Before The Thermals play Revolution Hall on Oct. 23, we caught up with frontman Hutch Harris to discuss the veteran Portland punk band’s latest album, “We Disappear,” what it means to retain a DIY identity, and aging out of the PDX house show scene.
Live in Portland June 4, 2018 | Crystal Ballroom
Five albums in one year. From a purely logistical standpoint, the feat is impressive. From a musical standpoint, you have to wonder, how does anyone have that much to say? For King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, it is less about having something to say and more about how to say it.
Each of the five albums the group put out in 2017 had some kind of theme. Flying Microtonal Banana used non-Western instrumentation and a 24-tone equal temperament (divides traditional octave into 24 tones). Murder of the Universe is an epic sci-fi concept album full of robots and synthesizers. Sketches of Brunswick East – a play on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain – is an improv jazz album recorded with Alex Brettin’s Mild High Club. Polygondwanaland was recorded and released for free with the band enabling fans to take the album master and press their own vinyl copies. Gumboot Soup, the fifth album, was released on the final day of 2017 and featured a mash-up of songs that, as the band stated, ‘didn’t really fit in with any of the other albums.’
Even trying to keep track of the music as a fan is exhausting, let alone creating and releasing the projects. One of the hallmarks of King Gizzard is the group’s inability to take themselves too seriously. They take their music seriously, sure, as evidenced by the complexity and nuance present in all of their projects, but the band isn’t scared of completely stripping away any previous identity and building again from scratch. This ethos is what keeps the music fresh, interesting and continuously unexpected.
We connected across timezones to Australia with King Gizzard’s guitar player and mastermind, Stu Mackenzie, to discuss the process of putting together the albums, how to build a live show out of an overwhelming amount of material and the challenges that come along with making concept albums.
ELEVEN: I’m going to bury the lead a little bit and ask you, what’s the most challenging thing that you’ve done since the beginning of 2018?
Stu Mackenzie: Last year was kind of hectic, you know, maxed out for the whole year. We were kind of like on a treadmill constantly, which was cool, but it’s felt like this year has been way, way more chill in comparison. It’s hard to say that something’s been challenging. I mean, we played 50 shows already and all that sort of thing, but that’s fun. We’ve just been trying to play a lot of shows this year. But so far just kind of been trying to tour and be a band in that respect after working on recordings all last year.
It’s hard to say if something’s been challenging. It’s been kind of rewarding to be able to play a bunch of the songs from the records last year. We didn’t get too much time to kind of rehearse rather than make records, if that makes sense, rehearse like as a live band. So we’ve been spending a fair bit of time doing that. It can be challenging with some of the songs, working out live versions, especially songs like “Polygondwanaland” and records like that where they were made not as a full group. They were kind of made with a few of us and then fleshed out with a lot of overdubs of synths, and arpeggiated synth lines to play drums to, and with stuff like that it’s tricky to do live – maybe we’re doing it a different way. So that’s been challenging for sure. So far it’s been a good year. I’m all smiles.
11: The reason why I was asking that is because I feel like we can’t talk to you guys without asking about the fact that it’s just absolutely insane that you put out five albums in one year. So comparatively speaking, we’re about halfway through 2018. I was wondering if there had been anything that kind of even matches that, but it sounds like it’s been a lot of touring on the back of those albums, and then like you said, figuring out what that looks like live. So one thing that jumps out to me immediately is putting together a show based on all of those different albums. I mean, what does that look like? How do you even decide what you’re going play on a given night?
SM: Yeah, it’s definitely kind of a challenge. I mean, I think we generally try and figure out a bunch of songs. We’ll work out a bunch of songs for a tour, and we’ll often work out stuff on the road as well. Like, the last tour through Europe we were kind of working out a few songs on the road. We were playing “Beginner’s Luck” from Gumboot in sound checks until we felt like we could play it, and then played it a few times and that sort of thing.
But yeah, a mix of the records. It’s hard to do so much of Sketches. I think I’d like to do more of that stuff, but I feel like we need Alex [Brettin] for that. It’s mostly a mix of the last six records really – the last five plus Nonagon. Occasionally something from Quarters! occasionally something from I’m In Your Mind Fuzz. That’s feeling like the, kind of, what’s getting in there. It’s probably a pretty even spread of the last five records, besides Sketches, you know? A bit of each.
But yeah, the last sort of few weeks we’ve been home, so we’ve been casually jamming and practicing a few of the songs off Polygon and a few songs off Gumboot that we’ve never played before, so that’s kind of fun. But it’s actually nice to have too much material to play live. You kind of just pick and choose a little bit. Some songs you wanna play and then you jam it and you’re just like, “Fuck, this kinda sucks. This isn’t working right now in this sort of combo for whatever reason.” And then you put it down and you pick it up in a year or something, or, I don’t know, someone’s playing a different keyboard or something and you just approach it a different way and it works.
It’s been nice to think about the show. I think last year we just kind of made records and just went with the flow in terms of what we’re playing, but I feel like that kind of element can progress a bit. But, you know, we’re just kind of jamming. We’re just having fun. We’re having fun with it. It’s gonna be a fun year. We’re just kinda playing a million shows and all that sort of thing. So yeah, it’s cool.
11: This is a weird comparison but it kind of reminds me of the Grateful Dead, in a way, where they’d be live on the road all the time and doing these crazy songs, and then all of a sudden they would hunker down and release a bunch of stuff from the studio, but still everyone considers them a live band. For you guys now, was there a moment last year where your identity was, “We’re a studio band now,” just because of how much time you spent in there, and what that process looked like?
SM: I think, I mean, for me at least, I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about the studio or thinking about recordings. I love playing live, I love doing everything, but I also love making records. And I know a lot of people kind of don’t love it, but I do love it. I kind of like the constructive, and this architectural side of things where you start with something simple. You begin with an idea that’s just an idea, or it’s just something very simple. And I love the collaboration process, making music with other people. It’s social, it’s communicative, and then you can create something that’s tangible. I like that.
That’s kind of always been what I’ve thought about a lot. And I think we’ve always kind of tried to experiment with recording a lot. We’ve always tried to make interesting records, I think. The live thing is like a separate entity that, you know, goes hand in hand. But that’s the way I’ve always thought of it. They’re kind of like two pretty distant things. There’s very, very few songs that we will play live the same way that we recorded it. Like, I’ve always kind of thought with a recording, you make the recording how the recording is gonna be. Don’t worry about if it’s got 100 guitar overdubs, or don’t worry about if you double track the vocals 14 times. Or don’t worry about if you’re never, ever going to be able to play this song live. Just don’t worry about it.
Don’t worry about if you use a drum machine and you use an acoustic drum kit live, or whatever. It’s just kind of like a separate thing. In that respect, the last year was kind of pretty sweet to me. I don’t know, I think it’s fun. I like that. I kinda constructing a record and it being all the songs trying to serve the same purpose and create this world, or sort of create a visual with the music. And they all, sort of, like, occupy their own landscape kind of thing.
But yeah, I mean, maybe the perception of us changed, that’s hard for me to quantify. I’m just doing my thing. If people like it, that’s cool.
11: That makes sense. For a lot of musicians and bands, the amount of time that they spend in between recording an official record, or putting music out, it’s almost the exact opposite of what you guys did. They might take three or four years to do one album. From a creative standpoint, how did you know that you guys, especially as a group, had that much to say from a musical perspective? There are a lot of bands that could theoretically be prolific, but they don’t really have anything to say. And it seems like everything that you guys did was very unique over the course of the year, so it makes me wonder kind of where that came from.
SM: I think, going back to 2016, you know, after we kind of finished up making Nonagon Infinity, and we were touring a lot around that time as well, playing a lot of shows. And we were kind of writing a lot, and for whatever reason we had a bunch of really different kind of feeling songs kicking around. We were sort of starting to mess around with these microtonal instruments, and I wasn’t sure whether that was gonna be a record or that was gonna be one song, or two songs, or whatever. So we had a couple songs that sort of had that kind of feel. And then from memory, it was, like, “Open Water” and “Rattlesnake” were the two that came together first, and then it’s like, “Okay, so that’s its own thing. They don’t belong with anything else. You can put them in this pile over there.”
And then “Crumbling Castle” actually came together really quickly in that it was like we were kind of messing around with these polyrhythmic, polymetric ideas where we’re all playing over different timings and meters over each other. And that kind of felt like a huge idea to explore this big rabbit hole, and it’s like, “Okay, let’s separate that one and let’s put that over there.” And then there was all this stuff that was coming really out of the ashes of Nonagon. Like, when we finished Nonagon there was, “Lord of Lightning,” and “Digital Black,” and some of the “Altered Beast” stuff, and “Balrog,” and those kind of songs. They came out of us playing Nonagon Infinity live, or we were doing Nonagon Infinity as a whole record.
We’d been sound checking or playing this stuff and kind of getting bored of playing the same thing over and over again, and all these riffs and ideas would pop out. And that’s kind of where Murder started from. It’s kind of like the extreme version of Nonagon Infinity or something. So that felt like its own thing.
Then we were touring a lot with Mild High Club as well and hanging out with Alex, and we were kind of riffing on this idea of doing a record together. So that felt definitely really separate again. This all kind of happened in mid-to-late 2016. And it was like, “Okay, well, that was four.” I mean, that was four ideas, and I think I originally said that we’d make four records… It was like we’d have four or five songs for each record and it’s like, “Let’s create siblings for these records and let’s…” I don’t know, Murder of the Universe and Polygondwanaland were kind of logical for that reason because they were narrative-based, and they have this arc and a story. It felt like if there was a middle, and a beginning, and sort of some few other things, you could kind of connect the gaps, or you could create these songs that have this musical passage that links this part to that part.
Those records were kind of fun and easy to do in that sense, and Microtonal kind of made sense for that, too, because it was like, “Okay, well, the thing is let’s make all these songs on these guitars.” So it was like you’d spend time on the guitars and then some more songs pop out, and that was that. And then with Sketches it was like, “I’m gonna try and write some songs that I think Alex would be into, and then work on these songs with Alex,” and it sort of came together in that sense.
It was kind of a weird process because they all completely overlapped as well, which was kind of the only way to do it. Because sometimes you’d write a song that didn’t really feel like it fit with the album, kind of, like, focusing on at the time. And it was like, “Okay, well, let’s just put that one aside. That’s gonna sit over there,” rather than, sort of, sculpting everything. It was like, “No, let the song be. Let the song be its most intense version of itself,” or something.
And then Gumboot, I mean, I don’t know at what point, partway through the year I started to feel like maybe there were some songs that didn’t fit on any of them, and that’s kind of where the idea for Gumboot came from. So suddenly our four became five. But a lot of the songs from Gumboot Soup were songs that… some of them didn’t fit but a lot of them were, kind of, finished after that particular record was done. So “All Is Known” and “Greenhouse” we were kind of jamming really early on when we were recording Flying Microtonal Banana. But we just didn’t finish them in time, and it was only a nine-track record. There were four or five leftover songs that they just needed a bit more love, or they needed another part, or they needed, I don’t know… I just couldn’t be bothered writing a verse or something, so they just didn’t get finished.
So they kinda made it on there like that. And a couple of the songs were songs that I wrote while we were mixing Sketches. It was too late to add them – “Beginner’s Luck,” and “The Wheel.” We were mixing Sketches and I was kind of spending ages of time on it, and all these ideas were kind of coming out that, because I was listening to this music so much that it almost felt like… that we were inspired by mixing this album.
11: Do you feel like there are any bigger philosophical questions to be answered about art and the creative process, and the way that musicians make music for their audience throughout this process? Or is it just purely kind of a very visceral thing that just happened and now it is what it is?
SM: Yeah, I mean, I don’t wanna preach or anything. I think for me, like, the process kind of is odd. It’s like you make a collaborative record, and that is the process. And the ideas all come from the process, or you make music with different people. Or you are a guitarist but you make a record on piano or something, and that is the process, and that is where the songs come from. And I think that’s how we’ve always made records. It’s like, “Let’s make it hard for ourselves and let’s see what happens.”
And we’re not, like, in a trained place or anything, so we kind of maybe look at music naively, or something.. But yeah, it’s just a tool, I suppose. It’s just a tool. You can kind of look at it from a selfish perspective, like, it’s a tool to be able to go on tour and be able to hang out with your friends, and live a sort of life of blurred lines of both work and leisure, which I kinda believe in, if you can.
I mean, it was nice to do the record for free with Polygon. That kinda felt positive. I mean, that kinda came out of guilt really rather than some sort of political or social statement. It came out of guilt of we’re selling so much fucking shit all the time. It’s like making records and trying to sell them constantly felt a bit on-the-nose, so that kinda came out of guilt more than anything. It felt like this is a present for everybody, for, you know, just feeling like we had generous fans, or feeling like we had generous people around us helping us do what we do and that sort of thing.
I think we’re just trying to not be stiff. I think there’s maybe a bit of stiffness in the music biz sometimes. I’m not preaching, we’re kind of just jamming, you know? We’re just having fun with it.
11: But it is interesting, though, if you look purely at consumption habits and the way that people can even consume music to begin with right now. I mean, buying records and stuff, in a lot of ways it’s almost like an antiquated business model – it seems like a lot of bands are now having to make their money by touring live. So I mean, it’s almost like putting those albums out. Regardless of if it was an economic measure, it’s almost like an old-school model on speed. Especially considering that people can get music from streaming services, and how often are they even actually buying standalone records by themselves, versus paying for a subscription service?
SM: I don’t even have a record player or anything at my house. All the other guys in the band have a record collection and love that kind of thing. I’m kind of fucked. I’m kinda like I’m a boy from the future in that sense. But yeah, I don’t know what to say about that. It’s just the way it is, I suppose, you know? We kinda grew up with downloading shit. We kinda grew up with stealing music becoming normal. It’s sort of funny to be like a musician and just be like, “Oh wait. Oh yeah, okay. Maybe that is kinda awkward.”
But yeah, it’s kinda hard to comment on it. I think most of the people that I know that I make music with don’t… they wouldn’t care if someone… We don’t really care about that stuff. It’s like if you sell records, that’s sweet, but you’re selling a record because it can do something that Spotify can’t do, and that’s what you’re selling. You’re not selling the music necessarily, you’re selling what it can do, and that’s cool.
I think we’re probably just always trying to be a bit cautious of that when selling any physical product or music physical product. It’s like, “All right, let’s try to make this good. Let’s try and make this viable because I wouldn’t buy it. Let’s try and make this a good product.”
11: What about theming the albums like you did last year? Flying Microtonal Banana specifically, and then Murder of the Universe. For those albums, there’re some songs that stand alone on there obviously because they’re good, but still, they’re the kind of thing that are built to be consumed in one piece almost, right? Is that kind of what your aim was?
SM: For sure, and, like, I listen to records. I mean, albums, like I listen to an album. I almost always listen to an album. All my favorite music is favorite albums. I don’t really have favorite songs but I’ve got favorite records. It’s just for whatever reason that’s just the way that I think about music. It’s like you wouldn’t say to someone, “What’s your favorite scene from a movie?” You say, “What’s your favorite movie?” You know, a song is great when it encapsulates itself and it is its own sort of entity, and that’s cool. And we sometimes make music like that, but usually the way we make music is like, “How does it fit within the context of the record? Or how does it fit within the context of the whole album and the flow of the thing?”
You know, we usually kind of work out a running order pretty early on and sort of think about that. Especially with records like Polygon and Nonagon – the running order on that one was really important. Especially with those records, it felt integral, like you can’t really… I mean, you definitely can listen to it on shuffle but you couldn’t really change the order so much and make it still make sense, I think. But that’s just the way I kind of think about music. Like, I’ll listen to a record in a sitting and then I’ll check another one. I won’t just listen to a song and then I’ll listen to another song off an album. I don’t know, that’s just for me what I’ve always done.
11: Things are trending back that direction with a lot of musicians just because of the way that people are consuming music. People that really love it, they want to be kind of captured like that. Going back and listening through your catalog, like you said you can’t jump around. You put one on, then you listen to the next one, then you listen to the next one. So let me ask you this, from your perspective, three questions: Easiest album to make, most challenging album to make, and then, after-the-fact, the most satisfactory album of the five that you put out last year?
SM: Okay, of the five? Okay. Well, I was gonna say easiest album to make was Quarters! but that’s not one of the five. Easiest one to make…
11: Yeah, we’re locked into the five now. That’s the lead.
SM: The easiest album was Sketches, and I’m really saying that because I’m trying to think of what album took the least amount of time. And that’s not to say that it wasn’t challenging in a different sense. Sketches was kinda jammy and in that sense it was easiest. Yeah, but was it? I don’t know. Tricky question.
I think it was. That one was challenging to mix. It was like making the record or getting the songs down, getting the barebones, the structure, kind of like the framing or whatever, was really straightforward. Alex was in Melbourne staying at my house for a few weeks, maybe two or three weeks, or something like that. And we just went to the studio most days. We played a few shows, hung out, all that, but we just kind of went to the studio most days and jammed and made music. I mean, that was pretty straightforward but trickier to get the sparkle. It was like the framing was good but it was wonky a little bit, and it was like putting plaster on not very straight walls or something. It was supposed to be wonky. It was supposed to kind of be like that, but challenging to mix. Challenging just to get right. I think that’s my really confused half-answer for that one.
Most challenging, hardest I would say Polygondwanaland. I think that was one that had the most attention to detail. I think that was the one where it felt like every riff, or every thing that was in it was important. It was less of a just jam, less of a throw shit at the wall. It was much more calculated. It was the most calculated record by a long way, and it probably took the most time as well. It was also maybe the most challenging guitar record just to get takes right, and probably the most challenging for Cavs [Michael Cavanagh] doing the drums as well.
For sure, I think that one was definitely, definitely the most challenging. But yeah, weirdly less challenging to get right in the mix. Maybe it was because we had spent more time, yeah, on the, sort of… I don’t know, I keep coming back to it being like a house and the framing, or the architecture was more drawn out. It had a blueprint. It had a more accurate blueprint maybe. But most challenging, sure. And what was the last one? What was the last question?
11: The one that is the most satisfying after-the-fact to go back and listen to and just think, “Man, we nailed that,” or, “That’s a super intriguing album. I’m really happy with how that turned out.”
SM: I think that one is kinda, weirdly for me, Gumboot. Because I think even though for each individual song we did spend a lot of time kind of working on making sure that they were all worthy, and getting every song individually really good, it was thrown together. It was a completely slapped-together record. Every single song was recorded in different places with different arrangements of people, different instruments, you know? The kind of deliberately least cohesive record that we’ve ever made. But I think finishing it I was like, “Okay, all right. Well, that somehow maybe worked.” And actually it has some of my favorite songs, songs that were just kind of talked about over the whole year ended up on that record for some reason. So that was the one that was, for me, I was like, “Oh, yeah, well, we’re kind of stoked that actually turned out okay I think.” So I think that’s that one.
11: And Gumboot is really interesting, too, just because it falls outside of the scope that we just talked about where each album had a theme. It’s almost like that album’s theme is that it didn’t have a theme. It had a bunch of songs that didn’t fit with other places, but when you listen to it, it holds up. It holds up as a really engaging album.
SM: I mean, we’ve done a lot of pretty heavily themed records in a row. We did, going backwards, Polygondwanaland, Sketches, Murder, and Flying Microtonal Banana, Nonagon, Paper Mache Dream Balloon, Quarters!. They were all really kind of themed in a row, and it just felt like such a relief to kind of just work on songs that weren’t part of the whole, actually. And I think it helped us to kind of focus on the songs individually on that record, and maybe that’s why they became some of my favorite songs of the year as standalone songs. Because they were made to be standalone songs, whereas, you know, we haven’t made a record like that for a long time, so it was nice to do that.
11: So, can we get on record here, ELEVEN PDX breaking the news: King Gizzard confirmed for six albums in 2018?
SM: Please don’t do that to me.
11: Anything on the slate for 2018 as it stands?
SM: We’ve been jamming a little bit. We’ve been kind of casually recording just a few ideas we’ve got. I think doing the five album thing last year was great, but it was hard working through, like, a… even though I didn’t feel like we busted our balls necessarily, but it did feel like there was a pressure to get shit done, which is sometimes helpful and sometimes a hindrance, because you’re thinking it’s distracting from being in the moment. So it’s kind of nice to not feel like that right now, but we’re kind of working on a few ideas and we’re just kind of letting that fall into place this year and trying to focus on playing as many shows as we can.
But I think we just kind of need a break from recording for a minute, and then we might dive head first into it again and do some kind of intenser stuff. It’s hard to say what we’re gonna do, but I think it’s like we need to just rest, but by rest, like, play shows. We need to just not think about new stuff for a second. We need to just focus on what we got, and just, like, consolidate, you know?