INTERVIEW

In their latest quest to evolve the garage band archetype these Australians have dropped their electric guitars in favour of flutes, clarinets and pastoral pop.

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“It’s funny. I don’t really think of us as a psych band,” laughs King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Stu Mackenzie, almost knowingly. Even from 30,000 miles away I can sense the polite resignation that inevitably comes whenever a journalist asks a band to pigeonhole themselves as one style of music or another. “Early on we were more influenced by classic rock and old ’60s pop, and after a while we started to feel like we needed to experiment a bit more and kind of play around with the things that we we’re doing, so I guess the psychedelic thing slowly crept its way in.”



You can see where he’s coming from – in a way, psychedelia is the laziest term in music. Since the mid-to-late ’60s it’s a catch-all that has been gleefully slapped on almost anything that deviated from the mainstream pop a little; from the pulsating hypnotic jams of Cream and Pink Floyd, right up to the idiosyncratic house of Phuture or Bomb the Bass. Thing is, though, it’s a term that fits King Gizzard perfectly.

Since emerging from Melbourne’s fertile music scene about five years ago, the band has built their name on sprawling, far-out rock recalling some of the godfathers of the psychedelic scene such Mothers of Invention and Hawkwind.

Unsurprisingly, King Gizzard’s gateway to the obscure end of the rock spectrum began in the garage rock revival of the late 2000s, when the likes of Black Lips and Thee Oh Sees were at the height of their powers. “I think garage is a kind of music that really appeals to teenagers – in a good way,” muses Mackenzie, describing the band’s beginnings. “It’s loud and fun and sort of careless, which I at least was when I was a teenager.”


While garage rock’s brash, give-a-fuck attitude is liberating, the music can sometimes be pretty rigid and King Gizzard soon looked to expand their horizons. “I felt that I needed to dig deeper and get into weird obscure stuff, that’s how I got into middle eastern garage comps,” says MacKenzie. “I still feel like we can do a lot with garage rock – in a way, you’re free to add whatever you want to it as long as you keep the same attitude. It’s more like, ‘what would happen if we add this kind of sound, or play it this kind of way?’”

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A dedication to the ‘release and be damned’ ethos of garage rock lies at the very core of King Gizzard’s approach to music. Their music might be miniature space operas filled with reverb, tape echo and over-layed vocals, but the band’s release schedule is brutal to say the least.

Since putting out their debut album, ‘Willoughby’s Beach’, in October 2011, King Gizzard have released a new album at the rate of roughly one every six months. They even seem to be accelerating – 2014 saw ‘Oddments’ and ‘I’m in My Mind Fuzz’, while 2015 has already seen the critically-acclaimed ‘Quarters’ realised, with the band’s follow up, ‘Paper Mache Dream Balloon’, due to drop in the next few weeks.



Most acts would kill to be so prolific, but for MacKenzie it’s all just part of the process. “We’ve never really spent that much time or money on a recording, so I feel that we maybe approach it a bit differently to some people. We don’t really make the kind of music that you can polish that much – super polished rock songs sound a bit weird to me. We try to make songs that have a certain kind of vibe to them, and you can do that over any timescale or budget.”


This punishing workflow has resulted in a remarkable ramp up in the band’s evolutionary process. Over a three-year period King Gizzard has covered more sonic territory than some bands manage in their entire career.

However, while last year’s ‘Oddments’ and ‘Mind Fuzz’ saw them tame and perfect heavy, hypnotic space rock, 2015 has seen the band shoot off down some unexpected tangents. ‘Quarters’, released back in May, saw King Gizzard move into more pastoral planes, with four extended jams and a sound that owed more to Can and Sun Ra Arkestra than Zappa. The band’s forthcoming ‘Paper Mache Dream Balloon’ sees them veer off into sugar-coated sunshine pop, composed with a vast array of acoustic instruments and recalling the gentle Californian folk-beat of Crosby Stills, Nash and Young and the Beach Boys during their ‘Smile’ experiments.


“Every record we’ve made we’ve tried to have a bit of a theme or explore a path,” explains MacKenzie as we talk about the band’s recent evolutions. “With ‘Quarters’ we were trying to explore longer song formats without going into heavy music. We wanted to make it melodic but also drearily repetitive and see what that does to people’s brains. It has been the most jammy record we’ve done in a lot of ways – the songs weren’t really written before we recorded them, we just went to the studio with these ideas and tried them out in whole heap of different ways and stitched them together later.”


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The reason behind this radical change of style is as much to do with reaching a creative dead end as it is searching out new sonic horizons. “‘Mind Fuzz’ was the record we worked on the most and spent the most energy on,” MacKenzie offers, thoughtfully. “We spent a lot of time touring, both in Australia and overseas and I suppose we’d burned ourselves out in a way. I think we naturally gravitated towards doing something that was a bit more relaxed, a bit more chilled and even a bit more free. With ‘Quarters’ none of us knew any of the songs until three days before we were meant to record – it was really creative way of working and actually quite liberating: definitely a cool way to make a record.”



As well as exploring new horizons for the band, ‘Quarters’ has also had the unintended consequence of expanding King Gizzard’s critical appeal, with the record even being nominated for ‘Best Jazz Album’ at this year’s ARIA Awards. “That was surprising, I never would’ve considered it a jazz album,” laughs MacKenzie when I mention it. “There’s definitely some jazz influences in there, but by the modern definition of jazz, it’s definitely not jazz. But, y’know, I’m flattered we were nominated, but I don’t think we’ll win – though I’m sure the rest of the nominees are all horrified.”


‘Paper Mache Dream Balloon’ is an even more radical sounding record for King Gizzard than ‘Quarters’. While the latter saw the band take their conceptual approach to record-making in strange new directions, ‘Paper Mache’ sees the group completely reject the whole idea of conceptual music. Bursting with delicate pop hooks, sunshine melodies and joyous flute and clarinet solos, it’s almost the complete opposite to the hard-rocking space rock the band has made their name with.

“I guess they both kind of explore the quieter side of the band,” says MacKenzie in his typically understated way.

“‘Paper Mache’, again, comes back to being a bit bummed out with the way we were making records. After ‘Quarters’ we immediately began work on another heavy, concept album but found that we’re a bit tired of making concept albums. Sometimes intellectualising rock and roll is kind of dumb, and I think we needed a break from doing that stuff and this was the break.”


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The development of King Gizzard’s visual identity over the last 12 months has been as remarkable as their sonic evolution. Beginning as a conceptual project, the band’s sonic exploration has often been linked with a strong sense of artistic direction, and you can always count on the band to package their records in a bold sleeve. “It’s always been important to us to work with people who get where we’re coming from in a visual sense. It’s something we’ve always thought about, and it’s funny how seeing a visual interpretation of music can sometimes change the way you hear it,” stresses MacKenzie, who is keen to link King Gizzard’s artwork to the music.

“Humans are visual animals; it’s our primary sense. As much as most of us love music, we still visualise everything and it’s interesting and cool to manipulate that idea.”

 From the start, the band has worked almost exclusively with Melbourne-based artist Jason Galea, who has built a striking visual language for the band. Mixing old horror tropes and Saturday morning cartoons, his warped pastiche of the psychedelic record covers of the late ’60s and early ’70s is as recognisable as a part of King Gizzard as the band’s love of hypnotic space rock.


“He’s a very clever man,” beams MacKenzie as the conversation turns to the band’s long running relationship. “He tours with us and does our light show and is a big part of the band. He’s always involved in what we’re working on and what direction we’re going in and we usually have some concepts and ideas for the visuals long before a record is finished.”



Describing the band’s relationship with Galea as “very hand in hand”, MacKenzie is fascinated to see how the artist has began to quietly subvert his own back catalog with the artwork for King Gizzard’s last two records.

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“I can’t take any credit and Jace is really amazing and what he does,” he says excitedly. “With ‘Quarters’, it’s got the four panels and each one represents each of the songs with lots of subtle references to the songs. With ‘Paper Mache’ I was showing Jace some of the early demos of some of the songs, he got really pumped on this idea of making these little, tiny plaster models of us. It had this weird, quaint model trainset kind of vibe.”



So if 2015 has been a something of a holiday for the band, will 2016 see them getting back into ‘heavy’ music? It’s a prospect that MacKenzie is clearly excited about. “We were always supposed to release a heavy record straight after ‘Quarters’, so it was always the next logical step,” he says.



“I think one of the guys was pretty wasted at the Australian Independent Music Awards and he gave some potentially true or potentially sarcastic comments. I think he said it was ‘heavier than Slayer’ which is definitely not true, and musically unlistenable, which is pretty funny. I’ve got a soft spot for Motorhead and things like that, but yeah, we’re not going to suddenly go heavy metal.”

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