An interview with Duane Denison of Tomahawk

Words: Laura JayneTOMAHAWK_PIC_5 - Vincent Forcier(Photo – Vincent Forcier)

TOMAHAWK are back, and marking their return with a headlining slot at Reading & Leeds festivals this summer. Following a 6 year absence, founding members Duane Denison (Jesus Lizard, Hank Williams III), Mike Patton (Mr Bungle & significant others) and John Stanier (Helmet, Battles) have enlisted the services of Patton’s lifelong friend and perennial bandmate, bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr Bungle, Trio Convulsant, Fantomas). Tomahawk is no ordinary rock band. These are four musicians of undisputed technical calibre and eclectic musical style, intent on producing captivating and eclectic collections of songs. Oddfellows, the band’s fourth record, finds a more stripped-down rock aesthetic, while losing none of the intrigue, atmosphere and nightmarish narrative of earlier offerings.

Oddfellows, the album opener, is a pulsating virulent beast of a track. Denison weaves a hypnotic thread around Stanier’s intricate 7-beat drum metre, supported by Dunn, paving way for Patton’s signature twisted vocal odyssey. The stunningly executed music video is created from black and white distorted performance footage spattered with demented comic book animation. I caught up with Duane Denison ahead of their European Tour, to talk about how a Tomahawk record evolves, future creative exploits, making figurative doughnuts, and David Yow’s pants.

-What was the catalyst for getting Tomahawk back together? Did one person say let’s get this on again or did you always plan to revisit the Tomahawk thing?

Well, we’re all pretty good at staying in touch, and I guess we all tour a lot with other things, so we’d run into each other periodically, and talk about it. It just seemed like last year the time was right for us. Battles weren’t playing that much, Mike had some space, and Trevor’s always playing with someone, but it just seemed to work out. And now, we’re really almost relaunching the band. The response has been great and we’ve enjoyed playing. Perhaps more importantly we’re actually just enjoying getting back together and hanging out doing what bands do, go out for a drink or eat somewhere. Now we’re already talking about making another album fairly soon and following up on it – we’ve kind of got our second wind here.

-That’s great news. It must be pretty hard to find time to get together, with your various other projects. Could you describe the creative process for Oddfellows? I’d imagine it’s quite collaborative and you get into the studio and jam together rather than being led by one particular person. Is that how it goes?

Not really. I’ve kind of always been the initiator of material ever since we started. I usually make some demos; I’ll just take some riffs, some beats, and I’ll lay down some guitar tracks… fairly simple skeletal arrangements. And then I’ll wait until I’ve got a portfolio, and I’ll send them out to John and Mike, and say OK, what do you think of these? Typically if I send out a batch of 6 songs, I usually feel pretty confident that they’ll like at least for our five of them and we’ll throw one out. When we get together to go in the studio, then we collaborate. People throw in their own ideas and tend to customise their parts a little bit more. With players like John Stanier, Trevor Dunne & Patton, no one’s going to tell them exactly what to do, you can’t, they ‘re too good. They each have their strong individual sounds and styles. So obviously, I leave room for that. Then we go into the studio, and a lot of times they change again while you’re recording. So I think of these songs as almost being distilled, like a batch of liquor you know, kind of boiled down.

-Oddfellows seems to have a lot less keyboards and sound FX, and it sounds a lot rawer than previous albums. Did you discuss the final sound before you went into the studio; was it intentional?

Yes we did – we talked about that very thing, how we wanted this to be a bit more stripped down, and a bit more organic. And the studio we recorded in, Easy Eye here in Nashville, it’s owned and operated by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The studio kind of lends itself to that approach. When we recorded we had the guitars, the bass and the drums all in the same room. And I think for this particular collection of songs that really worked. There’s still a fair amount of samples and things, but they’re actually singing… a lot of the back-up vocals and things, and when you play live you can trigger those from a keyboard.

-You mentioned a new album already – any ideas on how that might look? With the third album Anonymous, you used Native American-inspired sounds, so maybe another type of concept album – some Klezmer or something like that?!

Haha no. That’s funny. No, let’s see where we could go – maybe some Inuit music. No, I think it’s going to be hard rock again, art rock…atmospheres and dynamics. We might revisit some of the native stuff, because I just found some more transcriptions from 100 years ago, that I don’t think have been recorded and they sound interesting to me. They’re coming from roughly the same sources as those from Anonymous. I don’t know about an entire album of it, but who knows, we may revisit it. Who knows, the next thing will maybe be a hybrid – like heavy metal calypso. Or Meshuggah-beats and bowowow.

-So you’re coming over to Europe next month. I know you’re doing a mix of festivals and some of your own more intimate gigs. Would you approach a large festival different to your own gig?

Yes, i think you have to. Usually you don’t have the benefit of doing a full sound check. Oftentimes you just do a line check, or you basically just get up there and play. And typically for festivals they’re also shorter sets, so you don’t get time to play all your songs, or do a crazy encore. If anything you tend to play things that are maybe more straight-forward, because a lot of the time you’re doing something that’s really busy or detailed it gets lost, particularly at a big outdoor thing.

-Of course festivals present a different kind of audience as well. Thinking of Reading & Leeds festivals in the UK – there’ll be lots of Tomahawk fans there, but some less familiar with your work.

UK fans can be tough, a little stand-offish. It reminds me in a way of Chicago. There’s just some places where, I guess they hear so much, and have so much, they are just a little more predisposed to having this sort of aesthetic where they’re saying show me, come on, impress me, which on the one hand, I get it, I’m fine with that. You pay your money; you’re not necessarily going to go crazy. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like come on guys, you’re part of the show too. Show some energy. It gets us excited and we’ll put more out, and it’s almost essential. Well, we haven’t been there in a while so hopefully they’ll be excited to see us.

-Out of the bands you’ve played in, which has been the most fun to play live?

To me the Jesus Lizard was just wonderful. I was a younger man, and it was just really satisfying to me to be in a band that was actually able to make records and tour and have audiences waiting for us. We had all been working for a while at that point, without a whole lot of success, and so to have something actually pay off, where we’re playing songs that I helped write, that was quite a good feeling. And it was fun – we were young and I was single, so sure, I liked to drink and smoke, and all that, and hang out. And hell, I met my wife that way. I met her at a gig in New York City. She claims that I pushed her into a closet and started making out with her.

-And what, you can’t remember?

No!? I was probably loaded and it was at the Pyramid Club. But then, Tomahawk is also satisfying because even though I’m a little older and wiser now, i still enjoy rocking out. It was just satisfying once again, to put something else together. And guess what people, seemed to like this too. I was quite lucky to get Tomahawk going, and have that be fairly popular too. It’s been a pretty good ride.

-On the topic of Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk, I wanted to ask about David Yow and Mike Patton – completely different vocalists, but great frontmen with slightly unhinged stage personas. Who was the more unpredictable frontman to play with?

I think maybe David Yow was a little more unpredictable, just because with Patton he’s also playing some keyboards and doing sampling and stuff so there’s a fairly high level of technical precision required for his job, whereas with David Yow he hang upsides down from the ceiling with his pants halfway off. With both, you never really know exactly what it’s going to be like, on any given evening, before after or during the show. So yeah it’s funny, I’m not a terribly flamboyant or outrageous person myself, but I always seem to end up in these kinds of bands.

-Yes, I’d definitely noticed a theme there. But you must balance these guys pretty well?

Well yes, somebody’s got to make the doughnuts…




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