Ambrose Kenny-Smith of The Murlocs

Ambrose Kenny-Smith talked from over in Australia about his Murlocs and much more....
The Murlocs : Intervew
The Murlocs : Intervew

Mogwai. Phoenix. Elf Power. Gryphon. Hell, you might even throw Duran Duran in there if you widen the scope of the lens to include mad cinematic sci-fi scientists as the dying, mythic breed they most assuredly are in the modern era. By any definition, bands named after imaginary creatures that can actually live up to the magic of their namesakes are a most rare and special occurrence indeed. One needs an unapologetic nerd’s steely resolve to do it in the first place, and an accentuated adventure streak a continent wide in one’s music itself to see the deed through to admirable completion. Melbourne, a city of much magnificent musical mythology on any given Monday, has contributed the latest and greatest addition to this esteemed ethereo-list in the form of The Murlocs, founded in 2011 by Ambrose Kenny-Smith of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – another pricelessly psychedelic Oz band playing no games whatsoever with its dedicated middle finger of a moniker, or its neon announcement of the stoner dream world from which it derives.

The Murlocs, named for an amphibious race of bipedal fish-faced freaks in World of Warcraft, are comprised in human form of Kenny-Smith, Callum Shortal (guitars), Matt Blach (drums), Cook Craig (bass), and Tim Karmouche (keyboards). They write superb songs in a wild slang of their own creation, full of unencumbered textures and ideas experimental enough to be embezzled by cats. They arrive at the equivalent to sonic tableaus arranged by marvelously deranged terrapins and everyone who hears this is the better for it. Anyone who is at all familiar with the Gizzard discography already knows that it is voluminous velocity-insanity of the very best kind – flying all sorts of microtonal bananas pell-mell, the Lizard Wizards put out five albums in 2017 alone.

There is that same kind of intense ground vision in The Murlocs, visible as early as The Murlocs and Tee Pee, their first and second EPs respectively, both of 2012, but with more madcap wordsmithery. In 2014’s Loopholes and across 2016’s Young Blindness, you can hear them developing the wanderlusting water disposition of their sound to a place Petsuchos, the Egyptian crocodile god, must surely approve of. By Old Locomotive in 2017, through their Manic Candid Episode in 2019, and certainly in the ear-exorcisms abounding on 2021’s Bittersweet Demons, they had fine-tuned a signature swamp of an aural-verse with a sotto voce superscription all its own, and one with the kind of guttural grumus merdae even committed Gizzard-gluttons can slake themselves on in a completely different way.

The Murlocs : Rapscallion

The Murlocs have what Dave Grohl affectionately refers to as “heavy metal parking lot cool” in spades, and every song in their catalog bears the mark of their lifetime memberships as habitues of hardline outsiderdom and all its vulgar doubles. Their latest, Rapscallion, out this month on ATO Records, contains all the trademark sonic systole and diastole that makes both The Murlocs and King Gizzard the rascabilian amalgamists they always are, but it is daubed here with a survivor’s delight that makes it more innocent succès de scandale than slaphappy sproglet. It takes guts to take on the blues or a half-pipe, both of which Ambrose Kenny-Smith had done to recorded aplomb by age ten. A gifted harmonica player with an audible love of Howlin’ Wolf, he was also a sponsored skateboarder from his earliest boyhood. These and so many other brewstered composites of subculture he and his bandmates embody make each recording done by The Murlocs the sound-bound samizdat we who despise a bit of soft-soaping on our tune-truths so avidly require.

Talking nineteen-to-the-dozen behind several automatic belly laughs about our shared love of The Blues Brothers and the coolest things our career-musician dads had ever done, Ambrose Kenny-Smith and QRO got straight down to the dirty business of discussing what it means to be a registered rapscallion, both in real time as well as on a riptide of a record. The following transcription is unabridged ink-evidence of what happens when a Melbourne Murloc meets The Northern Hemisphere’s Most Manic Keeper of Marsupial Glitter.

This record kind of brings back some of the ideas we had cooking back in the day and also has a lot of fresh ideas that came naturally from thinking about this subsidiary, second-best, less thought-of child.

QRO: Hi Ambrose! It’s Monday morning where you are and Sunday night where I am–how dare you start the week without me? [laughs]

Ambrose Kenny-Smith: Yeah, my hair is doing crazy things as well [*tries and fails to straighten the world’s most marvelously unmanageable wallaby’s nest atop his head*]…[laughs]

QRO: Who are you talking to about crazy hair, sir? [*lifts lightning-greased strands of teal and fuchsia fused with three days of pure grunge-gamine gunk*] I feel like the shared talent for untamed hair on top of your love of Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry, John Lee Hooker, and Sonny Boy Williamson means we are going to have a very natural connection. Everybody knows my eternal love of and shameless preference for Australian musicians, but I understand you are as great a fan of the music that comes from my corner of the world as I am of the music that comes from yours!

AKS: [laughs] Your hair is actually beyond rad and those earrings are sick too! But hell yes, you’re from the place where everything that first formed me as a musician comes from.

QRO: Ah, thanks so much per the earrings! The wilderness of true no-fucks-given style is the only place for me and I live there full-time. My contention has always been that the rest of the world very much has the boring shit covered so I don’t participate in any of that and I refuse to spend money on anything that isn’t inherently interesting! [laughs] Per the blues bewitchery down here, yes! You need to come for a complete walking tour of the Atlanta blues scene the next time you’re around. You’re always invited!

AKS: I love that idea! And totally agree about the boring shit, all day. That’s a badass life philosophy. [laughs]

QRO: Thank you for getting up early on a Monday to talk to me. I’ve been listening to Rapscallion since about Thursday of last week and I’m loving it. It speaks to my literary heart in so many ways and I have a million things I want to ask you about it. However, to lead into a lot of those questions, I’d love to go back in your Murlocs catalog just a tiny bit to a song off the last album, “Francesca”.

The reason I bring that one up is because, to me, that seems like the place where you guys began to get really intentional about these super-sharp aesthetics that are now coming to define your current album’s directions. “Francesca” has taken this Delta blues-like harmonica ride as the melody and you have then made a video of it where you are basically Marc Bolan dancing inside the ‘80s Trapper Keeper of my wildest 7th-grade fantasy. It is such a brilliant mash-up of sound and image, Ambrose – I want to live in it!

AKS: Ah man, thanks for such a huge compliment and it’s cool that you see that as an inception point of sorts. I hadn’t thought about that, but I will now.

QRO: You guys are known for concept records across the board, which I love. With Rapscallion, we’ve got the central image of the outcast hitchhiking across nowhere and everywhere, somewhat loosely based on your early skating days. Is that pretty accurate?

AKS: Yeah, in the last couple of interviews people have wanted to know how much of those stories are true. There are definitely elements in every song that I experienced, but not to that extreme level. I was privy to a lot of stuff like that happening to my friends as well. The running from ticket inspectors and run-ins with authority-bigot characters when going anywhere with a skateboard are very real.

QRO: Don’t I know it! Try doing it in an American city!

AKS: Oh, I can’t even imagine! I always think about how America has some of the best skaters in the world, and always has, but I think, “how do you afford the hospital bills, let alone the tickets you get?”

QRO: The bail, my friend! They will straight-up take you to jail without blinking if you get caught in the wrong place here! But that’s what makes it ultracool when anybody gets away with it to the highest level too. Getting away with it to the highest level is exactly what you guys have done on Rapscallion. This one almost has chapters, Ambrose… it’s got plot segments like a book! Was that intentional or just the way it got born?

AKS: That’s a cool way to see it! It actually was a bit of both. It was written pretty much in order and when it started to flow, there was a natural sequence that emerged from what was premeditated. When we finished Bittersweet Demons, I told everybody that I wanted to take a step back and I wanted everyone else to write to write more of the music so I could focus back on the lyrics. That’s mostly because I feel like, if we are in a rush or I’m having to split my attention between the music and the lyrics, I slip up a bit, or a feel that I could have done better at times.

I wanted to try and do a proper conceptual record because all of the others have been based around myself and my own anxieties. It felt like a good time because it was the start of the pandemic period and we had the toughest lockdowns in the world here in Melbourne. When we finished Manic Candid Episode, I told everyone I wanted to do the heaviest thing we’d ever done next. At the last moment, I did a 180 because I had started to write all these songs on piano, like “Comfort Zone”, “Skewhiff”, and a few other things. I’d been listening to a lot of Plastic Ono and Elton John so I was like, “Oh no, I want to do this now, sorry guys.” [laughs]

Callum Shortal, our lead guitarist, is pretty much always writing anyway so he started sending me about a song a week that I think he’d already been creating. They were all really solid and some, like “The Royal Vagabond”, that riff is like eight years old or something! We started going through our archive of iPhone recordings and showing each other stuff and I’d be like, “Shit, this is really good, why didn’t we ever turn it into anything?” Cal would say, “Well, you didn’t like it at the time” and I’d just be like, “Well, I like it now.” [laughs]

It is sad when bands can’t be mates because you do get to a point in life where you miss out on lots of friendships and, at the end of the day, music becomes a part of your life so much that it’s kind of all you’ve got in some ways.

QRO: You know your tribe by those that don’t even flinch or raise their eyebrows when you nonchalantly derail the train in that way. [laughs] You have named your new record something that would refer to a character with wily actions like that as well, and something that I very nearly named my car. “Rapscallion” was on the shortlist because I love the word, I love the etymology of the word, and I even love the sound of the word so much. I went with “Ruffian” instead though so, no worries, we don’t have to fight over copyright. [laughs] What appealed to you guys about that word beyond the fact that you embody its best meaning and so does your central songline character?

AKS: For sure! This record kind of brings back some of the ideas we had cooking back in the day and also has a lot of fresh ideas that came naturally from thinking about this subsidiary, second-best, less thought-of child. The rapscallion is the dropkicked outcast that no one pays any attention to. So, he decides to run away. In “Bellarine Ballerina” he’s hitchhiking into the unknown and getting picked up by some freaky truck drivers, and then in “Living Under a Rock” he’s just been living in this small town, unaware of the world around him. The first three tracks, I think, paint a good enough picture of the character and then it dives into the journey from there.

QRO: Yes, it sets quite a compelling street-vision scene. You guys are really, really good at what I call ‘sourpatch songs,’ which I define as a happy song led by a heartbreaking image or an upbeat song beset with a downbeat meaning. The Murlocs work like masters in the world of both verbal and musical paradox. “Virgin Criminal” is a fabulous recent example of this. You’ve got a little bit of Brett Anderson from Suede going on in your voice with that one, and yet the video takes me back to Beastie Boys–both aesthetic places I would rather never leave. To add insult to injury, you are also driving a Vines-green convertible that I, as a certified “Car Ma” like Alison Mosshart, need delivered to my driveway by yesterday at the very latest! [laughs]

AKS: Great! I’m really stoked to hear that because that’s my jam! Most of the music I listen to is very nice and beautiful-sounding, but with a heartfelt, heartbroken sentiment. That’s what always gets me.

QRO: Did you guys know that there is a direct feminine parallel to the word “rapscallion,” which is “rampallion,” off the back of the Middle English word “ramp?” It means ‘ill-behaved woman’ and so I’ll just proudly raise my hand now! [laughs]

AKS: Damn! That’s way cooler and more exotic than rapscallion! I never heard that word or I would have used it instead. [laughs]

QRO: It’s too late, Ambrose. I’m now planning on putting out my femme answer to your record in a year or so: Reap The Rampallion!

AKS: [laughs] Man! That would be all kinds of cool–let us know if you want to collab on that!

QRO: Oh, you’ve stepped in it now because I absolutely will! I’m seeing a double splatter-paint vinyl with an Abbie Hoffman-inspired sticker in place of a price tag that reads: “Steal This Record!” [laughs] I love these characters, as you can see, and not just because I am one. I’m glad you mentioned “Bellarine Ballerina” because that song is fabulously alliterative and fun, but it also made me think about reading the story of William Buckley, the English convict who escaped and was eventually given up for dead by the authorities but actually lived among the Wataurong there for something like 32 years…

AKS: Oh wow, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard that story!

QRO: Well that just makes it even cooler in my mind because you’ve got that actual historical context for Bellarine living subconsciously in your song that you’ve written about a fictional character with a very similar sort of life – and like your character, the one in the story finds a much freer life with the First Nations people, who would have been highly scorned as less-than in that time, than he ever could have had in so-called ‘normal’ society! I think the real William Buckley had been transported for receiving a bolt of cloth that they said he knew was stolen – just nonsense, really, and no reason to relegate a person to prison for 14 years, but society hasn’t changed much on this point, I’m afraid!

AKS: No, it’s never been kind to the real rapscallions! I’m going to have to look this story up now. That is super interesting, that intersection.

QRO: I need you to write a whole EP about him next, please! [laughs] Like you don’t have enough to do. I have immense admiration for your artistic output – it’s a river with a fast current that never feels forced – a great rarity. I don’t think I am the only one blown away by your momentum, and as much as I would love to ask you to hand over the Harry Potter time-turner, or other clock-warping device that you clearly have in your possession in order to be able to get as much done as you do, would you instead mind walking me through a week in your musical life? Take me through a few days in the Murlocs Magnaverse, please.

AKS: Hmmm, you know there’s not really one constant. The whole writing process for us just comes in waves. This album we’d finished by mid-2020 or something, so it’s been sitting on the backburner and we just kept going into lockdowns. A lot of this was just to keep ourselves sane, to keep making art and making tunes. Rapscallion was done at a point when we still had so much more downtime in front of us and we were not going to sit there and twiddle our thumbs so we’ve actually got another one finished. I’ve got to figure out when we can release that! [laughs]

Obviously with Gizzard, we do that a lot more constantly. You know, we did Butterfly 3000, K.G., L.W., and then Omnium Gatherum. That was all pretty much lockdown situations of sending files back and forth to each other and everyone setting up home studios. By Omnium Gatherum, we were able to get together more in the studio so now we have a few more albums about to drop really soon, all of a more jammy nature. So, these were more a product of having so much time on our hands, but before, with Stu in Gizzard, he’s just always thinking of multiple projects at the same time and keeping us really busy.

The Murlocs has always been really collaborative as well and it doesn’t all come from one person. Rapscallion is definitely the product of Cal stepping up to the plate again. Our writing roles have switched around as we’ve gone along, and it’s so nice to hear him come out the gates and pull through with this really sweet, seamless, tight-knitted album. It’s heavier and rockier than anything we’ve done and I’m hoping he can keep it going and doing it again with the heavier side of things. I think we could take it up an extra notch next time.

QRO: One of the biggest magnetisms of your band for me is its perfect merge-storm of so many of my favorite threads of alternative/underdog (underdingo?) culture: stoner-metal bohemia, Australian surf and skateboarding culture–which has all this psychedelic forest grunge imbedded in it, concept records, blues-driven electro-freakouts, experimental wildness, buzzy parties, space cadet costumes, feral men with brains that can critically think. I could go on! A pure metal zone is in there, for sure! Can I inquire who did the artwork for Rapscallion? There’s such a feeling to that picture…it’s a place of its own.

AKS: For sure! That painting on the cover is done by Travis MacDonald, who is a mutual friend of me and Julian Hocking, who did the artwork for Bittersweet Demons. I just started really connecting with Trav’s paintings; he’s a great artist. Looking at them, I thought that this was the vibe the record needed because it’s this classic ‘70’s rock sort of sound that we’re trying to go for at times. I feel that painting is a bit literary, like it looks like it could be the cover of some sort of novel.

I was sending him heaps of references to paintings I had in the house growing up and different things that were relevant to the character of the rapscallion and that whole world. We started to go down that road of him trying to bring to life this idea that I had, but I just kept reverting back to that painting. The painting was originally titled Graceland and it was done about some guy Trav saw lurking around Graceland when he went there. I think someone in Sydney owns the original so hopefully they’ll be keen to sell it back to me at some point; I’ve never seen it in its flesh! We took the painting and had to crop the bottom of the image a bit to fit the 12” size but I think it’s perfect. We didn’t need any titles or anything else; it summed up everything.

QRO: It completely does and I have almost a synesthetic response to it when I see it – it makes me smell crayons when I look at it, which is bliss. That’s what you always want: art that crosses sensory boundaries with natural ease!

AKS: Oh, totally! That’s so great, I couldn’t ask for more.

QRO: You also have the massive good fortune to be in not one but two bands with a gaggle of your very best friends. That does not happen every day in the rock world, as I know you realize. I meet more bands than you might think who really don’t like each other as much as they like the money or the attention. Is that invaluable internal unity something you guys have to work at or do you just have that natural blood-brother thing?

AKS: It’s definitely a natural thing with us. The Murlocs obviously get overshadowed a bit and I worry sometimes that we never get to play enough or that we’ll miss windows of progression. But, we just keep trying to make great records and I think all the progression we have made is because we are such good mates.

Four of us live in Melbourne and Callum lives about an hour away in Geelong still, but we all get together to hang out and a lot of times we don’t even touch an instrument. We might just have a few drinks and talk shit. We’re all in a big friend group of fellow musicians here in Melbourne, everyone knows each other, and it’s all pretty tight-knit. We are all just super grateful and a lot of that also goes back even to school ties from when we were kids in Geelong and Ballarat.

Matt and I even had a band in primary school when we were like 11! It was supposed to be the band that stuck together but lasted like four months playing covers at the RSL and retirement homes. [laughs] We have gone through so much together and we have been such good friends that even when we come home from tour and are sick of each other, we still just go and have dinner. It is sad when bands can’t be mates because you do get to a point in life where you miss out on lots of friendships and, at the end of the day, music becomes a part of your life so much that it’s kind of all you’ve got in some ways.

When we make these records I do feel that you can hear everyone’s character and flavor in there. You can hear in our music things like that Cook has made the bassline difficult for himself on purpose. He’s our rock; he’s especially my rock and Zen guru. When I’m being too much of a narcissistic asshole, he helps me get a lot of shit in order. I’m lucky also in that they all trust me to make decisions, whether it’s with artwork or merchandise or whatever.

When we make these records I do feel that you can hear everyone’s character and flavor in there.

QRO: You are not just kept artistically pure by hanging with friends of that caliber every day, but it’s also a huge blessing just in terms of how most adults do not get to make art with people they love for a living. That’s massive, and you absolutely can hear it in the songs. From the outside looking in, I see and hear a great deal of beauty. As I do in your verbal writing itself. I really think you have a writer’s heart, Ambrose. In a paradox as gorgeous as “Virgin Criminal”, I’m curious about how much conceptualization you personally have with the visuals that then go on to represent those words in a video?

AKS: Being so busy, I’ve always wanted to try to storyboard and direct my own clip completely. That’s a pretty stressful thing to do and I think it’s hard enough to find people that you trust are going to pull off what you want, being up to scratch and ticking all the boxes. I think it’s scary when you are trusting people with a song that you have envisioned differently, but sometimes that can be beautiful in its own way, seeing how someone else can interpret it.

Guy Tyzack, who has directed our most recent videos, I went to high school with, and we hadn’t really spoken to each other in a while. Maybe like four years ago, I saw a clip he did for a friend’s band in Melbourne where they were all wearing little gardens strapped onto them, and their heads were all green, and he made them walk around on the train and bump into people. That was really sick, so I hit him up to do a clip and he did “Bittersweet Demons”, which was great.

It’s so much work, especially when someone really wants it to be something special, and being a smaller band, you have a budget and you have to work in it. Alex McLaren, who had been doing a lot of our stuff, would do Claymations and stuff that might take six months to produce. He wanted to take a bit of a break, which was completely fine, and I’m not sure that he didn’t just do our last few things together because he’s a good mate and somehow tolerated me! Guy has started doing most of the videos for The Murlocs now and he did “Black Hot Soup” for Gizzard. He’s done the “Compos Mentis” one for Rapscallion and we’re really proud of it.

QRO: As well you should be! Guy has done a killer job on everything I’ve seen; I love that video, and it also shows how versatile you all are visually, just like you are sonically. The Murlocs appear to be musical magpies, which contributes, I think, to your abilities to synthesize so many different kinds of sound and shape into what you do, on the stage or on the screen. This makes me want to ask you if you believe there is any such thing as a guilty pleasure when it comes to music or do you believe, as I do, that dessert music can be every bit as important and satisfying as proper-meal music? So, like, if Cook walks in and says he wants to take this new song you guys are working on into the direction of Britney’s last single, is he going to get any pushback? [laughs]

AKS: [laughs] Ahh, I don’t think so! I think Joe Walker from Gizzard may have even used that exact reference before; when I heard “Intrasport”, all I could think of was Britney Spears. It’s definitely anything goes with us. I mean, in Gizzard, we’re even trying to do Hip Hop and shit.

QRO: Oh, amazing. You definitely need to come to Atlanta then because you know it’s So So Def territory down here! It’s also Outkast’s home turf so I would say, if you can’t spit, don’t try down this way! [laughs]

AKS: No way we would dare! We’d get fruit and eggs thrown at us. Andre 3000 is definitely a big influence of mine. Everything filters its way in with my own listening and what comes out in the writing. When I was in Prague recently, someone gave me this CD box set of microtonal orchestra music. It’s pretty wild! I was listening to it in the car and it was kind of scaring me, just pretty ominous, and with all those microtones involved it sounds extra bent.

As far as guilty pleasures go, I’ve got a soft spot for a well-crafted pop song. I actually heard “As It Was” by Harry Styles in an Uber the other day and have been humming it under my breath around the band ever since and changing little bits of it because I haven’t told them yet that I actually don’t mind it! [laughs]

QRO: I love it! I am very much of the Cate Blanchett school of everything, but especially when I heard that incomparable goddess say that she didn’t have guilty pleasures in life because if she enjoyed something, she didn’t feel guilty about it! Obviously, you don’t hurt people or take that in any dark direction, but as far as enjoying things? I absolutely agree and don’t believe in fences there anymore than I believe in them anyplace else. I call it voracious listening.

AKS: Totally agree. Sometimes I will hear a punk band where the person really can’t sing at all, but then you see that band in person and you’re like, “Now I get it.” Or, you’ll hear someone that is freakishly good and everything’s perfect, but it’s not quite right either. Whatever it is, if you can pull it off in a live sense, you’re kicking goals.

QRO: I say that same thing all the time and am pretty unforgiving of bands that sound like sheets of gold on the record but columns of sand in the real. I have heard you say before that, pre-COVID, you felt as if you were more of a performer than a musician and that you had somewhat used the lockdown to “catch up” on honing your craft. Has that revolved completely now that you guys are back on the road, or can you elaborate on what changed for you with regard to your internal monologue about your own musicianship during that time?

AKS: At the shows we have done, there has definitely been a different side of adrenaline. There have been moments this year where I’ve had a few mental ups and downs, nothing crazy, just getting into momentum. The rhythm of the first few weeks can be tricky at times, especially after having been home for so long. It’s a catch-22 for sure, but I still don’t classify myself as any kind of talented musician. I feel like I just know chords and ways to maneuver my way around. I’ve got a bad goldfish approach with learning songs or reading books where I’ll just start to take bits from it and try to create my own thing out of it. But then, when you do that, you never get to progress totally at mastering your craft as such. Like you said, it just comes back to maybe I’m more of a lyricist and a performer than a musician.

QRO: I very much think you’re all three, but it’s incredible to listen to you ‘tall poppy’ yourself like that! There’s a lot to be said for virtuoso musicians, and I make no secret of my appreciation for their technical superiority, but there’s an equal amount to be said for someone that can produce a good, old-fashioned electro-freakout by taking some rudiments and riding off into the sunset. Both of your bands are Beethoven at this, Ambrose.

AKS: That’s so sweet of you to say, thank you. We try to dabble in all things and we’ve definitely put more synths on Rapscallion than we’ve ever worked with before, and we let that shape the sound for sure, but we also are conscious of never moving too far away from the rock sound that we love. We want to keep it loud.

QRO: Oh, I think you are in no peril whatsoever of losing your rock gravel, and I can’t wait to see it kick up some monster dust at Red Rocks in November too – I’ll be at that show to sparkle-squeal at you guys for certain. Until then, I can’t thank you enough for spending your Monday with me; this has been so cool to talk music and maverick characters with you.

AKS: Awesome, I can’t wait to see you at Red Rocks then. Thanks so much for this, it was all lovely and I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed this much in any interview before! This has been great.

QRO: Yay! Well, just like I say “a band that ain’t sweatin’ is stealing your money,” I also say “if you aren’t giggling full-time, what are you doing with your life?” [laughs] Enjoy the rest of your day, and see you Murloc creatures soon!

The Murlocs are on tour throughout North America for the remainder of the year. Get your raucous ass out to partake of their rapscallion glory this minute. Bring your skateboard and don’t brush your hair. Stick your thumb out at the highway and your middle finger at the rulemakers when you do.

-promo photos: Izzie Austin

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