King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are a ridiculously prolific psych-rock band from Australia. While they are well known for their stoner-geek aesthetic and expansive lore, they are perhaps most recognized for their seemingly compulsive tendency to drop multiple albums per year. As of this writing, they are up to number 23 and counting since their debut in 2012, and while the King Gizzard sound is unmistakable, each LP has its own personality. How do they pull this off? It’s a combination of hard-working musicianship, talent, and an efficient approach to musical technology.
In an interview with Anthony Fantano, Mackenzie said KGLW was initially envisioned as a recording project first and foremost, and he’s tried to stay true to that mission. With this ethos in mind, is it really so surprising to be so prolific? However, the answer is a little more nuanced than simply recording everything they’ve ever done; although it helps, it gives them a reason to rethink the approach most musicians take to songwriting by trying to get the most out of one idea while keeping it interesting. Mostly, this means King Gizzard will take an idea for a song and turn it into a whole album.
After diving into a ton of King Gizzard, we can work out their process as a formula made up of four essential ingredients: musicianship, technology, personnel, and finally, how the multi-album concept known as the “Gizzverse” fuses them into a hive mind with the singular intent of flooding vinyl shelves of music geeks everywhere.
Stu & His Fellow Wizards
As a general rule, democracy doesn’t work in rock bands. That said, the best band leaders are good collaborators. While Stu MacKenzie is undeniably the leader of King Gizzard, he gives his fellow wizards plenty of room for their own magic. A big part of the band’s success is their Beatlesesque charm and distinct personalities. Additionally, their place in the music isn’t limited to instrumentation and harmony but character.
Of course, the band’s personalities only matter because the music is fundamentally sound. And it should be; these guys are damn good musicians and have each been involved in numerous side projects since before King Gizzard’s time. So they’ve been at this since they were teenagers, and their discography is an ongoing record of their personal growth as artists and their musical curiosity.
Many aspiring musicians can get stuck by either refusing to learn music theory or mistaking theory for a set of instructions. King Gizzard uses musical theory as a creative springboard, experimenting with unusual time signatures, microtonal scales, and complicated polyrhythms. They will use repeating motifs, like the main melody from “Robot Stop,” which pops up throughout the Nonagon Infinity, a common trend in musicals or film scores.
Not only does it reinforce the theme through repetition, but it means composers aren’t always writing two hours’ worth of new material. Simple musical ideas can take new forms by changing a key signature or increasing the tempo. Some other examples of this in rock music are the “Sparks” theme from The Who’s Tommy or The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists. King Gizzard takes it even further by resurrecting old motifs from previous albums.
The dynamics of King Gizzard are similar to a band like Led Zeppelin – Page’s session musician experience in the 60s made him an early example of the modern musician. This producer/artist could bypass the white-collar professional producers of the previous generation for whom rock music was a novelty. As a result, Led Zeppelin’s early albums were lightyears ahead of their contemporaries production-wise. In recent decades, technology has made DIY production much more common, increasing individual bedroom producers and artists. At the same time, bands typically stick to the tried and true method of focusing on songwriting and performance and outsourcing the production to well-seasoned veterans.
Polygondwanaland as a turning point
For the first several King Gizzard albums, the rushed DIY process was often masked by the liberal use of psychedelic effects, delays, and distortion. But by the time they got around to Polygondwanaland, they had enough experience as recording engineers to focus on polishing up every sound and delivering a prog-infused record considered by many to be their masterpiece. It’s even more impressive that it was released during their hyper-productive year of 2017, destined to prove that they could be known for quality as much as quantity.
Listeners familiar with Poly might be surprised that I would describe it as one of their driest records. The production and sound design is a more balanced blend of effects like delays and reverbs and a cleaner, more raw instrument sound. There are still plenty of sonic effects throughout, but a lot of the brilliance of that album is how the arrangement itself recreates effects usually only achieved in post-production. Adding delays to individual percussion elements in the mixing process will often create polyrhythms that weren’t originally intended. Still, King Gizzard’s dual-drummer setup at the time meant they could go ahead and write those parts into the music from the outset.
Another good example is how the harmonica comes in before the final chorus of “Crumbling Castle,” creating a subtle distortion sound before the overdrive pedals finally kick in toward the end. The wild feedback guitar delays they are known for are still present, but they are spared for dramatic moments, and the effects are mostly pushed into the background while the cleaner timbre of each instrument is more prominent than usual. It’s a perfect example of how their musicianship has been formed by the complex science of audio production as much as traditional music theory. It’s also especially notable when considered as a culmination of everything they’d tried previously.
The Race Against Time & The Gizzverse
KGLW will frequently reference previous songs and albums through motif callbacks. One of the clearest examples is in “Lord of Lightning” from Murder of the Universe, repeating the refrain from Nonagon Infinity. These kinds of callbacks (or, in some cases, foreshadowing) is a central component of the Gizzverse, which means it’s time to talk about the Gizzverse.
Just like the musical parameters the band sets up for themselves can lead to innovation, the conceptual narrative that interconnects King Gizzard’s is like a creative glue that binds otherwise unrelated concepts. If the Gizzverse were a novel, its central themes would be the tension between humanity and technology (or musicianship and automated production) and the consequences of environmental destruction, both personal and global. The ecological themes throughout their music give it a sense of anxiety, as if the quick turnaround of projects is driven by a need to release as much as possible before the inevitable collapse.
Some of the best examples of how the Gizzverse produces more ideas are in the band’s three most recent releases, which is ironic considering many fans have assumed they are the least connected to the rest of the concept. And yet we can hear the same themes recurring in the lyrics. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples is the first verse of “Hypertension,” a stanza that describes the titular medical condition through references to their previous releases and even one that had yet to be released.
The race against time was exacerbated by the pandemic, which struck right when King Gizzard felt they were reaching a new level of comfort as a live band. But after years of dedicated work as a recording project, they found themselves well suited to working independently while in lockdown. This meant the band was now effectively a collective of well-seasoned bedroom producers, and their potential for output would only increase. They immediately finished two albums that continued their microtonal experiments and then quickly followed up with the beloved Butterfly 3000, the band’s first dive into the dreamy lands of synth-pop.
Their next release, Omnium Gatherum, is a bit like their own White Album, an eclectic collection of tracks that feels more like a playlist of solo projects but ultimately showcases the broad spectrum of talent within this group.
A behind-the-scenes documentary spends much time with Stu alone with his laptop hopping around the room to deliver different “woo!”s while reading off the lyrics to “The Dripping Tap” from his phone into a microphone. Of course, this looks like the fun part of the process, but mainly the footage of Stu in front of his laptop understates the time it must take simply to manage the audio material produced daily by six musicians at the top of their game.
They followed up the same year with three more albums, which are indeed fantastic. Still, they didn’t exactly write and produce three albums worth of material in that short time. Still, their evolution into the jam-adjacent territory has added more environmentally-friendly fuel to the King Gizzard repertoire. The final secret to how King Gizzard produces so much music is that they allow themselves to. That’s not as easy as it sounds. From merely a production point-of-view, it takes a lot of self-discipline to commit to an editing or mixing decision and ignore the impulse to go back and fix things to perfection. After years of doing this, they’ve made finishing albums a habit.
This article was written by Cody Shafer. Cody Ray Shafer is a writer and musician currently living in St. Louis. You can catch Cody on Instagram here and also shoot him a message on Twitter here.
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