photo: Jason Galea
In a 2016 interview, Stu Mackenzie nearly broke the blogosphere when he boldly declared that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard would release five albums in a single calendar year. The only problem was that he hadn’t told the rest of his band yet.
“We knew that we had a lot of music— but not five albums worth of music,” the King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard mastermind says with a chuckle, as he thinks back on that career-defining moment. “We’d been making about two records every year for a few years. And then, in 2016, we only released one record, which we had already finished the year before. We were just in this weird phase where we had been recording a lot but nothing really felt like it belonged together. Saying that we were going to release five albums in 2017 was definitely a challenge for myself and the other guys—and saying it publicly was like, ‘Well, we gotta do this now.’”
Mackenzie’s comments not only helped push his band to successfully issue a series of top-shelf LPs in record time, but also turned into something of a mission statement and rallying cry for his psychedelic collective. Since their halcyon days playing bars and clubs around Melbourne, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s live shows have possessed a manic, kitchen-sink energy that often feels tailor-made for deep-thinking, obsessive music fans who also enjoy a good party.
Mackenzie’s charge seemed to put that purposeful excess on paper.
“Stu said that before he talked to any of us,” Lucas Harwood—who plays bass, keyboardists and other instruments—emphasizes a few days later over Zoom. “It was a real sprint to the finish line. We released that last album on December 31, 2017.”
As Mackenzie and his bandmates describe the moment that their studio output went into hyperdrive, they are at home in Australia looking back on 2022— another banner year when they dropped an additional five full-length albums, as well as a remix record and a collaborative EP with Tropical Funk Storm. Each of those releases arrives with its own feature-length hook: Made in Timeland, which consists of two multipart 15-minute tracks, was originally intended as a limited-edition vinyl for a 2021 festival that was ultimately cancelled. Omnium Gatherum, which marked the band’s first time in the studio together since 2019, boasts the 18-minute jam exercise “The Dripping Tap.” The highly collaborative and improvisational Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava grew directly out of the heady experiments that led to “The Dripping Tap.” Laminated Denim, whose title is an anagram of Made in Timeland, is considered to be a spiritual sequel to that set, comprised of another pair of 15-minute segments. And Changes digs into their latent R&B influences, with every song built around one chord progression. Of course, all the music was released in a very thoughtful way—the musicians dropped the first two records back to back in March and April and the last three within a few days of each other this past October.
During that five-album span, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard also exploded on the live-music circuit, headlining ampitheaters in the U.S. for the first time and aging into the rare torch-receiving act to simultaniously draw in hipster tastemakers, hard-edged metal fans and off-season Phishheads at any given show. It was a long time coming: King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have been gradually expanding their own Gizzverse for just over a decade and their rise through the ranks has been singular and organic. In that time, they’ve learned how to make their fans happy—though the group has long staked their claim to one of the more adventurous corners of the jam-scene, recently they have started thinking of themselves as more of a “jamband” than “a band who jams.”
“I didn’t understand the Grateful Dead— they weren’t a cultural phenomenon here like they were in the States,” Mackenzie says, while sitting for a 9 a.m. Zoom at his studio, his two-year-old daughter already awake for the day. “So, early on, when we said we were a jamband, we meant that we had no fucking idea what we were doing. We would just get up there and improvise. The vocabulary wasn’t learned from jambands. But, as soon as we started coming to the States, we noticed that some people would come to every show on the tour. We would always think, ‘I feel so bad for these people. They’re coming to watch the exact same show every night.’ I didn’t realize that they saw this seed of improvisation within our music. I didn’t have access to the cultural understanding of what touring with a band meant. But spending a lot of time in the States opened us up to playing different, unique shows every night and improvising a lot more. And I love that—it makes us feel like we are musicians rather than performers.”
The Gizzard leader says that he will often look back on the group’s past setlists before they return to any given city, in order to offer a unique show. He’s also found himself going down a deep Grateful Dead rabbit hole in recent years.
“As soon as I realized that there were hundreds of versions of the same songs that were all amazing and different, I was like, ‘OK, I get it,’” Mackenzie—who sings and provides guitar, keyboards, flute and a range of other instruments in Gizzard— admits. “When I find a Dead song I like, instead of listening to it over and over again—which is what I do when I find a band that I’m quite obsessive about—I’ll listen to the same song from different years. I said to myself: ‘I understand how this is life for people.’”
“Stu’s not a great sleeper,” Harwood says with a smile, noting that he has just dropped his wife off at work and is preparing to walk his dog. “We will be on tour, or he will get to the studio in the morning, and he will say, ‘Man, I was up until 2 a.m. listening to Grateful Dead. I just couldn’t sleep—I got into this YouTube hole.’”
By the time the calendar flipped over to 2022, the members of King Gizzard knew that they were in for a big year. They were jazzed to be back in the same room together and able to honor a series of live commitments that kept getting pushed due to the pandemic. And they were particularly pumped to finally make their mark at marquee venues like Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Queens, N.Y.’s Forest Hills Stadium—their biggest U.S. headlining dates yet.
“Every now and then, we set aside a year and say, ‘Everyone strap yourselves in—let’s absolutely pack it in.’ Last year was one of those years where we tried to do as much as we could,” Mackenzie says. “We played as much as we could during the pandemic, but those were quieter years because we couldn’t tour or even get together. Usually, for us, a quieter year is where we might have three or four months off—it’s like a factory reset or defragmenting your hard drive. It’s still busy. You’re still working, thinking or even writing slowly at your own pace. And every two or three years, we schedule some time for that. After that, we can’t wait to get back on the road.”
While the group managed to roll out three albums between November 2020 and June 2021—relying on remote recording and ideas that they had already tinkered with—the members of the outfit felt a release when they could finally hunker down in the studio together. Mackenzie made sure everyone was able to be part of the sessions, and their reunion energy spilled out into a series of live-sounding tunes.
“We were just recording as much as we could—Melbourne’s lockdown was long, brutal and strict so we didn’t get together a lot for a very long time,” he says. “‘The Dripping Tap’ was the first thing that we did when we got together, and it made sense to us because it was this jam that we had floating around that we had never finished. It felt like something that we didn’t need to conceptualize. We didn’t need to plan and rehearse; we could just pick up our instruments, hit record and go. We recorded for hours, capturing everything and keeping the best bits. That was what felt right at the time after being not social, not together and not interacting.”
Interestingly, Harwood notes that both Made in Timeland and Laminated Denim were originally conceived as set-break music for Gizzard’s marathon live gigs, and he admits that they had been tweaking Changes since those fruitful 2017 sessions. “Changes was supposed be the fifth album in 2017 but it wasn’t quite ready,” he says. “And Made in Timeland and Laminated Denim were synched with the intermission clock perfectly.”
The band also looked at the recording techniques their heroes CAN and Yes used for inspiration. Mackenzie explains, “While we are working on ‘The Dripping Tap,’ we said, ‘Let’s figure out how to make records where you just get in a room, you jam and you patch it together later.’ And that mindset carried over to Laminated Denim and to Ice, Death.”
“The concept of Ice, Death was to pick a tempo, a scale or a feel and just jam for an hour,” adds Harwood, who notes that he actually had to sit out some of the Made in Timeland and Laminated Denim sessions while he was living with his in-laws during COVID-19 and sent in his contributions digitally. “We’d swap instruments and keep going—we probably have six hours of recorded material from that session. It was such a freeing process, just to be let loose. Then, Stu listened to hours of those jams, and he found the best fits. Reinterpreting those songs live has been really cool. We are not recreating them note for note onstage because they’re so jammy. And that’s what really brought us into this new phase of Gizzard being jamband. We just don’t know where we’re going to end up when we play these songs live.”
When King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard first coalesced in Melbourne circa 2010, they were, in many ways, a pickup band. The members of the group’s eventual permanent lineup were friends who were already playing in different, sometimes intertwined bands; Gizzard was a loose, low-pressure, elastic sideproject that morphed from three to 12 musicians depending on the date. They didn’t really rehearse and would often book gigs simply for the free beer.
Eventually, Mackenzie whittled down the pool of musicians he would draw from to the band’s classic lineup and their shows became more of a priority. Coincidently, their onstage configuration came close to recalling the Grateful Dead in their ‘60s psychedelic prime: Mackenzie, Harwood, singer/keyboardist/harmonica player/saxophonist/percussionist Ambrose Kenny-Smith, guitarist/keyboardist/ bassist/percussionist Joey Walker, guitarist/ keyboardist/bassist/percussionist Cook Craig and drummers Michael Cavanagh and Eric Moore. (Moore also served as the group’s original manager and an early spokesman.)
“I met Stu and Eric at university,” says Walker, who would join Gizzard’s early jam sessions when he wasn’t DJing and producing electronic music. “Stu had a whole bunch of mates from the surf coast an hour or two outside of Melbourne, and Michael is from the town in New South Wales where Eric is from. We all became friends, and having this huge group of new mates when you’re 21 is exciting. The band wasn’t a joke, but it wasn’t supposed to be a serious thing. So we said, ‘Let’s call it King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.’ And the shit just stuck to the wall.”
“There were four to six other people who were in regular rotation with the band,” Mackenzie says. “There was a personal chemistry, a friendship connection, which was really easy. It’s a trope to say that music is a language and music is communicating, but when you are improvising with people, you’re having a conversation with each other onstage. We were friends before we played music together—it was nice that we started like that. We were already well-established best mates so getting to that point where we could be comfy with each other in a room—navigating the egos and not letting each other down—was much easier.”
Harwood believes that the relaxed nature of those nascent jams helped Gizzard develop naturally. “At a lot of those early gigs, there was a core lineup of three or four of us, but then we would tell a lot of our friends: ‘Bring your instrument.’ We would be onstage with our friends, and we’d just tell them the chords to a song. It was not complex music, and I don’t think it sounded very good, but we were just having fun and trying to do something completely different than what we were doing in all our other bands, which were structured, rehearsed and a little bit serious for our age. This was the antithesis of all of that and just fun.”
Kenny-Smith, the last member of the core group to join, took in some of those early gigs from the other side of the stage.
“Lucas and I were in a band together, Stu and Lucas were in a band together and Cook and Stu were in another band together,” he says. “When Stu started King Gizz, and I saw them play for the first time, that was it. I knew it was going to take off quickly. Stu asked me to come play at one of their shows the following week or so and I just kept rocking up there with them after that.”
Though less refined than their eventual laboratory-style experiments, their first dates were creative in their own ways. Sometimes they would improvise and make up songs around one chord or a single word.
“It was so much more energetic and rawer than all our other bands at the time—bashing out three chords with repetitive lyrics really got the crowd going more than I had ever seen before,” Kenny-Smith says. “It was, and still is, the most fun thing I’ve ever had the privilege of being a part of.”
“I love Stu’s whole approach to writing,” says Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, who first connected with the band’s music five years ago through his younger daughter and has continued to spread the group’s gospel in interviews and social media posts. “It feels so loose and all about the hang, which is the way I came into music—jamming with friends, trying things out and not getting precious. I always just wanted to be with my friends jamming, and I get that same vibe from King Gizz. I immediately loved them and could relate.”
In 2014, Gizzard brought their party to the U.S. for a string of dates, including appearances at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s hipster favorite Baby’s Alright and the Austin Psych Fest. The shows were set up by the band’s agent, eventual manager and “guardian angel” Michelle Cable, who was based in New York at the time and had a close connection with the Baby’s All Right camp. After their first Baby’s All Right show went well, the group extended their stay in the U.S. and kept adding gigs at the club. By that October, they had already played the venue at least a dozen times.
“We had no money and were doing it on an absolute shoestring budget, backpacker style,” Mackenzie says. “Nobody came to any of our shows except Baby’s so we kept coming back—it was a pivotal run for the band. We’d sleep on the floor of Michelle’s office on blow up mattresses, play shows and party. Then, we had a month or two off between tours and it was gonna cost us so much money to fly home and back that we stayed in the States. We booked a dirt-cheap ski lodge in Hunter, N.Y., for a few weeks. It was this beautiful place that felt like a Disney movie. We saw bears, deer, chipmunks and hummingbirds.”
While upstate, the band recorded portions of their 2014 psych-garage rock set, I’m in Your Mind Fuzz and their 2015 jazz-rock concept piece Quarters!, which, as its title suggests, featured four tracks that each clock in at exactly 10 minutes and 10 seconds. They also utilized Brooklyn’s famed Daptone studios and other spaces to complete those LPs and started writing 2015’s woodsy, acoustic-rooted Paper Mâché Dream Balloon. On the weekends, they would drive down to the city to play all-night ragers at Baby’s, maybe picking up another date here or there along the way.
“We had a soccer-mom car which only had five seats,” Mackenzie says. “We’d drive to New York with five people stuffed in the car and all our shit, and two people would catch the Greyhound. It was the funniest, weirdest time. We went insane— we were there for too long and we went crazy, and it probably was not good for our psyche. But it was a very special time.”
As they made inroads on the U.S. indie scene, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard quickly became known as a must-see live act. They toured with experimental peers like White Fence, signed to ATO records, and scored prime spots at festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella. In addition, they introduced their U.S. audience to their scene back home, including the other bands on Moore’s Flightless records.
“They’re weird, and they absolutely kill live,” Anastasio says. “They ride the psychedelic wave in an organic, loose way, but it’s from a different angle and a new one. The language is definitely not ‘jam’ but the intent is so much about the flow. It feels new and old all at once. They have that glorious three-guitar sound, but the parts are intricate, and they don’t step on each other. The bass and drums and keys are incredible, and they keep cranking out great records that have unique personalities. The vocals are twisted and amazing.”
Despite their palpable collective energy and lifelong friendships, Mackenzie remained firmly at the helm early on.
“In the early days of the band, up through the first couple of records, it was my vision—I was the leader, and the other guys had their creative outlets pretty fulfilled with other projects,” he admits. “But once Gizzard started touring constantly, it became harder for everybody else to be creatively fulfilled by their other projects because Gizzard became all encompassing. It was never something that was spoken about or thought out—it was just logical. So, now, it is more collaborative than ever, which is amazing and really special. Everyone was forced to throw more of their eggs into Gizzard and, over time, everybody has just gotten more comfortable with each other and working in different combinations.”
“Stu was always the spiritual leader— his instincts were very unique, even back in 2011 and 2012,” Walker admits. “So many musicians or artists can be crippled by insecurity, by being a perfectionist or by being pedantic—trying to attain whatever it is that they perceive to be the perfect version of a song. I used to be crippled by that at times. I could never let go. I’d just be so protective. But Stu was never like that—he never put too much credence into a song being perfect. He was always so encouraging and his ability to cultivate the spirit of the band, in terms of our output, taught me how to approach music-making. He’s so great at steering the ship, and we are all becoming so much more capable of capitalizing on the Gizzard workflow.”
For basically as long as King Gizzard has been around, Kenny-Smith has fronted his own indie-psych outfit The Murlocs, whose lineup includes Craig. They also signed with ATO and carved out their own place in the Gizzverse storyline. “King Gizz seems to always have multiple album-concept projects on the go so it’s always been easier to put my music ideas more into The Murlocs,”
Kenny-Smith says. “At the end of the day, my strongest attribute has been singing, writing lyrics and sometimes helping with the arrangement a little bit. That is what I always end up doing more of, rather than writing the music.” Kenny-Smith and Walker each scored a co-write on Gizzard’s full-length debut and some other early efforts, but Mackenzie wrote the lion’s share of the material on their first few albums. With 2014’s outtake set, Oddments, the other band members began to contribute more on certain albums and, by their swath of 2017 LPs, many more of the tracks were either collaborations or written by the other band members.
“Omnium Gatherum is the most I’ve ever contributed to a King Gizz record,” Kenny-Smith adds. “Stu helped me bring a lot of my rough ideas to life. I am super lucky to have such talented musicians as my best friends.”
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard also became known for their sonic left turns, moving from expansive prog-guitar-theatrics to rootsier music and more baroque passages, sometimes within the same song. Their sophomore set, 2013’s Eyes Like the Sky, was a Western concept “audio book” featuring narration by Broderick Smith. Infest the Rats’ Nest, one of two 2019 albums, was even more surprising—a full-on trash-metal/stoner-rock record. In a similar, head-scratching move, Omnium Gatherum featured their first outwardly hip-hop-oriented selections, with Kenny-Smith on the mic.
“It’s just such a hard genre to dig into on the fly, especially when you’re originally coming from a more rock-and-roll background with music,” Kenny-Smith says. “If we were ever going to seriously try and tackle hip-hop more properly and make an album or something, it is going to take us some time to make it as good as it possibly can be. It’s been interesting to see our fans either like it or hate it, but that’s always the nature. You can’t win ‘em all. It’s a hell of a lot of fun making it though so I hope one day we can try and pull it off in our own Gizzy way.”
“There are albums like Omnium Gatherum that the industry would traditionally call B-side records, but we don’t see them like that,” Harwood notes. “They are just records that don’t have a concept—songs everyone has at the moment that they bring to the table. And once they are put through the Gizzard-filter, they sound vaguely from the same world and it doesn’t matter that they’re actually completely different genres.”
In order to best serve their songs, the members of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have been known to switch instruments in the studio or perform in different configurations. “Even with the jammier records, there are still songs where everyone isn’t on it for whatever reason,” Mackenzie says. “At least from my personal experience, you tend to be pandering to your ego or the egos within the group if you’re concerned about that stuff and, usually, that goes against the creativity of the group or the project. When you’re working at the pace that we’re working at, you don’t have time to worry about that sort of stuff.”
“It’s fairly egoless,” Walker says. “It’s about the greater good of the album. It’s not like, ‘Oh, don’t record today because I can’t make it.’”
Throughout the coming year, King Gizzard will flex their catalog during a series of residencies in Grundy County, Tenn., Morrison, Colo., Chicago and Carnation, Wash. Mackenzie is planning on not repeating any songs in each city; he hopes to dust off some older tunes and debut some new material, encouraging fans to come back for multiple shows in a row.
Now that the group has their own studio back home, Mackenzie’s timeline between albums is even more blurred, and Gizzard have already spent the early part of the year working on some new music. As of press time, it feels like they have two distinct records on the horizon, which will drop later this year.
“They’re linked but opposite at the same time—almost yin and yang because they’re intertwined but opposite,” Mackenzie says, hinting that some of the songs may flirt with some techno vibes and instrumentation. “Some people will listen to them and be like, ‘These two records are nothing alike’ and some people will listen to them and be like, ‘These are a mirror image of each other.’ I’m curious to see how that plays out because everybody listens to music in a different way and intellectualizes what they listen to differently. That’s the ammo of these two projects.”
While some of their new music may utilize unexpected gear, the LPs will both capture the more jam-centric energy the members of the group have been digging since coming out of the pandemic. “Both of them are being recorded in a pretty freewheeling way,” Mackenzie says. “They’re not going sound like Ice, Death, but they are going to sound live.”
“There are elements of the records we put out last year in there, in that they are more jammy, but it is a different landscape,” Walker adds. “We are stabbing in the dark with one of the things we’re working on currently—it’ll either be the best thing we’ve ever done, or it could amount to nothing. We are trying to go back to square one in some ways and step outside our comfort zones.”
“It’s the six of us in a room jamming all at once, which is awesome,” Harwood explains. “It actually takes the concept of Ice Death—how we recorded that—and puts it through a different lens.”
In January, King Gizzard released their entire recent Colorado run as Live at Red Rocks ‘22. It’s the latest installment in their official Bootlegger series, where the band will post audio master files and cover art from prime shows and unexpected studio sessions on their website for fans to download, tweak and distribute as they see fit. A note on their homepage offers just one short disclaimer: “Only deal is you’ve gotta send us some of them to sell on Gizzverse.com—whatever you feel is a fair trade is cool with us,” the band wrote. “Ideas: double LPs, 7”, remix, reimagined cover art, bizarre looking wax, live show box sets, tapes. Or keep it simple—that’s totally OK.”
The idea originated with Polygondwanaland in 2017, when the band hoped to release a free album. “We weren’t going to press any at the very beginning so we just thought, ‘This belongs to the universe,’” Mackenzie says. “Several labels, which actually release other bands now, were born because of Polygondwanaland. So we kind of did create a new little community. We wanted to expand on that. It goes back to the shows being unique, and once the shows started to feel like they were different from night to night in 2019, people started requesting that we release specific shows.”
They’ve even used the project to release demos that predate their early EPs, 2011’s Anglesea and Willoughby’s Beach, as well as other lost recordings.
“We said, ‘Let’s just release this teenage Gizzard stuff,’” Mackenzie says. “Over time, it’s been a way to release music that we’re really pumped on but doesn’t quite fit into the main canon of King Gizz. To be able to have a conversation with people who just wanna make shit and share it with their friends—or to be able to just get creative and engage with the band—has been a cool, positive thing.”
While separated during the pandemic, King Gizzard experienced the expected mix of life changes and behind-the-scenes shuffles. They brought things in house and released their recent albums on their own KGLW label—though they still maintain a connection with ATO via The Murlocs. A few members of the band welcomed children and Moore decided to leave the band to focus on his record label. However, Mackenzie says they never considered replacing him with another drummer.
“Going back to the origins of the band and the way it was constructed, we’ve always had a strange lineup because we were friends first—everyone just played what they played,” he says, noting that, early on, Moore was on theremin and percussion before moving to a traditional kit. “It was quite free. It was never thought out. I was just, ‘Let’s just go out and play.’ It wouldn’t have felt in the spirit of the band to get another drummer just because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
They have dealt with some personal hardships, too—King Gizzard & The Lizard were sadly forced to cancel some shows when Mackenzie’s Crohn’s disease flared up in late 2022.
“We’ve never had to cancel shows due to Crohn’s before now, so fingers crossed,” he says of his struggles with the inflammatory bowel disease. “I do actually feel quite on top of it 99% of the time, and I do manage it and deal with it pretty well. But I also think about it every day, and it fucking sucks. But people deal with shit way worse than this so you don’t hear me complaining about it much. I’m pretty grateful to just be alive and do what I get to do every day.”
Mackenzie makes a point to clarify that, despite their rapid output and road-dog schedule, they have never been a band who regularly rehearses. “It’s always been a drag to get everyone to rehearse—it’s just not something we’ve ever prioritized,” Mackenzie says.
“It’s always been, ‘Let’s get together and write or jam or record.’ Getting together and practicing something from the back catalog is really tough and goes against every one of the personalities within the group. We always prioritize new music; I guess we’re lazy when it comes to that element of our music.”
He notes that tracks like “Sea of Trees” and “Sleepwalker,” as well as looser Mind Fuzz material like “Slow Jam 1” and “Her and I (Slow Jam 2)” have found their way into rotation more regularly simply because they require less rehearsal. He also explains that, as their onstage sound has improved, it has increased their ability to improvise as a unit.
“We used to go free-form on our own tangents, but now we actually can hear each other onstage,” Mackenzie says. “It means the interplay between all of us is a lot easier to achieve and we can play off each other. So a lot of the songs that were a bit jammy in the past are really jammy now.”
He then pauses and tries to put the band’s current twists and changes in the scope of what he sees as their overall arc. “It is part of this life-long, career-long process,” Mackenzie explains, offering yet another mission statement and charge. “There are a lot of songs in there now and a lot of them we could make really special, but we just haven’t yet. And that’s the nature of having so many songs and only having so many hours to put the songs together—while also trying to make lots of records. But we’ve got a lot of good years ahead of us. Even if we stopped making records today, we could still play for 50 years and put on different shows every night and reinterpret a lot of the older songs and bring some songs back from the dead. That’s an exciting prospect.”
And though they are understandably keen on sticking with their current lineup, if Gizzard ever did need to expand their roster, then they have at least one fan chomping at the bit.
“If they ever want a fourth guitar player, I’m so in,” Anastasio says. “I feel lucky to be alive when something this cool is happening.”