Ambrose Kenny-Smith on the new Murlocs album: “I see a lot of ‘Rapscallion’ in me”

The Melbourne garage rockers have released “a coming-of-age novel in an album form” – their lead vocalist talks to NME about writing to a concept, double-hatting with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and more

Today (September 16), The Murlocs have released their sixth studio album ‘Rapscallion’.

Coming just a year after their last album ‘Bittersweet Demons’, the 12-track effort marks a significant creative departure for the Melbourne-based five-piece. Not only have the band members pushed themselves to their instrumental limits, they’re also following a linear conceptual story across an album for the first time – it’s “a coming-of-age novel in an album form, populated by an outrageous cast of misfit characters,” as they’ve described it.

Ahead of its release, NME spoke with lead vocalist Ambrose Kenny-Smith about his own upbringing, double-hatting with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and how following in his dad’s footsteps was actually an act of rebellion.

“When it came time for ‘Rapscallion’, I still wanted it to be somewhat personal but I was also like, ‘no-one’s gonna want to hear about my boring life in lockdown and not being able to buy toilet paper’”

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How did you and Cook Craig find time to make this record in between the five other albums that you’re putting out this year?

“I really don’t even know sometimes. [laughs] This one was pretty much done by mid-2020. We finished ‘Bittersweet Demons’, and we were mixing it while in the first Melbourne lockdown, so we just started working on the next thing. We’ve got a lot backed up now, because we’ve all had two years of not touring or doing anything else other than just making music.”

Was it imperative that if you were going to make another one straight after finishing an album, you should switch it up and try to do something different?

“Yeah, I guess. For years, The Murlocs have always been working with time constraints in-between. We’re generally able to get together for long enough to figure out what kind of album we want to make. Since the pandemic happened, it was a bit of a blessing in disguise for creativity because we were able to sit down for a minute and think about what the next album was going to be.

“I think that’s also just come with being more prepared and wanting things to be more concise. I think up until ‘Bittersweet Demons’, pretty much all our records have been kind of slapped together – just songs that we’ve had kicking around. There hasn’t really been that much like thought gone into it – just whatever’s coming out of the brain at the time. I think now we’re getting to that point where we need to try and think about how we can change it up and make it more interesting. Mainly just for ourselves, really – the satisfaction of having something that’s a step forward rather than a step back, or just in the same spot.”

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King Gizzard has always been a band heavily focused on concepts, and this new Murlocs record is billed as a start-to-finish concept record. Were there concerns for you and Cook in particular in terms of crossing the streams a little bit? By your own admission, The Murlocs has been a bit more freeform and loose – essentially a chance to work outside of those confines, as it were.

“I think with The Murlocs, it’s always been a bit more casual. That said, I’ve always liked the opportunity within the band to write from my own view and my own perspective. That, to me, has always been what’s made it different to any of my other bands or projects. In the past I’ve been very personal in writing songs for The Murlocs about family members and my friends – things that are very close to home. When it came time for ‘Rapscallion’, I still wanted it to be somewhat personal but I was also like, ‘no-one’s gonna want to hear about my boring life in lockdown and not being able to buy toilet paper’. [laughs] I was kind of forced into coming up with this concept, and it was a really therapeutic way to escape the real world at the time.”

How much of the protagonist in ‘Rapscallion’ is reflective of you, and how much is reflective of simply trying to tell a good story?

“I would say it’s 50/50. I feel like I related to the character in many ways as I was writing it. I just dove into this idea of the coming-of-age story, making it reflective of mine and Cal [Shortal, guitarist]’s youth growing up along the Victorian coast as well as here in Melbourne. I was giggling to myself a lot of the time when I was writing the lyrics, just reminiscing and taking the rough stories of each song to a more extreme level.

“I think up until ‘Bittersweet Demons’, pretty much all our records have been kind of slapped together – just songs that we’ve had kicking around”

“Being into skateboarding and stuff like that from a young age, you do feel like a bit of an outcast. You’ve got your own world that you’re creating around yourself, and at that age no-one else really understands. The character, he’s trying to escape that and trying to get to the city. That was definitely me – I was always trying to get out the door and get on a bus or a train into Melbourne. I’d even hitchhike – whatever I could do to just make it to where I was going, just chasing those experiences. I was obsessed with that.

“He’s dodging ticket inspectors, he’s getting picked up by some weird truckie, having these run-ins with the law and with these bigots that just want to make your life difficult. I’ve had friends die from overdoses and things like that, so it’s all quite reflective in a way. I feel like I lived a lot of the did a lot of things and lived a lot by the time I was 18, y’know? I see a lot of ‘Rapscallion’ in me.”

It’s interesting that the album is focused on a teenager acting out and rebelling, considering you have followed the same career path as your dad, Broderick Smith of The Dingoes. When you were growing up, did you ever have plans to get into something like accounting just to stay out of the family business to spite him?

“It sort of had the reverse effect, because he never really supported me playing music too much at the start. He was a bit reluctant to get me too interested in it, because he actually did want me to be a doctor or lawyer or something stable. When my parents were splitting up, when I was around like seven or eight, in my head I was like, ‘if I start showing attention to what he does, maybe we’ll have more to connect with as I get older’. I just wanted to have an excuse to spend more time with him, because he would go away a fair bit on tour.

“[My dad] was a bit reluctant to get me too interested in it, because he actually did want me to be a doctor or lawyer or something stable.”

“I’d ask him to teach me the harmonica a bit, and he would teach me a few things. ‘Once you learn to bend a note, you’ll be fine’, he’d say. I had that extra drive and determination to show him that I could do it as well. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was in my early 20s, when Gizz and The Murlocs started picking up some momentum. Up until then, I was skateboarding a lot. I was actually even sponsored, and I really wanted to go pro. I was starting to get older, though, the music stuff just started taking off. I finished high school not knowing what I wanted to do. I just wanted to keep playing gigs and skating and hanging out with my friends. I’m lucky I got to extend that into my career.”

The Murlocs are about to head to North America to tour behind ‘Rapscallion’, which will include dates where you’re opening for King Gizzard. What are double-set shows like for you?

“Pretty intense. A lot harder as I get older, too. I’m also terrified of the Red Rocks gig, because Gizz are set to play for three hours. So I open the show, get a little break, and then bam: Three hours. It’s definitely hard work, but the reward is always worth it in the end. I like to push myself.”

On the note of pushing yourself: How is Stu Mackenzie from King Gizzard doing after the band had to cancel the European tour on account of his health?

“He can’t stop, as we all know. He’s a workaholic. We’ve been back in the studio the last two weeks. We were kind of dodging him for a little bit there, just hoping he would stay in bed and watch Lord of the Rings and not do anything. That didn’t last long. [laughs] I’ve talked to him on the phone. He said that his health is slowly getting there. It’s a long road to to be fully on top of it, but his brain obviously won’t shut off. He’s been trying to keep fit and healthy, so he’s in a good state of mind and body for the tour. It’s looking like it’s going to be all good.”

‘Rapscallion’ is out now via Virgin Australia. The Murlocs tour North America with King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Leah Senior and Grace Cummings in October through December

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