King Gizz And Us: How A Psych Rock Band Sustained Our Family During Lockdown

"When we were all sad, worried, and scared, a band we love gave our family something to talk about, something to look forward to."

king gizzard and the lizard wizard photo

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As the people of Melbourne emerge bleary-eyed from Lockdown 4.0, they may be reflecting on what sustained them for the past 15 months.

For some it was baking sourdough, Netflix bingeing, or strained Zoom quiz nights — in my family’s case, it was a six-piece psychedelic rock band called King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Our family joined the global Gizz army about five years ago when my partner included their song ‘Gamma Knife’ (from 2016’s Nonagon Infinity) on the annual Christmas compilation disc he makes for family and friends. We all fell down the rabbit hole and began voraciously exploring their (extensive) back catalogue — our 16-year-old became particularly obsessed with 2019’s metal album Infest the Rat’s Nest.

Before we knew it, they had seeped into our daily lives. We started buying their albums on vinyl. Following band members on Insta. Posters went up on walls. The teen’s drumming, guitar and flute sessions in his room were now devoted to working out their complex songs.

King Gizzard are the rarest of things — eclectic and prolific. They’ve pumped out 17 studio albums, eight live albums, two compilations and two EPs in 11 years. (In 2017 they released five albums. FIVE.) Their releases span garage rock, metal, jazz fusion, prog, metal, and boogie — they’ve even done a psychedelic spaghetti western album.

It’s arresting, completely absorbing. They’ve created a universe that you can dive headfirst into, swim around and never, ever get bored. It’s just endless and wondrous exploration. And if you happen to be locked down in a pandemic, that’s pretty handy.

But this story is more than just a love letter to a band — it’s about how loving (seemingly) small things can sustain you.

The 5km Radius

The last gig my partner and I see before lockdown is the King Gizzard doing a bushfire benefit (remember those?) at Melbourne’s Croxton Hotel in February 2020. They play for three-and-a-half hours. Our 16-year-old sadly can’t go (it’s an over 18 gig), and rather cruelly I text him the setlist (“’Planet B’!! OMG ‘Mars for the Rich’!!”)

Like many others in the early stages of lockdown, in April 2020 I take up running and plod my local streets of Preston like many other ‘couch to 5k-ers’.

Running up Plenty Road, I pass King Gizzard singer Stu Mackenzie, also cutting a lap of his meagre 5km radius. I consider stopping, but I don’t. My son is both mortified that I didn’t talk to him and totally starstruck by the knowledge Stu may be a local. “Maybe if I jam King Gizzard songs, he might wander past and hear it, Mum?” His guitar and drum noodlings ramp up accordingly.

It’s a reminder of the life we lived not so long ago, and a glimmer of hope that we one day soon might re-join the sweaty throng.

The same month, a scheduled screening of King Gizzard’s concert movie Chunky Shrapnel is cancelled due to the COVID-instigated lockdown. On 17 April we join fans around the world to watch it live-streamed into our lounge room. At a time when travelling overseas or even seeing a live band again feels impossible, it’s thrilling, and unlike other live-streamed concerts we watch in lockdown (Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer, Courtney Barnett at Royal Exhibition Buildings and IDLES from Abbey Road), Chunky Shrapnel is a celebration of live music without a “COVID safety protocols” asterisk.

The experience propels you to the front barrier, plops you on the tour bus through European cities, but most potently of all, with cameras weaving around the band on stage, it shows just what it would feel like to stand on the stage and stare out at a heaving audience. As live music fans, it’s a reminder of the life we lived not so long ago, and — more importantly — a glimmer of hope that we one day soon might re-join the sweaty throng.

May 2020 and 5km boundary boredom means lots of local bike rides. My teen and partner spot Stu Mackenzie while riding their bikes along Darebin Creek. Again, no contact is made. Regrets abound. We all agree that — third time lucky — we’ll DEFINITELY say hello. Dinner table debates unfold about what we’d actually say, while still trying to remain somewhat cool.

Winter in lockdown is upon us and the teen dutifully orders the new live album, Chunky Shrapnel, on vinyl. He checks the front door five times a day for three months to see if it’s arrived. This becomes our routine, along with me sliding the daily ‘COVID number’ under his bedroom door (Melbourne people will understand) on a piece of paper while he’s slogging away at the unenviable task of doing Year 10 via computer screen.

In June 2020, we devour Ratty, a short doco about the making of Infest the Rat’s Nest, and in July, the teen stays up to watch the midnight premiere of a new King Gizzard single, ‘Honey’, as its music video debuts on YouTube. It’s a gentle, smooth song that washes over all of us like a golden glow — like they knew we needed a big warm hug in the depths of a COVID winter in lockdown.

The music has nestled its way in our souls. We all obsess over different moments from songs — the teen over the thrashy drum solo in ‘Self Immolate’, the breakdown in ‘Superbug’ and the crazy fast delay-pedal solo in ‘Mars for the Rich’ (from Rat’s Nest), while I become hooked on the groove and tempo switch in ‘This Thing’ (from boogie-rock album Fishing for Fishies). We all delight in the epic drama of ‘The Lord of Lightning’ (from Murder of the Universe), the brute power of ‘Road Train’ (the Chunky Shrapnel version) and the heartfelt lament of ‘Let Me Mend the Past’ (from Float Along — Fill Your Lungs).

Home learning continues and our five-year-old son’s project has a distinctly ‘Gizz vibe. He’s quite the fan too (for the record, his favourite King Gizzard songs are ‘Trap Door’, ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Robot Stop’.)

Said project.

Full Circle

We’re almost at the end of our winter in lockdown and our family mourns the departure of drummer Eric Moore from King Gizzard. We make peace with the fact that Teen won’t ever see the band with its signature two drummers.

In November 2020, the teen stays up until midnight to order King Gizzard’s new album, KG, and vows to avoid listening to any tracks, so he can listen to it “on vinyl first”. Fandom takes commitment.

It’s February 2021, and we’ve come full circle: King Gizzard do two warm-up gigs at Thornbury’s Croxton Hotel. My partner and I guiltily go along without the teen. He begs us not to reveal any of the setlist because…. finally, FINALLY, three nights later all three of us are back at the Bowl to see King Gizzard, supported by Tropical Fuck Storm.

“Oh, my godddddddd!” the teen screams to the sky as his heroes walk onstage, drummer Michael Cavanagh (Cavs) sounding a giant gong. The long journey from the poster on the wall to the stage in front of him is complete. In a serendipitous touch, the same day the band releases its 17th studio album, LW, a microtonal sequel to KG.

The microtonal bug hits hard and Teen saves up his part-time Maccas money in April 2021 to get his guitar adjusted to become a ‘microtonal’ instrument so he can play the KG/LW albums properly.

Tears are shed, our glow could light up the city.

In May 2021, the teen and I dutifully cross the Yarra and join hundreds of fans to see Chunky Shrapnel at St Kilda’s beautiful Astor cinema. Cavs and guitarist/vocalist Joey Walker introduce the movie alongside director John Angus Stewart. Teen ‘plays’ along to every song with discreet air guitar/air drumming. We give the film a standing ovation.

Wandering down to the foyer after the movie we see Stu Mackenzie duck off into a room (MISSED HIM AGAIN!), but Teen is beside himself to meet Ambrose and Cook. They are warm, friendly and pose for photos with him. He talks about his microtonal guitar. We try and remain cool and calm in their presence, but the journey home in the car is emotional. Tears are shed, our glow could light up the city.

In the mind scramble that always goes with meeting famous people, I’m thrilled that I was able to convey our gratitude. That in the long, long year that was 2020 in Melbourne, when we were all sad, worried, and scared, a band we love gave our family something to talk about, something to look forward to.

“Your music got us through the pandemic. Thank you,” I offer to Ambrose.

Ambrose smiles, squeezes my arm: “It got us through too.”

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s 18th album, Butterfly 3000, is out today. The band has also announced they will play a five-night residency at Sydney’s Vivid festival (where they promise to play 75 songs, none repeated).

Carla Danaher is a music fan who works in communications and stakeholder engagement in Melbourne. She is on Twitter at @ceeemdee