Stu Mackenzie of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

I entered the world of Australia’s King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard a few years back, via their Turkish psych-rock record, Flying Microtonal Banana. It struck me as so fun and fresh, touching on sounds of the Middle East and North Africa, but also with the power and fuzzy sludge of some of my favourite stoner rock records from Kyuss and Sleep. The band has released a staggering 20 albums in the past 12 years – in fact, at least three since we conducted this interview – and each of them offers a diverse look into the mind of KGLW’s principal songwriter, producer, engineer, and general mastermind, Stu Mackenzie. The touchpoints on the music map are as wide-ranging as thrashy metal, odd-time signature microtonal-folk, surf rock, and bluesy wizard-rock to name a few stops along the journey that is King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.

The amount of material that you have put out over the last few years has been overwhelming in terms of trying to do research. That’s a lot of records!

Thanks, man. I came from a bedroom recording, DIY, lo-fi vibe. Before King Gizzard, that’s what I was interested in. I was playing in bands as well, but what was really getting me was figuring out sounds, messing around with old broken gear, and listening to old records. When King Gizz started, it was as much a recording project as it was a live project. I love touring and playing shows. I love all of that, and getting something different out of that. But I also dig sitting in a room by myself with a laptop, a guitar, and a keyboard. I love being in a room with friends and making music with an 8-track in the corner. I love making recordings. That’s why I’ve made so many. It’s fun for me.

Stu Mackenzie of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Were you the guy in the band who gravitated towards buying a 4-track and learning how to use it?

That was always me, recording bands or friends or whatever. Some friends would say, “We started a band!” I’d ask, “Can I come record you? I have this shitty little Tascam machine and I’ll come around and set up a couple of mics. I just want to record music.” I was motivated by that for some reason. That spirit is still there, but I’ve grown to love touring and the live element. Balancing that is the trick for me, and that’s the hardest thing.

These records are so interesting. You’ve got Infest the Rats’ Nest, a metal record that reminds me of late-’80s Metallica. Fishing for Fishies is like T.Rex and ZZ Top meets Steve Marriott. Gumboot Soup is songs that didn’t fit on other records, but it hangs together as a nice collection. What’s going on with all of this?

Some of those records are more considered than others. Some are jammy, but most are pretty thought out. A lot of artists work in an “album and tour” schedule, and we’ve never operated like that. The thing that we don’t do is work intensely on a record, tour it, have some time off, and then repeat. We’ve always got at least three projects on the go at any one time. The way we’ve been able to make our records feel considered is because they’re usually still two years in the making. There’s a long crossover in between records. Right now, we have a few different projects on the go, and they all have a different feel. I can wake up in the morning and say, “I’m in the mood to work on this record today.” Last night I had a shower, and I had an idea about one of the projects I’m working on at the moment. It’s my way of coping with writer’s block: To have quite a few projects on the go at once, and to feel my mind is full and active 24/7. But, in terms of the genre question, I definitely appreciate that people notice that, but it’s definitely not the way I think of it. I wonder what the average person’s Spotify play history looks like. It probably looks pretty varied. They can listen to thrash metal and disco in one day, and that’s fine. I certainly do. But I don’t necessarily love records that are all over the place. I love records that have a feel and a vibe. It’s my way of trying to challenge myself and keep feeling artistically free, but still making records that have a mood and a feeling. They may end up feeling like genre pieces, but they’re not intended to be. That’s reflective of the music we listen to.

Many bands feel they have to make a similar record over and over again, because they’ve been boxed into a lane.

Right. I don’t have side projects. A lot of friends of mine have a project where they make a certain kind of music, and they have a side project that satisfies some other part of their musical identity. I don’t have that. I only do this. That’s why it feels okay to shape-shift with it a little bit.

I was checking out the video of making ...Microtonal Banana, and I was shocked to see the small room that you made the record in.

That was our studio for five years, and we made six records in that room. We moved out of it a while back. I’m very nostalgic about that room. A super low ceiling, and it sounds shit. It’s a bad-sounding room.

But the records sound cool and unique. What was the process of working with that room?

Maybe it wasn’t something I thought about until a little bit later, but I certainly learned techniques to record in a bad-sounding room. Close-mic’ing everything and working out how to get atmosphere later. Trying to get the room sound out of the recording as much as possible. With drum recordings, my biggest trick that I had was a large diaphragm dynamic mono overhead main drum mic. I placed it really close and low over the right shoulder, pointing at the snare. That microphone is super blown out. Then [I’d use] a few other close mics if I needed them to boost some drums. I might want a snare under mic, or the one I call the “butt mic,” under the butt, which complements that close overhead. Always a kick mic, as well. This is a mic’ing technique which takes away the room as much as possible. We were using baffles, getting good bass DI sounds rather than using cabinets, and almost always overdubbing vocals (even if there was some live in the room). In the last couple of years of being in that room, we built a small control room next door and we didn’t love being in there. It was barely big enough for a desk and a little bit of gear. We punched in a hole [in the wall] for the cables. But I realized I didn’t want to be in there; I wanted to be in the main room with everyone. I ended up setting up all my gear in the main room. I ended up using the control room as a listening room, and occasionally as a drum booth. Now, because we moved into a new, much larger space with a high ceiling, I feel I’m going to have to learn how to record again!

Did you acquire new equipment for the new space?

No, we’re still on the same gear. I’m often buying and selling, but I’m not massively into nice equipment. I still use either cheap or standard gear for pretty much everything, because I break shit. I’m not that good at looking after it, so I feel too precious with expensive gear. We have a pretty basic setup, to be honest. I don’t like using a lot of microphones. I believe in keeping it simple and focusing on the music. I think it’s partially because I’m the engineer, the mixer, and the songwriter. I have to prioritize my workload, and the more time I spend on gear will make the job harder in the long run. I try to prioritize the songwriting as much as I can. It depends on the record, of course. I haven’t mixed every record, but I do mix most of them. Some of the other guys in the band write songs, as well. It’s always a juggling thing. But with this next space, we’re still working off the same gear. We finally moved in and haven’t recorded anything in there yet, so it’s going to be interesting. I did buy this old Soundcraft 16-channel desk, maybe late-’70s or ‘80s. I’m pretty excited to fire that up. But, generally, it’s pretty basic shit.

Stu Mackenzie of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Are you still using your 8-track tape deck?

I’m using that one – that, I’m pretty sure, is in that video you watched – a lot. It’s a Tascam 38. I’m not always using that, but I do use that a lot. I bought it maybe six years ago. I had some cassette machines, and I had a 2-track reel-to-reel, but before that – in terms of using tape – it was always a cassette; I’d borrow someone else’s deck, or rent a machine and print master tracks to it.

Which records did you guys make to cassette?

Most of Oddments and Eyes Like the Sky. Quarters! we did to VHS, which sounds absurd, but VHS is a great recording format. Fishing for Fishies we did to cassette. I’d gotten this 8-track Tascam, which I didn’t love but it worked for that record. I’ve already sold it. I don’t really have a system, and I don’t like to have a system. Every time we start a record, I like to feel I’m learning how to make music again. I feel most inspired when I’m doing that. For every record, the “process” has been part of the creation.

Once you’re up and running, what are typical days like?

It depends. I’m usually in one of two modes: I’m either in a finishing mode, where I’m working intensely on a record which has already been in the works for a couple of years. I usually do spend a few months intensively to finish albums. Or, my favorite is being in the writing stage, where I’m writing heaps of music. I try to catalog it. Usually everything’s super varied and confusing. This would be typical of many songwriters I guess, but sometimes it’s just riffs, sometimes only words, and sometimes a full song. Maybe it’s a jam. I usually catalog them, and I pair pieces up. “This riff works with this other riff,” or, “These words feel right for this,” and I’m going to jam them together and make a song. Or, “This song idea and this song idea feel like they should be from the same record.” Then I have these “aha” moments where I’ll have four or five ideas that feel like they should be on the same record. But I tend to spend a lot of time stabbing in the dark or fishing, looking for that spark or idea or thing that makes it feel like a full record, and not just a track.

“Automation” from K.G. has some of that microtonal music happening again. Who were you listening to that influenced that?

Many years ago, I became enamored with Turkish psychedelic music. There’s so much good music from the late-’60s and early-’70s. It was a crazy musical period over there. Some of those people, like Selda Bagcan and Erkin Koray, are insanely famous in Turkey. They’re pop stars, even today, and their music is psychedelic as fuck. I was listening to that a lot, even before Gizz started. I had this lightbulb moment when I visited Turkey as a tourist, and I started thinking about all this music a lot again in 2014. The music of their culture is so interesting in many different ways. I bought a baglama, a Turkish stringed instrument which is fretted microtonally. This music is dealing with notes in between the notes. There are so many more colors to paint with. I took home this baglama and I wrote quite a few songs on it. I had a jam with a few of the guys with a baglama, and it wasn’t working. I’m not Turkish. I’m not a baglamaplayer. The idea was to get some electric guitars re-fretted so that they could hit some of these notes we’re hearing from the baglama. It was a serendipitous moment, because a friend of mine who’s a guitar maker had offered to build a guitar. I said, “I’ve got an idea! It’s going to be microtonal.” He replied, “What the fuck is microtonal?” We worked out a fretting system that is a simplified version of the baglama. We’re working with 50 cent steps, which is exactly halfway between a guitar fret or piano note. Turkish music is much more complex than that, but I wanted to keep it simple so we could all be in tune. We got a bass guitar and some electrics re-fretted, and we worked out how to microtonally tune a couple of keyboards. Ambrose [Kenny-Smith] got one harmonica retuned, so a few of the reeds on his harp were in tune with all of us. We worked out how to play a handful of new scales together. It was probably the most inspired I’ve ever felt in my entire life, this moment when I realized, “Whoa, I’ve been writing songs within this box, and this box is limiting.” I threw away all of the songs I’d written on the baglama, and I started on this electric guitar which was called “the flying microtonal banana.” It was this guitar that was purpose-built for this. I thought maybe we’d write one song, and it would end up on a record. But we wrote that whole K.G. record pretty quickly, for us. It felt inspired. We can do the simplest thing, and it feels exotic, interesting, and crazy. We wrote and recorded at the same time in the same room, which we’ve only done once or twice. That classic thing of putting microphones on everything and jamming. We’d spend an entire day on a jam that would start off as nothing, and by the end of the day it would be a song. At 6 or 7 o’clock we’d hit record and that was the take that was on the album. We did 15 of those and there are nine on the record. I wish that we made records like that more, but it’s easier said than done for some reason. We’ve got to be pretty inspired to put something down every day onto tape.

A key element to your band is Jason Galea. Even though he’s not playing music, he has created so much visual companionship to your music. I’d assume that he hears the tunes and then creates the art, but I was curious if it ever happens the other way and you’re inspired by the visuals?

It definitely happens both ways. In the studio we were talking about before, where we worked for five years, he worked out of there as well. Often, we were only separated by two or three layers of plasterboard. He was always there, and he was always working simultaneously on what we were working on. He’s named a couple of our records. For example, Gumboot Soup is a Jason name, because we were trying to come up with a name that felt like a collection of random songs. He said, “Oh, it’s Gumboot Soup.” I asked, “What the fuck is Gumboot Soup?” He said, “That’s what it is to me.” But he is always there, and it does often go both ways. He tours with us and does a live visual performance. He’s a super inspiring creative human. He’s always got so many ideas, and he puts in so much effort and time into everything he does. He’s such a perfectionist, much more of a perfectionist than I am!

People get so precious about what they’re working on, and the end result is that projects never get finished. You must have a pretty good sense that “perfect” is the enemy of done.

I can fall into that trap as well. There have definitely been records that I’ve been more of a perfectionist with. When I look back on them, I don’t necessarily think they’re better. I believe that 90 percent of the time the first idea is the best idea. That may mean that some of our records are a bit bizarre, or feel like they are the first idea, because often they are. But not all of our records are like that. Some of them have been a lot more considered. It’s definitely a daily struggle. The longer I spend on a project, the more I doubt it and the more I get self-conscious about it, and that’s when I start to lose my conviction. I’m the most daring and the most free with our records early on in the process, and I’d like to try to keep that spirit because it’s a personal battle for me. I know this is probably true of creators in general. We’re always battling our ego, self-doubt, and fear. That’s part of the reason I try to work quickly, because I’m trying to fight that. I’m trying to be ego-free. Giving to the world rather than being fearful of it.

Stu Mackenzie of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

It’s always hard when making your own music not to get in your head. It is less common to be free with output. Let it be what it is and let it lie where it lies.

I certainly don’t feel like that all the time. That’s the pinnacle. That’s the mental place I’m trying to go to as much as I can; that feeling of actual freedom and confidence. But easier said than done to be in that headspace. I love releasing a record, because it means it’s done. It means I can stop whining about it and it belongs to everyone else. People make up their own opinions on it and their own stories with it. They have different connections to it, which are different than mine. I like that because it helps me move on mentally and move to the next thing. It’s also part of the reason I release a lot of music. It feels good!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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