Inside the strange world of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, the most eclectic and prolific guitar band on Earth

Stu Mackenzie
(Image credit: Jen Rosenstein)

They’d made 20 albums in 10 years. Then they released three new albums – yes, three – in the last month. But there is method in this madness, as King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s affable vocalist, co-guitarist and head honcho Stu Mackenzie explains. 

“There’s always a plan when we make an album,” he says. “Sometimes it’s still being formulated throughout the process, and sometimes it’s more of a mission statement, a manifesto. Usually we’ll have a couple of songs that have one vibe and some that have another, so we join the ones that have similar themes then write more songs like that. It’s like we’re creating brothers and sisters for them.”

Since their 2012 debut 12 Bar Bruise, this Melbourne-based collective have populated their ‘Gizzverse’ with their own trippy cocktail of garage-psych rock, proggy jams, thrash metal and world music. 

From the thrilling experiments of 2017’s Flying Microtonal Banana to the balls-out metal of 2019’s Infest The Rats’ Nest, their catalogue shows how compelling and eclectic they are. And in 2022, they’ve been more prolific than ever before.

April saw release of their 20th LP, Omnium Gatherum – their first double album – which embraced alt-rock, hip-hop, space rock, metal, jazz, soul and more. And in October came three albums in quick succession: first, Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms And Lava, then Laminated Denim, and finally Changes.

This vast array of brand-new material shows the serious musicality beneath their veneer of hip quirk – the band embracing modal jams, polyrhythmic intermission music and some woozy exercises in rapid key modulation. It’s unbelievable when listening to it, but Omnium Gatherum seems to have been the most straightforward affair.

“We didn’t intend to make a double,” Stu says. “We just had heaps of songs. That one felt less focused than other releases, but on purpose. We didn’t go in with an overarching concept and that felt nice. It was just about each song really being its own little thing, and that was liberating. We could take some different paths we usually wouldn’t go down, approach ideas that felt daunting or unrealistic to do for a whole record, and just try some things out.”

Things like hip-hop. The spacey, ’60s-psych jazz of Kepler 22-b is powered by an irresistible breakbeat pulse, and The Grim Reaper and Sadie Sorceress saw the band channeling Beastie Boys-style rap smarts. 

Those tunes were also unconventionally written – the blueprints were based on chopped-up samples from Mackenzie’s bargain-bin world music LPs, and those ideas were then expanded on by the band, completed by co-guitarists/vocalists Cook Craig and Joey Walker, Ambrose Kenny-Smith (vocals, keys, harmonica), Lucas Harwood (bass) and Michael Cavanagh (drums). 

There are proggy/jazzy moments (Evilest Man) and catchy, retro tunes (Blame It On The Weather), along with some heavy stuff. Mackenzie reaches for his Gibson Holy Explorer on the Iron Maiden-esque Gaia – which gallops along in proggy sub-divisions of 9/8 – and the Judas Priest-like Predator X, one of the album’s unabashed metal moments. 

A leftover from last year’s Butterfly 3000 LP, the funky, eastern-flavoured Magenta Mountain has a beautiful riff whose lines shift from a major to minor pentatonic feel, the song opening in F# then gravitating towards its relative minor, Eb minor. “I have grown to love pentatonics,” Stu says. “There’s something about it which is just so inherently melodic, and so much music is built around that scale. The trick with it is to try to make something that still feels unique, original, and fresh.”

Stu Mackenzie

(Image credit: Jen Rosenstein)

The album’s relentless opener The Dripping Tap features some drop D, Mixolydian guitar madness set to an irresistible motorik beat (complete with wailing harmonica), and such modal experimentation forms the backbone of the first of their three new releases...

Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava takes its title from the band’s mnemonic for the order of the seven modes of the major scale: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. Convening at Gizz HQ – their large rehearsal space on the outskirts of Melbourne – they would spend one day jamming on each individual mode, then go back through the five or six hours of music recorded, and sift it for the most interesting moments, then arrange. 

“The concept there was to not prepare anything,” Stu says, “to just roll tape and capture everything. We record the main tracks, a day per song, but there’s a lot of content in there. We went back through all the recordings, which took an absurd amount of time, energy and patience, and grabbed all the parts that had a vibe, that didn’t sound like anything we’d ever done before.”

With sax and organ, the gentle, almost Caribbean Mycelium is their Ionian moment, an easy vamp on the Eb and F minor – the mode’s first two chords in Eb. But perhaps typically for such an unorthodox group, the major scale wasn’t King Gizzard’s starting point. 

“We attacked the modes in the order we felt comfy with them,” Stu explains. “We started with [the funky single] Ice V, which uses the Dorian mode, then went Mixolydian [the catchy 13-minuter Hell’s Itch], Phrygian [the jazzy Magma], the straight minor [or Aeolian, on the wah wah-packed, flute-flecked Iron Lung], then Ionian for Mycelium.”

It’s easy to play Locrian and sound dissonant, but I wanted us to sound deliberate and melodic, but maintain the loose, freewheeling feeling of the jam it came from

Which leaves many guitarist’s favourite mode, the Lydian, and the frequently neglected Locrian, whose b2, b3, b5, b6 and b7 offer little in the way of conventional, consonant tonality.

“Locrian was easily the hardest,” Stu says. “We were nervous about it so left it last! It’s easy to play Locrian and sound dissonant, but I wanted us to sound deliberate and melodic, but maintain the loose, freewheeling feeling of the jam it came from. We’d done all these other jams beforehand, so once we got into a groove and a pattern, that one, which we called Gliese 710, kind of clicked.”

The Lydian piece, Lava, comes with flute, sax, and wah’d guitar, giving that brightest of all modes a woozy, hypnotic, psychedelic feel. “That was hard for us,” he says. “We tend to sit on the tonic – the I – and explore it, but Lydian has that sharp four, which means it’s inherently floating outside of its tonic – it doesn’t want you to sit on the I. 

“A lot of our music is muscular and strong and powerful, and Lydian is none of those things. It’s like a cloud, like air – unsolid. Funnily enough the straight‑up major scale/Ionian was quite challenging as well. It was about finding something that didn’t feel too happy, too ‘Disney’.”

With a piano, drumkit and an assortment of spanking new and knackered old synths also in the room, King Gizzard’s three guitarists would share their instruments – Mackenzie’s trademark 1967 Yamaha Flying Samurai, Walker’s Gibson SG, Craig’s Fender Jazzmaster. Mackenzie went through his sole guitar amp, a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, using its dirty channel, and his go-to fuzz pedal, an old Devi Ever Torn’s Peaker.

The following album, Laminated Denim, was made as an intermediate step between Omnium Gatherum and Ice, Death’s modal explorations. In 2020, the band were meant to play at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. 

Two 15-minute intermissions were built into their mammoth, three-hour performance, so they had produced two pieces of music to play during those breaks as a clock ticked down – at its natural 60BPM – on the stage’s screen. 

Due to the pandemic, the Red Rocks show was pushed back to this October, and, being who they are, the band couldn’t resist making two brand-new tracks for the same purpose. The Land Before Timeland and Hypertension are motorik, guitar-heavy frenzies, and masterclasses in how powerful repetition in musical can be.

Stu Mackenzie

(Image credit: Tim Fenby)

“We actually started Laminated Denim before Ice, Death,” Stu says, “but they were recorded in a similar fashion. It was entirely improvised. We had a click track in our ears because there’ll be a clock ticking down on the screen, and both songs are a polyrhythm to that – I think one might be 150 and 180 – they work with the 60BPM, so the clock becomes a polyrhythm to the tempo of the tracks. Guitar-wise, we stripped things back a lot – I’m playing the Yamaha with my Cry Baby wah and a fuzz. Cook’s on his Jazzmaster, Joe’s on his SG.”

The Red Rocks show is part of the second US leg of the band’s extensive world tour this year. Live, Mackenzie keeps just three electric guitars on stage – his Flying Samurai, which he keeps in standard or drop-D tuning, his custom Gibson Holy Explorer, tuned to C# standard [C#, F#, B, E, G#, C# – great for metal], and his Flying Banana guitar for the microtonal songs. 

Attached to his guitar by his Divine Noise Curly Cable, his live pedalboard’s pretty sparse – the Torn’s Peaker fuzz, Cry Baby, JHS Superbolt overdrive, Boss DD-3 Distortion and a Boss TU-3 tuner. Craig has two Jazzmasters – one in standard, one in C# standard – while Craig’s SG shares a stand with a Flying V, and his own microtonal guitar.

But the guitar is only one strand in King Gizzard’s musical fabric. Their final 2022 album, Changes, came about from Mackenzie’s noodlings on the piano, which leads him to very useful tip for budding composers: “I’m a big believer in writing on an instrument you don’t feel very comfortable on. I love guitar – it’s far and away the instrument I feel the most comfy on and I’ll always play it. But unless you try very hard not to, you can get stuck in certain ruts, of playing the same thing, of using the same patterns. 

“There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re aware of it, but that’s why I love composing on a piano. The separation of lines between your left and right hands means you can sketch out parts for three people – one playing chords, one playing bass, then one playing a melody. Then you can give this a rough idea to three players who can flesh the parts out.”

All seven tracks on Changes are predicated on an idea Mackenzie came up with, on piano, of modulating quickly between the keys of D major and F# major, and exploring the fresh, surprising tonal possibilities this unusual marriage of keys brings. From the cycling A/B chords of the playful title track to the spacey Astroturf, from the bluesy No Body (some great, spare lead playing here) to the motorik Gondii, the band make this pleasingly muso exercise a highly listenable one.

“Those two scales are so different,” he says. “They contain very few of the same notes. I wanted to make it sound pretty, beautiful, and not too melodically weird. I’d just never heard anyone do this before. I’m sure there are jazz records like this, but this doesn’t feel like jazz. The challenge was to make it not sound like jazz to the listener.

Everything we did was unlistenable! I’d be looking at my guitar neck and be like, ‘F**k, what scale am I in?!’

“It’s just a weird experiment, a study. When we first had the idea back in 2017 we tried to make a record out of it, but couldn’t. Everything we did was unlistenable! I’d be looking at my guitar neck and be like, ‘Fuck, what scale am I in?!’ But there was something catchy about it, and every time I’d sit in front of any keyboard I would oscillate between those two scales, and every now and then land on something pretty. 

“It took five years of tinkering in the background, but slowly it came together. My favourite records that we’ve made as a band have always been ones I felt we couldn’t have made a few years ago. They feel like progressions or signposts along the road.” 

And even over these past five years, King Gizzard have come far. It’s how they’ve been able to come up with four compelling, extraordinary albums on the bounce this year. Stu reckons they’ve developed as players together, and – crucially – they’re listening to what each other are doing better than ever before. “We jam for a little bit,” he says, “so you’re conversing in a certain way, musically. And if you’re talking all day, by the end you’ve said some fairly interesting things...”

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Grant Moon

Grant Moon is the News Editor for Prog magazine and has been a contributor to the magazine since its launch in 2009. A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, Big Big Train - Between The Lines, is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.