King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: Tapped In
photo credit: Jason Galea
Melbourne, Australia enforced what some experts have called the world’s strictest lockdown early on in the global pandemic. It was not exactly conducive to music-making, to say the least, but native psych-prog tinkerers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard somehow managed to maintain their prolific pace throughout COVID, crafting the synth-splattered Butterfly 3000 at home, without their typical in-person working method.
Messiness has always been part of their oeuvre, full of endless experiments and sonic twists. And, really, what band could better adapt to this weird new reality? But King Gizzard were starved for real-time musical interaction—the thrill of six sweaty dudes hunkered down in a rehearsal space, firing off ideas.
“We didn’t need to sit around in a room and talk about some complex progressive-rock thing,” says singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and chief instigator Stu Mackenzie. “We just needed to jam.”
Their opening move was reviving “The Dripping Tap,” an 18-minute psych barnburner that they previously attempted to record during the sessions for 2019’s Fishing for Fishies. “When we got out of lockdown, the first thing we did was record [that song],” Mackenzie continues. “It was the first time we got together in a very long time and made music in a room. We did that song because we didn’t need to rehearse it—we knew it would be a jam, and that’s what we needed. That was the antidote to social isolation.”
Ambrose Kenny-Smith—singer and player of assorted instruments, including his trusted harmonica—recalls that once King Gizzard holed up in the studio, “None of the guys really knew what [they] were jamming.”
“We were like, ‘Remember that jam from ages ago?’” he says with a laugh. “No one had listened to it. It was very loose, the way it was slapped together on the session.” That’s an understatement: The band played the track for hour-plus chunks, resulting in six total hours of music. (They did pause for pee breaks.) Mackenzie then edited the results into one dynamic, ever-shifting piece—the opener and centerpiece of the band’s latest project, Omnium Gatherum.
However, the resulting collection is not a “jam album.” These songs branch in too many directions—thrash metal, hip-hop, R&B, jazzy soft-rock—and were constructed through too many methods to neatly fall under that umbrella.
“Another record we’re working on is built out of making music in that way,” Mackenzie adds. “Genre-wise, it’s not like ‘Dripping Tap’ at all, but ethos-wise it’s exactly that.”
Yet, the recording of “Tap” was still a crucial moment, epitomizing the freespirited, anything-goes mentality of their double-LP.
Most King Gizzard albums are structured around a particular vibe, often one radically different from the one before it—for example, the bright and dreamy Butterfly 3000 arrived after two “explorations into microtonal tuning,” K.G. and L.W., and the stoner-friendly metal lurch of 2019’s Infest the Rats’ Nest. But Omnium Gatherum is atypically dizzy, deviating from any conceptual framework. And that’s partly because of its origin as a “leftovers collection,” modeled after 2014’s Oddments and 2017’s Gumboot Soup—two albums Mackenzie found particularly “liberating.”
“We make records like some people make songs,” he says. “They’re meant to interconnect and have one vibe or feel. They are meant to live in the same world. And when you step outside that kind of mindset, you can explore these ideas and maybe think, ‘Shit, I can’t make a whole album out of this. Where does this fit?’ or ‘This song isn’t the right landscape. It doesn’t visually, thematically fit well enough.’”
They had a solid foundation already in place: “The Dripping Tap;” the shimmering, soulful space-pop of “Evilest Man;” the throbbing synth-psych of “Magenta Mountain;” the groovy, KennySmith-sung “Red Smoke.” But it’s only fitting that King Gizzard, perhaps the hardest-working rock band on the planet, couldn’t help but crank out some new stuff. “Once we decided to do another Oddments or Gumboot-type of thing, we thought, ‘Sweet, let’s make something sludgier and heavier than we’ve ever done. Let’s try to do a couple of hip-hop tracks. Let’s actually try to do some things we’ve never done,’” Mackenzie says. “That was the biggest joy in this record.”
Of course, “seeking joy” might as well be the King Gizzard motto, and exploratory jamming was part of their initial spark. The band—Mackenzie, Kenny-Smith, drummer Michael Cavanagh, multi-instrumentalists Joey Walker, Cook Craig and Lucas Harwood; and former member/manager Eric Moore—formed in 2010 as everyone’s mutual, low-stakes side project. And they’ve never deviated from that mentality, even as they’ve bloomed into an acclaimed, international hipster favorite and top-line festival draw.
“I’ve tried to keep it feeling like that as much as possible,” Mackenzie enthuses. “I would never, ever make a record with a big producer—I would never put that pressure on a particular record because I think it would taint the feel of what we still have. We still operate like this is the first record we’ve ever made. We’re still tinkering around with cheap microphones and equipment that we don’t know how to use—we are still DIY. That’s kind of my favorite thing about the band.”
Part of the thrill—and what helps sustain the band’s multi-album-a-year pace—is that members are free to take on whatever role they want. Most of them have other bands and no one’s expected to write or even play on any given song.
“The heavy stuff [on Omnium Gatherum] was Joe, Cavs and Stu, which was how Rats’ Nets was done anyway,” Kenny-Smith says. “That metal stuff should be based around a three-piece/ four-piece sorta thing. And we’ve got a good ethos with that—it’s whatever feels necessary. It can get to a point where there’s lots of adding on top of adding and then you strip it back. Sometimes the layers just work. It’s a lot of trial and error, and no love’s lost. Everyone’s so used to that situation now. I would spend days on end doing stuff and then none of it would end up getting used. Or, maybe, only a small percentage of what I worked on would get used. It’s the same for everyone—it’s a lot of throwing shit at the wall until it sticks.”
Ultimately, as Mackenzie describes, there is “no system” for how King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard operate.
“There are some songs where several of the guys will send me stuff or we’ll work on a particular song together—a lot of people contribute things and sometimes the ideas don’t meld well or there’s clashing ideas,” he says. “It can sometimes be tricky to look at it objectively and figure out how to best serve the song. But I do kind of see that as my role in the band: If I’m the producer of the record, it’s my overall job to root for everyone, encourage everyone, get people involved if they want to get involved and then try to make the song work the best way it can without damaging anybody’s ego—not that anyone’s got delicate ones. It’s really fun, actually. There are [always] a lot of ideas.”
And there have never been more disparate ideas in the ether than on Omnium Gatherum, which indeed dips back into the metal pool (the bone-crunching “Gaia”), slips into luxurious lounge-funk (“Ambergris”) and, most notably, ventures into those aforementioned, ‘90s-leaning hip-hop beats—a move spearheaded by Mackenzie as a creative challenge during lockdown.
“We started to make a rap album,” he explains. “Everyone was going insane. I’d just bought a new turntable, and I started buying records from Discogs. I was trying to go with nonEnglish-language records for under two dollars—I purposefully didn’t even know what they were. I was just trying to figure out how to chop up samples.
“I’d never done anything like that,” he continues. “I just challenged myself. Melbourne’ lockdown was so gnarly, and it just felt like I needed a new project and idea. Ambrose has always listened to rap music, and he’s the biggest rap fan in the band. I suppose, being a singer as well, it was just obvious that he was gonna rap. So we started messing around with that. Maybe we recorded like six or seven songs, and the two that ended up on the record [‘The Grim Reaper’ and ‘Sadie Sorceress’] were the only two we actually finished. The rest were kind of just experiments and ideas, rabbit holes that we went down.”
Those two tracks are expertly rapped by Kenny-Smith, flaunting tight rhythmic flows and collage-like lyrics that nod back to the heady styles of Odelay-era Beck, De La Soul and Beastie Boys, who he deliberately channeled. It’s not like the vocalist has been silently plotting a King Gizz rap takeover, but he was psyched that they found “the right time” to try out these sounds.
“From a young age, I listened to lots of [rap],” he says. “I used to have this Walkman, and I lived in this country town in Castlemaine for a year or two, and that’s sort of when it started. I hung out with these skaters who were into Aussie hip-hop at this skate park, and they were burning CDs for me. I remember swapping some stuff from my dad’s collection for Cypress Hill. I got this X-Ecutioners CD. I remember getting obsessed with fast rapping, like Busta Rhymes and early Outkast—‘B.O.B.’ is one of my favorites.”
These “rabbit holes” further expand the band’s kaleidoscopic sound world, one labeled “the Gizzverse” by hardcore fans. And for Mackenzie, digging deep was the whole point: “It felt like the purpose of making another Oddments record was being able to do stuff like that,” he says. “It’s why it exists.
“We’re not trying to break ground or do things that have never been done,” he adds. “We’re just trying to do things we’ve never done.”