The ignition point for the band’s new album, Stu Mackenzie’s microtonal Flying Banana guitar is equipped with extra frets and tuned (low to high) C#–F#–C#–F#–B–E. Photo by Matt Condon
So the guitar has a standard fretboard with some quarter tones thrown in?
You got it. It probably averages a quarter tone every second tone and it is arranged in a way that makes sense to play the quarter tones that I wanted. If I were to do quarter tones over the entire neck, it would make the guitar look too confusing, as if I was playing a different instrument. I’ve got a Strat at home that is completely quarter tones all the way up. It is much, much harder to play. I play the Banana guitar in a half-open tuning that’s similar to the bağlama. Low to high, it’s C#–F#–C#–F#–B–E.
The whole band got their frets adjusted like that, too?
Yeah we did. That guitar was the original. I was playing it for about six months or a year or so—that’s where all these tunes came from. When it felt like, “Maybe there is a record worth of songs here,” I said to the other guys, “Do you each want to potentially ruin a guitar?” I said to buy really cheap guitars and get them modified. We ended up with three modified electric guitars, a bass guitar, and a harmonica.
Getting a fretless guitar wasn’t an option?
A fretless guitar would have been cool, but we didn’t have one when we made this record. It was something we talked about—especially a fretless bass. I think Cook actually bought one, but that was just after we made this record.
A lot of your music is in odd meters. Is that on purpose or do the riffs just come out that way?
I think a little of both. Some of our earlier recordings are pretty much all 4/4. But there are a handful of songs—or parts of songs—that went into other meters. They were kind of accidental. The first time I remember doing a song in an odd meter with King Gizzard was “Float Along - Fill Your Lungs,” which is off our third record. It’s all in five. It’s got a long count five and a short count five layered on top of each other, which is the way I count it. When we were making that song, it was based off this riff that, to me, was really intuitive, but when trying to relay it to everyone it became completely convoluted and confusing. I guess that is the nature of playing in odd meters. It was a pretty tricky song for us to record at the time, but once you get the bug for it, it becomes more second nature. Sometimes you’re thinking, “Maybe we should try something in some odd meter.” But most of the time when you have an idea for a melody or a rhythm in an odd meter, you don’t realize it’s in an odd meter.
So it is organic?
Yeah. It’s a funny thing: 4/4 is great and definitely has a place, of course, but once you start diving into the odd meters, it can be pretty addictive. It’s almost like it seeps into your consciousness.
You mentioned the tuning on your Banana guitar. Do you try other tunings as well?
Yeah, sure. The Banana is tuned to a semi-open thing. Going back to “Float Along - Fill Your Lungs,” that was in a funny tuning. I wish I could remember what that was, but I had two strings in a row that were the same note and one of them was super floppy and you could do these wild bends on it. I don’t remember what it was anymore, but it was an open tuning and it was all firsts and fifths. It had more of a droning thing to it. My 12-string is almost always in standard, and my other guitars are in something else.
What type of guitar is your 12-string?
It’s a Hagstrom F12 from 1966. That’s my main regularly fretted guitar at the moment and has
been for a while. That is the guitar on
Nonagon Infinity and anything since then. I love it and hate it at the same time.
It’s got really high output and the pickups are microphonic, so I pick up a lot of noise. You can yell into them and it will come through the amp. They can be really cool or really terrible with high gain and distortion because you get so much outside sound coming into them. But that also makes for really interesting sounds that you can’t do otherwise. I had a small pickup fitted into the middle position. I thought I would use it all the time when we were delving into higher-gain stuff, but I never use it. The original ones sound way better.
I noticed that live—maybe it’s because of those pickups—you hold that guitar over your head, point it at the amp, and get instant raging feedback.
I like to have the amp fairly close to me. I play off it a fair bit. It is the kind of guitar that if you stand a certain way, it will take off. That may be unusual because it is a fairly light, not hollow, very solid guitar. But I guess it is the nature of those pickups.
How do you approach the studio?
The recording process has been part of the creative process as well. We’ve done it a lot of different ways. When making Flying Microtonal Banana, we got a little space in Melbourne. This was the first record that we properly made ourselves with all our own gear and my little 8-track tape recorder—that was cool. It was basically everyone in one room pointing toward each other. The studio is one rectangular room. There is a desk with the tape machine and the techy stuff on one side, and we set up on the other side of the room. We had a couple of baffles that are on wheels and we separated things a little bit.
Part of the process with this album was that the songs weren’t overly rehearsed. Of the nine tracks, seven came together this way: I would have a semi-structured idea for a song with a bunch of parts—probably some vocal ideas, but not all of them. Then we would get together in the morning and I would go over it with everyone. We would jam on it for most of the day, it would probably change a lot from the original idea, and by the afternoon we would roll the tape and have the take. It was a good loose way of capturing the vibe. There is always a magical vibe when you first nail the song and that was what we were going for with this one.
The seven-piece King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard strikes a careful balance within its triple-guitar pandemonium, with Stu Mackenzie (shown here assaulting his Hagstrom electric 12), Joey Walker, and Cook Craig artfully and
intuitively layering riffs and tones. Photo by Matt Condon
You recorded to tape? No Pro Tools?
This one we did to tape, which is just a half-inch machine and very un-fancy. It is a little Tascam machine. It went into the computer after that and we did some digital overdubs. But the main tracks were recorded to tape, which is interesting—doing seven people to eight tracks.
Do you just use your live gear or do you experiment with different amps and guitars in the studio?
We definitely are experimenting. For Flying Microtonal Banana, I just used one pedal, which was a wah. Live, I have a few more. I like the idea of having a simpler setup—especially having a drier amp, no reverb, and no delay. There is a little bit of that added in the post stuff. We are not using a whole heap of wild effects. We’ve got pretty small pedalboards and we use fairly stock standard amps—nothing that anybody couldn’t do.
You guys embrace challenges and that’s part of what makes the band so fun.
I’ve always been drawn to making records in general. I love recording and mixing. I like the whole process. Working with the other guys in the band—that’s what I am drawn to, the collaboration element. Playing live is amazing and I love that, too, but I’ve always been first and foremost drawn to making records. And I’ve always wanted to have a reason to make a record. It never made that much sense to make the same record over and over again—although AC/DC did that and they did that fairly well, so maybe there is a time and place for it. But we’ve never wanted to do that. Every record we’ve made has been for a reason, or at least to challenge ourselves, or to try something that we’ve never done before. Every record has some kind of conceptual thing attached to it. Often it’s something really simple that is challenging to us. I find it a lot easier to make music if I have a vague understanding of the destination.
Meaning an overall goal and not just a collection of songs?
If we just wrote whatever songs and recorded them, I think our music might have been a bit more straight. Maybe not … it’s hard to say. Some people have the mindset that the human brain is this magical place. That you should have respect for it and do what comes out of it or do what comes out of your emotional state. But I look at it more from the point of view of the architect or the painter. He knows what he’s painting. He’s not just getting a bunch of colors, closing his eyes, and slapping them on the canvas—though some people do that, too.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard invite you into their studio for some rock ’n’ roll show-and-tell, providing a close-up look at Stu Mackenzie’s Flying Banana microtonal guitar, Joey Walker’s custom T-style Thinline, and Lucas Skinner’s modified bass. Note the extra frets on each of these instruments and hear the melodic mayhem they generate.