King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard are waiting in the bowels of an ice hockey stadium in Vancouver. Guitarist Joey Walker, performance-ready in a black button-up and gold link necklace, paces between white brick rooms before finding the best internet connection to speak to NME – in a toilet cubicle.
We get 28 minutes in the toilet with Walker before a garbled voice comes from the cavernous band room to his left. “Jooooooweeeeeeeeee,” the call goes. The voice pitch-shifts into oblivion, and a phased slide guitar pings like a doorbell.
Walker, apologetically: “I think Stu wants me to stop and do soundcheck.”
With an enthusiastic bandleader on his case, Walker looks over his shoulder often during the chat. Keyboardist Ambrose Kenny-Smith and drummer Michael Cavanagh are in a more relaxed mood when we reach them in the green room an hour later. The Melbourne freak rock sextet are back touring the world again for the first time in three years – a return to centre for the group that, pre-pandemic, played close to 100 shows a year.
“When you’re out on the road, the concept of home is the most bizarre thing. And when you’re at home, you can’t comprehend the notion of being on tour again. It’s a fake life” – Joey Walker
“You don’t wanna go home, which is rare,” Walker says. “When you’re out on the road, the concept of home is the most bizarre, abstract thing. And then when you’re at home, the notion of being on tour again, you can’t comprehend it. It’s a fake life.”
“I’ve been a hermit homebody for the past two years,” Kenny-Smith says. “I’m glad to break out of it.”
There’s a reason NME isn’t speaking to wild-haired singer Stu Mackenzie. In August, King Gizzard cancelled the remaining 13 dates of their UK/EU tour because of a flare-up of the frontman’s Crohn’s Disease.
“He just woke up one day, and was like ‘I gotta go home, right now’,” Kenny-Smith says. “It was pretty scary.” King Gizzard had never called off shows like that before, Walker says. “Stu felt guilty, which he didn’t need to, obviously.”
The band’s North American tour is a breathtaking live comeback for them, even by Gizz standards. In just over a month, they’ll play a headline set at Desert Daze; four marathon three-hour sets, three of them at the picturesque Red Rocks amphitheatre; and a stadium show in New York supported by Black Midi, Leah Senior and Jonathan Toubin. (The photos for this story were taken on a chilly day in St. Paul, Minnesota.)
So it’s understandable Mackenzie is not doing any press while on tour in order to focus on performing. In a statement on Instagram in August, he said he had “always kept my struggles with Crohn’s private… I didn’t want to be defined by it. And maybe I’m not defined by it, but I’m certainly dictated by it. Its looming threat has shaped almost every major decision in my adult life. I think about it and plan for it and around it every day.”
The condition plagued Mackenzie, according to his bandmates, before he even knew what to call it. “You look back on photos of him in the first few years of the band, sometimes he just looked malnourished,” says Kenny-Smith. Walker says 2022’s workload and a poor tour diet had a “cumulative” effect.
The band returned to Melbourne so Mackenzie could receive urgent treatment, but he found it difficult to focus on recovery while their own recording studio was within walking distance.
“He’d be messaging us, ‘Thinking about going into the studio today, you guys want to jam?’,” Kenny-Smith laughs. “Obviously, we did want to jam and we didn’t really want to tell him that he just needed to relax. We were like, ‘Ah man, I think we might chill at home today…crrrrhhh….I think you’re breaking up!’”
“We were trying to tell him, ‘Dude, just chill, watch Lord of the Rings and eat hummus and stuff’,” Cavanagh says.
Mackenzie has apparently recovered well since then (“He crowd-surfed over 20,000 people at Desert Daze, and bruised his ribs!” Kenny-Smith says). And despite the band’s attempts to restrain him, Gizz’s recording output in 2022 has been titanic. This Friday, the group will have released three albums in October – on top of the double album ‘Omnium Gatherum’ and ‘Made In Timeland’ which dropped in March and April respectively. By the year’s end Gizz will have released 23 albums over the past 10 years – excluding innumerable live albums.
Their pandemic output was hardly sporadic either – a lazy three albums, recorded remotely – but King Gizzard have embraced the paroxysm of creativity that can only come from playing music in the same room. Their physical reunion post-lockdown became ‘The Dripping Tap’, the 18-minute acid-prog blowout that opens ‘Omnium Gatherum’.
Mackenzie declared the start of a new era for the band upon its release: their ‘jammy period’.
“There were elements of it early on and it might sound like it, but we weren’t really a jammy band,” Walker says. “If ‘Dripping Tap’ was the product of that style of trying to make music, we were like, ‘Well, how can we justify that and get an album’s worth?”
The answer to that was two albums, both fully improvised: ‘Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava’ and ‘Laminated Denim’. ‘Ice, Death…’ is the centrepiece of this new music-making model. Walker lays it out: “What if we do the seven modes of the major scale, with one per song or whatever, and… the songs are all around 10 minutes. There’s an album, easy!
“Because all the different scales have different timbre, tone and mood, each song has a distinct identity. The work, it’s just done for you, in a way.”
The record was composed in three days, with flute and vocal overdubs added afterward. Mackenzie helmed the sessions like a jazz bandleader, conducting three- to four-hour recordings in a single key with Cavanagh playing to a click track. ‘Laminated Denim’, the sequel to ‘Made In Timeland’, used the same logic for its two 15-minute songs – except the click track was the ticking of an analog clock, allowing them to create polyrhythms that “weave in and out like skiers dancing down a slope”.
Despite the heavier bent of their recent work, ‘Ice, Death…’ sounds the most like the band from 2015’s ‘Quarters’ – jaunty clean guitar, ripsnorting solos, and jazz form. ‘Mycelium’ is the tropical rock tootle ‘Island In The Sun’ wishes it was, ‘Gliese 710’ sees Mackenzie and Kenny-Smith do their best Manzarek-Morrison stomp, but it is highlight ‘Iron Lung’ that exemplifies the progress they’ve made since then.
The song begins with louche vocal turns by Kenny-Smith (“It’s a different kind of cuttlefish, swing and a miss”) over staccato strums, before an agitated flute and noodling guitar rip it apart. It takes a deep breath, then switches into bull-in-a-china-shop distortion while Kenny-Smith yells “every breath is an uphill battle”. The epic then settles back into a final, loungey chorus that sounds like Marty McFly’s apology to the school dance after bringing them a hard rock jam from the future: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet.”
Don’t fall too deeply for the arrangement, though, because King Gizzard can’t exactly reproduce these songs live.
“I spent eight hours trying to learn Joey’s riff in that ‘Ice V’ track, then we started playing and everyone else forgot it too,” Kenny-Smith says.
“One night, ‘Iron Lung’ might be the best thing we’ve ever done. And then the next night, it just won’t land and it’ll be like ‘eh’,” Walker says.
Being King Gizzard, instrumental improvisation wasn’t enough. To take the concept to its logical extreme, all of the lyrics on ‘Ice, Death…’ were written by the whole band minus Cavanagh on a collaborative Google Doc.
“It was like a fucking mini-writing class,” Walker says. “Stu would have an abstract with themes as jumping off points at the top and everyone would contribute based on that.”
Gizz are coy on what those writing prompts were – “it’s kind of fantasy-y shit. I don’t wanna break the fourth wall and dive too much into it,” Walker says – but the result is a glut of beautiful, cosmic nonsense. Free association reigns supreme (“Space shuttle, snail shell / Merry-go-round, conveyor belt,” Ambrose Kenny-Smith spits on ‘Iron Lung’), occasionally interrupted by a lucid resignation to the Earth’s impending destruction (“Melt the ice, reheat the dead, terraform the planet, compress the lungs,” Mackenzie commands on ‘Gliese 710’).
Its best comparison is the babble of The Mars Volta or Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser – pairing absurd words out of a fascination with language rather than meaning. Walker’s contributions were informed by Wilco songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s book How To Write One Song. “He has these little exercises where you pair random subjects, like describing items in a toilet and then going to a different space. It’s cool, freeing your mind from being introspective. Because then you can ascribe meaning to random things.”
‘Changes’, the last of the three records that drops this Friday, is a stark contrast to the ad-lib rock of the first two. It’s a “lost” album by Gizz standards – originally set to be the fifth release of the 2017 “five album year”. Mackenzie says in a statement the record was shelved because they “didn’t have the musical vocabulary” yet to complete it. For a band that has felt limitless for over a decade, what could he mean?
“On a theory level, that album was actually the most complex we’ve ever done,” Walker explains. “Each song has a handful of chords, simple major, minor chords. Instead of being based in a key and moving around chords related to that key, every time we change to a chord, the whole key changes. If anyone’s familiar with John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’, it’s that.”
The intricacy of the composition prevented them from feeling like ‘Changes’ was ever truly finished. Overdubs recorded in hotel rooms, buses and parking lots on tour in 2022 gave it new life. “We just wanted to get it out of our shit and into the ether, and not have to think about it anymore,” Walker says.
The song cycle is delicately rendered and, with crooning vocals and dub organ, the closest thing to a Gizz R&B album we might ever get. The lyrics, written primarily by Mackenzie, are stripped of the Tolkienian imagery typical of the Gizzverse for a more laconic and existential style. Mackenzie asks questions of the planet and humanity: “Is this what we consider changing for the better?”. On ‘Astro Turfin’, he imagines the sterility of a post-nature world: “Six butterflies fluttered by, looked horrified…This is where I will die… I will cry on astroturf”.
“We’re not walking around being shattered about humanity potentially ending. You’d just be really unhappy” – Joey Walker
It’s the most introspective way they’ve ever written about the climate crisis, atypical for the band who claim they’re not doomers despite their apocalyptic bent.
“You can’t help but be pessimistic about it. Because it seems like the hill is too steep now,” Walker says. “But fuck, like, we’re not walking around being shattered about humanity potentially ending. You’d just be really unhappy.”
“It’s constructive, I think. Being playful with it,” Kenny-Smith says.
“Once you get to a certain pedestal, you gotta be preaching with some substance,” Cavanagh adds.
It’s hardly a scoop to tell readers King Gizzard are working on more new music. Two further concept albums in the jam style are planned for the Aussie summer (when Mackenzie is supposedly due to take a break), though nothing has been recorded yet.
“We’re gonna reenter the heavier sides of things. And then in that context, maybe do it an electronic-type of way too,” Walker says.
Are they concerned their relentless pace of recording prioritises quantity over quality?
“Stu makes music insanely fast, without being a perfectionist,” Cavanagh responds. “We make the music and if we’re super pumped on it, it’s ready to be put out.
“Plus, if something is shit and no one likes it, you just put out another one the next month.”
Their insouciant attitude towards perfectionism doesn’t extend to creative control. Mackenzie insists on mixing everything associated with Gizz – their official bootleg programme, which allows anyone to release the band’s music from mastered audio, was partly a ploy to improve the sound quality of bootlegs already being circulated. Mackenzie engaged in a “lot of back and forth” with the producers of Conan in 2017 – their only US late night performance to date – to be allowed to mix the band’s sound.
“[Stu] had half an hour and he had to run into this booth to do it before it went live,” Kenny-Smith recalls. The producers “were pretty off about it,” says Cavanagh. “They were not into it.”
Although it didn’t endear them to American late-night producers, creative control is the bedrock of the King Gizzard philosophy. Before the advent of Flightless Records, and now their own label KGLW, they never signed a recording deal with anyone for more than an album at a time. Mackenzie, Walker, and former drummer Eric Moore all went to university for music industry degrees, but Kenny-Smith says their experience ironically taught them “everything not to do”.
“I was the last to join the band. When I saw these guys play, I knew it was going to be something” – Ambrose Kenny-Smith
“We had a few older friends in bands growing up, you would hear horror stories of them signing contracts really young and being owed heaps of money,” he says. “So many people now go straight to distributor [instead of a label], because it’s so hard to make a decent income.”
“That’s why labels hate us!” Cavanagh laughs.
“They think we should stop piss-farting around, setting a bad example,” Kenny-Smith says. Unprompted, he suddenly turns sincere.
“I was the last to join the band. When I saw these guys play, I knew it was going to be something,” he says. Cavanagh starts laughing, but Kenny-Smith doesn’t join in.
“Really?” Cavanagh giggles.
“I knew it was going to do something. I knew 100 per cent.”
“… Did you actually?”
“Yeah! I remember standing there with Jamie Harmer [of Flightless band Orb] and we were talking about it when you were playing ‘Eddie Cousin’. We were all in these bands at the time and everyone was trying to be like Bob Dylan. Everyone wanted to be this 16-year-old bohemian singer-songwriter, all very mature,” Kenny-Smith continues.
“Stu just came out of nowhere, playing three chords and everyone was going crazy! It had the energy, the thing everyone was lacking. It’s hard to grasp, unless you’ve seen it in the flesh.”
Cavanagh ponders that for a second.
“At least that’s what you thought when you were young.”
“I still do.”
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s ‘Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava’ and ‘Laminated Denim’ are out now via KGLW. ‘Changes’ drops this Friday. They tour Australia in December and return to the EU and UK in March 2023. Get your copy of NME Australia with King Gizzard on the cover here