Stu Mackenzie, the singer and guitarist at the head of Australian psychedelic rockers King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, shudders when he thinks back to the global events of 2020 that brought the planet to a standstill.
“Your whole existence is called into question when something like this happens,” he says from his home in Melbourne. “It was an existential threat, because it was like, ‘What is my purpose if not to go play music for other human beings?’”
Given the prolific nature of the band – they’d released a total of 15 albums in the seven years since their 2012 debut, 12 Bar Bruise – it’s hard not to sympathise with their predicament. But King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard are nothing if not hardy souls and so, despite Melbourne experiencing some of the toughest lockdown restrictions in the world, they set about overcoming the dilemma of not being able to make music together.
Harnessing the power of digital communication, the band met daily via Zoom to exchange ideas, riffs and concepts to “make a record, which sounded like a live band, because that was the thing that we couldn’t do”. Of course, this being King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, the band remotely made an eyebrow-raising two albums in the shape of KG (2020) and LW the following year and, in the process, upped their studio skills.
“It was like, ‘How do we record a drum kit and make it sound like there’s other instruments in the room, and we actually jammed and played together?’” says Mackenzie. “In trying to do that, we actually had a lot of fun writing songs, and came up with a lot of things that were happy accidents.” He adds: “I mean, this is all I’ve known how to ever do and I just love making music; I love recording music and I love touring. I really, really do.”
Mackenzie’s – and, by extension, the rest of the band – love of his craft has come into full evidence once again. With the group reunited at last, their flurry of creative activity and continual desire to keep moving forward saw them releasing no fewer than five – count ’em - albums by the end of last year and more are planned. Made In Timeland – originally envisaged as intermission music during their increasingly marathon shows and developed into two 15-minute tracks of electronic influences harnessed by a 60bpm tempo – was followed a month after its March release by the full-length Ominum Gatherum, an album that jettisoned King Gizzard’s usual conceptual modus operandi to jump around a variety of genres including psychedelia, prog, krautrock and funk, thus making it an excellent entry point for neophytes.
Total Guitar magazine hailed Ominum Gatherum track The Dripping Tap – an 18min+ psychedelic guitar freakout – as their track of the year.
But they were only just getting started. Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms And Lava takes its cues from Can’s cut-up studio techniques gleaned from extended jams and sonic explorations, while Changes – a project that’s taken them almost five years to complete – finds the band basing every song around the same chord changes while oscillating between two very different scales. Oh, and then there was Laminated Denim, which eagle-eyed readers will spot as being an anagram of Made In Timeland.
And out now is PetroDragonic Apocalypse; Or, Dawn Of Eternal Night: An Annihilation of Planet Earth And The Beginning Of Merciless Damnation, their 24th album.
A comment under the YouTube video for their song Hate Dancin' (below) jokes: "It's been 5 days since they last released any new music – was starting to think we'd never hear anything from them again."
But with such a head-spinning amount of music being released in a relatively short time period, isn’t there a danger that King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard are overly challenging their fans to absorb and process an incredible amount of information?
“I think we are primarily challenging ourselves,” counters Mackenzie. “But I think that is an interesting way to frame it, though, because – and maybe it’s not something that I’ve even really thought about – I definitely do spend a lot of time thinking about our fans, because I just feel so grateful that literally anybody wants to listen to our music or come to a show.”
Pondering the band’s ever-expanding output, he continues: “I feel like, for me, recording something, collaborating with other people, finishing it, and then releasing it to a point where you can’t touch it or change it ever again, it feels like a purge; it feels really good when it’s done. And it feels like you can clear space. In my mind, it’s like emptying trash. And that’s always been my personal way of like being able to move on or being able to grow or change.”
And yet there remains a form of self-awareness within the band about applying quality control methods to what gets released and what stays in the can – along with a tip from a seemingly unlikely source. “My mother-in-law told me this trick,” reveals Mackenzie, “She said, ‘When you’re reading a book, you subtract your age from 100. And that’s how many pages you need to read until you know that it’s worth finishing the book.’ And I was like, do you know what? There’s something deep in that that I actually really, really like. So I still use that specific trick. I think there’s a version of that that applies to any kind of thing in life and I think with making records, I now know a little sooner than I used to about what’s working and what isn’t.”
By his own admission, King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard rarely have less than two projects on the go at any given time. And that’s when they’ve managed to ascertain what’s what and what’s going where.
“We always have a lot of demos going,” smiles Mackenzie. “And a lot of them are just super-loose. Sometimes I don’t even know that two of them are going to end up on the same record. But sometimes I think that two that are going to be on the same record are actually going to be on two different records. Because, you know, the way they kind of evolve, and they’re going to diverge, or they’re going to join up or whatever.”
Coupled with King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s huge back catalogue is their massive touring schedule. So how easy or difficult is it for them to actually put a setlist together?
“It’s actually become really fun doing that,” says Mackenzie. “When the band started, it was very loose; it was kind of improvised because we just didn’t have very many songs. And that was really fun, but we got to a point where that got very boring. We kind of hit this wall where it was like, ‘Oh, shit, we need to learn our back catalogue!’ And we spent the better part of a year with most of our rehearsals dedicated to that rather than making new music and that sucked.
“Anyways, now the sets are loose and free and changing every night. We’re pulling from about 100 songs and playing 16 or 18 a night. Each soundcheck we’d be running through songs that we just had no idea how to play and trying to remember the chords and stuff. So we’re seriously on the edge of what we can do onstage. But we’re having a lot of fun. I think people are vibing on it. And we’re getting good energy from the shows. So yeah, we’re gonna keep playing like this until it feels like we should do something else. The shows have never been so improvised. It’s very fun.”
Fun is precisely what beats at the heart of their oeuvre, alongside an increasing maturity that helps the band navigate potentially choppy waters.
“I love the way that the interplay between six people is so complex,” says Mackenzie. “It’s just a great little nucleus for creativity having that many people working in tandem. It’s really cool when it works.”
PetroDragonic Apocalypse; Or, Dawn Of Eternal Night: An Annihilation of Planet Earth And The Beginning Of Merciless Damnation is out now via KGLW. See their website for more information