“I feel like a lot of like my day-to-day existence is just trying to mitigate the anxiety that comes with being creative for a job,” begins Stu Mackenzie of psych-rock chameleons King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard. “Because it’s just a weird, unnatural thing to do. I try very hard to not make the best song I’ve ever made; it’s just too scary to me.”
Although working as a fairly autonomous group, the ’Gizz have a King: Mackenzie. He’s been poking his reptilian tongue out front as chief songwriter, vocalist and lead guitarist since they formed in 2010, all while chipping in on bass, keyboards, sitar and the flute, an instrument he taught himself for their acoustic record ‘Paper Mâché Dream Balloon’.
That was their seventh album in three years. That number has since come to an astonishing 18 with the release of the group’s latest ‘Butterfly 3000’, written and recorded during a global pandemic. That makes for a substantial oeuvre that must be nearly impossible to block from Mackenzie’s rear-view mirror.
King Gizzard started off as a ragtag bunch of mates from Deniliquin, Melbourne and Geelong who were asked to play a set at a party. They had to come up with a name on the spot. Mackenzie wanted Gizzard Gizzard, while another was fond of Jim Morrison’s nickname The Lizard King. They compromised.
From there, the band went on a tear that hasn’t let up. You name it, they’ve slayed it: Glastonbury, Fuji Rock, Meredith Music Festival (twice), even their own annual event, Gizzfest.
The outfit’s career path almost sounds like a dare. Stylistically, they’ve released ‘Eyes Like the Sky’, a spaghetti western audiobook; ‘Quarters’, containing four songs exactly 10 minutes 10 seconds long; and ‘Nonagon Infinity’, an infinitely looping album. King Gizzard may look like afterparty stayers but are more likely to flock to a studio for a late-night recording session.
Now their shepherd is all grown up. Last year, Mackenzie joint-released a side project with his wife: “We had a baby girl, her name is Araminta,” he says over Zoom, his high cheekbones jutting even higher as he spells out her name slowly. “We call her Minty. She’s our hairless kitten, we already have two cats Gandalf and Gideon.”
“I was a drummer before I was a singer and I love the primal energy of dancing”
The COVID-19 enforced lockdowns sucked on many levels for King Gizzard, who are one of Australia’s hardest touring bands. But they also managed to start and finish a bunch of projects while the world grappled with the coronavirus. They released ‘Chunky Shrapnel’, a hectic concert film shot by director John Angus Stewart with a handheld 16mm camera throughout Europe. They swapped song ideas through the internet and made two sister albums, ‘K.G.’ and ‘L.W.’ Both were microtonal records in the footsteps of 2017’s ‘Flying Microtonal Banana’.
The fifth thing they produced in this unsettling period (we’re including Minty) was ‘Butterfly 3000’, based on Mackenzie’s polymetric arpeggio demos. “These songs were made at, like, two in the morning looping a synth line in my bedroom using analogue stuff then I recorded with Ableton,” he says.
‘Butterfly 3000’ is the closest they’ve made to an all-out electronic dancefloor record; think Death From Above 1979 jamming to DFA Records barn-burners on a dreamy acid trip.
“I think of a lot of ’Gizz music as dance music, whether it’s ‘dance music’, or music that’s made to move your body to,” Mackenzie says, “And I think certain records we’ve made to dance in a certain space like maybe a mosh pit. I was a drummer before I was a singer and I love the primal energy of dancing. I’m a sucker for a boozy dancefloor.”
“I try very hard to not make the best song I’ve ever made; it’s just too scary to me”
‘Butterfly 3000’ happened while they were busy making other plans. “We wrote a couple of song in major key vibes and we knew it wouldn’t work on ‘Chunky Shrapnel’, which we were putting together. We had the song ‘Dreams’, a synth pop thing that was clearly wrong for it.
“We just accidentally made this music that felt like it warranted its own project. And ‘Shanghai’ came then ‘Black Hot Soup’ and ‘Ya Love’, and it felt like enough to hold a record and we should explore this concept super deeply.”
For the uninitiated, it can be intimidating to find an entry point to King Gizzard. ‘Butterfly 3000’ makes for an ideal starter, a torso-hijacking suite of 10 undulating boogies that do all the work for you.
‘Yours’ opens the album with a melodic come-hither synth line and then a rhythm section that scurries up like a dog greeting its owner. “It needed to feel bright and welcoming and warm because we’ve made a lot of dark records. We’ve made a lot of scary ones,” Mackenzie smirks.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have always been about the music, their personalities and private lives tangential, at best, to the band’s story. But the birth of Minty figured greatly in the making of their 18th studio album. “I definitely felt like I was in a cocoon before Minty was born,” Mackenzie says.
“A butterfly is just a beautifully easy, metaphorical creature with this bizarre and interesting life cycle,” he adds, miming one taking flight. “That was the central motif for the whole record. And we tried to use it in every song.”
That even applies to ‘Shanghai’, inspired by the time the band “ate hotpot and went insane” in the Chinese city. “We had actual fights with each other on the street, it was some kind of enlightening out of body experience where you, like, wake up the next morning, ‘Oh, I’ve changed, I’ve become a butterfly today’,” Mackenzie says, wide-eyed.
On ‘Butterfly 3000’, Mackenzie was wary of heavy-handed climate change messaging after 2019’s ‘Planet B’ where he gnashed: “Only way through is colonisation / Acclimatisation / Population exodus / Monetisation.”
But Mackenzie did have anxiety he needed to mitigate: hence, a song ostensibly about ice caps melting titled ‘2.02 Killer Year’.
“This is one of the songs on the record that does have some form of a darker side to it,” he says. “I mean, there’s a lot of deeply anxious lyrics on this record but generally what we were trying to do was make something that felt good.”
Mackenzie sings: “It’s coming up Beach Boys / The weather’s getting messed about / You better bring boards down / The waves are bigger than a house.”
He explains: “I wanted to do a satirical thing where, y’know, I’m singing about global warming, the tides are rising. Right, let’s all go surfing!”
If in doubt, paddle out.
“Exactly… just the absurdity of that.”
After what felt an age between gigs, King Gizzard were picked to headline the Play On Victoria show at Sidney Myer Music Bowl in October that celebrated the return of live music.
“That show felt surreal, it really did, it was so… normal,” he says, tilting his head. “It felt like five minutes had passed, but also 500 years simultaneously. I cried walking off stage – just a little bit.”
Now they’ve announced a loosey goosey New Year’s Festival in regional Victoria, King Gizzard’s Timeland, where they’ll play four sets in six hours. Then it’s on to 2022, when they’ll release their first-ever remix album ‘Butterfly 3001’ and start another madcap world tour, stopping at Lollapalooza Argentina and Brazil, Shaky Knees in US and All Together Now in Ireland.
“We love touring so much, these shows will be a release of adrenaline,” Mackenzie declares. “Burst the bubble of frustration. Do the thing we do. Full tilt. Bring it on.”
King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard’s ‘Butterfly 3001’ drops January 21 via KGLW. Find the band’s 2022 world tour dates here