King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard talk new album 'The Silver Cord' and look back on their huge career

Cover Feature The Magic Circle: King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

No one does it quite like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: a group of freaky sonic adventurers who’ve moulded success into their own shape and become arguably the biggest cult band on the planet. On 25th (!) album ‘The Silver Cord’, they’re adding yet more unexpected strings to their already-bulging bow.

On paper, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are a band who make no sense at all, whose entire existence is littered with paradoxes. Frontman Stu Mackenzie is a workaholic auteur who concerns himself with the tiniest details (the band have even released swathes of demos, rarities and live cuts for free so they can ensure quality control over bootlegs), and yet the sheer rate with which they put out records means that perfectionism just isn’t an option. Their most recent release, ‘The Silver Cord’, is their 25th album in 11 years and their second in 2023. “This is NOT the band to be stressing about that shit,” says guitarist Joey Walker in direct Aussie deadpan when the topic comes up.

They are musicians who have defied received wisdom about how to embark on a music career, refusing to be drawn into the ‘album / tour / rest’ cycle that has become the norm, doing scant press and lurching violently between genres. “We’ve had people telling us from all sides since forever, ‘You’re not supposed to do it that way’,” says Stu. And yet they have still managed to amass a large and dedicated audience, prepared to follow them down whatever rabbit hole they please. Next summer they headline London’s Wide Awake, as the event’s most-requested booking.

In our conversations with Stu, Joey and multi-instrumentalist Ambrose Kenny-Smith – taking place over a succession of phone and Zoom calls – they’re friendly, thoughtful, and considered. Stu is usually two steps ahead, with an uncanny ability to pre-empt any follow-up question before it can be asked. With three of the band soon expecting children (they’re dubbing them ‘the triplets’), which will take the total number of junior Gizzards to eight, they’re supposed to be taking a bit of ‘downtime’ during the longest break between shows they’ve had since lockdown, though in reality they’re back in the studio starting work on a new album. There’s also been time for Ambrose’s other band The Murlocs to cram in a sneaky side-tour of their own. “Making new albums, that’s our time off,” Joey grins. “Stu’s crazy, man.”

“Downtime, to me, is just not travelling,” explains Stu. “I’ve got a daughter and another kid on the way, a wife, family, and friends, and I do need to just exist in everyone else’s world, but I suppose I don’t do stopping very well. When I’m home, I keep busy because otherwise I just get annoying to everyone around me. If I wasn’t working on music, I’d end up doing something else way less constructive, or get obsessed with something that serves no purpose. I worked out early on that I could never get a video game console.

“I feel at peace in mayhem,” he continues. “I think that’s why I’m drawn to playing shows. Even if I’m not always the biggest extrovert in real life, I’ve got that adrenaline junkie gene. It satisfies a part of me that I can’t satisfy anywhere else.”

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard talk new album 'The Silver Cord' and look back on their huge career King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard talk new album 'The Silver Cord' and look back on their huge career
“I feel at peace in mayhem.” - Stu Mackenzie

There have been times, however, when that chaos has spilled over into burnout. The band were forced to abandon their 2022 American and European tour with 13 dates to go, when the symptoms of Stu’s Crohn’s disease - a lifelong gut condition - flared up to the point that he had to fly home to Melbourne for emergency care. At the time, the band admitted that the year’s intensive workload and poor dietary choices on tour had had a “cumulative” effect. In recent months, Stu says he’s been thinking more about balance. “I’ve definitely come to appreciate the Yang to the Yin, and find peace in slowing down and enjoying myself. I’m just starting to figure it out.”

Stu also uses the terms of Yin and Yang to refer to the relationship between King Gizzard’s 2023 output: two records that, on the surface, are total opposites. The first, June’s ‘PetroDragonic Apocalypse or, Dawn of Eternal Night: An Annihilation of Planet Earth and the Beginning of Merciless Damnation’, exists in the closest thing to familiar territory: the guitar-heavy thrash metal sound many of the members loved growing up and previously explored on their fifteenth LP ‘Infest The Rats Nest’. The second, ‘The Silver Cord’, is a dreamy piece played entirely on vintage synthesisers and an electronic drum kit. The sound of King Gizzard adjusting to a whole new palette, purposefully departing the comfort zone of ‘PetroDragonic Apocalypse…’, it’s heavy on process where its predecessor was a story-driven concept album meshing fantasy with environmental collapse.

Different as they are, however, they are also companion pieces. Though Stu wants them to stand apart too, they were recorded at the same time and “birthed from the same womb”. Both have eight tracks whose titles were written simultaneously, and correspond directly to one another in terms of musical themes. ‘PetroDragonic Apocalypse’’s supercharged opener ‘Motor Spirit’ is in fact just a blackened and twisted version of ‘The Silver Cord’’s hypnotic first track ‘Theia’.

The decision to record two oppositional records at once was made because the band believe they work best within constraints; they’ve previously modified their instruments in order to play entirely in non-Western microtonal tunings (‘Flying Microtonal Banana’), and have written songs to exact pre-determined timings (2022’s ‘Made In Timeland’ and ‘Laminated Denim’ contain fifteen-minute songs synced to the ticking of a clock). “It acts as a catalyst if you’re feeling rudderless,” says Joey. He cites 2016’s ‘Nonagon Infinity’, on which the last track flows back into the first so that it can be played on an infinite loop, as a breakthrough. “That was the first King Gizzard album where it really felt like there was something that was unique to us. Something switched over.”

Even by the standards King Gizzard have set across the seventeen albums they’ve released since then, ‘The Silver Cord’ has a particular sense of drive behind it. Its link to ‘PetroDragonic Apocalypse’ is “just one of the convergent streams,” says Stu. Another is his desire to return to the “unfinished business” of their 2021 record ‘Butterfly 3000’. Made remotely during lockdown, by necessity it was also synth-based, but when they reconvened in person to figure the songs out live, “it was a disaster. Totally demoralising. We gave up and started working on the next thing, but it felt like we had done the album a bit of a disservice,” he continues. “We were just waiting to do another electronic record that we could make in a room together, waiting for the right moment.”

That moment arrived when percussionist Michael Cavanagh impulse-bought a vintage Simmons electronic drum kit. “As soon as he plugged it in,” says Stu, “I thought, ‘That’s the sound of the album right there, it’s so amazing and distinctive. We have to commit to this’.”

“At the start , labels that we signed to were always trying to get into our heads. I don’t think, even for a second, we ever really listened to them.” - Ambrose Kenny-Smith

King Gizzard in Numbers

ALBUMS RELEASED: 25

LONGEST STUDIO LP: Infinity (‘Nonagon Infinity’ to be precise)

LONGEST TITLE: 113 letters (‘PetroDragonic Apocalypse; or, Dawn of Eternal Night: An Annihilation of Planet Earth and the Beginning of Merciless Damnation’)

LIVE SHOWS PERFORMED: 736

LONGEST SET: 9 hours (split over three nights, sure, but without repeating a single track)

MONTHLY SPOTIFY LISTENERS: 1,500,000

In that act of commitment, for their latest King Gizzard were purposefully entering territory about which most of them knew comparatively little. Only Joey, who has a dance side project under the name Bullant, was truly immersed in that world. “I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, this is gonna be dope! King Gizzard does a club album!” he laughs. Given the rest of the band’s relative amateurism, however, they approached it in the same way they might a guitar jam. “When we started actually making the music, it was completely different to how I’d expected,” Joey notes.

“I’m an alien to that world. It was pretty intimidating,” says Ambrose. “When we were tracking, Joey and I were looking at each other and squirming at times. It’s so close to Joey’s heart that it was funny to watch him when there were questionable things going on in the jams. It’s a pretty unconventional garage electronic record.”

More unconventional still, there are two different versions of ‘The Silver Cord’: one where their jams are ruthlessly honed into a tight 28 minutes, and another where they’re allowed to sprawl across an hour and a half. At first, Stu says, “I felt like the short version was ‘canon’, but then there was this balls-to-the-wall psychotic version that crazy people like me listen to. I realised that actually, they complemented each other pretty nicely, and I also wanted to get away from the idea of the ‘canon’. I didn’t want it to be like ‘The Director’s Cut’, where there’s still scenes that aren’t graded properly. I wanted it to feel like we made the album twice at the same time, which we did. It’s probably not the smartest thing to just release them both at the same time, but it also feels truest to the project.”

Conventional industry wisdom would dictate that the band should hold the extended version back a while, to be sold as a ‘deluxe’ iteration a bit further down the line in order to maximise revenue. Yet this kind of thing doesn’t concern a band whose methods, though they might not expressly declare them as such, are ultimately anti-capitalist. “I’m pumped on that,” says Stu when the idea is put to him. “I wish I could be more anti-capitalist to be fully honest. It never feels good to ask people to buy shit; it doesn’t really feel in the spirit of being an artist. But if it allows you to keep making art, and keep travelling, making new shit up on the spot in front of people, then maybe it’s a necessary evil.”

The band’s earliest incarnation in fact came when Stu, Joey, and former drummer Eric Moore met while they were studying a course on the music industry at university, with bassist Lucas Harwood - an old friend of Stu’s - joining in the year below. “What we took away from it was what NOT to do,” says Joey. “We always questioned the conventions of why certain things have to happen a certain way. Stuff as simple as an ‘album cycle’, ‘have a manager or don’t’, or ‘don’t fucking jump genres with every album’.”

“I started uni in 2009,” Stu points out - an era in which music was in a state of flux as the file-sharing Wild West started morphing into streaming. “We were encouraged to just not engage with the old system as much as possible. We still sent our first two EPs to every label all over the world, but when no one wanted to do anything with it we were just like, ‘OK, fuck it, we’re gonna start a label. Let’s challenge this thing, and see what we can get away with’. I think we’re just bratty kids; the early days felt kind of naughty.”

“At the start, labels that we signed to were always trying to get into our heads, telling us to do all the normal things that every band does,” adds Ambrose. “I don’t think, even for a second, we ever really listened to them. Eventually they just stopped bringing it up!”

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard talk new album 'The Silver Cord' and look back on their huge career King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard talk new album 'The Silver Cord' and look back on their huge career
“I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, this is gonna be dope! King Gizzard does a club album!” - Joey Walker

The music industry has since changed monumentally, but that naughtiness has served the band well through the instability. It all revolves around that adrenaline junkie gene, Stu says. “My gut instinct is to find that place where we feel a bit frightened and nervous. The flip side to that is that you also feel alive. I don’t go skydiving or ride a motorbike; I just do this stuff instead.” It extends to the road, too. Their ‘no repeat’ shows, for instance, where across multiple nights they’ll perform entirely different setlists; their decision to perform “marathon” three-hour gigs. For their three-night residency at Colorado’s much-revered Red Rocks last year they did both at once: nine hours of playing and 86 different songs from across their discography, released as a 12xLP boxset shortly afterwards, naturally.

“There’s always times when it gets difficult,” admits Joey, “but we’re conscious of the things that, if they were allowed to proliferate, would stifle the whole process and make you resent it. The things we do, be it in the studio or onstage, keep us excited and engaged. It’s a mechanism for us to challenge ourselves and further the process. It can be annoying, or intimidating, but it’s always enriching, and it keeps you excited.”

Almost as impressive as the band’s ceaseless desire to be challenged is the way in which all six of them remain equally committed. Other than Eric, who departed in 2020 to focus more on his label Flightless, King Gizzard’s lineup has remained entirely consistent since their first record. That’s thanks in part to an increased focus on collaboration and shared writing beneath Stu’s leadership. Often, as with ‘The Silver Cord’, he now writes prompts for each song’s lyrics before handing them over to different members of the band. Joey is visibly nervous – “You’re revealing some deep shit, brother!” – as Ambrose pulls up an old Google Doc to use opening track ‘Theia’ as an example.

“Theia is a hypothesised planet that once had a binary orbit with Planet Earth. Eventually, Theia crashed into Earth, breaking a huge chunk off which coalesced into and became the moon,” he reads aloud. “It’s liberating for everyone to have a bit more input and to keep the lyric realm open, and it’s a fun way to write,” he adds.

Crucially, the amount of effort King Gizzard put into their creative output is matched by the amount they also devote to the less visible side of the operation: intra-band relationships, the assurance of equal creative fulfilment and an increasing level of attention to mental and physical health. It’s notable how easily they throw compliments each other’s way through our conversations. “You’re such a good songwriter, you have so much to say and contribute,” Joey tells Ambrose. “It’s taken us a long time to equalise and realise that talent, but now it’s this amorphous thing where our [individual] involvement is really dynamic. For some projects I won’t contribute as much, on some I do, and vice versa for everyone else. It’s the nature of the beast, and that’s really cool.”

“I don’t think it feels like a challenge,” says Stu on maintaining that equilibrium. “Honestly, it feels like a joy. They’re my best friends and I would literally do anything for all those guys. That really does outweigh the trying moments, the spats and the creative differences. Whenever there’s disharmony, which happens with any group of friends, everyone rallies around to try to fix it. We worked out a long time ago that friendships are way more important and way more special than any of the other shit. The whole thing is too important to sabotage.” As King Gizzard gets larger and larger, by now arguably the biggest cult band on the planet, “I still feel like I’m in someone else’s body,” he continues. “I combat that feeling of guilt by working hard.”

To call King Gizzard hard-working is both a cliche and an understatement. What’s really telling, though, is the number of levels on which that work is taking place. Rather than paradoxical, they have simply put enough effort in, both above and below the surface, to be two things at once: family men and nomads; industry eccentrics yet successful by any metric; a cohesive unit through the most stressful of circumstances, thrash metal titans and now, newfound voyagers in vintage electronica. In short, King Gizzard have achieved the perfect balance between their Yin and their Yang.

Don’t know where to start with King Gizzard’s sprawling back catalogue? Let us help you…

‘Quarters!’ (2015)

Having honed their craft as functional psych and garage rockers across their early releases, ‘Quarters!’ - four very different jazz-prog-psych-pop jams, each lasting exactly ten minutes and ten seconds - was the point that King Gizzard first started embracing the genre twists and conceptual thinking that defines them today.

‘Nonagon Infinity’ (2016)

Still perhaps unmatched over the 17 LPs they’ve released since, the blistering ‘Nonagon Infinity’ was the sound of King Gizzard firing on every cylinder. With the last track flowing back into the first, it’s so good that you could, in fact, play it over and over again forever.

‘Murder of the Universe’ (2017)

A sprawling three-part concept album about the boundaries between man and beast, the final third narrates the story of a cyborg on his quest to be able to vomit and die. What else could you need?

‘Butterfly 3000’ (2021)

Despite their native Melbourne imposing one of the strictest Covid lockdowns on earth, King Gizzard’s mission ploughed ahead unabated. Recorded entirely remotely, ‘Butterfly 3000’ saw a necessary pivot to beautiful synth-led songs, while also laying the foundations for new LP ‘The Silver Cord’.

‘Petrodragonic Apocalypse’ (2023)

Of all the forms King Gizzard have taken over the years, their thrash metal incarnation might be the funnest. First explored in full on ‘Infest The Rats Nest’, ‘Petrodragonic…’ was the brutal, bombastic Yin to ‘The Silver Cord’’s dreamy Yang.

‘The Silver Cord’ is out now via KGLW.

Tags: King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, From The Magazine, Features, Cover Features

As featured in the November 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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