Illustration by Meghan Molumby and Ben Kuriscak
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, a seven-piece band from Melbourne, Australia, is nothing if not ambitious. They released eight full-length albums between 2012 and 2016, have toured the world multiple times, and, for 2017, announced five more albums. “Sometimes I regret that I said that,” guitarist and lead singer Stu Mackenzie says. “I hope we can do that.”
The first of the five, Flying Microtonal Banana, came out in February. As the title implies, the album explores microtonal music. To play microtones, most of the band members had their instruments modified. These mods include adding extra frets to guitars and basses, re-pitching vintage keyboards, and even altering a harmonica.
“It’s actually not so hard to modify a harmonica because you can pitch the reeds,” Mackenzie says. “We also modified a DX7, an old ’80s Yamaha keyboard, which is easy to pitch the notes individually on. We had quite a few microtonal instruments in the end.”
For King Gizzard, microtones are just the tip of the creative iceberg. “The second release is going to be the weirdest record we’ve ever made,” Mackenzie says. “It’s very narrative-driven and a lot of the story is narrated throughout.” That’s to be followed by a collaboration with Mild High Club’s Alex Brettin. And then? “I don’t know,” he replies. “We’ve got three albums happening. Four and five are too futuristic to think about at this point.”
Ambitious projects, a schizophrenic approach to album making, and doing things differently are what the band is about. Their line-up includes three guitarists and two drummers (plus bass, keys, and, obviously, harmonica). Their discography includes Quarters!, a 2015 release comprising four songs that each last exactly 10 minutes and 10 seconds; Paper Mâché Dream Balloon, the same year’s collection of short, acoustic, psychedelic songs; and Nonagon Infinity, 2016’s thematic and infinitely looping album. They play garage, intricate prog, free-form improv, noise, and pop. Pick your favorite label—it probably fits.
That eclectic nature also applies to their choice in gear. Their amps—Fender Hot Rod DeVilles and a Roland JC-120—may be standard fare, but for guitars they prefer ’60s Yamahas, custom creations from Melbourne-area luthier Zac Eccles, and a Hagstrom 12-string, among others. “I bought a new guitar last week, which I am excited about,” guitarist Joey Walker says. “It is a 1965 short-scale jazz guitar—a Burns London. It might be making its appearance fairly soon onstage.”
King Gizzard’s tastes are diverse—or better, eccentric—and that could prove distracting. But while the band is very much a collaborative effort, they aren’t leaderless, and Mackenzie is the ensemble’s ringleader. “Stu would be like the project manager,” Walker says. “He provides a lot of ideas. Everyone in Gizzard is a great musician in his own right and there are heaps of ideas from everyone, but having a leader has been very important to our cause.”
We spoke with Mackenzie about that cause. We also talked about managing a large ensemble, modding guitars to make them microtonal, songwriting and improvisation, and the importance of setting goals before composing an album. And we spoke with Walker (see accompanying sidebar) to get his take on these topics as well.
King Gizzard has three guitar players. Why is that and how do you keep from stepping on each other’s toes?
In a lot of ways, it is an accidental band. Early on, when the band was forming, we were all playing in other bands. This was a project we put together with no pressure. It was just supposed to be fun, super-lighthearted, and early on it was a completely improvised thing. It wasn’t improvised in the sense like the Grateful Dead. It was improvised in that we had songs that had one chord, one word, and whoever was around—sometimes it would be three people, sometimes it would be 10—and we would bash away on that one chord for however long it felt right. Just scream and go psycho. It was this chaos, clusterfuck thing. The seven people we have now are the seven who stuck around. That’s why we have such a bizarre line-up. We were all friends before this band. It was never supposed to last this long. It somehow took over.
The first album King Gizzard recorded to tape, Flying Microtonal Banana was tracked in the band’s studio on a simple 1/2-inch 8-track Tascam.
It sounds like the guitar parts are very worked out.
That’s true now. I am going back to 2010 to 2011. It took us a few years to work out how to play with three guitars. As you said, it’s tricky to not step on each other’s toes. I guess I started thinking in threes in terms of arranging guitar parts. You can often have one guitar sitting in the pocket and have two sitting on top. You can get some cool sounds like that.
Do you purposefully use different instruments and amps to distinguish your tones?
I don’t think that’s something we’ve ever actively thought about. At the moment, we all play pretty different instruments. I am primarily playing 12-string. The other guys are playing 6-strings, but again, they’re different. Joe [Walker] and I both use pretty standard amps: Fender DeVilles. Cook [Craig] usually has a Roland JC-120 these days. That’s a good question. Maybe it’s something we should think about more? [Laughs.]
Thinking in threes, what are some of the things you’ll do when arranging guitar parts?
A lot of time the music is pretty noisy and pretty messy. All three of us are chugging on the same chord. Or all three of us are doing high, noisy melodic stuff at the same time.
You don’t do much traditional soloing.
I don’t know if that’s deliberate or if that’s just what we’re drawn to. There are some guitar solos in all the music we’ve recorded, but not very many. It’s never been something I’ve been particularly drawn to. I feel like that has already been nailed. There have already been so many amazing electric guitarists, it’s hard to think, “I want to put my stamp on that.” I think they probably nailed it in the late ’60s—that’s a long time ago now. When you think about it, it’s funny to have a band with three guitarists and not really do very many guitar solos.
What was your introduction to microtones?
I have a few unusual, especially Middle Eastern, instruments around. I have a setar, which is a Persian instrument with a skinny neck. [Editor’s note: The Persian setar is a different instrument from the Indian sitar.] It has moveable frets. I have a bağlama, which is really cool, and I’ve played that a lot. It is Turkish and has movable frets, too. I guess the two instruments are fairly related on the musical family tree.
In a lot of different musics not originating in Europe, the tonality can shift—even from piece to piece. Not in the sense that we’re used to, where it goes from major to minor or from one key signature to another, but the actual arrangements of the notes—where they’re placed or where the frets are—can change. I based the fret arrangement of my Flying Banana guitar on a bağlama, though not exactly. A bağlama isn’t exactly 12 tones per octave, or even 24 tones per octave. It’s got a lot of “in-between” notes and a lot of different flavors and sounds. I stuck to 12 notes per octave and just added a few quarter tones. It was easier to modify the fretboard that way. Also, it felt like it would be easier to play with instruments I was used to. I’m lucky enough to have a friend who is a guitar maker. He said, “I’m going to build you a guitar. Let’s work on something together.” I was like, “Sweet. I’ve got this idea. Let’s do this microtonal thing.”