If you’ve heard a song from Eyes Like The Sky live, you won the King Gizzard lottery. After eight years, the Wizards’ sophomore album remains one of their most inventive.
Eyes Like the Sky is the anomaly in King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s discography. And not just because it’s their only album you can’t find on Spotify.
Rarely are audiences even lucky enough to hear one of the album tracks live (according to Setlist.fm, only twice has the band played a song from the album at a gig – both times were in 2016, both in the UK, and both times it was Evil Man), and yet the album remains the crux of any die-hard fan.
Not only is the album unlike any other of theirs, no other artist has had the confidence to pull off an album like it since Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. So, on its fifth birthday, let’s look back at how this album came into fruition.
“He’s the tall one who looks vaguely like Julia Roberts.”
That’s how Broderick Smith describes his son Ambrose Kenny-Smith, one of the seven members of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. In anticipation of the album’s anniversary, I spoke to Smith about how their collaboration came to be. As it turns out, the roots of Eyes Like the Sky lie in King Gizzard’s debut album, 12 Bar Bruise.
Stu Mackenzie – “the weird, genius savant of that band” – and Smith both share a similar obsession of the Wild West, so Mackenzie approached his bandmate’s father (who is a respected musician in his own right) to pen the lyrics to a single track he had written.
It was the book My 32 Years Among the Indians by Richard Dodge where Smith found his inspiration.
“There was a section in the book called Sam Cherry’s Last Shot… about Sam Cherry who was a scout that was killed by the Indians.”
Smith took that story and narrated it for the band, and that tune became Sam Cherry’s Last Shot on their debut album. When the band looked at doing a second record, Mackenzie simply contacted Smith and asked if he’d like to do a full album. When it came to a story for the album, Smith again turned to American history. Specifically, he looked at a time in Texas in the 1840’s where Comanches (a population of Native Americans from the south) were raiding white settlements and kidnapping the young boys to raise as their own.
“I based [the story] on that and that’s what they wanted,” Smith tells. Through this historical lens, he created a story not only about American history, but one that also explores the importance and struggles of heritage and identity.
Let’s now turn to the band itself. Formed out of casual jam sessions with mates, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard have become a staple on the Australian indie music scene. They have cemented themselves a place among the most ambitious artists in the world today, from having two drummers to releasing five albums in a single year.
Their constant avoidance of playing by the rules have made them instant icons, and Eyes Like the Sky is where that all began. There’s a thing called the ‘sophomore slump’, better known in the music world as ‘second album syndrome’, which occurs when a second effort fails to live up to the standards of its first. It happened with The Stone Roses, and it arguably happened with The Strokes.
It was safe to say that the pressure was on for King Gizzard’s second offering. So what did the band do? Why, they released a “cult western audio book”, of course. A story of a forgotten frontier narrated with a deep, Southern drawl (Smith’s own contribution, a skill from his acting days) over a killer western soundtrack (“Sergio Leone-meets-Link Wray… and they have a jam with Frank Zappa”).
As a good friend from a record company told Smith, the traditional corporate side of the business can’t work out how King Gizzard have done it.
“They haven’t gone through the older way of doing music business”, he told me. “They’ve gone through this new way, which is all about sharing music and promoting your live gigs, and they sell bits of themselves off around the world at different places, to agents and little record companies.”
“So they do it in a different way, and they were one of the few acts that got an arts grant and actually didn’t go to New York and just spend it pissing up against a lamp post.”
Smith also notes the significance of having one member play a dual role, as both a drummer and manager.
“They’re kind of like a Grateful Dead type thing where they do everything in house… but without the drugs.”
Within a couple of years since Eyes Like the Sky’s release, King Gizzard would go on to be a dominating force in Australian music, all of their ambitions that would follow becoming part of the package deal. But when they put their second album out into the world, it was just a bunch of indie nobodies experimenting on their own label.
When you’re a relatively unknown band making an album like that, it’s not a statement as much as it is indulging in your own freedoms. Given their recent success both at home and internationally, I asked Smith if they would ever – or could ever – harness that energy for a sequel album.
“We did talk about taking the character and bringing him over here for the gold fields or the opium wars in China or something, because at the end of the story he’s gone. He could be going anywhere…”
As we look back on King Gizzard’s five-album year and look forward to their next offering, the same could be said for the band themselves.