Interview: Duane Denison (of Tomahawk)


    Tomahawk is back. After six long years, the supergroup comprised of Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantomas), Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard, Legendary Shack Shakers, Hank III), and John Stanier (Helmet, Battles) has once again united to rock out. Incorporating Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Trio Convulsant) on bass in place of ex-Melvin Kevin Rutmanis, Tomahawk’s latest release, Oddfellows, hits hard and hits repeatedly.

    Consequence of Sound caught up with guitarist and founding member Duane Denison to discuss the six-year gap between Tomahawk records, the inclusion of Dunn, and some of the essential truths the band discovered during their time away. We also discussed the legacy of the Jesus Lizard and a few of Denison’s many other side projects.

    I decided to listen to all four of the albums, and I thought that Oddfellows seems to reach back to the first album. Am I wrong in that interpretation?


    In a way, you’re kind of right, because we’re kind of re-launching the band again. We’ve got a new guy. I think it pretty much starts up where the second one left off, where Mit Gas left off. Anonymous, the one from ’07, was kind of a detour, the Native American concept album. This is, we’re back on the full-on rock thing. So, to me, it’s kind of just picking up where we left it and pushing into some different territory here.

    It’s been six years since Tomahawk’s last release, during which time it has been said that the group “took a break to discover the many truths of the universe,” discovering several non-truths as well. What did you all discover? And how did it inform Oddfellows?

    I think what we discovered is, regardless of what else we do, that this Tomahawk thing…This is what we do when we want to rock out, and just go nuts, and have fun, and I think that this album reflects that. Since then, Patton did the Faith No More reunion stuff, I did the Jesus Lizard reunion thing, John [Stanier] and his band Battles have gotten successful. But the fact that we all had time, and the energy, and the will to make this happen, there’s just something that kind of, at this point with the group, when you get people together, it takes on a personality of its own. That’s kind of what Tomahawk is.


    But we’re older and wiser, and realized that this isn’t rocket science, this isn’t Dungeons & Dragons, this isn’t avant-garde chamber music. We’re a rock band, so let’s just do it. I think we’re a very clever, intense sort of spooked-out, dangerous rock band, but still a rock band. It seems to work. We’re all happy with the album, and so far the feedback’s been really good. We played some shows last fall, and those went really well. We enjoyed playing together, hanging out. To me, the music should reflect that.

    Oddfellows, or at least Tomahawk’s then unnamed fourth record, was first mentioned in summer 2011. The single “Stone Letter” was released in the fall of 2012, and an official release date was finally set for late January 2013. Eighteen months seems like a long time to make an album for a band that made three in six years.

    Well, it didn’t take long to actually record and mix the album. It really didn’t. But we hit some snags along the way. There were personal things, like a death in the family and that kind of thing. Then, because that pushed everything back, there were scheduling conflicts. We probably could have put the album out in the fall, but we wouldn’t have had as much time to get ready for it, and set up, and do the press, and get ready to tour, and all that. So we decided to push things back and wait until January. I’m glad we did, because now we have more time to focus on everything. I hope we made the right decision. I think we did.


    When you were touring a little bit last fall, was the album already complete?

    Yes. And we played some of it live, too. Not too much. In fact, the single was out. That was right around the time the single came out.

    When during Oddfellows‘ development did Trevor Dunn join the group?

    Oh, he was in before. He was in right from the get-go. So, right from the start, he was in on it as far as hearing the demos and then rehearsing and tracking live. No, he was in it right from the get-go.

    According to your press, his nickname is “Field Mouse.” Why does he have that nickname?

    That’s the first I heard of it. I don’t know who’s writing the press releases these days, but “Field Mouse”…I don’t know. Why? Because maybe he wears a lot of brown and grey. [Laughs.] He’s not terribly tall. It’s funny. Some of the best bass players I’ve ever known were not…Usually with bass players you’d typically expect them to be taller because bass is a big instrument. It has a long neck, and to get around on it, especially upright bass…But two of the best bass players I know, him, Trevor Dunn, and David Sims, who used to play in the Jesus Lizard, are not what I would call tall people. But they seem to get around just fine.


    It’s my understanding that Anonymous was recorded after Kevin [Rutmanis] left the band, so you didn’t have a bassist. Is that correct?

    No, Mike [Patton] and I alternated on bass, what bass there is on there.

    So why fill the hole then if you guys could do it yourselves?

    I can play bass pretty well. I’ve done it in the past, and I usually do it on demos. I’ve actually played bass here and there with groups. But, Trevor is one of the best, that’s why. He’s just absolutely great. He learns quickly. He adds his own touch to things. There’s things a really good, full-time bass player can do that, say, someone like me, a guitar player who noodles on bass. There’s things that those guys do that I don’t. They’re sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious. Plus, we wanted to play live. And we wanted someone, that if they’re going to play live, then have them play on the album. Then they already know the damn songs, and you don’t have to show them again.

    This album was recorded in Nashville [at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studios] as a band, yes?


    As a band that bounces between recording individually and as a unit, what was behind the decision to record together as a band?


    Well, we always have. I keep having to address this. This is a full-on rock album, and like the first two albums, we recorded together.

    I was under the impression the first album was you all mailing tapes back and forth.

    No, no, no. This is one of the things I hate about the Internet, in that rumors and hearsay become fact. And so, people look things up on Wikipedia or some other retarded thing, and they read something, and then they think that that’s true. Apparently on Wikipedia it says that [Tomahawk] records by mail, and I have tried to fix that myself over the years, and it’s never been done. I can’t seem to get it done. So, for the record, we have recorded live. The first one was recorded in Nashville, live, the four of us all there. You can call the studios and ask. [Laughs.] The second one, Mit Gas, also. That was in Los Angeles, and we played live in the studio and mixed it all together there.

    Anonymous was a little different. It was recorded between Nashville and Mike’s in San Francisco. That was part live and part dubbed. And then this latest one was recorded almost completely here in Nashville, but then some additional recording at Mike’s studio in San Francisco. So, not only were we playing live on this one, but we were even playing in the same room most of the time, at Easy Eye Studios. So, they’ve always had a live element to it. There’s a certain energy and intensity that comes from that situation that I don’t think you can get any other way.


    Especially with your group. The dynamic of Tomahawk, I think, would definitely benefit from you being all together.

    Yes, of course. Any group. But especially us. To me, it just takes on a different personality. It takes on a personality of its own.

    My research has led me to believe that there may be a love affair between Tomahawk and Australia.

    Yeah. Well, we’re going there soon. I’m going to run for Prime Minister while we’re there. I am. And my running mate, I’m going to see if I can get Nick Cave. And if I can’t get him, I’ll get Kylie Minogue.


    You are certainly an artist that has avoided typecasting, lending your talents to artists as diverse as Revolting Cocks and ex-Mekon Sally Timms. As a person who studied classical guitar, what led you to form groups like the Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk?

    [Laughs.] I think the realization that playing classical guitar… It’s a pretty narrow world. It’s kind of like being in the Olympics. If you don’t win the gold, nobody knows who you are. You’re either playing at Carnegie Hall or you’re playing at Luigi’s Italian Bistro. There’s not a whole lot in between. Plus, I always liked rock, and I played in rock bands and played electric guitar before I ever played classical guitar. For me, there just came a point when I was studying, when I was in college, where punk rock, and underground music, and independent labels, all that was happening. And it just seemed really fresh, and exciting, and accessible. To me, it just made the classical guitar world seem irrelevant, if nothing else. It’s just kind of quiet, and vague, and irrelevant, and I felt like the world was passing me by.

    Frank Zappa’s name seems to pop up a lot when people talk or write about Tomahawk. Where does Zappa fit into your musical development?


    He does? Hmm, not much. It’s funny, I’ve never really heard that. I’ve seen Zappa play. I saw him play when I was a kid. The only album I ever liked by him was a live one called Roxy and Elsewhere, I think. I was impressed with the musicianship and the fact that they had a sense of humor about it. Maybe there’s a connection there. The fact that they were doing very sophisticated, difficult arrangements and with an element of mockery and humor to it too that I have to respect. But, at the same time, there’s things I don’t like about it. I like dumb things sometimes. I like things that are simple, and straightforward, and obvious sometimes. Don’t we all? I’m not trying to be Captain Obscurity or Mr. Avant-Garde Sensibility all the time.

    Like I said, you’ve avoided typecasting, so I don’t think you’d ever be pigeonholed as Mr. Avant-Garde or anything like that.

    No, not me. Mike maybe, but not me.

    Let’s talk about your connection with the Legendary Shack Shakers. Did that come through your work with Hank III, and are you still doing anything with either Hank Williams or J.D. Wilkes [Legendary Shack Shakers frontman]?


    Interesting. No, not really. I stepped out of the Shack Shaker thing about a year ago in order to focus on Tomahawk and some other things that I was working on through the year. I guess playing in Hank III did kind of lead to that. That’s why I moved to Nashville, to play with Hank Williams III. I did that for a couple years and met people along the way. One of the groups that I saw… well, the Shack Shakers were going on even then, but in kind of a weird, different incarnation. I was very impressed with J.D. Wilkes, the frontman, a virtuoso harmonica player who was a nut job onstage. It was great. But no, I don’t have any immediate plans to do anything. That’s funny. I just talked to Shelton, or Hank III, just the other day. We chatted a bit, and he’s making an album right now, apparently. So, good luck and Godspeed the plough.

    If I can ask a couple of questions regarding the Jesus Lizard. There seems to be a sharp divide between the band’s Touch & Go albums and those on Giant and Capitol, with some citing Show [first major label release] as the beginning of the end of the group’s salad days. I can’t imagine it’s simply the result of signing to a major label, so why do you think there is such a divide?

    Well, I think, because, that’s how people thought back then. We were on Touch & Go for years, and it was a respected independent label. And then there kind of became that sort of post-Nirvana feeding frenzy where suddenly noise, weird bands were kind of becoming popular. And so, record companies were throwing huge amounts of money around. And we happened to get in on that. My perspective now is that there’s a lot of people who dissed us because we went to Capitol, who never even listened to the albums. I’d be, “really? What songs bother you?” And thy can’t name any.We did that reunion tour, and we played some of those songs live, and they went over just fine. Whatever, that’s all in the past, and if I had to do it all over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.


    For us, it was a question of survival at that point and trying to actually get ahead. And the people that criticized us, they had no idea how hard we worked, how much we had to deal with, just to get noticed. How hard it was to just keep it together, and keep putting out albums, and touring on a shoestring budget, sleeping on floors, and playing for little to no money. And this went on for years. We toured almost three years non-stop at the very beginning until anyone started noticing us. And then it took off, and the momentum started carrying us. And then next thing we knew, there were people offering us quite large amounts of money. You’ll never see those days again, the major labels going around throwing money at bands.

    Keep in mind, by the time we went to Capitol, we had already been playing together for seven or eight years. We weren’t kids anymore. We were men in our thirties, and we had our futures to think about. And people were, “Oh, they sold out.” Yeah, and then they go to their office job. I wanted the same things they have. I wanted to have money in the bank. I wanted to have a credit card. I didn’t have a credit card. I wanted to have a dependable car. Just the basic things that other people take for granted, we didn’t have. And then they dis us because we get in a position where we can have those things. That’s when I tuned out from what I considered a very hypocritical culture.

    Now, in retrospect, it seems obvious that it doesn’t matter, it didn’t matter. Sure, I admit, for most bands, when you make the jump from your indie to the big one, they do start to suck then, they do. I can’t think of too many bands that made the jump and got better, let’s put it that way. But I think that has nothing to do with who’s writing your checks. It has to do with where you are at what point in your band’s development. We could have stayed on Touch & Go and kept putting out records, but why? For the same amount of work we were getting some security. So, we took it.


    Are there any plans to expand upon the Jesus Lizard’s reunion or release new material?

    No, no. We did that reunion, and they reissued the back catalog with expanded liner notes, and pictures, and remastered, and all that. It had come up, the idea of maybe recording, but I think the window of opportunity has closed on that one. And for me personally, I’d rather keep moving forward with other things. Tomahawk is happening again. And who knows whatever else might come my way.

    I know it’s a bit early to ask this question, but as it took six years to make this Tomahawk album, do you think you’ll make the next one quicker than that?

    Yes. I can’t say for sure, but it seems like we’re having fun, and we’re really enjoying it. And the album, it seems like people are liking it, so if we do another one, I would think it would be in far less time than that.