Journey to the Center of the Gizzverse with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
by Jesse Jarnow on July 17, 2017
In Manhattan's Webster Hall, the seven members of King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard stand in a tight cluster in the middle of the venue’s floor and stare upwards, into the flashing light. From the balcony, a photographer conducts a shoot and with each flash an image of the Australian band gets sucked into some untold future. Each captures a tiny slice of the band’s big moment, when a noisy, concept-album-making double-drummer freakbeat septet from Melbourne are now filling up a 1,500-person New York City venue with crazed, rowdy fans. Soundcheck is over, and the smoke machines are working just fine. Pitchfork is arriving to set up a live webstream.
Some of the band’s members are shoeless. They joke with each other, sometimes forgetting to look up at the camera. A publicist shepherds the 20-something mates around. There’s a lot to do. But that seems to be the speed of life these days: fast. Formed in 2010, the band functioned more as a swarm around chief songwriter Stu Mackenzie, eventually whittling down to the seven-piece that’s been touring the United States and Europe constantly for the past several years.
While King Gizzard and their stroboscopic surf-punk have earned big buzz, they’ve done so through the straightahead means of having a good hook and working very, very hard. This is hardly their American debut; they even lived outside Manhattan for a few months and gigged in the city constantly. They’re perfectly capable of keeping busy without photographers or publicists.
Even though it’s a rainy, blustery last day of March, fans are lined up outside of the venue waiting for the doors to open. Huddled against the cold, the excitement is as palpable as the wafting pot smoke. Spitting out 10 albums in their seven-year career, King Gizzard is the type of band built for wide-eyed obsession. It is music suited for both wild fan theories (search for “Gizzverse” on Reddit) and frothing mosh pits and crowdsurfing—a space with enough cosmic goofery that fans feel comfortable dressing in costume. (A banana outfit and knight-errant are reported the next night.)
With one album out in February (Flying Microtonal Banana) and another scheduled for June (Murder of the Universe), the Lizard Wizard is only a little bit behind in Mackenzie’s promise to release a total of five full-lengths this year. There’s at least one more recorded, but all their time is booked up with touring for the foreseeable future. Still, they don’t seem worried. What’s to worry about?
At home, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard live in a 24-by- 13-foot box in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick East. The individual members technically sleep elsewhere but, when it comes to assembling and actually being the Lizard Wizard, it occurs at their new studio. “A year and a half ago, we started renting a warehouse,” says Mackenzie, having proceeded to the interview portion of his post-soundcheck festivities, “and we just built this box inside of it. It has a really low ceiling, which is kind of fucked up, and has fluorescent lights in it.” The longhaired guitarist almost visibly shudders.
If there’s a real-life Gizzverse, then it is the warehouse. Outside the soundproofed rehearsal and recording box, Lizard drummer/thereminist Eric Moore runs Flightless, the band’s literal in-house label, merchandising and management operation. Also stationed there is Jason Galea, the band’s artist, whose apocalyptic, mountainstrewn LP covers and live visuals provide key fodder for Reddit speculations about the connection points between the narratives of 2014’s I’m in Your Mind Fuzz and 2016’s Nonagon Infinity. The art collective and publishers No One Special also run a small gallery, Nowhere Special, out of the space.
For King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard—a name built for jamband fans—the concepts started as quickly as the band did. Though founded as a loose side project for party jams, there was a framework from the start. “It wasn’t necessarily the seven that we have now,” says Mackenzie. “It was kind of a revolving cast of different people. [The concept] was deliberately the simplest song you could write. Preferably one chord, maybe two—if you’re kind of lucky. Preferably one word, maybe a couple—and everyone sort of making as much fucking noise as you possibly can, in order that we didn’t have to rehearse, ever. And if we wanted to get some random person to play with us, we could teach them the songs in, like, 11 seconds or something. So even that kind of had an idea to it.” Even if that idea, as Mackenzie concedes, was “how can we make the most idiotic music possible?”
But concepts are scalable, and so is the Lizard Wizard. Though their 2013 album Eyes Like the Sky came with narration and a spaghetti-western plotline, most of the binding themes on magical reptilian adventures have been musical. For Nonagon Infinity (recorded during their New York sojourn), they painstakingly wrote and arranged an album’s worth of material that segued into each other, with the last song looping back to the album’s opening. Creating the album was as hard as the band has ever worked; they rehearsed obsessively so that it could be performed as one continuous suite of music.
The no-concept concept for the follow-up was to retire to the Australian countryside and play acoustic music, and the resultant Paper Mâché Dream Balloon is the most striking item in their discography. With band members teaching themselves new instruments, the songs are both textured and propulsive, with perhaps their most intensely detailed songcraft yet, sometimes sounding like a rural Australian equivalent of New York DIY psych-folk standard-bearers, Woods. Each new chapter introduces new dialects to a quickly expanding vocabulary.
Casually, if not quite accidentally, the band’s first major release of 2017 immediately propelled them into rarified territory, and it originated with a holiday Mackenzie took in Turkey. Already a fan of Turkish artists, like Anatolian rock hero (and record-collector favorite) Erkin Koray, Mackenzie grew interested in the local traditional music.
“Being a guitarist, I was drawn to the baglama, which is a long-neck stringed instrument with movable frets, and the frets are not often in the places where we Westerners would think they might be,” he says. “And you start hearing these other sounds, and it just starts to sound awesome. When I got home, I bought a baglama, and I was half-heartedly learning it, having a bash—this goes back a few years—and I started writing some songs with the baglama, and started thinking about how we’re going to make this baglama record, and started thinking,: ‘How is this going to work?’”
At the same time, a guitar-making friend asked Mackenzie if he had any ideas for a guitar he’d like, and Mackenzie wound up receiving the Flying Banana, a yellow guitar with a microtonal scale based on the baglama, minus the movable frets. “It was kind of just a way to find middle ground and figure out how to play this stuff with just the things that I’m used to, like loud guitar amps and drum kits and stuff. If you’re sitting there cross-legged playing the baglama with a drum kit, something’s not quite right, you know?”
Soon, Mackenzie realized that if he was going to play a microtonal instrument, then everyone besides the drummers would have to play microtonal instruments, so the band ended up with two more microtonal guitars, some harmonicas, a bass and a modified keyboard. And away they went, simultaneously arriving in a new harmonic dimension of the Gizzverse and a place with rich musical history, connecting the Lizard Wizard to instrument builder Harry Partch, psychedelic drone-master La Monte Young and countless other experimenters who use intonation experiments as keys to the cosmos. For King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, it’s all in an album’s work. “I think we’ll make another microtonal record at some point,” Mackenzie says. “I mean, we’ve got the guitars to do it.”
But there’s other work to do first. Next out is Murder of the Universe, unquestionably the group’s most relentlessly meta-project yet, and a return to the narrative-driven play of Eyes Like the Sky. “This record was always supposed to link up to other stuff that we’ve made,” Mackenzie says, “so it felt necessary to [have narrations] to tie some things up, even if it is still somewhat vague. We just kind of wanted to expand on this sort of universe. We ended up with three very distinct chapters which, taken on their own, sort of have a beginning, middle and end, and sort of follow a story. And they are somewhat interconnected but, more or less, it’s three distinct stories on this record.”
If it all sounds like too much to consume—that’s OK—it’s still a howling pile driver of an album, even if one skips the tracks with interstitial narration and creepy cyborg voices intoning haunting poetry, the perfect medium between the overproduced garage-rock of John Dwyer’s Oh Sees and the over-productive garage-prog of Matthew Friedberger’s Fiery Furnaces. And if even that sounds like too much, there’s always the next dispatch from the Gizzverse, a collaboration with Alex Brettin, the songwriter known as the Mild High Club. It features Mackenzie, Brettin and “whoever else was around, which was often quite a lot of us,” says Mackenzie. “It’s sort of got an exploring whatthe-fuck-are-we-doing? kind of sound.”
Given the amount of musical universes he’s already traversed, it seems like an imposition to even ask Mackenzie about what might come for albums four or five. Even if he doesn’t have a plan yet, he operates with the faith that new galaxies and constellations will manifest accordingly.
The central unifying substance of the Gizzverse, concept albums aside, is drums. On the stage at Webster Hall, the two drummers—Michael Cavanagh and Eric Moore— face one another. The band launches into their show with a seven-song segment drawn from Flying Microtonal Banana, and the moshing starts almost immediately and only intensifies. As opposed to the multi-limbed polyrhythms of the Grateful Dead or the intricate interlocking of The Feelies, Cavanagh and Moore often double each other’s parts—a veritable jet stream beneath the band’s whoosh.
After a break to switch back to standard intonation instruments, the septet slams into a suite of tunes from the not-yet-really-announced Murder of the Universe, as crowd-surfers make their way to the front barricades, deposited for the bouncers and circulated back into the crowd.
Beginning their touring year with a turn on the Australian summer festival circuit (following their own traveling Australian Gizzfest in late 2016), the band prepped for their U.S. tour by playing inthe-round for eight consecutive nights at Melbourne’s Night Cat. “We go through these periods where it’s ultra loose and we don’t write setlists and it’s called out—and things can turn into other things,” he says. “That’s the most enjoyable for me, but it can really go either way. I stand in the middle so I can kind of, like, point and tell everyone sort of what to do.”
But New York is New York, the Lizard Wizard keeps it tight and the frenzy continues right up to the end of the show sequence of little big bangs while the onstage projections of zooming landscape grids perhaps do (or don’t) link up to miscellaneous album concepts. After nearly two hours, the Lizard Wizard waves good night, the mosh pit ceases and the Gizzverse continuum temporarily dissolves—a place to go instead of worrying.