Jun 11, 2021
By Jake Uitti
Photography by Jason Galea
Often, when listening to the dense, lush, lively music of Australian band, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, the idea of people dancing mesmerized around a fire comes to mind. The group has a vast, at times cultish following that is borne from the band’s at times labyrinth-like songs. If a record was a menu, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s music would offer a cornucopia feast.
The group’s latest album, Butterfly 3000, which is out today, exhibits this signature baroque quality. But, unlike past records, the LP smiles more, instead of sneering or smirking. It’s more hopeful, made in a time when despair wasn’t hard to come by. We caught up with King Gizzard’s frontman and principle songwriter, Stu Mackenzie, to ask him about this tonal shift, how he first found music, and much more.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find music, when did it enter your world in a significant way as a young person?
Stu Mackenzie: Well, my dad would sing my brother and I to sleep every night. He wasn’t a musician-musician. But he was a young father and he took it upon himself to learn how to play guitar, you know, while he was having kids. He would call it a Zen experience, a meditative thing that he would do. He would just sing and maybe slightly improv or hum away or learn a song, or something. It was his release probably after a busy day at work, as well. So, I think that’s probably the earliest significant thing that feels important. He was doing that before I remember him doing that, or at least he tells me that he was.
Does that connect with why you invested in music more seriously?
I mean, if you had asked me when I was younger and starting to get into music in a big way, I would have said no. But, I don’t know. Being a little more mature now, maybe with a little hindsight starting to realize that perhaps was a formative experience. So, the answer to that is I’m not sure and I might have a better answer for you in 10 more years.
But yeah, early on, the music I was into and the kind of music that really hit me and really made me want to explore it was not the music that dad was singing to me. Dad was singing to me, like, folk music, mostly, or Americana or country. Something that you could sing in an average dad style with an acoustic guitar. In that realm. But the music where I started to think, “Oh yeah, I want to do that.” Not just listen to it—like, I want to be that. It was heavy metal and rock music.
It was music that was about energy. That was the thing I was into as a teenager. I picked up guitar a lot later than my friends. But I don’t know. I’m not sure I can connect the dots. I think now—I think some of the music that I’ve made, it defiantly connects with the type of music Dad would have exposed me to as a young person. But at the time, it was like, “Nah, I want to fuck shit up!” Do you know what I mean
Yeah! It’s funny, the music you make now is a bit of a blend of both the country and heavy metal. And I wonder, in conjunction with that, how where you grew up influenced the way you thought and think about composition? Did the topography affect you at all, for example?
Definitely. Dad would have been singing me, like, I don’t know, let’s say half of the music would have been American and maybe a quarter or a third of it would have been Australian and the other part of it would have been from the rest of the world. There was a lot of Australian music. There was one particular artist who is not well known in the States, called, Paul Kelly, who is an Australian music icon. He plays music in the realm of, like, folk and soft rock, I suppose, which was big in the ’80s and ’90s. But he was a lyrical genius, you would say, as well. A lot of his music, too.
I’m thinking about, too, when you say “topography.” I grew up in the country, in central Victoria, which is, like, pretty rural. It’s pretty farm-style, vineyards and it’s pretty dry. It’s pretty Aussie, actually. It’s kind of rough country out there, it’s hard. And then when I was 10 or 11, we moved to a seaside town, which was much more surf—that version of Australian culture.
So, it was two very different sides there. And people listened to different music in those places, too, which was interesting. As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to be even more open-minded with music. I’ve tried to subscribe to the idea that if I don’t like something, I don’t understand it. I don’t think I was like that as a young person.
One more biographical question: I’m sure you could write a book about the band, but when the band first got together, how did you find and then dig into the chemistry of the group?
That’s hard to sum up in only a couple sentences, but I’ll try. What’s important to note, I think, in our little story is that we all played in bands before King Gizzard and many of us actually in bands together with other members of King Gizzard. So, I was in a band with Cookie [Cook Craig]. I was also in a band with Lucas [Harwood]. And then Lucas was in a band with Ambrose [Kenny-Smith]. [Past member] Eric [Moore] grew up with Cavs [Michael Cavanagh].
Much later on, not long before King Gizzard started, Lucas and Cavs and I were in another band together, as well. I feel like there’s even more links! Anyway, I guess we’re all intertwined. And we were playing music together already. So there was an established dynamic and an established chemistry between a lot of us already. It is really important. It kind of is everything in a band. And it’s something that’s, like, so overlooked when you’re starting a band with people, I think. It’s not about how good anyone is. It’s about how well you play together.
It’s so true.
And those things are really hard to quantify and they’re really hard to understand until you do it. I think you can learn those things, too. Sometimes you have an immediate connection with someone, which I would say I did with Cavs. I remember the first time I played with him, I was like, “This guy’s my favorite drummer I’ve ever played with.” Other people, it’s like, “Whoa, this guy makes music is a completely different way than me. I don’t get it.”
But over time, you learn from that person. And I’d say maybe that’s more similar to my relationship with Ambrose. And then you learn a lot of things from that person because they make decisions that you would never, ever make. And that’s beautiful and that’s amazing. So, I guess, going back to those early years, King Gizzard was like our jam band. Not jam band as a genre like it exists in the U.S. But jam band as in we would play shows where we didn’t—like, we were all in other bands that all felt not “serious” but we had songs and we’d been around for a while and played lots of shows, and all that stuff.
King Gizzard was like the “fun band” where nothing really mattered. We would open bills on purpose and play as early as possible, so the least amount of people were there. We never rehearsed, on purpose. We were like, we need to make songs that are simple enough so we can just get up there and play and anyone can jump on stage and the lineup was fluid. Sometimes we’d play just the three of us and sometimes we’d play with 10 or 12 of us.
It was just a friendly thing. The members that we ended up with were just the ones that stuck around, I guess. Or just felt it, liked making music in that way. But I will also say, it did take us several years until I felt like we were really playing together. It wasn’t until maybe the Float Along—Fill Your Lings era  that it started to feel like we were a band and we were listening to everyone, not just the person in the room whose amp is the loudest. That took years, it really did take years.
Generally, what was the genesis of the new album? And I’ll ask that by adding that it sounds a bit brighter than maybe your last record or two. Did you think about that tone at all, is that accurate to you?
This record started to come together in 2019 when we were making Chunky Shrapnel, which was this concept film thing that we did. The film had a bunch of interstitial soundtracks and when we were experimenting, trying to figure out what it should be, we ended up landing on a lot of synthesizer-based, modular synthy loops, odd time signature.
We were just experimenting with this thing that felt like it had a vibe. For the film, we ended up using a lot of the darker sounding pieces, moodier, because the film is moody. But we ended up with a bunch of these recordings that just felt so uplifting. And maybe unlike anything that we’ve ever done. And they were just, like, synth loops or a synthesizer sequence that was played through a machine and oscillated and stuff.
The first song that came together for the record was “Dreams” and it came from a recording we did for Chunky Shrapnel. Because we just kept coming back to this recording, like, “What is that? It sounds really different and I like it!” Yeah, I guess we made a few, maybe more than a few, lyrically and mostly sonically dark, moody, depressing albums about how fucked the world is, generally, amongst other things but focusing on that lot.
And then living through this period of time where, you know, the world in so many ways was genuinely unfolding and exploding in front of our eyes. It just felt like the wrong thing to do to just continue to sing about it. Like, everyone knows the world is fucked now, man! So, I guess we started to, perhaps subconsciously, focus more on an escapist idea. And really leaning on brighter textures and uplifting ideas.
I think it was because it was just such a depressing time. It felt like an escape for us and for me. It was like, I’m just going to go live in my fantasyland and make fucking synth loops for a while! [Laughs] So, that’s the genesis. Those early songs like “Dreams,” “Ya Love,” and “Black Hot Soup,” those came together first. At the time, it wasn’t an album, it was like, “I’m just going to make music. I don’t know what this is yet.” But once a few started to come together, they had some mutual lyrical themes and we started to piece together this record. We wanted to lean on brighter textures because it felt right. It was also just challenging. We’ve made a lot of records that are scary. This one isn’t.
The band has made a lot of records. Is there something that you attribute to personally to this prolific nature? Is there something you’ve sacrificed to manifest it all or is it just one note after the other?
I’ve definitely sacrificed a fair amount of my normal life-ness, which is fine because I like it. Actually, I really like recording. I love touring, I love making music in a live sense and I love making music with other people, and stuff. But I think the heart and soul of who I am and the thing about music that I find the most fascinating is recorded music. It’s just the thing that keeps getting me.
There are so many ideas I want to explore. I guess that doesn’t explain putting out a lot of records, though it does explain why I do it a lot. I think it’s also helpful for me, personally, to make something and finish it. I work really hard to make it as good as it can be and then I release it and just get it out. So many people I’m friends or make music with or peers, they—maybe I’m not a perfectionist.
I know what you mean.
I like things to just be free because I like it when something is out and you can’t change it anymore and it’s just done and here comes the next thing.
It’s the only way you can move on.
It’s the only way you can move on. It’s like turning the page. So, making a record feels like turning a page. It’s the best feeling, it’s the most liberating feeling because you’re holding onto an entire album of ideas and melodies and words and just riffs and stuff and they’re all just sitting in your head because you’re constantly thinking. You wake up in the morning and it’s like, “I got to change that lyric.” Or I just realized a part doesn’t work. And to be free of that is just the best.
You have very ardent fans, it seems to me. Maybe obsessive, in a way. I’m sure you’re very happy and thankful for their support, but how do you think about your audience when you make new work? Is it in the forefront of your mind, the back—do you think about it at all?
It’s probably in the back of my mind. I would like to think that the fans are here to follow the journey and that’s what makes me feel confidence about just doing whatever we want or doing weird shit sometimes. I will say there are definitely projects that we’ve done that wouldn’t be possible without a group of fans. For example, the bootleg project that we do where people can make copies of certain albums and distribute them and do whatever they want with them, basically.
That wouldn’t exist if we didn’t just have crazy amazing people following around us at all times. [Laughs] So, it is nice to have that and it definitely does influence some of the things we do. I think sometimes we make records and because playing a show feels so good. You know, playing a show is stressful and it’s intense and it’s scary and it’s a lot of preparation and lot of work to it. But it’s also this beautiful, communal experience for everyone involved.
You get off stage and you just feel exhausted but amazing and relieved. It’s just this incredible experience. So, naturally, sometimes we make records and we lean towards things that we know are going to work in a live setting. That’s not to say that we make sure there aren’t too many guitars, or something. We never do that. It’s more like, “This feel is going to work and it’s going to be so fun and I’m having fun making this because I can imagine it coming out of, like, a giant speaker stack!”
Sometimes I make music and I’m like, “I can imagine this will sound really great in headphones at 3 a.m. when someone can’t sleep.” Maybe I’m answering your question with more questions.
There are many kinds of audiences, of course!
I think a lot of people think about the music they make “per song.” And I think we generally think about things “per album.” So, every album is kind of just like one giant song. It’s meant to all live in the same world. My favorite albums are ones that are transportive and have a distinct sound and feel and belong in a place.