I actually got my mind blown recently when someone sent me this video of how they programmed the drums on Thriller. I always just assumed it was a Linn Drum, but it was a modded Linn Drum. I don't know if you saw this, but they had swapped out the chips inside the Linn Drum with different sounds, 808 sounds and stuff. It really just tripped me out because it's kind of like the equivalent of someone throwing drum samples into a drum sampler on a computer or MPC. It was basically what they did in the early 80s. But yeah, I’ve always loved drum machines, they’re simple but they’ve got instant character. If you play one of those iconic drum machines you know exactly what it is. They’ve got their own personality. It's a different world from real drums but the two have their place.
Synth History: Do you have a general approach to song-writing or is it always changing?
Kevin: It always changes. I’d get bored if I did it the same way every time. I love the idea of approaching a song not knowing how it’s going to start. Usually I like to have an idea, a motif, something I sang in my head when I was waking up or falling asleep. It’s always changing.
Synth History: Any preference for analog or digital synthesizers?
Kevin: Well, as I said, whatever is closest to me is what I end up using. I love analog synths, it’s a whole experience, but I'll never argue that they sound better than a digital clone. It's all about the process. The process of using an old synth just sort of makes you feel a certain way and that leads you to different things for better or for worse. Digital synths have their place, too. I use VSTs. I fucking love my Korg Kronos. I think it's one of the greatest keyboards ever made. The Kronos is amazing because it has every sound you can think of. You want flutes? There you go. What sort of flute do you want?
Synth History: If you could transport in time to any decade for one day only, which would it be and why?
Kevin: I guess I’d have to go with the seventies... or maybe just go all the way to the sixties, fuck it. The sixties seems like it would have been the most fun… but, I think the idea of the sixties is probably better than the sixties actually was, if that makes sense.
So actually, I’m going to go with the seventies. Bee Gees going around, disco starting out. I think that would be pretty exciting. So yeah, let's go to the seventies for a day.
Synth History: Do you have any favorite memories recording in the studio?
Kevin: So many. All my greatest memories and musical discoveries have been made - just me, alone in a room, late at night (laughs), but they’ve been magical times. When I'm deep in the zone, it's like I'm in a room full of people, but it's all just me.
Synth History: Do you prefer working on music during the day or at night?
Kevin: I think I'm one of those people whose brain switches on at night. I've always been more creative at night and I don’t know what it is. Maybe it's because the world is asleep. Obviously, on the other side of the world, it's the middle of the day. But there's something about night time, my brain turns on, comes alive, ideas are just amplified or something. The day is cluttered. There’s so much going on during the day.
Synth History: Do you have any tips for overcoming writer’s block?
Kevin: Someone asked me that the other day. The cliché answer is take a break, step away. But I also
understand that doesn't always work. I guess, think of all the things that inspire you, maybe that's overlooked. Go to a place in your mind.
It’s just that, sometimes you're inspired and sometimes you’re not. I hate using the word inspired, because it's this go-to word in the world of creativity, “Are you inspired?” It just seems like there's such a weight placed on that word. But to me, inspiration is crucial. If you're not inspired, then whatever you're making is not going to be good. Being inspired can have many meanings and it means something different for everyone. To me, it's just a feeling. It’s a feeling where a desire to make something overpowers everything else. You just want to do it because you want to do it, not because you want to be successful, or famous, or rich, or because you want to show everyone how good you are. You just want to do it. You have that urge. I think writer's block is just about rediscovering that urge.
It can be listening to some artist that you haven’t listened to in a long time. Someone sent me a Daft Punk song the other day. I was like “Oh, that’s good.” It just makes me want to go into the studio right now.
Synth History: Do you think there is anything synths can add to a song that other instruments cannot?
Kevin: Officially, my answer is nothing, because everything can add something that something else can, you just have to find another way there. My knee jerk response is an ethereal quality, but you can get there with guitars. That’s a big part of my approach and philosophy in music. You don't need something to get something, you can get there some other way. You just have to look.
Synth History Exclusive.
Interview conducted by Danz.
Photos by Kate Green.