King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: A Cathartic Rollercoaster of Noise
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard take their chaotic party into a new orbit,
thanks to a film and accompanying live album
The final 20 minutes of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s brand-new concert film, Chunky Shrapnel, and the accompanying album of the same name, is simply an extended improvisational segment. The musical selection, retroactively titled “A Brief History of Planet Earth,” was culled from a few choice end-of-show jams captured during the band’s 2019 European tour; the meat of the video footage comes from the Australian band’s Oct. 19 gig at Razzmatazz in Barcelona.
“That was the last show of the tour, and there was a certain energy among the bands and crew,” explains vocalist/multi-instrumentalist and primary songwriter Stu Mackenzie. “We were about to go home and we were fucking exhausted. We were looking forward to going home but also sad that the adventure was over.”
For fans of improvisational music, a 20-plus minute jam is nothing out of the ordinary. However, with King Gizzard, things are never that simple. “About five minutes before our set, Iapproached [opening act] ORB and said, ‘I’ve got this idea. I don’t have much time to explain it, but we’re going to be jamming at the end of the set. It’s in G—let’s just do some weird stuff and see how it goes,’” says Mackenzie.
Chunky Shrapnel methodically exhibits the Gizz experience—for both the band and their fans—without ever feeling performative. At one point in the film, during the aforementioned “A Brief History of Planet Earth,” Mackenzie, vocalist/keyboardist/harmonica player Ambrose Kenny-Smith and drummers Eric Moore and Michael Cavanaugh crowd-surf across the audience with varying degrees of success. (Mackenzie makes it to the soundboard unscathed and offers the soundman a beer). During the same tune, the band members also switch instruments, invite guests from ORB and fellow opener Stonefield to replace them, and interact with the crowd over the microphone—all while delivering a driving, psychedelic musical finale. And both in the film and on the album, the segment is executed with equal parts party vibe and musical expertise. The same can be said for much of the King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard experience. Few bands can pack the raucousness of populist punk, the precision of a prog-rock, the power of thrash metal and the vibe of psychedelia into a single two-hour concert.
The ensemble had originally planned to release their new film in theaters and support the project on tour this summer. But, due to the novel coronavirus, those plans were nixed and the group made the film available on demand during two 24-hour periods in April.
For the task of packaging their live essence into a film, the band tapped John Angus Stewart, an old friend who also worked with King Gizzard on the music videos for “Planet B,” “Organ Farmer” and “Self-Immolate” from their 2019 thrash-metal set, Infest the Rats Nest. Stewart’s comfort level with the musicians, both personally and professionally, helped ease their ability to recreate the Gizz experience on and off the stage. (In an effort to highlight the group’s offstage adventures, Stewart kept the cameras rolling when the band was “off duty” as well.)
“John is a close friend of all of ours, so it definitely didn’t feel intrusive having him around,” notes bassist Lucas Skinner. “Onstage as well, he became one of the crew.”
“He’s someone who knows us better than almost anyone,” adds Mackenzie. “He’s one of only a handful of people that we all feel 100 percent comfortable with. That gave him special license to be onstage, to be on our tour bus, to be an overall fly on the wall. And, he was also able to truly get in the way sometimes without pissing everyone off.”
While Stewart’s friendship with the band was certainly an advantage, it wasn’t the only reason he was chosen for the project. “I’ve worked with lots of different filmmakers and John is one of the best—if not the best—around,” declares Kenny-Smith, whose experience around the camera comes from his years as a sponsored skateboarder. “He’s just so good.”
Since Stewart captured the band on film for Chunky Shrapnel, he had to be economical with what he shot each day. “He did roughly a can a day, and that’s 11 minutes,” explains Mackenzie. “By documentary or concert footage standards, that’s probably a hilariously small amount of footage.” But the time limit forced the group to carefully consider what Stewart might capture during each performance.
“Throughout our soundchecks, we’d rehearse what songs we were planning to film that night,” Skinner recalls. “He would plan out where he wanted to go on the stage for certain parts of the song because he knows our catalog pretty well. There was a fair bit of spontaneity as well, but being able to go through those parts during soundcheck helped us know what to expect.”
Despite all that planning, the group was keen to still leave room for some unexpected moments, especially when filming between shows. “Basically, every day, we’d wake up in the morning and John and I would have a conversation and say, ‘What do you want to shoot tonight? What song or two could be fun?’” says Mackenzie. “And then we would figure it out and John [would] say, ‘OK, I think I’ve got about five minutes of footage left on this can. I’m going to follow you guys around. What are you guys doing this afternoon? Are you going to get some food? Can I come?’ It was like that. Every day was just an improv.”
With their exhaustive, eclectic repertoire and electrifying live performances, the members of King Gizzard invite obsession; the Aussie rockers’ fans have been known to engage in spirited online debates, line up hours before their shows to score limited-edition posters and catch multiple nights on any given tour. However, Mackenzie is quick to point out that the band’s devoted following was not a sudden occurrence; it was earned over years of relentless gigging and a flood of exceptional studio releases.
“For other people who might have discovered us a little later, it may seem like all of this came out of nowhere. But for me, it all feels like it’s been pretty slow,” he admits. “We’ve played a lot of shows and have been super busy—with our heads down working— for the last decade. Our first tour was to no one, our second tour was to like 10 people and our third tour was to like 50 people. We slugged it out.”
In fact, when the band initially took shape around 2010, it wasn’t even the members’ main focus. Rather, the earliest iteration of Gizz, which didn’t have a set personnel, was an attempt to createa collective—a place where a mix of musicians grinding it out in other bands could blow off some steam. “Gizz, at the time, was ‘the not-serious band,’” remembers Mackenzie. “It was deliberately the antithesis of [a serious project].
“It was the band where we wrote songs that were simple enough that no one had to rehearse because rehearsal was boring,” he continues. “It was like, ‘You can turn up to a show with a guitar amp and a guitar, some drum sticks or whatever you want, and just play.’ It certainly wasn’t jamband music. It was like a cathartic rollercoaster of noise—just brutal distortion. We’d be screaming in double time for 30 minutes.”
“That was liberating for us,” Skinner articulates. “There wasn’t a whole lot of pressure to be really structured or rehearsed. It was an outlet to be loose and have fun, which was cool. It was a good learning experience as well.”
The current lineup—Mackenzie, Skinner, Kenny-Smith, Cavanaugh, Moore and guitarists Cook Craig and Joey Walker—solidified because they were “the seven that dug that vibe and stuck around,” Mackenzie explains. “It wasn’t something that was talked about or thought about; we were just the seven that ended up there.”
Kenny-Smith admits that, in the group’s early stages, he wasn’t quite sure if he was even in King Gizzard or not. “I remember laying across all their laps, squished in the back of a car going to Melbourne. Joey would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re in the band,’ and everyone was kind of laughing. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Am I?’” he says with a chuckle. “Somehow I got away with it.”
The proudly loose and chaotic vibe that the seven members achieved in those early stages spilled over into their first two releases—the 2011 EP Willoughby’s Beach and their 2012 debut album, 12 Bar Bruise, which largely consists of brief, relentless surf-psych tracks. However, the band soon buckled down and began crafting what has become their calling card—conceptual and inventive LPs. And each successive record has both built on and eschewed the musical themes King Gizzard have explored on their previous efforts.
In 2013, King Gizzard offered up Eyes Like the Sky—a Western-themed record complete with narration written and recited by Broderick Smith, Kenny-Smith’s father—and Float Along – Fill Your Lungs, a sprawling set that oozes with psychedelia. A year later, they dropped what some consider their definitive LP, I’m In Your Mind Fuzz, which opens with an interconnected four-song sequence that would foreshadow their later works. But the mother of all King Gizzard conceptual projects is perhaps 2016’s Nonagon Infinity, a high-octane, nine-song suite that perfectly loops back into itself.
If this sounds like a clogged release schedule, then King Gizzard was just getting started. In 2017, the outfit dropped a whopping five full-length albums in one calendar year, beginning with Flying Microtonal Banana. The first four of the five LPs each had a clearly defined concept and aesthetic, ranging from mictrotonal experiments (Banana) to heavy psych-metal (Murder of the Universe), explorations of odd time signatures (Polygondwanaland) and forays into jazzier territory (Sketches of Bruswick East). The final record, Gumboot Soup, went the opposite route; the band juxtaposed songs of various styles “on purpose to freak you out,” explains Mackenzie.
Despite their incredibly deep discography, the band’s commitment to touring has never wavered. “[In 2017,] we were all just pumped and touring a lot and in the studio a lot,” recalls Skinner. “It didn’t feel like this huge body of work to us. We were just working.”
The group’s repertoire continued to grow in both song quantity and stylistic breadth. After a well-earned year off from studio releases in 2018, King Gizzard returned with two full-length documents in 2019: the boogie-themed Fishing for Fishies and the metal record Infest the Rats Nest.
“We got together and that album just came out of us; it was amazing,” Mackenzie says of Rats Nest. “It was maybe the most fun album making experience I’ve ever had—the most free and also the easiest in a lot of ways. The three of us [Walker, Cavanaugh and Mackenzie, who played most of the parts on Rats Nest] grew up listening to a lot of metal, but we had never really written it before. It just felt so liberating to go there.”
That boundary-pushing attitude is also the driving factor of Gizzard’s live show. Throughout their now decade-long career, the musicians have never been complacent; instead, they’ve pushed themselves to create a thrilling concert experience that’s constantly evolving. And, as King Gizzard’s song cache has ballooned, they’ve consciously started crafting setlists which draw on their entire catalog. That sprawling approach was set to peak during three marquee appearances this summer—two at Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks and one at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Calif.—when the ensemble were set to play a series of marathon, three-hour sets featuring songs from each of their 15 LPs.
“We came up with these Red Rocks show ideas while we were putting together this North American tour, which sadly has been postponed [due to the novel coronavirus],” explains Mackenzie. “When we learned that we were going to be fortunate enough to play at Red Rocks, [which is] such an amazing venue, we had been touring Europe. We felt we needed to do something special. [During our European tour], we did something that we’d never done: We did four completely different sets in a row, no repeats. We just thought, ‘Well, I guess that’s enough material for two three-hour sets, so why don’t we do that?’”
In addition to exploring their catalog, the members of King Gizzard have also consciously built in opportunities to jam during their concerts. “I don’t think of us as a jamband, but I do admire bands who are able to improv for a whole set,” admits Mackenzie, nodding to Chunky Shrapnel’s finale. “That’s incredible. I’ve always felt like we can take some inspiration from that.”
“It’s cool—it’s something that keeps us on our toes,” adds Skinner. “We’re all looking up, listening to each other and waiting for who’s gonna play the next thing.”
King Gizzard’s choice to integrate jamming into their sets shouldn’t come as a surprise to longtime fans. The band thrives in the live music atmosphere—especially the give and take between artist and audience that so many fans are longing for during the current global pandemic. “[Playing live shows] is when I’m the happiest,” concedes Kenny-Smith. “You’re making other people happy and that’s such a unique and beautiful thing. I just like being onstage and being able to turn into a person that can not give a fuck for bit. In a lot of situations, that can come off as inappropriate or something that’s not too popular, so it’s nice to be able to go onstage and just do your thing.
“It definitely feels like a big thing is missing right now, but what can you do at the end of the day besides just be hopeful for the future?” he continues. “It’s such an amazing thing to be a part of.”
As for King Gizzard’s future, the group currently has a number of irons in the fire. “At the moment, we’re working on a couple of different records. I’m not sure which one will come first and I don’t know either of their names yet,” divulges Mackenzie. “One will certainly be microtonal. Some of the stuff is jammy and long as well.”
But the tireless frontman is also quick to brush off any genre-jumping criticisms. “A lot of people tend to think of us as a band who swaps styles, but I’ve never really thought about that,” he explains. “To me, it’s just been about us playing the music that we like, or trying to emulate the shows that we like going to see. Keeping it fun and interesting is my vibe. It’s never something that is super thought out—it just feels right.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Relix. The interviews were conducted in late April 2020.