No Slowing Down: King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard Interviewed

Stu Mackenzie from the Australian psych rock overlords talks to Brian Coney about training one’s brain, releasing five albums last year and learning to chill

Photos by Jamie Wdziekonski

“No slowing down.” In early August, these three words were shared on King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s Twitter page. Accompanied by a live shot of the band’s firebrand mainman, Stu Mackenzie, in his element – mid-riff, in motion and with a stare full of intent – it could very easily double-up as a mantra for the Australian psych rock heroes’ globe-scouring trip to date.

Having clocked up close to 500 shows since forming in Melbourne in 2010 (“Woah, ok. I didn’t know that,” Mackenzie tells me over the phone from Copenhagan) KGATLW are zig-zagging across Europe once again. Considering the many high-profile (and countless quieter) cases of burnout experienced by artists who seemingly live on the road, how does Mackenzie and the rest of the King Gizz “posse” manage to shoulder the toll? “Well, I think it’s important to define what burning out is,” says Mackenzie.

“We just try to have a lot of fun. We work hard but also make sure to enjoy it. We try to see it as a mixture of work and leisure, but we have to look forward to it. That’s not to say it’s not challenging sometimes, but that’s all part of it.”

As of the start of last year, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard had released eight studio albums. Combined, they traversed a genre-mangling spectrum of unfettered sonic exploration. Recording on four iPhones placed around a room, the ear-smacking acid-rock of 2012’s 12 Bar Bruise made for a suitably manic introduction. Released via Oh Sees’ leader John Dwyer’s Castle Face Records, I’m In Your Mind Fuzz was a lysergic-drenched foray. In 2016, the head-spinning, third-eye-opening bombast of Nonagon Infinity (think double-drumming, a conveyor belt of fuzzed-out riffs and more hooks than a tackle box) upped the ante considerably. With it, KGATLW arrived not merely as the Southern Hemisphere’s psych rock goon squad par excellence: they helped divert attention away from California as the globe’s unrivalled epicentre of experimental, psych-leaning garage rock.

In late 2016, King Gizzard then promised the implausible: they would record and release five studio albums the following year. Defying even the most surefire fan, on New Year’s Eve, album number five of five was released. Mackenzie and co. had made good at the eleventh hour. Mainly recorded in their studio HQ, Flightless, in Melbourne’s inner suburb of Brunswick East, each album – from the masterfully oddball Flying Microtonal Banana to the pop-centric Gumboot Soup – offered up something radical and conceptually full-blown. Much better still, they all delivered on quality.

Was the grand plan mapped out in advance of the announcement? “A little,” reveals Mackenzie. “There were one or two ideas for all of those records before the year started. It kind of felt like we had a bunch of songs, some of which didn’t fit together, some which did. There were four concepts of original ideas. Flying Microtonal Banana was messing around and it was obvious where those tunes would go. The heavier stuff that we working out came after we were making Nonagon Infinity was fairly well mapped out early on. As for the collaboration stuff with Mild High Club [Sketches of Brunswick East], we naturally gravitated to [MHC’s] Alex Brettin and decided to let it find its own way. With Polygondwanaland, as it was pretty much all based around polycentric rhythms, we had a good sense of where it would go early on, too. As things progressed, each album gradually took on their own form.”

On Christmas Day 2017, while the rest of the world was sat around kitchen tables fumbling with crap cracker jokes, Mackenzie was in the studio putting the final touches to Gumboot Soup (“Man, it was really up against the wire but we got it out,” he tells me with a laugh). Considering his noted love of holing up in the studio with his bandmates, would it be fair to assume he finds the formidable task of recording and self-producing – even during Yuletide – relaxing? “Sometimes, actually,” he says. “But it depends. I know a lot of people who stress about recording but I don’t. I always look forward to it. I like the constructive nature of it – being able to take an idea, maybe just a chord progression, or a melody or abstract words, and being able to collaborate to make that a reality. I love the creative process – to watch things flesh out, to use technology, to make something tangible. Playing shows, I think you use a different part of your brain. Maybe that’s me, though.”

All things considered, as irrepressible creative magi go, Mackenzie may indeed be exceptional. Touching on the process behind ‘Beginner’s Luck’ – the lead track on Gumboot Soup and one of his most resplendent, harmonically-driven efforts to date – the 27-year-old is the sound of pure gusto. From the evolution of its chord structure to how he fleshed out its melody, his words betray a profound love of the tinkering and long hours that are elemental to being so productive. From where does that restlessness stem? “It’s hard to say for sure,” says MacKenzie, after a pause. “But I’ve found that just saying yes to things can be powerful. When I was younger, I got into music and wanting to play it was a social thing. I really wanted to find a way to not have to hang around with the jocks, and as I wasn’t artistic and I couldn’t play an instrument, I thought, I need to do something. So I decided to pick up the guitar and that’s where it all comes from. So it was a social thing for me to begin with and I guess, in some ways, it continues that way.”

Despite last year’s studio shock-and-awe, King Gizzard thrive like few other bands on-stage. Face-searing one moment and tripped-out the next, their live shows are, at their best, feature-length, pit-inducing wig-outs marrying duelling drums, flute, twin guitar blitzes and full-blown Motorik rampages and more via the outer recesses of our galactic home. Without question, it’s lined up in front a heaving, expectant crowd where King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard were meant to be. “Getting up and doing that, night after night, is a privilege,” says Mackenzie. “But as a touring musician, I think it’s important to find the enjoyment in everything, otherwise you focus on each show as a 45 minute slot or a 90 minute show that everything is leading up to. So, I try to find enjoyment in travelling in the van, flying, soundchecks – the whole lot. I know it’s not easy but I feel approaching it like that works.”

Over the course of thirty minutes, our conversation cuts out a handful of times. With a less unruffled voice at the other end of the line, you could expect some expression of annoyance – a quiet sigh upon answering or a reluctance to continue. Not so with Mackenzie. Each time, he’s straight back into it, finishing off sentences that were cut short and brimming with the same “no slowing down” élan that fuels KGATLW. “I do like working fast,” he says, when asked. “I find it’s the best way that I work a lot of the time. But I’m learning to relax more. I think I’m starting to be able to chill. I think during the recording of Nonagon Infinity I broke my mind a little. It was like my brain was coming through my skull at one point. It was pretty intense, so after that the pressure was off a little. In a way, that’s kind of where those five albums came from – taking the foot off the brake a bit.”

Although it’s a collaborative democracy, Mackenzie’s role as the King Gizzard’s creative and conceptual head is ironclad. Though it outwardly appears everything runs like clockwork, is it ever hard for the rest of the band to keep up with the pace he has set? “You would have to ask them,” he says. “But I think we’re on the same wavelength. Very rarely on our records is everyone in the band playing at the same time – it’s usually combinations of people at different points. But I guess you could say I’m a creative director of sorts. I try to shepherd their talent and ideas. They’ve all got their own ideas and inspiration. I’m all about trying to get to make it come together, really.”

Is he always on, creatively? “No,” Mackenzie adds. “I tend to go through bursts. I won’t write for a few months and then I’ll write every day, and I’ll spend a lot of time in the studio. As I see it, you can’t force the creative muscle but you can encourage it. Every creative person – songwriters, artists, writers – encounters that kind of self-doubt that just feels like staring at a brick wall. But sometimes you just have to be in charge of your brain.”

Presumably, being the High Priest of a such a prolific, multi-limbed outfit comes with the odd cross to bear. Take vetoing so-so ideas in the studio. “It can be tricky,” says Mackenzie. “It’s usually me who has to say it, but there’s always a super-kind way of putting these things. It can be just suggesting a change or something different. My dad recently said something to me and it’s kind of stuck: as saying something negative to a person is seven times more powerful than saying something positive, you need to pay that person seven compliments to balance it out. I like that idea and try to keep it in mind.”

While hearsay of a new album being finished and ready to go are without merit (“I can tell you that’s definitely, definitely not true,” says Mackenzie. “We’ve been doing some stuff here and there but nothing is concrete.”) momentum for KGATLW right now means something they’ve long been use to: keeping an open mind on the open road. “You do sometimes get the feeling that different places roll into one but I guess that’s inevitable,” says Mackenzie. “You have to make the most of each moment. I enjoy meeting people and waltzing around cities, if we get the time. Years ago, when we started out, the idea of playing in another country or playing the States was big, so everything after this feels like a luxury and a privilege. Playing shows, travelling, touring and everything that comes with it, it’s all about making that human connection. That’s what it’s always come down to for me.”

King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard play Desert Daze festival in California this October

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