Microtones, Custom Guitars and Fear Itself: Five Keys to Unlocking King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Microtones, Custom Guitars and Fear Itself: Five Keys to Unlocking King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
Photo: Jamie Wdziekonski
Flying Microtonal Banana, album number nine for Australia's King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard (out now on ATO) follows through with the band's unwritten promise to always ambitiously try new (and decidedly curious) things, and execute them well. Last year saw the release of Nonagon Infinity, a relentlessly energetic and looping record (the last song perfectly blends into the first, making for a record that has no true end or beginning); 2015 brought Paper Mâché Dream Balloon (which featured only acoustic instruments); and Quarters! (composed of four songs, each identical in length). This new record dances with the idea of microtonal tuning; Exclaim! spoke to lead guitarist/vocalist Stu Mackenzie over the phone from Australia about what that entails, exactly.
1. It all started with a Turkish stringed instrument called the bağlama.
"The backstory, before we'd even thought about making this record, was I had a bağlama, which has got kind of microtones — different fret arrangements than a normal Western instrument. I started thinking of ways to imitate this sound — once you get the sound in your head, it's hard to get it out, it starts to drive you a bit mad. I had an idea to sort of mimic that with an electric guitar somehow. It was a serendipitous moment where a friend of mine said, 'I want to build a guitar for you' — he's a guitar maker, which was good timing."
For his custom guitar, built in 2015, Mackenzie sent some shape ideas, the final product is yellow and brownish, and it's built with extra frets, which explains the album title, Flying Microtonal Banana.
2. Microtonal tuning isn't common in North American music.
"In all the music that we hear in the Western world, it's kind of stuck to a series of 12 notes out of infinite possibilities, and the world of microtonality is infinite — you can put your notes anywhere and base them on all sorts of other things. Instead of the regular 12 notes per octave, this record was done with 24, so you get one extra note perfectly in-between the rest of the notes that you're used to. It means you can do a lot of the stuff that you're [familiar with], but with added possibilities. I've been thinking of it like secret notes, notes between the notes.
"As soon as you hear [them], they're maybe not what you expect, and immediately it's got this kind of Eastern vibe. The idea of this record was to do that microtonal thing, but to also try and almost trick the listener into thinking that it's not that weird, or it still sort of sounds right when it's really quite 'wrong.' That was the challenge, and we ended up with some interesting sounds."
3. They rented a warehouse in Melbourne; as a result, they were less stressed about time and the record's experimental nature.
"Every take is basically us nailing it for the first time; it wasn't overly rehearsed, but it was hopefully capturing that vibe of the first time you nail a song.
"I think it was a challenge for everyone for a little while. There was the initial banana guitar that was made first, and then when I decided that maybe there was going to be enough songs to make a record, I said to the other guys, 'Go buy cheap guitars and we'll modify them.' We did another two electric guitars, a bass guitar and a harmonica. We also did some microtonal keys using some computer programs to alter the notes and that sort of thing. It took a while to get into the swing of it, but it was kind of a lazily recorded record — it wasn't like we were in a studio trying to fight for time, spending heaps of money. This record cost very little to make so it was all good, super relaxed."
4. The album is about the notion of fear.
"I'm not sure why that happened. I think it's kind of just the world that we live in at the moment or what's going on, in a political sense. I think people have a lot to be scared about. That seeped its way into the record. With this one, we gave way to anything lyrically. It was like, 'Let's just think about the music right now, and hopefully that'll tie everything together.
"I wrote a song called 'Doom City' a while ago — we were in Beijing, and the sky was all grey and so polluted, it was freaking me out. There was this moment where the sun came out, the sky became blue and everybody went outside and took photos of the sun like it was this phenomenon that had to be seen to be believed. Then one day we're all walking around out in the rain and we realized that everyone was huddling inside, putting on masks — it was this dark scene. We never recorded or used it, and then this [melody] came [to mind] and I couldn't figure out what to write for it, so it felt right to reinterpret that idea."
5. King Gizzard are prolific, but might not live up to the promise of five albums in 2017.
"Sometimes I feel like I regret saying that — I think we will do it, but we might not. We put out a couple of records a year for a few years, and then [in 2015] we put out one in the first half of the year, and then sat around and twiddled our thumbs a little bit. We're busy, touring around a lot, actually kind of flat-out, but we started thinking about a lot of different ideas. We definitely just said that prematurely. We'll see what happens. We've got FMB coming out, and the next two sort of set and in the works, but if we do two more, they're pretty far in the future. I think there's still time. I'm maybe a bit of a restless person, I like to keep busy. I love recording and making records, I love touring as well. When we do tour, there's seven of us — and usually we'll go with one or two other people -  it's expensive cruising around with such a big posse. We try to play every night and smash it, then go home. I love it, I think of it like work, in a good way. A fun job."
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizards play Montreal on April 4, Toronto on April 5 and Vancouver on April 10.