Pandemics, Polyrhythms and Prog Rock With King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s Ambrose Kenny-Smith

Tomorrow (20 November), Australian six-piece King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard will put out their hotly anticipated sixteenth studio album K.G. Coming in a year which has seen the world turned upside down and inside out, it’s safe to say that a new album from Stu Mackenzie and co. has been high on many people’s wish lists. The record marks the Melbourne band’s second exploration into microtones, following on from 2017’s massive Flying Microtonal Banana. Jack Parker called up keyboardist and harmonica extraordinaire Ambrose Kenny-Smith to talk all things K.G., recording remotely and his hopes of recording a prog rock album.

Hey Ambrose. How have you been doing?
I’m good, just went down to the beach today. It was like 32 degrees celsius today in Melbourne. We’ve been in an intense lockdown the last few weeks but we’ve had freedom to travel regionally within our state so I’ve been able to catch up with some friends. South Australia just went into their lockdown, and we had a full one earlier this year too. It’s pretty much what we have in Melbourne anyway, haha. 

For a band who are impossible to keep away from the stage, 2020 must be a weird year. How have you guys coped with the impact of the pandemic?
Pretty much just writing and recording day in, day out for myself and all of the guys in the band. We made this album by sending each other stuff back and forth, and it’s also been a whole year of getting things done which is funny because we’re also so used to being around one another. Not having that has been a big shift for us, but as I said to someone the other day it’s been a nice time to reflect on all the touring we’ve done and things we’ve achieved. I’m very grateful for that. 

Your new album K.G. comes out tomorrow. Do you think this more remote method of recording works well for a band like yourselves? Especially when you remove the whole in-person dynamic.
Not really, but for me it was great. I’m always more of an overdub person because it’s too hard to record the harmonica live as there’s always some kind of sound bleed coming from wherever I’m plugged into. Naturally I would do overdubs anyway, so for me this way of recording has been a somewhat nicer way of getting a foot in the door. I’ve been able to contribute a lot more than usual, so in some ways that’s been good. But of course this way of recording also lacks that vibe. I’m amazingly proud of ourselves for putting it all together like this, though.

So I assume you probably wouldn’t take on this kind of remote approach willingly in the future?
When I think about the five albums we did in 2017, by the time we got to Gumboot Soup we were just recording in hotel rooms during Gizzfest. We were doing that across Australia and New Zealand. I love this method of recording because I can try and contribute as much as I can to the point where I’m annoying to some of the guys, but we’re all really missing getting back into a room. We have a bunch of songs that we’ve been sitting on for ages that we’re saving so I think we’re all pretty much raring to get back. 

2020 marks ten years of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. Is K.G. also the start of a new chapter for you?
Yeah! It’s funny how we’ve called it K.G. because it is a ten year reflection in a way. It wasn’t intentional to have that album title, to be honest. There were a few ideas up in the air and we had something similar which I can’t quite place now but then Jason Galea said, “how about K.G.?” It’s funny how that worked out.

There’s been some speculation that there’s an accompanying L.W. album, but I won’t go into that.
Haha, yeah…who knows.

The album has its Gizz-isms, but there are also explorations into new territory like Turkish house. Let’s take Intrasport as an example – what compelled you to take this groove-based approach?
Intrasport came about because Joey was at home and none of us were around him. He went free for all. He was listening to Savage Garden and guilty pleasures like that, although he wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure. He wears that shit like a badge of honour. He also wrote Minimum Brain Size which I absolutely love, but Intrasport came late to the game. He’s done that a few times where he came late with a track and everyone’s like, “fuck’s sake, the album’s done” and then he shows us the song and it’s really good. So then we cut one out and replace it with his. I remember hearing his “ah! ah!” heavy breathing on Intrasport and loving it, it’s really grown on me. It’s definitely the odd one out on the album.

Definitely. I also got some heavy Altin Gün vibes from it.
I didn’t really think of that at the time, but I’ve seen people throw that around. We had them come out for Gizzfest in Melbourne once. 

Ontology feels like an entire film soundtrack compressed into four minutes. Tell me a bit more about that song.
I remember Stu (Mackenzie, vocals) showing me that one and I thought it was so sick. It was like a Western, Cowboys and Indians race going on. He had that chorus thingy going on and I asked him if he’s planned on singing on it. He said he wasn’t sure yet, so I did some harmonica instead and it became one of those instrumental chorus tracks. I sang on it with Stu too, but he didn’t want to call it Ontology at first. He didn’t like the word. I had to talk him into keeping it.

Ambrose Kenny-Smith, live in Utrecht (c) Jack Parker
Ambrose Kenny-Smith, live in Utrecht (c) Jack Parker

It’s great. A bit later on, on Oddlife, you even half-venture into this mix of rapping and spoken word. That must have been a fun song to do, no?
That was real fun, yeah. That song is about touring, or at least that was the vibe I got from reading the lyrics that Stu sent me. It became obvious to me that we still needed something going during that later part of the song, and Stu was slowly losing his love for the track. There’s been moments where he’s had that and I’ve stepped in to say, “nah, that’s sick, let me try!” So I went into the other room and quickly wrote those lyrics. The guys came back from lunch and then we banged it all out. The rest of the song slowly formed its shape, and we were all dancing around and laughing in the control room. 

Multiple band members share songwriting credits on this album. How much influence do the rest of you have when, for example, Joey comes to you with an idea?
I definitely try and be as honest as I can, and I feel like the others are honest with me too. Being  a harmonica player, there’s always been a lot of brutal honesty regarding when to play and when not to play. It’s rubbed off on me now. Joey always gets very into the process, adding stuff to songs right up until the last second. We all try a lot of things, like suggesting to strip things back or replacing things here and there, or saying that a certain part doesn’t really work. The songs are more or less from each individual member, but whenever I contribute I just add some lyrics or melodies. There’s definitely room to move and everyone is always open to suggestions.

There’s obviously a lot you can do with microtones, and on this album you take it in all sorts of directions. Is there anything else you’d still want to explore on the microtonal spectrum?
I don’t know. At this point I feel like this album covers all bases, especially after Flying Microtonal Banana (2017). This one has more keyboards and stuff which makes it different and varied, so I’m not sure. I always say that, but then before I know it the guys have found another way to pull something out.

So are there any corners of music which you’re yearning to delve deeper into more generally?
I know a bunch of the guys want to do more score-type stuff, but at this point I’m just keen to get back in the room and do more prog rock. That would be fun, just to do something with less restraints and with a general vibe that isn’t so much thought out. Get in a room, and see what happens.

Given the inability to really get in a room and play, I suppose a live stream show had never really been something you considered right?
I always think the moment feels like it’s passed, but then I see people still doing them. For us, we’re a pretty loud band, whatever type of rock band we even are. I guess I haven’t seen too many live streams that I hugely dug, but we definitely have a few ideas in the mix which are still lingering so we’ll see what happens there.

Visually there seems to be a bigger emphasis on DIY production elements, like Straws in the Wind and its green screen mayhem. Was this more homemade approach intentional or a product of the pandemic?
Definitely a product of the pandemic, yeah. We were in Melbourne on an intense lockdown when we did the video for Straws in the Wind. In fact, we were in our studio when a stage four lockdown was announced and we realised that – again – we wouldn’t be able to see each other for who knows how long. I jokingly suggested we should go to the hardware store, buy a leaf blower and get a green screen. The guys laughed and said, “Ok Ambrose, cool, you can run the reigns on this one”, so I bought a robe, Ugg boots and some shitty sunglasses. We were gonna film it the next day all by ourselves when Jason Galea suggested he come round and help set up the lights. He filmed half of the video and I filmed the other half, and then he turned it into a little masterpiece.

Eric Moore [ex-drummer, manager] left the band earlier this year. Was his departure something you’d always seen coming?
Eric has always worn a lot of hats. Not just from running Flightless, managing us or playing in Gizz, but also managing my other band The Murlocs, as well as Orb. There’s always gonna be a point where something’s gotta give, so it was sad to see him go, but ten years is amazing. I’m amazed that we lasted together that long as the seven of us. 

Will you still stick to two drummers when live music returns or is that aspect of your performance now over?
I think it’s just going to be the one drummer from now on, but we’ll see how that goes and how it feels with just one drummer. Cavs (drums) has played on so many of the records predominantly by himself, so it shouldn’t affect us too much.

Of course you also have another project going on – The Murlocs. How’s that going?
It’s good! We’ve been working on an album whenever I have time away from all the Gizzard stuff that’s ongoing. It’s been ticking on. We all grew up together and everyone is good friends with the Gizz guys so it’s just one big family. 

I just want to touch on the pandemic one more time. We’ve seen what impact it’s had on the music industry, but what can the industry learn from this pandemic going forward?
Yeah, I’m not so sure. A lot of things! I guess we just have to see what the outcome of all this is, I hope a lot of venues will still be around by the end of it. There will be a lot tighter security at shows, so from that perspective I think shows will become a safer environment people. Not just from a COVID point of view, but also for people’s wellbeing in general. We’re starting to have some small capacity gigs here now, but it’s all touch and go. K.G. comes out tomorrow (20 November) via Flightless Records.