When I call up Stu Mackenzie in mid-November for a year-end recap, there’s already way too much to talk about. His band, Australian psych-prog shapeshifters King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, recently announced a 2022 world tour; and they’ve brightened up this dismal pandemic era with three studio albums (including our 24th-best of 2021, Butterfly 3000) and two live LPs.
But news breaks quickly in the Gizzverse: In the few weeks since, they released another live record, announced a remix album, expanded their tour, detailed their own New Year’s festival, and teased a limited-edition LP (available for free to all fest attendees). That prolificacy is nothing new: In their banner year of 2017, they put out five fascinating — and sonically unique — studio albums. In the time between writing and publishing the story, they may announce a goddamn opera.
“We definitely have multiple projects on the go all at once,” Mackenzie tells SPIN in a hilarious understatement. “We might release a lot of records, but they still take us years to make. I find that a 40-ish-minute suite of music, a typical album, doesn’t happen quickly. I prefer to have a few projects [going] and let them ruminate for a couple years before they’re finished.”
As of this conversation, they have an unusually heavy “heap of unfinished projects, like six.” But the multi-instrumentalist, King Gizz’s primary songwriter, also cites a “couple of finished projects” that could have come out in 2021, if not for “extraordinary delays” in vinyl manufacturing.
“We’ve had to push a couple [things] back, probably into next year,” he adds. “It’s super stylistically varied Gizz stuff, quite a few experiments into new territory. I’m super excited about the music we’re making.”
While Mackenzie wants to maintain a sense of surprise, he does mention a “giant” demo collection — a sort of sequel to 2020’s Demos Vol. 1 + Vol. 2. He’s also very psyched about an upcoming crop of “jammy” material and the prospect of returning to live shows.
“I’m fucking excited to go on the road,” he says. “It’s what I do — it’s tied up in my identity and who I am. Even though it’s been a good 18 months or whatever, I feel like I haven’t [fully] lived, like I’ve actually just been asleep. I love traveling. I love the adventure of it. It’s intense and stressful and maybe not the healthiest lifestyle all the time, but it gives purpose and meaning to my life. I feel more grateful than ever.”
Mackenzie spoke to SPIN about the band’s jam-packed-as-usual 2021 — and previewed their jam-packed new direction.
SPIN: Obviously the pandemic is still far from over, and touring has been difficult for most artists. Still, you guys managed to stay very active musically. How do you feel, looking back at these last 12 months?
Stu Mackenzie: It’s complicated and hard to sum up in a small amount of words. My daughter just turned one a couple days ago, so that was the arrow through a lot of COVID for me, and she made that [time] amazing and beautiful and purposeful — not being on the road couldn’t have been timed any more serendipitously really. So that’s where I’ve put a lot of my energy.
I’ve been writing a lot this year, but it’s been weird. Melbourne’s been in lockdown for most of this year, so it’s been hard to record music with the rest of the band, as per usual. We literally weren’t allowed to be in a room together for most of the year. It was pretty wild. But we managed to make some music remotely — some music I’m pretty excited about — during the times we were allowed to be together. We did some pretty free-form, jammy-type stuff, which I think was the antidote to a lot of COVID-based limitations. You just want to be in a room, making music together, and not just sending samples to each other.
Have you already finished an album of the free-form stuff?
One of the projects we have completely finished has some music on it which is ultra-jammy — as jammy as we’ve ever gone — which is really exciting. We have a project in fairly early stages that I’m super excited for and will definitely be the jammiest thing we’ve ever done. I’m saying that now, but it may turn into something else. Gizz kind of started out super loose in our early iterations before we started really recording heavily. It was jammy in a different way than it is now. It was loose because we couldn’t be bothered to be tight. It was free because we didn’t want to rehearse. And the songs were long because we didn’t have many. [Laughs.]
And over time the band changed, and the music we were interested in changed. And I guess we became a lot more structured, and we wanted to craft this really intense, non-stop, thought-out show. It was more from the prog world — fusing punk rock and progressive rock — I still think that’s super fascinating. I think we took that to its logical conclusion around 2017, around the time of those shows. Since then, I think we’ve sort of been unraveling a lot of that, and going back to our roots of keeping it loose and letting songs breathe and extend. Just sort of being musicians again onstage, rather than just performance.
If you ask any two bands to “jam,” the results could be wildly different. What does “jamming” mean to you?Are you pulling from the more conventional definition of “jam band”? Is it more in the pure free-form sense, like how a jazz band might improvise?
It’s important to note that we didn’t go to music school. We don’t approach this from a deep, deep technical musical ability perspective, although I’ve got great respect for jazz musicians. I just can’t do that. I just never learned to do that. I guess our version changes, but a typical jam for us is loose. We come to it from a kraut-rock perspective, maybe. Some kind of modal vibe, and you’re creating an atmosphere. It’s not about showing off — it’s about creating a landscape and a texture and a world. I think that’s something you can improvise in real-time without a crazy amount of technical skill. It’s not something you see a lot in live music. We’re always drawn to that version of improv — not that that’s what we always do when we jam.
You guys recently started playing “Gaia,” this super heavy new song, onstage. Have you recorded that one yet?
That song’s recorded. It’s been recorded for a few months now. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s recorded and will be on a record that will come out next year.
You tweeted back in May that Butterfly 3000 is your favorite Gizz album. Of course, you’re supposed to say that every time you release a new album, but I get the feeling this was different.
I’m not someone who regularly compares our past work against itself, but I do remember feeling that way a few times. With Butterfly, it was so different. Hmm, why did I feel that way? I felt like the songs were fairly endearing. But also, it was a record I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to tackle in the past. I think the major keys and the positive sentiment and the upbeat nature of it would have frightened me in a way. I think if I’d tackled that in the past, I would have not been able to go there. I would have landed on darker textures a lot more. It took some courage and introspection to make that record. It felt like a personal journey.
Your daughter spurred on some of that positivity, right?
Yeah, I think so. It was finished — or very close to being finished — just before she was born. It was that kind of anticipation. I think that’s why it’s an introspective record. It’s positive, but there’s also a fair amount of fear in the record. That’s just anxiety about becoming a parent, having responsibilities, and having to look after somebody for the rest of your life, which I’m sure many people can relate to. It’s a complicated, emotional record, and maybe I felt like I’d grown up a little bit making it. I’m sure I’ll feel like that again about a record, but it’s also just a stupid thing to say — no one should compare their records against each other. It just doesn’t make any sense.
I’m in favor of saying it’s your favorite. It’s a great album — I think it’s in my top two, along with Polygondwanaland.
Poly was a weird one too. I was more unsure about that record. I’m really proud of it in hindsight, but we actually made that one quite quickly, despite how intense and intricate it is. We made it during a very intense period, and I think I was very consumed in that little world. And when we finished it, I was like, “What is this? This is a very bizarre album.” We really wanted to push this progressive rock thing that we’d been exploring as far as we knew how to in that moment, just to see what it would become. We weren’t trying to make anything in particular. It was just like, “Let’s go as extreme as we can in this particular world, and if people like it, sweet.” I think we thought no one would like that record, but it’s been funny because it’s definitely a fan favorite.
Whereas on the flip side, there’s Murder of the Universe — which was also supposed to be this extreme, ridiculous thing. I think in my mind, they were the two ridiculous records of . They were ridiculous for different reasons, but they were both us reaching as far as we could. Murder was my favorite of that year. I was like, “This is the one. No one else would make this record except us, I think.” That’s why I felt kind of proud of that record. I was like, “This is the record I wished existed and no one’s bothered to make.” Still, with Murder, I’m like, “People are gonna come back to this record and be like, ‘What the fuck? This band is bizarre!’”
You guys have covered so much territory, but do you have dreams of certain albums you want to make? Would you ever want to do, I dunno, an orchestral album or something?
I think pretty much honestly every album we’ve ever made starts with that idea — but sometimes it just sits around for a couple years. I remember with [2015’s] Paper Mâché Dream Balloon being an acoustic album, that was a far-out fantasy we’d talked about since the genesis of the band, but it took five years to have the courage to go there. In hindsight, it’s not the craziest thing we’ve done at all. But at the time it felt like a leap of faith. Almost every record that we make feels like that for a while.
There are a few things I won’t say that are exactly like you’re saying — either I don’t know how yet or I don’t have the time to dedicate to it right now or I have other projects I want to finish [first]. It might be several years until I get into it, but by then I’ve had several years to think about it. [Laughs.] I’ve got so many notes on so many albums that have never happened, but maybe they will.