A chat with the director of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s new movie ‘Chunky Shrapnel’
Life-threatening mosh pits, rank sweat and electrifying riffs aside, punters at King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s 2019 shows in the UK and Europe might remember this: an eighth man onstage, balaclava covering his face, camera in hand, weaving between musicians. That cameraman was director and filmmaker John Angus Stewart, whose movie for the Melbourne psych rock band, Chunky Shrapnel, premieres digitally at the end of the week (April 17).
Named after a lyric from the band’s 2017 song ‘Murder Of The Universe’, Chunky Shrapnel isn’t your usual concert documentary. The 97-minute film jumps from city to city (sometimes within the same song) and eschews the idea of a conventional narrative. An eerie score – composed by guitarist/vocalist Stu Mackenzie with the aim of achieving a sense of “alien melancholy”, says Stewart – wafts in and out of the film, clouding even the most blistering of performances. But Stewart’s camerawork and King Gizzard’s musicianship ensure Chunky Shrapnel remains a visceral roller coaster ride.
King Gizzard fans will recognise Stewart’s name from the three music videos he directed for the band’s most recent album, the thrashy ‘Infest The Rats’ Nest’, not to mention the work he’s done for other Flightless Records artists like The Murlocs, Stonefield and Bullant. After filming the band’s warm-up shows for ‘Infest The Rats’ Nest’ in Melbourne, Stewart ended up following King Gizzard on tour in Europe for about a month – a plan that only locked into place two weeks before the trip.
Chunky Shrapnel was supposed to have premiered earlier this month in two sold-out screenings at the Astor Theatre in the band’s stomping grounds of Melbourne. But the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that, so the movie will now premiere for 24 hours on Vimeo this Friday (or Saturday, if you’re in Australia). Stewart promises that plans for wider distribution – including a theatrical release in cinemas around the world – are in the works.
Stewart tells us how shooting with film is like Russian roulette, why he decided to prioritise music over personality for Chunky Shrapnel, the movie’s epic 15-minute closing medley and more.
How’d you get to know King Gizzard?
I’ve just known them socially for years. We’ve just been friends for a really long time. [Guitarist/vocalist] Joey Walker is a really close friend of mine. I’ve been in a relationship with his sister for eight years. So we’re weirdly like family, we go on holidays and shit together all the time. I’ve been making short films for like five to 10 years, and Joey’s been doing music on them, on the down low. And Cavs – Michael Cavanagh, who’s from King Gizzard as well, on drums – he did some drums in a film I made a couple of years ago as well.
So we’ve kind of worked together in a peripheral way, but never joined the worlds of me and Gizzard until I moved into their studio that had a spare room that opened up, upstairs. Flightless moved into a studio next door and I moved in here, and since then we’ve been working together. We’ve known each other so many years, but we’ve never talked about [working together] because we respected each other’s independence.
And then when I moved in, we just had some chats one night when I was here late with Stu. And he’s like, do you wanna do three clips? And I was like, well, I don’t really like music videos, but I can try my kind of spin on it. He was like, let’s do it, and ever since then we haven’t stopped. It was only a year ago, really.
Why don’t you like music videos?
I like them, but I never envisioned that I would do one. Because I’m so much more interested in film, and that’s something about music videos – not being able to use sound. Recorded sound is such a limitation that I’ve always found a little bit confronting. I’ve sort of had limited success in them.
I’m still interested to do more. I’m still working on two for Gizzard at the moment, which I’m gonna do in isolation. These are from a new album that’s coming up. They’re always working on stuff, they haven’t finished these records. I don’t even know when they’re going to release it, I don’t even know the name of the album at all. Stu or Joey or whoever will just send me this big playlist of demos and I’ll listen to some, go “I can make something with that, maybe”, and they might develop that one quicker. It’s very free-flowing.
What was it like spending a month with them in Europe?
It was so much fun for me. I’ve never really done anything like that before. Just seeing how it all worked was really fun. It was interesting – because I was shooting on film, and you don’t really know what you’ve got until you’ve got it processed, which takes a few weeks. I was shooting things, in a way, blindly.
But it makes you be more in the moment, because you can’t just roll forever. You have to play Russian roulette with film, where you hope there’s something in the chamber, because if there isn’t, you just wasted five minutes of film and it costs around a $100 a minute.
So shooting on film with them on tour made me really be in the moment instead of just being behind the camera looking through a little screen the whole time. It was fun. Like I said, they’re my best friends, so there’s nothing uncomfortable about that.
In the description for Chunky Shrapnel, Stu says sometimes you were a fly on the wall and sometimes “an intrusive cameraman one inch from my face”. So were you pretty flexible in terms of how you shot the film?
Yeah. The main rule that I had was: once the camera’s on stage, it’s gotta be handheld and it can’t ever cut. So when the song started, my movement and the blocking of where I move the camera – that’s the editing, that’s the cutting, because we wanted the whole thing to feel so immersive.
I wanted to use wide lenses as well, so when you’re watching it you feel like you’re there. To get a close-up of Stu’s mouth singing at the microphone, using a wide lens, you literally have to get 10 centimetres from his mouth.
And the funny thing about Stu and the rest of Gizz is they literally said, “Actually, do whatever you want.” If I tripped over Stu’s guitar cable and it popped out, he would just think it’s funny. They just don’t care about that stuff. That’s what’s so unique to them, letting me get right in there. And they trust me as well.
So there was no tension from you being there and documenting everything?
No tension at all. We were all figuring it out as we went along, but if there was any tension they wouldn’t have asked me to come. They’re very protective of their music and their stage performances, and they take it really seriously. There are things that happen that can go very wrong, like I was saying, if the cord fell out, Stu would think it’s funny, because it’s part of the show.
But they change their setlist every night. They put heaps of thought into it. Doesn’t matter what show it is, they get nervous. It doesn’t matter how they’re feeling before a show, after they’re finished, they’re so excited. And you can feel it when you watch their shows. I had trust in them as well. The fact that they trusted me made me feel so carefree, which was great.
The description also says you decided to prioritise exploring the music rather than the “inner workings of the band’s personality”. What went into deciding the music would be the focus of Chunky Shrapnel?
With documentaries about musicians or even about filmmakers, a lot of the time, to give it a narrative thread, they pry into artists’ personalities or whatnot, trying to extract this deeper narrative to make it feel like a three-act film.
But to me, I think [King Gizzard’s] performance and their music is so fuckin’ interesting that you don’t have to do that. And in the end, they’re really interesting guys. They’re all really intelligent, really switched-on and super empathetic. But at the same time, what I find the most interesting about them is their music and how they play it. And that is what people should see.
It shouldn’t be about what kind of dip they like or what their political beliefs are or anything like that. I just don’t think it’s that interesting. I would rather put the camera in a room and just see them do their thing and catch a couple of conversations here and there, instead of telling the audience how they should feel. [That] feels a bit manipulative to me. I didn’t want it to feel like a puff piece. If you like this music, you’ll get an insight into who these people are. But I didn’t want to frame them as these godlike figures, because to me that’s kind of bullshit. They’re just normal dudes.
The very last song, ‘A Brief History Of Planet Earth’, is a 15-minute medley. What was it like cutting that together?
That was something that we were working on for a while. Because I knew the film needed to have this specific ending, which we just hadn’t found yet. I edited the film, but so much of [the process] was these late-night sessions [with Stu Mackenzie]. I would get here from 9am, and I would leave at 5am the next day. Stu would get here at like 5pm, and we’d spend these all-nighters where I would be upstairs editing and he would be downstairs making score. Then I’d come down with my computer and we would bounce stuff back and forth.
So with that one, there were these specific parts of these songs. I found this little bit and would be like, “Is it possible to put it into this song?” And he would be like, “Definitely!” And I would go to him then he’d throw it back to me and say, “Actually, not that bit, this bit’s way better!” So it was very much this back and forth.
Then when we both [finished] it one night, I think it was 4am on a Tuesday morning, we both just got so excited. That was the moment where we were like – this film is something. It’s not just a concert film, it’s something special. We’re really proud of that last bit.
It definitely sounds like the Chunky Shrapnel album isn’t just a typical live recording. It sounds like both of you really took the opportunity to rework stuff.
Oh yeah, hugely. Stu’s endlessly curious about reworking and re-understanding his own music. That’s something that is so fascinating about working with him. We’ve already developed this whole idea for doing another one. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it at some point when the world clicks back into some sense of normality.
Chunky Shrapnel was supposed to be screened in Melbourne, but is now premiering digitally.
Yeah, we had the screenings lined up for the Astor, but we were working with an American distributor to do screenings in America. We were gonna do screenings in New York and Los Angeles, do a similar thing to what we did in Melbourne, but over there. So do these special events, then do a limited run in a couple places around the world with the film.
But obviously all that drew to a sharp halt. Part of us was like, let’s just sit on it until everything simmers down. But that obviously became a silly decision after a while, because we just wanted to get it out there and share it. And I was always really sceptical of the idea of releasing anything digitally. But there’s something cool about it as well, because we literally did make it for a cinema experience. Stu mixed it in 5.1 surround sound. Even the way I was framing [shots], I was framing it wider than I normally frame it, knowing it would be on a big screen.
We’re just kinda rolling with it and seeing where it goes. We believe in it, and we think people are gonna really like it. And hopefully, because it’s an immersive live thing, we hope this is the perfect time for people to see it.
As a sceptic, do you think this shift to digital is going to have a long-term effect on how we think about film and music? Because no one’s really certain how long this pandemic is gonna bear out.
That’s something I’ve been toying with for a very long time. I don’t think the pandemic’s going anywhere anytime soon but when things become more stable, I just hope the idea of how people view communal events doesn’t change. ’Cause sure, a vaccine could come out and cinemas open, but will the way people view cinemas change indefinitely? Will the whole idea of video-on-demand, like “I can pay $40 and watch The Invisible Man the day it comes out” – why wouldn’t a lot of people stop doing that?
I just hope that doesn’t affect the cinema experience. [It’s] like the gig experience, going to a live show. [Even] if it’s 100 people, it doesn’t matter. There’s something special about being in your jeans, in your shoes, on a kind of uncomfortable chair in a dark room full of people – there’s something about that. That’s where it’s at. Because that makes it an active experience.
Whereas when you’re at home, as great as it is, the pull of looking at your phone and everyday distractions is so deep. So I just hope we don’t lose that. It’s like looking at art on Google Images. You can see the work, but it’s different than being in a gallery. You’re an active participant.
What was the wildest performance on the tour you had to cut from the film?
There were a bunch of crazy ones. ‘Mars For The Rich’ in Glasgow was insanely good. We’d put so many metal songs in the film and it didn’t work. And because it was so hot in the room, there was just thousands and thousands of heaving reprobates in there, as soon as I walked onstage – it was the second time I’d filmed onstage with them – the lens fully fogged up. A little bit of it’s in the film, just me wiping the lens with my t-shirt. But it just kept fogging up. I didn’t realise how hot their shows would get.
So then before every show, like an hour before I’d go onstage, I’d get the lens I was going to use and put it onstage so it’d get to the same temperature as the whole room and wouldn’t fog up anymore. It was just finally realising how quickly the temperature of a room could change.
Chunky Shrapnel premieres on Vimeo on Friday, April 17 at 11pm BST (or Saturday, April 18 at 8am AEST). Rent the movie for 24 hours for USD $10 here. The Chunky Shrapnel live double album will be released April 24. More info on the official King Gizzard website.