Love, Death and Trucker Speed: The Murlocs Get Adventurous on Rapscallion

Concept album touches on Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s youthful life of skateboarding, hitchhiking and hiding from authority
Photo: Izzie Austin

When your primary band has released 20 studio albums in 12 years (with three more to come in the next six weeks), it seems a bit preposterous to also have a side project with five albums and two EPs of its own. Such is the state of affairs for ever-prolific King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard multi-instrumentalists Ambrose Kenny-Smith and Cook Craig, whose sixth album with the Murlocs, Rapscallion, arrives Sept. 16 on ATO Records.

For those of us who can barely remain functioning members of the human race on a daily basis, this level of output is, well, staggering. For Kenny-Smith and Craig, it’s basically just business as usual. “I feel like they’re way different bands inherently, because they’re set up differently,” Craig says when asked how he keeps all this music straight in his own head. “Murlocs is more of a classic band, where everyone gets in a room and jams. That’s most of the time how anything happens, whereas in Gizz, different people write songs, but it’s done a bit more fragmented.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t need help sometimes. With King Gizzard working on multiple projects at the same time during the pandemic, Cook and Kenny-Smith were pleasantly surprised when Murlocs guitarist Callum Shortal “came out of the gates and sent us all these killer demos.” Says Craig, “Originally, he was the main songwriter in Murlocs, but he hadn’t written much music for a while. This time, he’d pretty much written a whole album.”

Forced to work remotely due to Australia’s strict COVID rules, Kenny-Smith found himself building a larger narrative as each new Shortal song arrived. “There’s definitely heaps of things taken from my own experiences, and then embellished,” he says of the storyline, which centers around the adventures of the album’s titular character. “It’s derivative from my younger experiences of skateboarding and hitchhiking rides off of random, drug-fueled truckers.” Adds Craig with a smile, “It’s definitely very Australian.”

As Kenny-Smith explains, the protagonist Rapscallion character is “an ugly duckling to his family” who breaks loose from the “one-horse town” where he’s been raised, without realizing that his wide-eyed naivety might get him into trouble. He hitchhikes along the Bellarine highway, gets picked up by some ruffians, meets a bunch of aggressive dudes in a truck stop parking lot and then finds refuge in an abandoned junkyard.

Proceeding onward, he meets a group of vigilante kids in a gang and their leader The Royal Vagabond, a “Hagrid, larger-than-life type of figure” who gives Rapscallion his first taste of crime and the rush of adrenaline that comes with it (a turn of events depicted in the “Virgin Criminal” video).

 

The hero then meets the bowlegged but beautiful Peggy Mae and becomes “love-at-first-sight fixated on her. Before he knows it, he’s trying to score drugs with her and try some substance he’s unfamiliar with,” Kenny-Smith says. Peggy Mae overdoses and dies, but Rapscallion is able to “ride off into the sunset with his head up, having learned from his mistakes. It’s a bittersweet happy ending.”

Sonically, Rapscallion is “a lot less jangly and garage-y than previous stuff has been,” Craig says. “A lot of the tones are definitely more fuzzed-out than we’ve had in the past. Because we recorded it separately, it’s tighter and a bit more concise.” Kenny-Smith says Shortal was inspired by everything from the wiry post-punk of ’90s U.K. band Country Teasers and fellow irreverent Australians Eddy Curry Suppression Ring to legends such as Black Sabbath and Pixies. There are even some Television-style harmonized guitar leads on “The Royal Vagabond.”

“If you ever get a chance to meet him, you’ll probably realize you’re meeting Rapscallion in the flesh,” Kenny-Smith says of Shortal. “I’m just trying to put his story to paper. I’m really stoked he managed to make a pretty seamless-sounding record and gave me the opportunity to write more conceptually and take it somewhere else, rather than my anxieties and boring diary entries. It’s a step-by-step novel in album rock form.”

 

With that in mind, both Kenny-Smith and Craig say they’d be thrilled to play Rapscallion live from front-to-back at some point, but for now, they and Shortal, drummer Matt Blach and multi-instrumentalist Tim Karmouche just need to learn how to play the songs. The Murlocs’ first North American tour in more than three years begins Oct. 29 at the Levitation festival in Austin and includes a couple of gigs opening for King Gizzard before splitting off into a month-plus of headlining dates. “We’ll have two albums to try and get through, and they’re pretty different,” says Kenny-Smith, referencing 2021’s Bittersweet Demons and Rapscallion. “It will be nice to do the best of both.”

First up, King Gizzard will release the albums Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava, Laminated Denim and Changes throughout October and support them with some of their biggest North American shows to date. Beyond figuring out the Rapscallion material, Kenny-Smith and Craig will also try to get some of the new Gizzard music ready for live performance this fall.

“We’ve only got two days in L.A. to rehearse with the full band before we start this Gizz tour,” Kenny-Smith admits. “We’re just gonna see what we can get going when we’re there, and wing the rest in soundchecks or literally as we’re playing.”

Addressing an Aug. 18 tweet from the Gizzard account that said the band was already working on two more new albums, Kenny-Smith says with a laugh, “It’s hard to tell what we’re even thinking about sometimes. We just got into the studio today, a few of us, trying to mess around with some new ideas. It was a fun little experiment.” Adds Craig, “We’re always working on something, whether the idea of an album’s there or not. Everyone’s always demoing and doing stuff, so we’re never not making albums.”

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