“We’ve been busy… I think?”
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard guitarist Joey Walker is underselling the freak rock band’s pandemic pivot – a year’s output that (so far) includes two concert films, two live albums, four soundboard show recordings slash charity fundraisers, and now their 16th studio album, ‘K.G.’. He’s speaking to NME on Zoom from his home studio – a prim, soundproofed room with a bookshelf peppered with Penguin classics, and a print of Henri Matisse’s 1910 painting Dance, a once-controversial ode to ecstatic bacchanalia.
The fine art is a far cry from the six-piece’s lysergic tour posters, usually made by Jason Galea, and Walker’s listening habits reflect this band-divergent attitude – he says he doesn’t listen to “rock music”, preferring techno, house and “I’m gonna sound like a fuckin’ wanker, but jazz and all that dumbass shit”.
Staring down the void left by Gizz’s cancelled tours this year, Walker sank thousands of dollars (“more than I’ve ever spent on any musical instrument”) into learning modular synthesis. He swivels his webcam around to show NME the mess of wires that he’s “just constantly fucking fiddling with”.
That feverishness extends to the guitarist’s personality, who in conversation darts between ideas like a moth flitting from bulb to bulb. “My disposition is more traditional, neurotic and shattered as a musician. I question everything,” Walker says.
“There’s definitely a social tip to the Gizz thing… We try to bury it in metaphor and other shit”
The room he sits in was one of six home studios in which Gizz recorded ‘K.G.’, thanks to Melbourne’s punishingly strict lockdown. Forced individual home recording scuttled an initial plan to develop the album out of live jams, exploring elements of Afrobeat with acoustic microtonal instruments. Walker and scraggly-haired frontman Stu Mackenzie both had cushy spaces in which the band had previously begun or finished material, but the others didn’t.
“It was definitely a challenge for them,” Walker says. “Cavs [drummer Michael Cavanagh], he’d always had to rely on Stu or myself to record him because he didn’t have the know-how. Forced isolation meant he got a studio going, worked out Ableton and started from zero, recording his drums. You can kind of hear it on the album – there are some songs where the drum takes are a bit ‘how-you-goin’, at least sonically.”
‘K.G.’ is subtitled ‘Explorations Into Microtonal Tuning, Volume 2’ – marking it as a sonic sequel to their first experiment with the notes between the notes, 2017’s ‘Flying Microtonal Banana’. The major change on the new record is the use of acoustic microtonal instruments (“just shitty acoustic guitars with modded frets”) on several songs, bending the record closer to its Turkish and Middle Eastern antecedents. But Walker is careful not to identify any specific point of reference.
“We actively don’t look too much to the microtonal world for reference, because I feel like then it would just be the same as that. At least to us, it’s not as interesting. It’s about using [microtones] as a tool to make music that you would already make,” he explains.
Indeed, the result sounds more like the band aggregating their work of the last five years – polymetric rhythms, hard rock, funk and folk – rather than disappearing down a new stylistic hole. The guitarist is responsible for the album’s only step into truly foreign territory: ‘Intrasport’, a “dirty Bollywood” banger Walker fiddled into existence during the early weeks of March. He acknowledges that to some fans, this lack of reinvention is technically a disappointment.
“If we don’t do something different, people are like, ‘What are you doing?’ But that’s always gonna happen, which is cool. It’s cool how divisive Gizz is,” Walker says.
The band’s lyrics have also undergone a subtle shift. The sci-fi apocalypse at the core of their earlier music (think ‘Murder Of The Universe’) has slowly morphed into our real, multi-faceted armageddon: the climate crisis, ongoing impacts of colonisation, and now a global pandemic (“I think you can draw a line through those,” Walker says). It first became more apparent on 2019’s ‘Infest The Rat’s Nest’, which paired thrashy aggression with doom-laden warnings about rising temperatures.
But 2020’s downward force brings the band’s social consciousness to the forefront of ‘K.G.’: Walker’s own ‘Minimum Brain Size’, written following the Christchurch shootings, excoriates the right-wing radicalisation of men on the internet; keyboardist Ambrose Kenny Smith’s goofy ‘Straws In The Wind’ is a self-described ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ (“Straws in the wind, is it all ending?… I can hear hell’s kitchen and they’re singing hymns”).
“There’s definitely a social tip to the Gizz thing, and obviously climate change is a big part of it,” Walker says. “We try not to be too didactic in how we go about it, though there probably are times where it [could] be. We try to bury it in metaphor and other shit.”
“Part of me thinks it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. And part of me thinks it’s the worst”
A glance at the band’s dedicated fan pages on Facebook and Reddit (populated by a total of 74,000 users) would suggest the metaphors have the desired obfuscating effect – it’s the science fiction “Gizzverse” fans tend to dissect, not so much the sociopolitical substance.
Gizz fans have earned comparisons to The Grateful Dead’s for their similar breathless devotion to the band’s prolificacy and relentless touring. The combination of both those things, Walker says, “creates two parallel universes whereby a fan of King Gizzard can like and love studio records – or not. For the nots, the notion of us as a live band is a completely different story”.
The band mythologised their own love of the road twice this year – once in the immersive concert film Chunky Shrapnel, and on ‘K.G.’’s ‘Oddlife’: “No concept of geography / I wake up and I’m still fatigued / I’m drinking ’til I’m dead asleep”. But inevitable burnout claimed its first victim this year in second drummer and manager Eric Moore, who stepped away from the band in August to focus on their label Flightless Records. Though vague on the details when pressed, Walker says it was “definitely a group decision” that had actually been made in late 2019.
“It was just the endpoint of a really good conversation we all had,” he says. “[Eric] felt like he was wearing too many hats. Who knows what will happen in the future or whatever. I think he felt that he needed to focus on less than three things that were directly related, but also cancel each other out in a weird way.”
Closing in on their 10th anniversary, the band had previously decided 2020 would mark a final touring push before committing to a couple of years of studio work – but because of the pandemic, they’re calling this year their “hiatus”. Yes, really. The Gizzard machine, as Walker calls it, will have a “big year of output” in 2021 – even by their standards – with what the guitarist believes will be their most divisive music yet.
“Part of me thinks it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. And part of me thinks it’s the worst,” he laughs.
Walker won’t dish on the details, though he uses 2020’s de facto word of the year to describe the material: unprecedented. A spiritual sequel to Chunky Shrapnel is also planned, set to present new versions of forthcoming material: “Everything’s been done in terms of a music documentary and live albums or whatever it’s going to be, but there’s a certain distilled thing we’re trying for that we really haven’t seen.”
Not everyone might love King Gizzard’s music, but the band’s work ethic – and their penchant to laugh in the face of the modern music industry’s highly ritualised album cycle – commands grudging respect. Theirs is an ethos that wouldn’t die with the project, even if the Gizzard machine broke underneath the weight of its own output.
“The sheer fact that we wanted to put out heaps of music meant that we just didn’t work for heaps of people. Labels didn’t want to touch us. And if they did, they would try and put their label-y thing on it. We just operate outside of that,” Walker declares.
“If Gizzard stopped tomorrow, each of us would just make music ourselves the very next day. It’s a full-time job, in a dope way.”
King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s ‘K.G.’ and ‘Live in San Francisco ’16’ are out now