It’s not unheard of for a psychedelic band to practice world building—exploring consistent themes or imagery in the interest of presenting the album as a whole, self-contained exploration—but universe building is far less common.
Yet Melbourne, Australia, seven-piece King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard somehow manage to build universes around each and every release, crafting albums that swirl seemingly disparate influences like free jazz, blues, pop and speedy garage punk into full-length exercises of form and function.
Over just five years, King Gizzard have released nine albums of adjunct, wholly realized visions for adventurous ears. Among them, there’s the Spaghetti Western story unfolding on Eyes Like the Sky, the pummeling garage-psych headfuck of I’m In Your Mind Fuzz, the endless loop connecting the first and final notes of Nonagon Infinity, the AM-pop leaning, largely acoustic Paper Mâché Dream Balloon, and this year’s exercise in Eastern microtones, intervals and notes that Western musical notation doesn’t consider called Flying Microtonal Banana.
Their community has grown exponentially in a remarkably short time. The band has thrown their own festival, Gizzfest, back in Melbourne for the last two years, giving a prominent stage to fellow Aussies like paisley groovers Orb and the hallucinogenic sisters of Victoria’s Stonefield, both of whom are currently traveling the States with The Gizz on the Flying Microtonal Banana tour.
Banana comes to a climax on “Nuclear Fusion,” when frontman Stu Mackenzie sings that the devil’s in the details and his spirit leaves his body to fly through a world of radiation. King Gizzard released the album with the suggestion that they had a total of five releases planned for this year alone, and yesterday, upon announcing their second release of 2017, Murder of the Universe would be released June 23 on ATO, devotees plundered the track list, divided into three chapters, for clues about what their vision of cataclysmic apocalypse sounds like.
No longer content with just building their own universes, King Gizzard have prophesied the destruction of ours.
Murder of the Universe races along with elements of every heavy sound the band has ever explored, while its illustrious roster of future demons, cyborgs and lords pack the 21-track collection with a nerd’s ransom of rich, heady narration, courtesy of an omnipresent female consciousness. This is the heaviest record King Gizzard have ever made, and it fits the album’s meditations on apocalypse, animal nature and artificial intelligence perfectly.
“We’re living in dystopian times that are pretty scary and it’s hard not to reflect that in our music,” frontman Stu Mackenzie said in a statement.
“It’s almost unavoidable. Some scientists predict that the downfall of humanity is just as likely to come at the hands of Artificial Intelligence, as it is war or viruses or climate change. But these are fascinating times, too. Human beings are visual creatures—vision is our primary instinct, and this is very much a visual, descriptive, bleak record. While the tone is definitely apocalyptic, it is not necessarily purely a mirror of the current state of humanity. It’s about new non-linear narratives.”
Observer caught up with Mackenzie ahead of the first of two sold-out shows at Webster Hall to understand just how the Murder of The Universe goes down.
We’re listening to the soothing sounds of Orb [sound checking in the background]. Are you guys bringing them to the States for the first time?
Yeah, this is their first time out. We’re three shows in, so I guess this is their third show. They’re an amazing band. [Guitarist] Cook [Craig] and [synth/harmonica player] Ambrose [Kenny Smith] and [bassist] Lucas [Skinner] and I have known the guys since we were teenagers, so it’s kinda cool. It’s interesting to be in another country with your old pals.
You’re releasing how many records this year?
Five maybe, we’ve kinda got two going. We put out Flying Microtonal Banana, Murder of the Universe is done, which I’m super stoked for. It’s my favorite record we’ve ever made, I think. And the next three we have ideas for. One’s in a state of coming together, and the other two are sort of distant at the moment, but we’ll see. We’ve got a little bit of time at home, so I think we’ll do it. But who knows.
“[H]e’s a confused cyborg, this futuristic guy who wants to regain his humanity, and he decides the two most human things are death and what we would call vomiting, which there’s no digital equivalent of.”
At the end of Banana, we’re flying through a world of radiation, and this sort of clean-air apocalypse seems poised to go down at the end of that record. Then Murder of the Universe begins and the apocalypse has arrived, we’re present with it. Is there a story happening, a narrative connecting the two?
Of course, yeah. Murder of the Universe itself is three distinct chapters, by far the most narrative-driven thing we’ve ever done, including Eyes Like The Sky, which was a Spaghetti Western, narrative-driven work. This is probably more narrative-driven than that.
We get “Some Context,” but it’s only 14 seconds long!
Yeah [laughs], it’s split into three chapters, and they’re linked, but not necessarily perfectly, with one landing off of the other. And it kinda draws on other stuff that we’ve done, it exists in that world. It’s supposed to be three distinct stories.
Well the narrator becomes the Altered Beast at one point, and then we get these characters—Lord of Lightning, Reluctant Raconteur—and one of them fights a Lord of the Rings monster. This isn’t Middle Earth, right?
This ain’t Middle Earth. It might not be the Balrog from Middle Earth, but he is a sort of fire demon.
A rough description of the three stories: “Tale of the Altered Beast” is the first one. It chronicles a human person being stalked by an Altered Beast, which is kind of a distorted half-creature, half-human, which we can maybe all relate to. Eventually the person is consumed by the beast and becomes the beast himself, goes on to cause more havoc, create more beasts, then he dies. It sounds familiar, you know?
And then the second story is a sort of of battle, it follows a group of people who’ve also been stalked, chased, attacked by a Lord of Lightning, who then subsequently…this is gonna sound so ridiculous [laughs]. He subsequently captures one member of the party, who turns him into a Balrog. The Balrog is kind of pissed off, and a battle ensues with the Lord of Lightning. The party manages to escape and the Lord of Lightning is sort of victorious.
And the third chapter is “Han-Tyumi and The Murder of the Universe”…I don’t know, I’ve been reading a lot of things lately. Some people say, a lot of people say that humanity’s greatest threat may be, at this point in time, A.I.
That’s the cyborg that comes around later on?
Yeah, of course, so you have a character called Han-Tyumi, which is an anagram for “humanity.” Han-Tyumi is kind of like an idiot child or something, a half-human being maintaining very little of his humanity in the distant future. Han-Tyumi, over time, becomes obsessed with humanity, and wanting to regain some of that.
I suppose none of that seems awfully unreal or hard to imagine. He becomes obsessed with death and vomiting. Yeah, he’s a confused cyborg, this futuristic guy who wants to regain his humanity, and he decides the two most human things are death and what we would call vomiting, which there’s no digital equivalent of.
The mountain from I’m In Your Mind Fuzz appears to now be covered in puke. Are you guys vomiting with your creative output?
[Laughs] Maybe…this album might be a bit of a puke. It might be a completely long-winded version of the story, but you’ve got me talking.
“Let’s do this kind of experiment..it’s challenging us, and it adds some sort of meaning into the worlds of our own personal universes that we all exist within.”
The only people I can think of with a similar work ethic to you guys are Neil Young, Ty Segall, and John Dwyer. Listening to a record about apocalypse and technology suggests themes acceleration, that our pace of absorbing and consuming everything is speeding up at a rate we can’t keep up with. Are you guys a remedy to that, with the universe building and the accelerated pace of output always asking us to slow down and spend time with the work?
I don’t think we’re doing it to make some kind of political statement or anything, but we are children of this generation as well. Maybe we’re caught up in it, but it’s not deliberate. I was born in 1990 and the other guys were born between ’88 and ’92, so we grew up with the internet and that sort of thing, but it wasn’t until we were older teenagers that it kind of became omnipresent.
Are you grateful that it didn’t become omnipresent during those younger, formative years? To filter all those milestones and wonder years through a box and a screen?
Uh-huh, yeah, and we’re all country boys as well. We all had somewhat cute, sheltered upbringings, and I’m not sure if that plays into it at all, but we’re all pretty fascinated with the modern world. It’s kind of cool to exist both within it and outside of it.
How does that play into form and structure of writing? You guys play around and have a lot of fun with form, beyond novelty. How do these processes affect you creatively?
I guess the only thing I can say is it’s stimulating…I don’t know what else to say beyond that. All the concepts or ideas behind the records have just been jump-off points. Sometimes making music your’e like, “Why the fuck am I doing this shit?” It’s amazingly fun and it’s a great lifestyle, but you kind of have to add some sort of meaning, as we all do, into our lives. I think that’s part of it. Let’s do this kind of experiment..it’s challenging us, and it adds some sort of meaning into the worlds of our own personal universes that we all exist within.
Where does the story continue after the universe is murdered, after the whole fabric that we come to understand has ended?
Yeah, “Murder of the Universe” ends chapter three, I mean Han-Tyumi creates a machine, which constantly vomits, and tells him that its existence is terrible. Han-Tyumi, being the confused cyborg that he is, is kind of heartbroken and berserk, I guess. He decides to plug his consciousness into this machine. Being the futuristic world that it is and connected to everything else, the vomit machine actually infects everything in the whole world, or whatever place that they’re in, and sets off a chain reaction that, in short, destroys the universe and the fabric of everything. [Laughs]
So it is some kind of ending, and it’s hard to know where the story should go. But it’s not necessarily a linear thing—maybe it’s a flashback or maybe it’s a flash-forward. I think it’s the end. At the moment that’s the hard end, that’s the last page.
Do you have any writerly ambitions beyond music that are playing out on this record?
I guess writing is never something I intended to do. I always wanted to work in film, even if that is just in terms of music.
There’s a cinematic quality to this.
Yeah, the music that we’ve been making has become more and more visual, at least to me. Just thinking about what that looks like.
Who’s our female oracle? Who’s our omnipresent god voice?
We got Leah Senior, and she’s a friend of ours, also from Melbourne. She’s an amazing folk singer, very, very talented, and nothing like this kind of music at all. But when we were writing the story, I guess thinking about “Altered Beast” first, it felt like it should be the voice inside your head, or the narrator in your brain.
I kept thinking of her voice because Joe just recorded her record, and we were listening to her a lot of the time. The first part is inside of your head, the second part is outside, and the third part isn’t Leah anymore, it’s the confused cyborg. We jump forward, or we jump away, quite a long distance when we get to Chapter Three.
It’s always good to encourage a folk singer to go balls to the wall. She might start a heavy metal band now.
[Laughs] I’d like to see that. I’d love to bring her on tour, partially because she’s just really good company, but also because it would be interesting to try to do this [whole] show somehow. We haven’t thought about it yet.