The Wild, Wonderful World Of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

The Wild, Wonderful World Of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

Jason Galea

In the leadup to releasing three albums in one month, Melbourne's foremost festival-rocking psych adventurers usher us into the Gizzverse

What’s the best way to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of your debut LP? If you’re King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard and you’ve released 20 studio albums in that timeframe, you celebrate by announcing three more. “That was completely coincidental,” Stu Mackenzie assures me, marveling at the accidental synchronicity. Not that nodding to their own history while launching forward into an elaborate new chapter would be at all out of character for this band.

Mackenzie’s slender frame is immersed in a white quarter-zip. At 31, his former blonde metalhead mane is shorn to just above shoulder length. His boyish face mostly flashes contemplative expressions while answering questions but sometimes defaults back to the half-grin seen on stage just before some kind of lunatic outburst; somehow he looks friendly, bemused, and mischievous all at once. On my end of our video call, in the Eastern Time Zone, it’s still Sept. 7 — the same day the Melbourne psychedelic party rockers extraordinaire confirmed the titles and release dates of their three new full-lengths, all of which are dropping within a 21-day span this fall.

It also happens to be 10 years to the day since they released their first, 12 Bar Bruise. In the decade since that record’s fried echo-chamber psych-surf shenanigans, King Gizz have tried their hand at (among other things) a Spaghetti Western epic narrative, heady jazz fusion, dreamy psychedelic folk, prog-metal short stories, woozy soft rock, brain-melted boogie, charred primitivist thrash, panoramic synth-pop, and extensive experiments with microtonal composition — most of it merged seamlessly into the zany garage-punk jam-band vibe that has made them one of the most infectiously fun live acts in the world. They’ve also documented that concert experience via umpteen live albums and official bootlegs freely uploaded for their fans to download and distribute how they see fit. It’s a rare group that can convincingly blur the lines between Phish, Neu!, King Crimson, and the Osees while never sounding like anything less than themselves.

King Gizzard are a band in the classic sense, too collaborative to be perceived as some dude’s solo project. But Mackenzie is the group’s founder and chief driving force: the primary songwriter, the guitar virtuoso, the falsetto voice poking and prodding most tracks along, as well as the guy who records, often mixes, and sometimes even masters the records. For him, our conversation is taking place on the morning of Sept. 8. He’s home in Melbourne with his wife and daughter, recuperating between tours of separate continents, having briefly traded out the chaos of touring life for a different kind of chaos: that of life with a nearly two-year-old child. “Sleeping in a tour bus and going on tours probably prepared me well for extreme sleep deprivation,” Mackenzie says, only half-joking. After so many years playing rock ‘n’ roll until sunrise, waking up early with the kid still feels like a fresh challenge.

In all seriousness, this reprieve from the road has been much-needed. A month before our call, Mackenzie cut short King Gizzard’s jaunt through Europe and the UK due to health concerns. His whole life, he’s been suffering from Crohn’s disease, a debilitating and incurable inflammatory bowel condition. Normally he keeps the sickness under control by carefully managing his sleep, diet, and stress — not the easiest variables to control when living in transit for months at a time. This was the first time the symptoms got so intense that he needed to pull the plug on band activities and, by extension, to go public about his battle with Crohn’s.

“It’s been bad on tour before, but I think this time was a perfect storm,” he says. “Everything kind of happened all at once, and I was already doing a few different treatment kind of things, and that wasn’t working. Touring isn’t a great lifestyle for this disease. It’s actually not a great lifestyle for, like, any person in terms of health,” he says with a laugh. “It does often feel like a risk, every time you go away for a long time and you leave your healthy space and your support network and everything like that. But yeah, I just got too sick. It was just brutal, and I was kinda going downhill. And this was over the course of a fairly long amount of time. So I just had to make that call, which absolutely sucks. Really, really tough to make.”

Despite living with a chronic illness, Mackenzie is not accustomed to pressing pause. This is the guy whose band released five albums in 2017 alone — and who personally raced to finish the last of them over December’s final days to meet his own self-imposed deadline. In addition to the prolific studio output, King Gizzard tours so extensively that a 2019 study by the Institute Of Contemporary Music Performance ranked them among the hardest working bands in the world. Even when he was planted in Melbourne due to a global pandemic and the birth of his daughter, Mackenzie kept relentlessly creating, and the constant flow of new releases did not cease. Now the band is one-upping the five-albums-in-one-year stunt with three in a month — just half a year after releasing their first double-LP.

April’s two-disc behemoth Omnium Gatherum eschewed the kinds of creative parameters that tend to guide King Gizzard albums; the entire premise was that it documented the band convening after lockdown to triumphantly rock out as a unit once again. But that album’s stunning 18-minute opener proved to be the seed for a whole new conceptual exercise. Inspired by krautrock pioneers Can, Gizzard recorded an extended jam of “The Dripping Tap” — a kosmische rave-up punctuated by soulful outbursts worthy of Hall & Oates — and edited the best parts together into a thrilling, dynamic composition, essentially writing the song after they’d recorded it. “It was actually quite an inspiring process doing that,” Mackenzie says. “And then we thought, ‘We should make a whole record like this.’ And I think we kind of took it a step further in a lot of ways.”

King Gizz spent a week in the studio improvising in a different key and tempo each day. The resulting album, Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms And Lava, dropped last Friday, Oct. 7 — a month after that initial announcement and my ensuing chat with Mackenzie. It finds Gizzard leaning into the funky and percussive psychedelia popularized by Can and their 1970s German contemporaries, but not without detours into reggae (opener “Mycelium”) and Sabbath-worthy crunch (the climax of recent single “Iron Lung”). Known as Ice Death for short, it’s billed as the most collaborative King Gizzard album to date, including the lyrics, which feature contributions from everyone except drummer Michael Cavanagh. “With ‘The Dripping Tap,’ there was a song there before we started. We had a quote-unquote song,” Mackenzie says. “Whereas these ones, all we went in with was a tempo, a key signature, and a title. There was nothing else — no riffs, no melodies, nothing like that. We just went in there and picked up instruments and said, ‘Let’s go.'”

The second new LP of October — released today, just four days after Ice Death — also builds off of recent King Gizzard activity. Laminated Denim is a sequel to (and an anagram of) Made In Timeland, a vinyl-only release that came out in March. Timeland was initially designed as intermission music for marathon King Gizzard shows. They decided in advance that each of the project’s two songs would be 15 minutes long and set to a 60 bpm metronomic pulse that mimicked a ticking clock, and then they wrote within those constraints. The result was a pair of zonked, shapeshifting instrumentals that included several forays into EDM and felt more like the work of an experimental producer than a festival-slaying rock band. It was not your average King Gizzard record, if “your average King Gizzard record” is even something that exists.

Laminated Denim is King Gizzard’s attempt at a more collaborative iteration of the Timeland concept, a pair of motorik jams that feel more like cousins to the Ice Death sessions than an outgrowth of Timeland. This time the tempo is ramped up to 120 bpm, giving both songs a speeding-down-the-Autobahn urgency while still snapping into the ticking-clock framework. Mackenzie says the two tracks, “The Land Before Timeland” and “Hypertension,” are among his favorite King Gizzard songs ever. “Sometimes the boundaries you set for yourself kind of force you into a creative place that you wouldn’t have usually gone to or been comfortable with,” he adds.

The last new Gizzard album of the month, Oct. 28’s Changes, has been cooking for half a decade, and Mackenzie swears they needed every minute of that stretch to get the music right. “It was originally going to be the fifth album that we made in 2017,” he says. “We had it locked in to be the fifth record. And we recorded what we thought was going to be the album in 2017. It just wasn’t fully realized at that time. We didn’t have the musical vocabulary to actually complete this idea.” And what idea is that? “We’re kind of flicking between key like every chord change on every song,” Mackenzie explains. “It’s these two keys, and they shouldn’t be in tune with each other, basically. We’re sort of flicking between them the whole time.”

As originally conceived, Changes was going to be one long song, which ultimately became “Change,” a 13-minute odyssey touching on kaleidoscopic ’60s pop, color-splattered prog-rock fireworks, and floaty, keyboard-driven retro R&B. But that main composition kept spinning off smaller self-contained ideas. Per Mackenzie, “‘Change’ is the genesis of the whole record. And then ‘Hate Dancin’ is built out of one of the chord progressions from ‘Change.’ And then ‘Astroturf’ is built out of one of the chord progressions in ‘Change’ as well. And so is ‘Short Change,’ the last song. Every song on the album is built out of a section of ‘Change.’ So yeah, it’s funny how it worked like that. ‘Change’ is this sort of big monster, [this] genesis of little ideas, and the shorter songs on the album are like its children that it gave birth to over five years.”

Wilson Lee


Lake Perris is breathtaking. Ever since its completion in 1973, the artificial lake has sparkled amidst the speckled mountain ranges of Southern California about an hour east of Los Angeles, an oasis amidst the dusty expanse. Although designed first and foremost as a reservoir for the California State Water Project, the lake and its surrounding landscape are now a tourist destination. Lake Perris Recreation Area seems like an incredible place to hike and camp. It’s great for swimming, too, as Stu Mackenzie can attest.

We’re here for Desert Daze, the psych-leaning music festival that spent six years cycling through various SoCal locales before landing at Lake Perris in 2018. When I encounter Mackenzie in the artists’ catering area on the beach behind the main stage, he informs me he started off his day by taking a dip in the lake. It’s the last day of September, the first day of the first tour since the Crohn’s flare-ups became too much to bear. King Gizzard are fresh off a week in Burbank rehearsing for their tour across the hall from fellow Aussie psych legends Tame Impala, who’ve been working out their own Desert Daze performance of Lonerism. Today, dressed in a nondescript T-shirt and shorts, Mackenzie looks to be in good spirits and good health. As the afternoon drifts into evening, he sits at a table enjoying some low-key social time with his bandmates.

The current iteration of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard includes Mackenzie plus five more. Michael Cavanagh, universally referred to as Cavs, is the one remaining drummer after Eric Moore, who doubled as the band’s manager, departed two years ago to focus on running Flightless Records. Lucas Harwood plays bass. Cook Craig and Joey Walker join Mackenzie on guitar plus an assortment of keyboards and other instruments, not unlike the way supporting players Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone rotate through instruments in Wilco. But the real utility man is Ambrose Kenny-Smith, who toggles between harmonica, saxophone, guitars, keyboards, and percussion, and often springs to life as the group’s auxiliary lead singer — a hypeman-turned-frontman routine similar to Bob Nastanovich’s role in Pavement or Taysom Hill stepping behind center for the New Orleans Saints.

Wilson Lee

“We don’t represent that kind of corporate rock band. It’s just easy to be ourselves in that way.”

Stu Mackenzie

In one sense, the band’s contagious free-spirited chemistry is the product of many years of seasoning. In another sense, it was there from the start. In a trailer a few more yards down the shoreline, Kenny-Smith and Harwood tell me about the band’s origin in Melbourne in 2010, when the members were teenagers or barely into their twenties and King Gizzard was a loose collective with a revolving door. “We were all playing in bands, playing gigs in lineups together,” Harwood recalls. “Stu kind of started King Gizzard as this side project, just as this fun, easy party band that any of our friends could play in. It was just really simple songs — really easy song structures so anyone could join in any time. We literally just started playing parties, just having heaps of fun. And it was almost like something different from all the other bands we were in.”

Kenny-Smith was the last to join. He remembers being struck by what a blast a King Gizzard show could be compared to the serious-artiste projects he was seeing and playing in. “A lot of the bands were good bands in their own rights, but it was like everyone was just trying to be like Bob Dylan at 16,” he says. “Stu came along and was the lead guitarist kind of dude in all these bands, and when he started fronting Gizzard, it just had a little spark I guess. I went and watched these guys a few times at gigs, and it was just like, there’s just something in the air! It was like that scene in Wayne’s World where ‘Dream Weaver’ comes on. Just in love.”

By the time Kenny-Smith entered the band in 2011, the lineup had basically solidified. “It just started gathering steam,” Harwood recalls. “Warehouse gigs, real gigs in real venues, support slots, festivals.” One key milestone was their first invite to play Meredith Music Festival, which Harwood describes as “a bit of a hippie festival” in rural Victoria, Australia that’s not dissimilar to Desert Daze. “Our dream was to play there,” Kenny-Smith says. “Once we got the offer, we were like, ‘This is it, boys!'”

The band started releasing albums, and the opportunities kept coming. Michelle Cable, founder of the American booking and management company Panache, caught Gizzard’s live show in Australia and offered to book them in the States. At first, the band couldn’t afford to fly seven musicians and their gear halfway around the world. That obstacle was removed when Gizzard won the inaugural Carlton Dry Global Music Grant in 2013. The $50,000 prize, awarded by the Australian beer brand Carlton and the Australian Independent Record Labels Association, allowed the band to tour America for the first time in the summer of 2014, an era they all cite as a crucial turning point for the band.

“We did two tours,” Mackenzie later tells me. “The first one we just absolutely slogged it and beelined around the country. It was amazing. Played to no one the whole time. It was sick. And then we had this big break.” In the interim, the band rented a log cabin at Hunter Mountain in upstate New York, bought some cheap recording equipment off Craigslist, and spent five or six weeks writing, jamming, and finishing overdubs for their album In Your Mind Fuzz. “It was like fucking Disney or some shit,” Mackenzie says. “It was so beautiful. There were bears and hummingbirds and chipmunks, and it was so green and lush and beautiful.” On the other hand, “We kind of went insane at this house as well. It was pretty cabin fever.”

There were occasional reprieves from the insularity. On weekends, the band drove down to New York City from Hunter Mountain to play a weekly residency at the Brooklyn music club Baby’s All Right, going onstage at 3AM after the night’s previous show cleared out. “We only had a soccer-mom car, and I think it only had five seats,” Mackenzie remembers. “So we’d drive the five-seater into New York City, and two people would catch the bus because they didn’t fit in the car. And every week we’d rotate who had to catch the bus. So that was always fun.” The group extended these gigs into weekend-long outings, partying in the city, going to see other bands, and picking up extra shows of their own wherever they could. “Anywhere we were asked to play, we’d play,” he says. “Like, a gig’s a gig.”

Mackenzie remembers that summer as the moment King Gizzard “fully dived in the deep end.” They made lots of connections in the States and gained a more acute sense of how the band should function, both creatively and functionally on the road. “It was really important, actually,” he says. “I think it really shaped all the decisions that we made from then on. Like, ‘OK, this is what it’s like to be on tour.’ We thought we’d been on tour. Being on tour in Australia was like playing six cities and then you’re kinda done. Being on tour in America is this absolute endless sea of places you can play. It’s incredible. It’s really cool. So that’s pretty much what we’ve endlessly done since then: tour the US, tour Europe, just go get on a bus, just drive.”

When a friend group’s silly rock band becomes a business, the fun tends to seep out of it. These days King Gizzard are one of the most feverishly beloved cult bands in the world, and in their home country, their albums regularly chart in the top 10. Somehow, as they’ve risen to headliner status, the band has maintained that same loose, goofball spirit that first attracted Kenny-Smith. As he points out, you can’t take yourself that seriously when your band is called King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. So although they don’t spit on each other as much as they used to, they can still laugh at themselves on the rare occasion when they mess up onstage and have to start over — like the time in Croatia when the song fell apart and Craig filled up the silence with freestyle scatting.

“It’s kind of just baked into the DNA of what the band is,” Mackenzie says, outlining a free-flowing attitude that extends from the stage to the studio: “Every time we make a record, we try to make it the best record we can make and stuff. But I’ve always tried to avoid mindsets like ‘I’m gonna write the best song I’ve ever written’ or ‘I’m gonna make the best record I’ve ever made’ — there’s no competition within that. We’re just trying to make stuff. We’re just making music, making art, just trying to be creative for the sake of it, rather than trying to make something that’s gonna be more popular or successful or better than anything we’ve ever done before.”

He acknowledges that the stakes are higher now that they’re playing to huge crowds and people’s livelihoods are on the line, “but it’s almost made it more important to just be true to our roots. It probably is in the DNA of what people think the band is as well. Maybe the reason people like the band is because we don’t represent that kind of corporate rock band. It’s just easy to be ourselves in that way. Trying to be something that you’re not is actually the hard way.”

That ethos is fully on display at Desert Daze. King Gizzard take the beachside main stage at 11:30PM. Wearing the same unflashy outfit from backstage, Mackenzie greets thousands of moonlit festival-goers on the sand: “What’s up, cunts?” The guitars come raining down right away, beginning with the Omnium Gatherum crusher “Gaia.” The song’s snaking lead riffs resolve back into low-end metallic chug and, eventually, a hallucinatory extended jam culminating in a drum solo by Cavs. It’s an introduction very much in the spirit of this region’s so-called “desert rock.” As they double down on the heavy shit with the climate-change horror story “Planet B,” Mackenzie headbangs and flings water on the crowd. Soon cups of beer are flying, and people are crowdsurfing alongside an inflatable alligator. “Who’s on acid? Is anyone on acid?” Mackenzie inquires at one point. “That’s cool.”

Even the slow songs rock hard eventually. The band careens through the harmonica-blasted chicken-pickin’ of “Boogieman Sam” and opens up Russian nesting dolls of hypnotic splendor by inserting part of the Laminated Denim track “Hypertension” into the percussive Middle Eastern rocker “Static Electricity.” Things pop off to the extreme when Kenny-Smith grabs a mic and steps off his platform to roam free; when he rips into the climax of “Iron Lung,” performed live for the first time tonight, it feels like bombs are going off. But it’s Mackenzie who ignites the night’s most memorable moment. During the set-closing run through “The Dripping Tap,” he jumps into the audience and crowdsurfs all the way to the edge of the beach. And just like that, Mackenzie is back where he started his day: submerged in Lake Perris.


If crowdsurfing into a lake feels like the perfect encapsulation of the King Gizzard experience, it’s also become somewhat of a tradition for Mackenzie. “We have a thing that kind of has just happened naturally where whenever we play near a body of water I have to crowdsurf into it,” he tells me over on another video call from Seattle a few days later. It started years ago in Las Vegas when Mackenzie leapt into a pool by the stage where some of the audience was hanging out. The ritual has evolved significantly since then. In Italy, Mackenzie plunged into Mediterranean water that seemed to beckon him from the stage; in the Netherlands this year, people dumped him into a lake so muddy that his hair practically turned to dreadlocks. “The distances are getting further and further away over time,” he explains, citing an instance in Brighton a few years back when he crowdsurfed out of the venue, across a road, across a train track, down to the beach, and into the ocean: “That was pretty ridiculous. It was probably pretty stupid and pretty dangerous.”

Mackenzie was always this wild. He was born to young parents and grew up in small towns around the Australian province of Victoria. His mom is a nurse, and his dad has worked in environmental policy and local government. Though his parents never played in bands, music was a constant around the house. Mackenzie remembers his dad learning songs by the likes of Neil Young and Paul Simon and singing young Stu and his little brother to sleep, an experience that helped him develop a category for playing music himself. “I think they had more chill tastes than me,” Mackenzie recalls. “I was probably a bit more of a hyperactive, ratty kid. I wanted to listen to heavy metal and stuff,” whereas his folks erred on the rootsy, bluesy, folky side. “That all seeped in,” he says. “If you look at Gizzard’s music, there is a lot of that influence in there. But when I was a teenager I just wanted to listen to the most obnoxious, abrasive thing possible.”

The family moved around a lot as his father changed jobs. Mackenzie spent the largest chunk of his childhood in a little surf village called Anglesea: “Very cute. Very beautiful. Very nature-based.” The other longest stint was in the small country town called Wangaratta, where Nick Cave was once expelled from high school. For Stu’s teenage years, the Mackenzies settled in “rough and tough” Geelong, the second largest city in Victoria after Melbourne. In Geelong, Mackenzie started joining bands and forming the relationships that would lead to King Gizzard. Through school he met future bandmates Cook Craig and Lucas Harwood, who in turn introduced him to Ambrose Kenny-Smith. As soon as they could, they all moved two hours down the road to Melbourne and immersed themselves in music.

“Melbourne was, and I suppose still is, the beating heart of the Australian live music community,” Mackenzie says. He fully dedicated himself to that world. “I just couch-surfed for, I don’t know, five years or something? My only possession was, like, a Fender Strat and a guitar amp and probably like one guitar lead. And I just played music and did basically as much of that as I possibly could. Just literally ate ramen noodles constantly and just played music.” In Melbourne, he connected with dozens of other musicians, including eventual bandmates Eric Moore, Joey Walker, and Michael Cavanagh. “I guess the common thing was everyone was obsessed with music and didn’t really want to do anything else except play shows and go to shows.”

Jason Galea

The only thing Mackenzie wanted to do more than perform music was record music. “From the start we thought, ‘OK, we’ll probably make a lot of records,'” he says, asserting that King Gizzard started as a recording project first and foremost. Early on, songwriting was “just an excuse to set up mics and see how things sounded through the speakers. That was just some kind of crazy alchemy to me at the time. And it still is, actually. It still is a major factor as to why we make so many records.” Eventually, as King Gizzard evolved and the live performance became similarly inspiring for Mackenzie, the gigs began to influence the recording process as much as his compulsion to tinker with gear. “And so they’ve kind of become more intertwined as well. And then away we go into Gizz World.”

That feedback loop from studio to stage and back includes King Gizzard’s fan base, who’ve encouraged the band to play ever more diverse setlists and still readily purchase each new release, even when the output is at its most voluminous. In 2017, in the midst of releasing five albums in a year, the band sought to reward that loyalty. “We wanted to make one [album] free because I guess we were just conscious of asking our fans to buy stuff all the time,” Mackenzie remembers.

They chose Polygondwanaland, for reasons Mackenzie explains: “In my mind it was obvious that it had to be this one that was free because it was maybe the one that we spent the most time on. It was maybe the one that was the most thought-out, specifically. I don’t even believe that that’s a recipe to make the best record. I actually don’t really believe in that as a core concept of being an artist or anything. But it just felt obvious that it had to be this one. If it was any of the others people would question that maybe we hated it.” Gizzard being Gizzard, the process was more involved than simply posting a zip file of Polygondwanaland MP3s. The band shared links to artwork and the master recordings and allowed fans to make and sell their own pressings of the album. “Ever wanted to start your own record label?” they wrote on Facebook at the time. “GO for it! Employ your mates, press wax, pack boxes. We do not own this record. You do. Go forth, share, enjoy.”

For Mackenzie, it was thrilling to see listeners grab the baton: “There’s hundreds and hundreds of different versions of that record out there that people have created.” Inevitably, Polygondwanaland became the first entry in what’s now known as the Bootlegger program, wherein Gizzard have posted several dozen live shows and demos collections, encouraging fans to release them in various physical formats, with alternate cover art, even mixing and matching the tracklists. He laments that he hasn’t yet been able to clean up the “heaps” of unreleased demos and concert recordings for the bootleggers. “There’s more material than anyone has time to actually go through. So maybe one day when I retire, that’ll just be my job. Literally just mixing recordings from like 20, 30 years ago or something.”

It is difficult to imagine a future in which this guy has given up creating new music and is simply playing librarian to his own archive. Mackenzie doesn’t write much on the road these days, unless you count workshopping new songs onstage. He finds that all his mental energy has to go into putting on the best, most unhinged King Gizzard concert imaginable — that and staying on top of his health, which has been much more stable on this October outing through the West. From Seattle, he assures me he’s been feeling as good as the band has been sounding. The enthusiasm bodes well for another creative outpouring in the coming months, once these three new albums are released and Mackenzie returns home from the current tour. It’s too early to tease anything, but you can rest assured that work on the next few albums is already underway.

Wilson Lee

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