Downtime is not something that Ambrose Kenny-Smith gets a lot of, which, weirdly, is exactly why he can’t wait to get on the road and embrace all the insanity it brings with the Murlocs.
“Being on tour is always a whirlwind, and then when you get home it’s nonstop as well,” the singer-guitarist says, on the line from his home in Melbourne, Australia. “The workload keeps getting increasingly bigger for sure, which is why I’m looking forward to hitting the road. That’s sort of the only me time that I kind of get, which is funny considering I’m always around a bunch of other dudes. With both bands that I play for, there are lots of people around all the time, but you can usually get some peace and quiet when everyone’s sleeping. That’s when I get to gather my thoughts again.”
Kenny-Smith is indeed beyond busy, partly because of his main gig—handling keyboard duties for psychedelic-flavoured cult fave King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, which has released a whopping 14 albums and a couple of EPs since forming in 2010. Famously, the band put out five full-lengths in 2017 alone, somehow managing to tour relentlessly when not hunkered down in the studio.
Evidently of the opinion that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, Kenny-Smith has filled his non-Lizard-Wizard-related days by gigging and recording with his side project the Murlocs, who have just released their fourth full-length, Manic Candid Episode. The quintet—which includes King Gizzard lead guitarist Cook Craig, as well as bassist Andrew Crossley, drummer Matt Blach, and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Tim Karmouche—dates back to 2010, and its initial albums and EPs trafficked in an unapologetically grimy DIY mix of vintage garage and greasy soul.
With Manic Candid Episode Kenny-Smith and his bandmates made a concerted effort to move the needle on multiple fronts. As much as you can have fun shotgunning a flat of PBR to the turbo-blues rager “What If?”, the singer isn’t afraid to push himself. As the band’s lyricist he tackles everything from the spinoff damage of systemic poverty and drug addiction in “Spun Gun” to the horrors of mass shootings in “Comfort Zone”.
“I feel like I’m not super aware of my surroundings at all times,” Kenny-Smith says. “When you become pretty self-absorbed in your art, it’s hard to keep on top of things. The subjects and issues that I reflect on on the album are things that are easy to remain oblivious to. Sometimes you’ll see them on the street, sometimes on the news. I think I came at the songs as more of a wake-up call to me—a message that I have to open my eyes a bit more. That’s important, because the world’s a pretty crazy place.”
The Murlocs were nonetheless more grounded and focused than usual for Manic Candid Episode.
“Sonically, this is the first time we recorded in a proper studio,” Kenny-Smith notes. “We had lots of sick equipment, and it was great having good mikes and lots of good people around. We were also a bit more prepared as well.”
A big part of being ready was having a clear vision for moving the group beyond side-project status.
“In my head, I wanted the record to sound like the Strokes if Phil Spector had produced them,” Kenny-Smith says with a laugh. “We were after really tight performances playing with that Wall of Sound feel. It didn’t totally come out like that, but it definitely came out more what we were after than previous albums. It’s probably the most grown-up–sounding record that we’ve done.”
It’s also the most varied. Musically, the Murlocs dive into everything from period-perfect paisley pop (“Withstand”) to tightly wound acid rock (“Buffoon”) to Death Valley country (“Samsara Maya”). Part of the reason that such diversions sound so effortless is that the Murlocs were determined to do a more professional job than they had in the past.
“I’m stoked that it sounds like we’re pretty versatile, because it definitely felt like that when it was coming together—especially compared to previous albums,” Kenny-Smith offers proudly. “I think we’ve slowly, gradually been able to incorporate other sounds. We’re definitely a band that’s always stuck to our guns, because we’ve always felt like we’re better live than in the studio. But I’m glad we’ve been able to branch out into other areas.”
As for how the Murlocs were able to break new ground, that’s easy. The key to doing anything of value, Kenny-Smith suggests, is to make sure that you and your friends keep so busy that there’s nothing you dream of more than getting a few minutes of downtime.
“Even though I write all the lyrics, you never know what you’re going to get with the Murlocs,” he says. “It’s fairly basic stuff if it’s coming from me, because I like to keep things simplistic. What’s been important is that we all have other projects as well, beyond the Murlocs circle. This record was definitely a reflection of other people’s songwriting capabilities. Tracks like ‘What If?’, for example, came from our drummer.
“I’ve always loved music,” Kenny-Smith continues. “When I was in high school, it was better than having to do general math or something. At that, I wasn’t convinced that I could be a musician. I’m still not convinced, but I’m busy enough that I am now, I guess.”
The Murlocs play the Fox Cabaret on Saturday (April 13).