“As a young band, people always tell you not to do stuff, which is kind of strange,” says Eric Moore, manager and drummer for King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, throwing himself onto a couch in their Melbourne studio. “It’s always, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and, ‘People don’t do it like that’. We were just like, Well, we can do whatever we want.”
That freewheeling attitude may account for the seven-man army of psychedelic explorers releasing 13 albums in just six years – five of them in 2017. He says the rented space of their Flightless Records compound, sparsely furnished with checkered carpet tiles and movable walls, is key to their autonomy. The awning of the bright orange building advertises martial arts supplies, with a comical illustration of two fists gripping an iron bar. Sagging to its left, an old brick zipper factory quietly crumbles under faded graffiti. As trams shake the crowded arterial road heading north from Melbourne’s city center, a gang of skinny guys slouch up from the 7-Eleven clutching life-giving soft drinks and ice cream, eventually escaping the baking Australian heat through an iron-barred door.
The room is “nothing flash at all, but it does the job,” vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist and flautist Stu Mackenzie says. A long bolt of floral fabric colors one wall. A black curtain hangs at the south end of the rectangle, where a well-scribbled white wall is partly exposed: a pornographic doodle here; a splash of musical notation there; a “things to get” list that includes a teapot and DVD player.
Another white patch of wall is arrayed with large, glossy outtakes from the what-was-he-thinking? cover shoot of Elton John’s 2016 album, Wonderful Crazy Night.
“We kind of jointly developed this obsession with this record cover,” Mackenzie chuckles. “It’s awful, but it’s great. You look at it and it makes you happy. How can you ever be sad when you look at that?”
Today, the seven friends from various corners of the state of Victoria and slightly beyond have begun jamming on a new set for a looming European tour. As the afternoon heat slowly recedes outside, Moore, Mackenzie, guitarist Joey Walker and (other) drummer Michael Cavanagh sit noodling on unplugged instruments over their refreshments.
“I love making records; it’s the most fun thing ever,” says Mackenzie, who leads the group more by virtue of sheer charisma than anything more definable. “But I was doing this interview and I stupidly said, ‘We’re gonna make five records next year. …’ Because at the time we had all of these songs that didn’t really feel like they fitted together very well.”
Unfettered by traditional marketing logic and outside record label priorities, the sheer volume of amassed material made compartmentalization essential. Flying Microtonal Banana was written on specially designed instruments that messed with the standard western 12-note scale; Murder of the Universe is an epic fantasy narrative with spoken word from folkie Leah Senior; Sketches of Brunswick East, an ambitious collaboration with Alex Brettin’s psychedelic jazz project Mild High Club, has left a list of long, extended chord names scribbled in ink on a white patch of the studio wall.
In November, Polygondwanaland was announced on Facebook with the unambiguous message, “This album is free. Free as in free.” The band made the master available online, leading to a spate of imaginative releases – a set of three 8-inch lathe records in a glass package, an 8-track, a liquid-filled record and even a reel-to-reel.
“It was a complete experiment,” says Moore, “and yes, we kind of braced ourselves [for] bigger labels and people who might exploit it: ‘Sweet, I can make a quick buck.’ That has happened, without a doubt. But for the most part, it’s bands and people getting creative and coming together and trying to put something out; starting labels from scratch because they’ve got this thing they could potentially sell. Which is really cool.”
While Moore acknowledges some philosophical inspiration from the Grateful Dead, their business model seems to have sprung from somewhere no more calculated than the necessity of creation.
“I feel like it’s kind of a privilege to be able to just make music so everybody feels like they should work hard. Otherwise you get guilty,” Mackenzie says.
“Everything has grown from the music we’ve released,” Moore adds. “That’s where the fanbase and community have grown from. I guess there’s just so much to listen to that [listeners feel like] they just walked into some crazy world. People see it as a universe or whatever.” He laughs softly at the thought.
However dense the universe, the deck-clearing of 2017 has left a clearly satisfying void for King Gizzard. Moore hopes it might leave time to reissue some of those small-run early albums and EPs. This year’s U.S. summer tour might see some of that material performed live for the first time, Mackenzie muses, with a palpable sense of anything-goes.
“Last week we took everything out of this room,” he says, waving a hand at the surrounding assortment of keys, guitars and other rehearsal paraphernalia. “I reckon there was three times as many things in this room and we took everything out, we vacuumed for the first time in two years, and then we only put in what we needed. And then we sold everything else. It was a good feeling.”
So what now? He shrugs and smiles.
“It’s all been one foot in front of the other,” he says. “If you were to ask what I was going to do at any given point, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Including now.”