It was 12:48 a.m. on June 10, 2022, when King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard fully liquified my brain. I’d come to Barcelona to accompany the band for five shows over six nights, including the beloved Primavera Sound Festival, to peek behind the proverbial curtain of the six-man Australian band. And peek I did.
Since forming in early 2009 when some of its members weren’t even of legal drinking age, Gizzard has released 20 esoteric studio albums: early, heavily Oh Sees-indebted recordings like 12 Bar Bruise quickly became more psychedelic (Float Along - Fill Your Lungs); an album composed as one 41-minute loop that somehow won the best hard rock/heavy metal award at Australia’s equivalent of the Grammys (Nonagon Infinity, at the 2016 ARIA Music Awards). Five releases in 2017 alone dabbled in bizarre microtonal tunings, stoner jazz-rock and a concept album about a God-like robot that yearns to destroy and/or vomit up the universe. Then came thrash metal homages so spot-on that they pissed off lifelong thrash metal fans (Infest the Rats' Nest), pandemic-necessitated, genial synth-rock detours (Butterfly 3000), and little bits of everything in between (this year’s vinyl-only Made in Timeland and the 16-song, 80-minute April release Omnium Gatherum).
With only the occasional mainstream press hit, even less radio airplay, and frequent comparisons to the jam band scene, this anti-buzz band has become a cult movement. The “Gizzverse,” a fan community known for creating their own band-sanctioned bootlegs and merch, pick apart every nuance of the band’s music on Reddit and follow them to every corner of the globe. In Spain, I wondered how far they could take their jamming: on the road with them for five shows, I quickly realized I wasn’t prepared for the answer.
Tall and thin with a perpetual bedhead of light brown hair, Stu Mackenzie is King Gizzard’s de facto leader, principal songwriter, lead guitarist and primary vocalist, but he encourages any and all creative participation from multi-instrumentalists Joey Walker, Ambrose Kenny-Smith, Cook Craig, bassist Lucas Harwood, and drummer Michael “Cavs” Cavanagh. The night before the first Barcelona show, we find ourselves drinking beers and cinnamon-dusted rum cocktails in a backstage compound while the newly reunited Pavement plays a few hundred feet away. Mackenzie tries to explain how Gizzard has begun morphing into something akin to a jam band more than a decade into its existence.
“I’ve literally never listened to jam band music in my whole life, but we started off kind of like a jam band,” says Mackenzie, who grew up in the southern Australian port city of Geelong. “Back then, we did a different show every night because we didn’t feel like practicing. It was loose because it was loose. Then, we got tighter and tighter and the songs became more woven together, like we were trying to figure out how to be Hawkwind or something. There was a natural flow of the creative energy, until we felt like we needed to drop a bomb on what the DNA of the band is now. Lately, we decided, let’s be loose again. Jamming together live on stage feels really new still. I just want to hold onto that.”
Mackenzie concedes the only way he can fully submit to the whims of Gizzard’s music is to build in some behind-the-scenes structure—color-coded spreadsheets to help avoid repeating any songs. “With the help of those spreadsheets, I’ve been writing the set lists several days ahead and then usually editing them significantly on show day,” he says. “It means I can throw in some deep cuts and that everyone in the band, including myself, has time to listen and prepare.”
June 3, Primavera Sound Festival
The first of the five Barcelona shows features the return of Cavanagh for the first time in more than a week. (He came down with COVID following a gig in Burlington,VT., and had to stay behind while the rest of the band continued on to Greece.) They replaced him with an 808 drum machine for two shows in Athens. Tonight, they're excited to see him, and he's excited to be here; he plays a solo during the punishing rocker “Gaia.”
The crowd is so riled up that it loudly sings Harwood’s bass line in the opening song, “Mars for the Rich.” Kenny-Smith’s white-boy rapping on “The Grim Reaper” adds a little levity, while 18 minutes of “The Dripping Tap” close the set like a big, fat slap to the face. I notice short motifs from “Rattlesnake” and “Sleep Drifter” threaded into “Honey,” the kind of self-referential wink-and-nod that increasingly drives Gizzard fans into a state of euphoria.
I break the ice with Joey Walker by sharing my belief that he’s the most handsome man in King Gizzard. “Do you say that to every member?” he asks suspiciously, offering me a beer and then instructing me to “dissect, filet, and rebuild” him during our interview. Currently, Walker favors a wavy hairstyle, mustache, and short shorts, the Australian uniform, but during the recording of 2019’s Infest the Rat’s Nest, his buzz-cut ‘do, clean-shaven face, backward baseball cap and frequent lack of a shirt made him resemble a contestant in a Limp Bizkit look-alike contest. “Very, very true,” he admits. “That was my Fred Durst era.”
Walker was raised in the northern regional Australian town Kununurra and has vivid memories of his young mind being blown at a concert by the indigenous rock band Yothu Yindi. He didn’t meet the rest of the Gizzard guys until college, but he’s been a core member from pretty much the beginning, primarily playing guitar and synths. He’s all for the uptick in onstage jamming and changing the set list every night, because “it creates a feedback loop, where the more we do it, the more it inspires fans to come back to see us. Stu is the biggest advocate for pushing this as an agenda, and it always reinvigorates our enjoyment and stimulation, which you really need on a tour as long as this one,” he says.
June 5, Sala Apolo
Sold-out, capacity 1,500
Anything that can go wrong on tour usually does eventually, but nothing could have prepared Gizzard for what happened just before soundcheck this afternoon. As band members watched helplessly from ground level, an elevator filled with their gear began its descent. Then, they heard a very loud crunching sound. Moments later, it became apparent that a case containing two beloved guitars—Mackenzie’s Gibson Holy Explorer and Walker’s Gibson Flying V—had somehow gotten stuck in and then crushed by the elevator’s manual doors, literally snapping the headstocks off of the fretboards.
“We burst into uncontrollable laughter—group, spontaneous hysteria,” Mackenzie says. Walker replaced his decapitated Flying V with a similar model, but Mackenzie couldn’t resist upgrading to a camouflage-colored replica of late Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell’s signature guitar, which Guitar Center helpfully advertises as befitting “players who are looking for the perfect beast, built for aggression with class.” He leaves the price tag attached to it.
The new instruments are pressed into immediate service a few hours later, as Gizzard opens the first of three consecutive hot, sweaty club shows by playing the first four songs from 2014’s I’m in Your Mind Fuzz without stopping for 15 minutes. Cavanagh takes another extended solo during the rarely performed, bizarro lounge rock of “The Beat,” while “Plastic Boogie,” “Wah Wah” and “The River,” all sport long jams. It would seem a trend is developing.
If a lovable animated bear became human, bleached his hair blonde and joined a modern-day psychedelic rock band, he’d probably look a lot like Cook “Cookie” Craig. In Gizzard, he’s a jack-of-all-trades who plays guitar, synths, and also sings. He likens what Gizzard has been doing lately on stage more to Can or early Kraftwerk rather than the Grateful Dead or Phish, bands he perceives as being “on the softer, more country-ish side” of the jammy sound. “A lot of our good jammy shit is more rockin’, uptempo, and kraut-y,” he says. “We have some music that was jammy from the beginning, but now we’re jamming live on things that were traditionally just straight-up songs.”
“It’s really a good feeling to know the band is always growing,” he continues. “It has been a slow burn, which keeps you grounded and humble. We never had an opportunity to get jaded, because we never had that immediate success.”
June 6, Razzmatazz 2
Sold-out, capacity 1,000
There’s a weird, tense energy tonight, exacerbated by a venue whose oppressive humidity has made every interior surface feel damp and sticky. Gizzard’s members seem a bit frustrated by the inherently poor sound of this boxy room, and the jamming is dark and relentless on songs such as “Robot Stop” and “Big Fig Wasp.” Things take a funkier turn on an elongated “Persistence,” a measured boogie with falsetto vocals.
Backstage afterwards, talk turns to the replacement instruments. Mackenzie is carrying the now-headless Holy Explorer around with him, hoping to “give it a proper burial” in Australia. Harwood is looking at the incident with a silver lining. “In Gizzard, we believe in moments like this,” he says. “The guys were obviously shattered because those guitars not only have sentimental value but they’re our functional tools, you know? But if you pick up a different instrument than what you’re used to, it can inspire something new.”
Bassist Lucas Harwood has been playing music with both Craig and Mackenzie since they were all about 14 or 15, nobody can quite remember. Many of their gigs in pre-Gizzard groups like Revolver and Son and the Houses took place at a now-defunct pub in Geelong called the National Hotel. “We would go there to drink, party, and hang out no matter who was playing,” he says. “The audience was always willing. We played so many gigs there, too, and learned the etiquette of interacting with bookers, other bands, and audio techs.”
Entrenched at his position to the left of Cavanagh’s drums, Harwood is probably the least animated member of Gizzard on stage, and also the most serious. Throughout the week in Barcelona, I’d see him step briefly out of the dressing room to grab a snack or walk around for a minute before going right back inside to practice some more. “Up until 2016 or ’17, we were playing a very similar set every night,” he says. “It was around that time when we started to meet fans who were traveling to see multiple shows. We started feeling bad for someone who would come 10 times and basically see the same thing. We made a conscious decision to start learning more of our catalog, and there’s still a lot of it we’ve never played live.”
Like his bandmates, Harwood never listens to classic American jam bands, but he can’t deny the increasing parallels between them and Gizzard. “Making the shows different every night references the Grateful Dead, Deadheads and fans sharing bootlegs and different versions of songs,” he says. “That engages the fans and makes them want to come to more shows, but it also engages us. Even when we are playing a song we’ve played 100 times before, it’s different and interesting.”
June 7, Razzmatazz
Sold-out, capacity 2,000
We’re back in the same building as last night, thankfully in a larger room. There’s crowd surfing from the minute Gizzard starts playing, and a huge mosh pit shortly thereafter. The band plays for more than 20 minutes with no break at the outset, then hands Kenny-Smith the mic to croon the wobbly microtonal soul song “Straws in the Wind.” Cavanagh takes a rare break to hit his vape pen after “Supreme Ascendancy,” while a roadie continually runs over to help Walker tape up a cut on his finger sustained cutting a lime before the show.
In an adorable moment of unity, all six guys come to the front of the stage and huddle up to sing the first line of “Nuclear Fusion,” and then spontaneously plant kisses on each other’s cheeks. The good vibes continue with a set-closing, 20-plus-minute version of “Boogieman Sam,” a tribute to Gizzard’s indefatigable soundman and tour manager Sam Joseph.
“Last night was a struggle,” Walker tells me later, as we watch Slowdive preparing to take the stage. “Weird sound, strange room. The crowd was great though. Weirdly, tonight sounded probably as bad as last night but the headspace was better. We were going hard. Usually that means we’re having a good one.”
Keyboardist/harmonica player/saxophonist Ambrose Kenny-Smith used to busk on the street when he was a young teenager, playing solo harmonica for tips. “He was also a skateboarder and a breakdancer,” recalls Mackenzie, who met him around this time. “What a trio! What an absolute animal.”
These days, Kenny-Smith is intimidatingly stylish, with his vintage, short-sleeved button-downs and leather jacket only accentuating his penchant for dancing. “I like to give people something decent to look at while we’re on stage,” he says. “It’s not hard when you’re in a band with a bunch of dorky dads."
Kenny-Smith has the often unenviable job of adapting his instruments to whatever new type of music Gizzard is playing at any given time. When the band first started writing in microtonal tunings, he says he “went insane” trying to make Nord keyboard patches that were in the correct pitch. “Heaps of times we’d be jamming and Stu would be like, ‘Not quite, buddy boy!’ I’d have to go back to my little dungeon in the studio and fine-tune them,” he says. “Those days are behind me now, hopefully.”
It’s cool to feel like a bit of an outlaw
Indeed, Kenny-Smith is now singing more than ever at shows and on record. For him, the band’s continued organic growth is especially rewarding since Gizzard has “never been a buzz band of any sort,” but it does occasionally freak him out. “There’ve been people we’re not used to caring about us trying to buy us drinks or whatever,” he admits. “But it’s cool to feel like a bit of an outlaw, and maybe other bands get intrigued by what goes on in our world. I know it’s cheesy, but I haven’t met many bands that are as tight as us. The music we’re making is really starting to reflect that unity and our relationship as brothers.”
June 9, Primavera Sound Festival
It’s their final show, and the Barcelona audience is chanting the lyrics to “Perihelion” before the band has even started playing it. Kenny-Smith is inspired to flap his arms like butterfly wings during “Shanghai.” It hits me: Gizzard has managed to do something it has never done before as a live unit: play 58 different songs across five shows and six-plus hours of stage time, without repeating a single one.
Mackenzie and Harwood walk offstage with their arms around one another. Backstage, everybody files out in pursuit of a sensible bedtime, but Walker ushers me and some friends right back inside. “Smash it up,” he says. “Smash everything.” We steal some strawberries, six cans of beer, and a nearly full bottle of Patron and dance until the sunrise. By then, Mackenzie and Cavanagh are already at the airport.
Michael “Cavs” Cavanagh probably has the most difficult job in King Gizzard: to never drop a beat while his bandmates jump from groove to riff to musical style to time signature, often in the course of the same song. To keep himself from toppling over with exhaustion, he’s trained his arms and legs almost as if they can be separated into the gears of an automobile. “It’s helped with my endurance to rotate my muscles,” he says.
Cavanagh has been drumming since he was a little kid, inspired by an older cousin who also played. He’s much more reserved than his bandmates, and when he auditioned for Mackenzie and Harwood’s pre-Gizzard band the Houses, the others weren’t quite sure what to make of him at first.
As Mackenzie recalls, “I picked him up from the train station and he was very, very shy at the time. We didn’t really say anything to each other, or talk. It was quite awkward. But once we started playing, he’d memorized all the songs perfectly—every fill was in the exact right place. It was incredible. We told him, clearly you’re the standout guy. We took him back to the train station and then he was part of the Houses.”
Although Cavanagh cites more traditional rock bands like the Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, and Rush as major inspirations, he’s loving Gizzard’s nascent forays into really stretching out its songs. “We’ve been jamming on stage, which you’ve probably noticed,” he says without irony. “That is all improvised. ‘Jerry noodling’ is what we call it, as in Garcia. That’s what has been really fresh for me.”
‘Jerry noodling’ is what we call it, as in Garcia
On June 17, the King Gizzard Twitter account shared the news that there will be “three more albums this year,” following the two that have already been released in 2022. Three days later, Mackenzie called me from the Miami airport the morning after the last show of this tour leg, en route to a European vacation with his family. “The concept of trying not to repeat songs and put on a unique show … maybe the pinnacle of those specific things we’ve been trying to do was at Primavera. It felt artistically liberating,” he enthuses. “The next two [albums] were made by us getting into a room, jamming all day with tape running, and then piecing together something from that,” he says. “We went in with an extremely vague framework of what we were going to create, on purpose. That’s a new way of working for us and we made two records with their own personality, style and vibe.”
Mackenzie will spend the next six weeks trying to dial down his creative brain, which will be especially challenging considering the high level at which Gizzard has been playing. “I still think we have a very long way to go, in terms of the show getting more loose and free, until anybody feels like we’re ready for a new thing,” he says. “Maybe this is just a phase, and in a year we’ll be doing something else. For now, it feels just right.”
(Additional reporting by Walker Curtis)