“Lately I’ve been having these vivid nightmares,” says Stu Mackenzie, video calling from the suburbs of Melbourne. “I’m on stage, but I can’t find my plectrum anywhere. It’s like it’s disappeared.” Mackenzie blames these “classic anxiety dreams” on the fact that, after two years of pandemic-mandated absence from concert stages, his psych-rock sextet King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are on the precipice of an “absolutely giant” world tour. “Jumping back into it all again feels like crossing a force field into another dimension,” he says.
The group were recovering at home in Melbourne after another global epic jaunt as the pandemic began. “We’d been going at it so hard,” says vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Joey Walker. “If you’d told me then, ‘You’re not gonna tour for two years’, I’d have said, ‘Well, we need the break.’”
The startlingly prolific Gizzard had released 15 albums in eight years, each following its own unique concept: 2019’s Infest the Rats’ Nest, a thrash-metal science-fiction odyssey about the climate crisis; 2013’s Eyes Like the Sky, an aural spaghetti western, narrated by singer-multi-instrumentalist Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s actor father Broderick Smith. On 2017’s Flying Microtonal Banana, the group mastered custom-made hybrids of guitar and bağlama (a Turkish lute) to absorb Turkish psychedelia into their musical lexicon. Their vivacious releases and live show took them out of the cult bracket usually reserved for aural spaghetti westerns and into the mainstream, headlining UK festivals and playing big venues such as London’s Alexandra Palace.
But as the seriousness of Covid became apparent, Mackenzie felt “scared and depressed. I’d spent most of my adult life on tour. When you work that hard to be good at something, it becomes part of who you are. When I couldn’t do it any more, it was like part of my soul had been ripped out.” Overwhelmed with anxiety, Mackenzie turned to the only guaranteed cure. “I just obsessively made music. If I sat still, I thought about the reality of everything. So I played late into the night, trying to keep busy.”
Melbourne’s notoriously strict lockdown didn’t make things easy. “You could only leave your house to buy gas or groceries,” recalls Mackenzie. “You certainly couldn’t go meet up with your friends.” This cut Gizzard’s tight fraternal order deeply; formed while housemates at university, their bond had strengthened over the dozen years since. “They’re my best friends,” says Mackenzie. “It was so tough not seeing each other.”
Still, while lockdown precluded in-person recording sessions, Gizzard merely greeted this as another creative challenge. The concept for this new project was simply to sound like six musicians in a room together – a big ask with the band members quarantined thousands apart. “It seemed impossible, so we thought we’d try to pull it off,” grins Mackenzie. Every day, the Gizzard communal WhatsApp chat buzzed with new riffs and song ideas, while the band members rigged up home studios of varying sophistication, playing Midi pianos on kitchen worktops and recording into laptops on bedside tables (“I definitely pissed my housemate off, says Kenny-Smith). “We needed to prove to ourselves that we were still a rock band,” Mackenzie says. “Even if we couldn’t tour. It was validating. And then, suddenly, we’d made two albums.”
Released in late 2020 and early 2021, those twin albums of correspondence-rock, KG and LW, did indeed sound like six dudes rocking in the same room together. But before Gizzard could celebrate a mission accomplished, Mackenzie lit off in pursuit of another lunatic concept: an album written around the Roland Juno-60, an 80s analogue synthesiser that creates primitive arpeggiated melodies. And in case the resulting pop-adjacent synth-prog didn’t shake the Gizzard paradigm hard enough, Mackenzie challenged himself to write the entire album, Butterfly 3000, in major keys, avoiding the dark imagery that characterizes much of the group’s output.
“I wanted to do something upbeat – I don’t just think about dark shit, I’m not some fucking psycho,” he says. The shift to positivity was partly motivated by the birth of his first daughter, Minty, in November 2020. “That had an incredible impact on my mental space. It made me reflect on how primitively, viscerally beautiful it is to be human. You have a kid, and suddenly you can’t just be cynical any more. You have to be a force for good.”
The pandemic wore on, Melbourne’s restrictions loosening and then tightening with each new Covid variant. Home recording offered some respite, but the group weren’t immune to isolation gloom. “Coping mechanisms only get you so far,” says Walker. While most of the Gizzards had relocated to Melbourne’s suburbs, Kenny-Smith, the youngest member, remained in the city. “I was losing my mind, partying at home every weekend,” he remembers. “Somehow, two years went by, and I was like, ‘OK, what’s the point of this?’ It was grim.”
The Gizzards agree that their stir-craziness peaked with “the rap album.” An “absolute cabin-fever delusion,” says Walker. “Stu got heavily into sampling,” remembers Kenny-Smith. “He’d never owned records before – he doesn’t even have any Gizzard vinyl – but he bought loads of stuff from Discogs, just charity shop garbage, and hours spent at the turntable, making beats. Classic ‘mad scientist’ Mackenzie stuff. Two weeks later, we had seven songs. I was rapping on them, and they were pretty funny.”
“We were very aware how problematic it was,” Grimaces Walker. “Six white idiot psych-rock guys, making hip-hop …” Indeed, “the rap album” was a rare contentious issue within the group, until it was decided that the concept for the next Gizzard album was that there would be no concept . Gizzard’s first double album, Omnium Gatherum is their most diverse set yet. Its eclectic track list feels like a greatest hits of songs even some Gizzard nerds may have never heard, with some of the aforementioned rap songs rubbing shoulders with the Gizzard take on 70s soft-pop, groove metal, Latin funk and more.
The album’s exhilarating opening track – 18-minute krautrock rollercoaster The Dripping Tap – had existed as a soundcheck jam before the pandemic, but had been sidelined by lockdown. “I knew, as soon as we could get together and jam again, that was the first thing we’d record,” says Mackenzie. When that blessed day finally arrived, in June 2021, he remembers feeling “weirdly nervous” as the group gathered at their new HQ in the Melbourne suburbs. “We had to hug and just shoot the shit for a bit, cos we hadn’t interacted much with the outside world. But what we really wanted to do was just make loud music together.”
And that’s exactly what happened: for six straight hours, the reunited Gizzard chased endless variations of The Dripping Tap. “It was so pure, like a Jackson Pollock painting,” grins Mackenzie, still high off the moment. “It was everything we’d missed so much for all those months: the interplay, our synapses connecting, that ephemeral aspect of improvisation.”
Walker reckons the finished piece is “the most concentrated spirit of Gizzard”. And while he shares some of Mackenzie’s anxiety over the group’s return to touring, he knows Gizzard are ready to cross back over to that other dimension. “Two years ago I was so burned out I didn’t know how much longer I could do this. But now I know that I need to do it It’s our longest tour, with the biggest shows we’ve played. Right now it’s daunting, like standing at the foot of Mount Everest. But I’m so, so amped to get back out there again.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism