How Tame Impala help fuel the hipster counter-culture

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Teenagers today seem to have an ever-growing infatuation with reliving a time in which they never lived.

Hipsters roam our streets wearing their grandparents clothes, searching op shops for loafers and high-waisted jeans and the outcome is a generation that is simply copycatting the ones before it. They’re 70s kids with iPhones, Instagramming and Facebooking their rad new style and the coolest indie bands. And yes, it would seem that the term indie has taken a new meaning among this counterculture of youth. What used to be a word to describe bands signed to Independent record labels is now used as an all-rounder, a kind-of word to describe anything and everything associated with this new breed of teenagers. Any band with an old school vibe is categorized as indie, even though many of these bands are signed to major record labels. Tame Impala are one of the biggest indie bands to recently hit the Triple J scene, their psychedelic sound can be linked to their use of retro instrumentation and is a major part of why they have been so successful. They reflect a time before their own, and in turn, sparked a return of the psychedelic hippy revolution of the 60s and 70s.

The song Apocalypse Dreams features on Tame Impala’s second record Lonerism. It is an intense fusion of floating synths, muddy bass lines, scratchy piano riffs and droning vocals, immediately concurring images of swirling colours and drugged-up hippies. How though, one might ask, does Tame Impala manage to create seemingly old school music in a modern day setting? Sure they wear 70s style clothing and use retro swirls of colour and film photo-shoots on their album artwork, but aside from these paramusical aspects, how does the actual music reflect a time before its own, and how does this, in turn, help fuel the ever-growing counterculture of the hipsters? The answer can be found when listening to the music from an analytical perspective and divulging into the eyes of a musicologist.

The song begins with an out-of-tune piano playing the main chord progression with the basic drum kit essentially only playing on the beat and the funky bass is sitting low, blending in with a muddy tone. The overall sound is muffled, cloudy and indistinct, giving the impression that it is being played through a well-used record player. The droning vocals begin and half way through the first verse a familiar instrument is used to play a four-note melody. The whining instrument is known as a mellotron, an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard and has been made famous for its use in the 60s and 70s by band such as The Beatles (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds  and Strawberry Fields Forever), David Bowie (Space Oddity) and Jefferson Airplane (Never Argue with a German if you’re Tired or European Song). The mellotron parts in these songs are all relatively simple and so is the case in Apocalypse Dreams. Its sound is automatically associated with alternative bands of the 60s and 70s because of its consistent use throughout these times. This is just one example of how Tame Impala reflect the music of the hippie era.

Many floating sounds and instruments also decorate the song, however a more prominent feature, is the piano stabs that are first heard during the first verse. They are extremely muffled and sound slightly out of tune, again, sparking a subconscious connotation to retro music. The chords themselves are fairly simple; they are played as staccato quavers and follow the main chord structure of the song. However it is neither the chords nor the rhythm that make this feature sonically interesting. The effects used on the piano part make it sound out of tune and cloudy, as though recorded decades ago. Many modern day artists use this technique to add a vintage element to their music. Lisa Mitchell’s Love Letter begins with a piano melody, which uses a muffled tone, and slightly modulated notes, giving it an extremely melancholy feel and Hey Jude by The Beatles is a prime example of the type of sound they are relating to. By producing their instruments in a way that makes them sound as though they are being played on analogue formats, indie bands such as Tame Impala and Lisa Mitchell achieve this.

Hipsters and indie bands are a product of a time already past, and their paramusical aspects such as clothing, album artwork, film clips and music venues reflect this. To outsiders, members of the hipster counterculture look like dirty, cheap teenagers that haven’t showered for weeks. The truth, however is that this is precisely the look they are going for. The tighter the jeans, the messier the hair, the more buttons done up the better. Girls are bringing back overalls and their grandmother’s sundresses while hipster guys seem to be playing a giant game of who can find the ugliest button up shirt. And as the world’s music industry slowly diminishes as illegal downloading becomes socially accepted, hipsters hold on tight to those last few venues where our parents used to hang, such as the Espy (VIC), Prince of Wales (VIC) and The Enmore Theatre (NSW) but with the music festival market growing as rapidly as it is, events likes Splendour in the Grass, Pyramid Rock and Falls Festival are embedded into the hipster culture.

Tame Impala are highly influenced by the hippie culture when it comes to their artwork and film clips. Lonerism, Tame Impala’s second album features an old film print of a Paris zoo. The photo is taken from behind animal bars, reiterating the isolated theme of the album. The use of the old film photo only further reflects their retro, psychedelic sound. Although Apocalypse Dreams does not have its own film clip, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards does. Another single of the Lonerism record, the film clip for Feels Like We Only Go Backwards features surrealistic swirls of moving colour, similar to that seen in Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit film clip. This is yet another reference to the drug influenced culture they are reflecting.

Tame Impala have built their success on a counterculture dedicated to reliving a time that came before them. By using similar instrumentation and using production techniques to give their songs a vintage feel, they have recreated and re-invented psychedelic music of the 60s and 70s and helped spark a generation of indie kids and hipsters in today’s society.

 

4 Comments

  • Reply March 20, 2014

    Marco

    “Lonerism, Tame Impala’s second album features an old film print of a Paris zoo. The photo is taken from behind animal bars, reiterating the isolated theme of the album. The use of the old film photo only further reflects their retro, psychedelic sound”.

    THIS IS WRONG: Lonerism features a vintage image of the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris (which is a public park and not a zoo).

    • Reply March 21, 2014

      Samantha Morris

      Thanks for the correction Marco. Appreciated.

  • Reply November 17, 2014

    Elmir

    I stopped reading the article as soon as you mentioned David Bowie- Space Oddessy. It’s Space Oddity you dumbass

    • Reply November 18, 2014

      Samantha Morris

      Oh dear. How terribly embarrassing. Thanks for alerting us Elmir. That story’s been online more than a year and no-one else let us know. It’s been updated now.

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