It’s already the most prolific band you’ve heard of but never listened to, but after 18 wildly different albums in a decade, Australia’s King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is still just getting warmed up. On the heels of two loud and unusual LPs written in the decidedly non-Western microtonal tuning, King Gizzard’s latest release, “Butterfly 3000,” marks a radical shift toward smile-inducing songs built on synth arpeggios, danceable beats and honest-to-goodness singalong choruses.
The new album arrives just as King Gizzard is having something of a moment in the U.S. Long a reliable ticket-seller in clubs and theaters thanks to its high-energy, anything-goes set lists, the group is making the leap to larger venues such the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., and Red Rocks outside Denver, where two October 2022 shows billed as “three-hour marathon sets” recently sold out in two days.
Since its maiden 2014 U.S. tour, which saw the band jump from the 280-capacity Baby’s All Right to opening for Mac DeMarco at a sold-out Terminal 5, “there has never been anything remotely conventional to King Gizzard’s approach to touring,” says Panache Booking’s Michelle Cable, who has booked the band in North America since that first tour and began managing them worldwide in early 2020. “Before I knew it, here we are selling out two nights at Red Rocks in less than 48 hours, mostly via the band’s own pre-sale. It’s phenomenal.”
“America is still my favorite place to tour,” Gizzard frontman Stu Mackenzie tells Variety. “I don’t think we’ve had any specific moment or break or anything. I think it’s been a really nice, gradual slow build stepping on all of the rungs of the ladder.” Those rungs have included releasing five albums alone in 2017, creating a sanctioned “Bootlegger” program to allow fans to press and release their own distinctive versions of King Gizzard music and winning over dubious hard rock gatekeepers with the vintage thrash metal homage “Infest the Rat’s Nest,” a 2019 concept album warning of impending environmental collapse. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and Gizzard’s six members found themselves unable to jam in the same room, their new music began to take on a very different flavor.
“When the first few songs started to come together, they had this positive, joyous feel,” says Mackenzie. “We haven’t made a lot of music like that, at least not for a long time. Gizzard has leaned on darker textures a lot over our career, and that’s something I know how to do. It felt a lot more challenging to focus on uplifting textures and sounds. Maybe it was because the world was, and particularly still is, kind of depressing. Maybe there’s some escapism in that, which is also usually not how I’d approach writing either.”
Inspired by using synth loops to create interstitial music for the 2020 concert film “Chunky Shrapnel,” Mackenzie spent “hours and hours and hours” programming sequences in strange time signatures on a series of Moogs and then jamming live alongside them. Forced to record their parts in isolation, Gizzard’s other members learned on the fly and even contributed lyrics to flesh out the album’s themes of dreams, transformations, states of consciousness and metamorphosis.
The album’s centerpiece is the fist-pumping, major-key “Interior People,” with words by multi-instrumentalist Joey Walker. “When he sent me the lyrics, I was like, ‘Are you OK?,’” Mackenzie says with a laugh. “He had this idea for ‘interior people’ before anything was written. He was like, ‘I want to talk about the people that live inside you. The ideas that are inside you, and how they can change you. How you fear them. I want to transcend that and surrender.’”
Alongside Tame Impala, Pond, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, Gang Of Youths, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and others, King Gizzard is part of an increasingly vibrant scene of Australian rock bands aiming to push forward the concept of guitar-based music on a worldwide scale. Mackenzie says there is a definite camaraderie between the groups, and that the Tame Impala/Pond camp in particular feels “like kindred spirits. Australians are proud of their rock history, maybe more than any other country in the world. I think it encourages guitar music. Melbourne is a very active and supportive music city, and there are a lot of venues per capita here.”
Although the ongoing pandemic means King Gizzard won’t be performing outside of Australia through the end of the year, the group has something special planned for local fans at the end of August: five thematic concerts at Sydney’s Carriageworks, broken down into individual acoustic, “jams,” microtonal, garage rock and heavy metal sets. And without revealing details, Mackenzie confirms there will be more Gizzard music released in 2021. “We do have other things in the pipeline, but it’s kind of unclear even to me exactly what that will be yet,” he says. “There’s a few projects we’ve been chipping away at for a while that we just need to wrap up.”
For now, he’s content that “Butterfly 3000” is “a record you can put on at a dinner party and people aren’t going to be like, ‘Yo, can you turn this off?’ We’ve made a lot of that music already.”