What’s the Difference Between Tomahawk and Taylor Swift? Our Chat With Legendary Guitarist Duane Denison


Nearly six years after their last album, 2007’s Anonymous, Tomahawk return this week with fourth offering Oddfellows: more phantasmagoric rock to weird you out and rev you up all at once. Tomahawk’s cast of music luminaries–singer Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle), guitarist Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers) and John Stanier (Helmet, Battles) –were joined by equally adroit bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Fantomas) for this 13-song LP, which was recorded at the Black Keys’ Easy Eye studio in Nashville, Denison’s long-time home city. We caught up with the über-friendly guitarist (and Tomahawk’s prime mover) to chat about the odd fellows that made Oddfellows.

See also: Q & A: Scratch Acid’s David Yow On Reunions, Nirvana And Book, The Jesus Lizard Coffee Table Book

Over the last couple of months, I’d heard this album being touted as a more “accessible” rock record, but when I finally got to hear it, it sounded pretty dark and weird, as I’d hoped.
Yeah, though we did make a couple of nods toward trying to do singles. “Stone Letter” is fairly straightforward and accessible. My seven-year-old daughter will occasionally sing along to it.

Has she ever done that with any of your other stuff?
No, never. And none of the other songs on the record. She likes Taylor Swift. But I’ve slowly turned her on to Ramones and Johnny Cash and Cheap Trick — simple, straightforward things — and she will sing along with the chorus of “Stone Letter.”

Are you trying to steer her away from the Taylor Swifts of the world, or are you cutting her some slack because she’s seven?
[Laughs] No, we let her do her thing.

The record is finally out this week, but obviously it’s been finished for a little while by the time we get our hands on it, so is it still near-and-dear to you or have you already moved on to the next thing?
No, no, it’s really exciting when your new album comes out. If I ever get to the point where it isn’t exciting, then I should stop. It’s still a big deal. You work on your ideas and get other people involved, and then it comes out as an official product. The songs are all registered and all of that. It’s still really cool. The whole process never ceases to amaze me. It’s still mystifying to me. It shouldn’t be, but I’m still like a kid that way.

The record starts off with the title track and a lot of the elements — your guitar playing, Mike’s vocals, John’s drumming — are really familiar to anyone who’s followed either Tomahawk or the other bands you’ve all been in. The riff has that Jesus Lizard-y vibe to it. But from there it seems like the album goes down this rabbit hole of weirdness and unpredictability. Did you purposely set it up that way?
Well, we didn’t intentionally say, “All right, let’s put something that the old fans will like first and we’ll twist it from there.” We didn’t do that, it just kind of worked out because “Oddfellows” seemed like an opening track. It starts out with just drums, and then the guitar and bass come in, and finally the vocal, and it just seemed like a good point of departure. It basically picks up where [2003’s] Mit Gas left off, and from there, the second song is the single, “Stone Letter,” which is kind of different from what we’ve typically done. And then the third song, “I.O.U.,” is different again. So maybe we subconsciously did that. If that’s how it seems to you, then we’re fine with that.

There’s a nice mix of moody, atmospheric stuff and then these more intense, sorta violent songs. Did it take a while to figure out the sequencing?
Yeah, it did. There’s different schools of thought about sequences. Some people seem to think, “Frontload the album”: Put all your biggest, baddest songs up near the front and that way people will be so blown away by the album that they won’t even notice the songs of — what should we say– “lesser impact.” But we didn’t do that on this. We kind of spread things out more so that there’s different peaks throughout the album. It does seem a little front-heavy still, to me, just because more of the songs I like are there. But it comes back strong at the end. At the risk of sounding cliche, an album is a lot like a movie — even making one is a lot like a movie, where you have to do it in sections, and the scheduling and all this pre-production, post-production, et cetera, and the final sequence is not necessarily the sequence in which it was shot or recorded. So you have to pace things, and in our case, so that it has some continuity and flow and it’s interesting all the way through. So you get moments of repose and then moments of peak activity and all of that. That’s what we were going for, whether we did that or not is up to the listeners to judge, but I think it works.

I thought the recurring motifs were interesting — like on “I Can Almost See Them,” it’s this kind of tense, slow-burner that you think is going to eventually burst open but about halfway through you realize that it’s not, and then a couple of songs later there’s “Waratorium” which sounds similar but goes more heavy-rock.
Absolutely, it’s basically the same riff, same key, but the more rocked-up, amped-up version. I’m glad you noticed that, because I’ve had to point that out to people. It seems fairly obvious to us.

Yeah, it seemed like “Part Two” of that song.
That’s exactly what it is. We thought about putting it back-to-back but we thought, “Mmmm, that’s a little much.” But yeah, composers do something like that all the time, don’t they? Whether it’s a symphonic thing or a soundtrack or chamber music or a ballet, you have certain themes that show up again and again and are reworked, and this is no different, I guess.

So my understanding is that with Tomahawk, you’re the chief songwriter, and you’re basically the one that rounds everyone up and makes these albums happen?
Pretty much, yeah. I initiated it, and had some sketches for it. The method for this album was pretty much the same as always, where I’ll sit at home and record sketches, just a batch of three, four, five at a time, and do very simple, rough home demos. Guitar, bass, drum machine. Then I put a collection together — in the old days I’d send cassettes and now I just make files and send them to the guys and see what they think. I think by now I know what these guys like, and I know what I like, and I think I know what people will be stoked to work on. So I sent the files out, got feedback –Patton will add touches, start fooling with different vocal approaches and different sounds and things, and then we get together and do rehearsals before we go into the studio, and that’s when we finalize the arrangements and tweak things and get the proportions and structure and symmetry going. And then we go in the studio and knock it out.

Because you know these guys so well and their various strengths, do you ever come up with ideas or write parts that you know will take them out of their comfort zones, with the idea that maybe that kind of tension or discomfort will pull something interesting and unique out of them?
I don’t ever think that way, but it kind of happens sometimes [laughs]. What’s happening now is we’ve all been doing this so long and each of us has so many different albums out, that the trick now is to find ways of doing things where you aren’t repeating yourself. When you’re a 22-year-old putting out your second album, the world is at your feet. And when you’re 50 and you’re putting out your twenty-somethingth album, it’s another thing. So that’s the challenge. But at the same time, I want it to be rock. There are certain parameters that you work within.

So how do you reconcile the two?
I don’t know. Obviously, everyone in this band has sort of a signature style, and you’re not going to change that. And maybe you don’t want to. At this point, there’s a reason people play the way they do, because that’s what they want to hear and that’s what they like to play. But at the same time, you don’t want to literally repeat yourself, and you don’t want to literally just plug into a formula. Somehow I feel like we’ve managed to avoid that. There’s definitely some things on the album where I’ll say, well this kind of sounds like it could have been Jesus Lizard or Faith No More or whatever, and I’m fine with that. That’s just a sign of continuity, and to do it with some variations, and subtle variations, to me is the trick. And to make gradual evolutions, if you will, without it sounding forced or overly deliberate. Because then you end up with something, like, yeah it doesn’t sound like you, but it sounds like a bad version of someone else. Or it sounds like a half-assed version of whatever the new trend is. So you can’t do that. You want your group to have an identity and a signature sound, but maybe for us the variation is the signature sound. I just try to come up with some new, fresh-sounding rock things and hope the other guys like it. And I figure, if I like it then other people will like it too, because I’m not that different. The books I read, and the TV I like, and the movies I like, it’s not that different from a lot of other people. It’s not necessarily pop, best-sellers or whatever, but you know what I mean.

What’s the give-and-take like between the four of you when you’re in the studio? How do you convey musical ideas to one another? Is it a really intense, serious process?
Well, we take the music seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We’re fairly obscene guys, always laughing about things. We make fun of ourselves, we make fun of each other, we make fun of other bands. Even stuff we like, we’ll laugh at. If we’re working on a song and we’re talking about it, I tend to think we’re like a lot of bands where someone will say –if somebody does something different–someone will say “How come you’re not doing that Morricone thing you were doing earlier?” Or if I switch a guitar part and I’m playing high notes instead of low notes, Patton might say, “No no, do the Duane Eddy-sounding stuff. The world is full of high notes, let’s hear some more low notes!” I might say to him, “Hey, Pagliacci, why don’t you pull it back a little bit there…let’s be subtle once in a while. Can you try that and see what it’s like?” [laughs]

So you don’t really pull any punches?
No. And things can get touchy–we’re like anyone else in that regard. Especially Mike and I, we will butt heads about things in the studio. Usually mixing and arranging, things can get tense from time to time because you’re dealing with guys who’ve basically been obsessive about music all their lives, you have a vision for something and that’s the difference between working in a group and being a dictator or a solo guy. Well, one guy does not always have the final say, so we like to think, you pick your battles. It’s like what I imagine office politics is like. You can’t argue about every single thing that bothers you. I mean, I guess some people will, won’t they? [laughs] But you have to decide what’s the most important to you and what you’re willing to fight for, whether it’s the volume levels or the tone of something. It could be any number of things. I tend to favor things more on a minimal side, and Patton tends to favor things on more of a maximal side. He’s “more-is-more”-minded and I tend to be “less-is-more.” Somehow it works, but there’s friction there. But we get over it and move on. And you realize that it’s not personal, you’re working on music and it’s not like, “Ha-hah, I have defeated you, I am dominating you with my thing!” And sometimes compromising is good. I will pare things down and make it sparse until what sounds good to me would sound dull to someone else. On the other hand, Patton will load things up until it sounds overcooked or something. So I think there’s a balance to be struck there. And not that Tomahawk is perfect, but I think that there is a certain checks-and-balances system that seems to be working.

Did you have a sense of that dynamic when you first started working with these guys way back when?
No. Uh uh. I had no idea. I didn’t know Patton at all. We knew each other’s music, at least some of it. He probably knew more of mine than I did of his. At the time when I met him,the Mr. Bungle California album was out, which is my favorite album of theirs. That’s the one for me and I saw them on that tour and I was very impressed. I was playing with Hank Williams III at the time, and I just wasn’t fully satisfied with being the sideman, so I started writing tunes and riffs and I had a drum machine and I’d take it with me on the road and work on things. I started accumulating material. I do it a lot, and I’m even doing it now. It’s good to write it out or record it and set it aside, don’t try to develop it, don’t go down that hole, just get the essence of it and have a record of it somewhere and set it aside, and if it’s good you’ll find a way to use it. No good work is really wasted.

Is it reassuring for you to know that stockpile exists?
I think so. It can be deceptive fun–when you go jam with people and you kinda think about who’s gonna be there and what they’re gonna do, and you kinda tuck an idea or two in your back pocket and you pull it out like you just made it up. “Oh, that reminds me of this,” and you start playing this thing and they think you’re a genius [laughs]. I know I’m not the only one who does that.

The songs on this album are fairly concise–three- or four-minutes long for the most part, which is pretty common for Tomahawk. Are you ever tempted to stretch things out, or did you decide to just go right to the heart of the idea for each song and then move on to the next one?
There is that temptation, and it never seems to work out [laughs]. We’ve had longer songs in the past, but usually what happens –and when I listen to other people doing longer songs — what it sounds like to me is the intros are more drawn out, then you get to the meat and potatoes of the piece, and then there’s some sort of coda tacked on. And if you do that enough times, you can have a 40-minute record with five songs on it. It’s not the same as a large-scale piece, like a symphony that’s in three movements where there’s not much literal repetition, and where the ideas are allowed to unfold and ferment and grow — that’s a whole different thing. I’ve been tempted to try that, it just doesn’t work out for me. I think there’s composers, and then there’s rock guitar players who compose. I’m thinking ahead to the next one and what to do, and that would be the challenge, wouldn’t it? I’m sort of running out of things I haven’t done as far as the rock things you can do, but at the same time, right now for Tomahawk, for basically relaunching a band that hasn’t had a rock album out in about 10 years, it seems like shorter, direct songs was the way to go. I feel like this is what a modern rock band should sound like, and while I don’t want to go around tubthumping, every time we put out an album and go out there and talk about it, I think we’re trying to make that point. I still think rock music is a vital part of American culture, it just needs to get re-stoked every so often.

It seems like you’re in a great spot these days, with all these different projects that you’re involved in.
Yeah, it’s good in a way. On the other hand, I have the same worries any other adult with a family and a house has. Mostly financial worries, let’s face it. For me there’s an ebb and flow, and right now it’s flowing. I stayed home and worked on projects most of last year — worked on this and worked on [Interpol drummer] Sam Fogarino’s [solo project] Empty Mansions, and with Alexander Hacke of [Einsturzende] Neubauten we have a thing called The Unsemble, which is still up in the air –so I just stayed in. I hardly played any gigs last year. On the one hand, I got a lot done. But financially it was a terrible year. But there’s a cycle to these things. You stay home and let the ideas gestate and ferment and brew up, and then you go out and play and do all of that. So I’m kind of hitting the upside of the cycle right now. Just in time for spring, like a beautiful butterfly I will fly forth into the world.

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