The members of experimental, metallic rock outfit Tomahawk are very much like rogue planets: each driven along their own trajectory, with their own powerful gravity and strange orbit. Guitarist Duane Denison is perhaps best known for his work in the seminal noise rock band the Jesus Lizard, and also plays in punk blues band Th' Legendary Shack Shakers; inimitable vocalist Mike Patton has led projects as diverse as Faith No More, Mr. Bungle and Fantômas; drummer John Stanier has lent his endurance and energy to Helmet and Battles; and bassist Trevor Dunn, in addition to being a part of Mr. Bungle with Patton, is also a part of Melvins Lite. Despite the colossal creative forces pulling them in myriad directions, these four metal heavyweights nonetheless find their respective planets occasionally aligning, and when that happens, a new Tomahawk album appears. Their latest offering, Oddfellows is at once excessive and restrained, wild and brooding. A challenging record to pin down, shimmering like a heat haze, it nonetheless deceptively easy to listen to and sink into. This is experimental rock that is still purely satisfying to rock out to. Exclaim! caught up with guitarist and songwriter Duane Denison.
Oddfellows is a strange record, but still easy to listen to. You stated recently that you were attempting to reach the heart, the essence of a rock record is. You said in Spin: "I wanted it to be fun and exciting and rock, in the rock sense of the word. This is not dungeons and dragons. This is not sausage party in the church basement, hardcore party with dudes only. No, this is meant to be played in huge clubs with alcohol and drugs and dancing girls and all those good things. You know we wanted to do it in a way that wasn't stupid that has some depth and intelligence and insight to it." What is a rock record to you?
Duane Denison: What do I mean by that? I don't mean to diss those people, this is not a nerd fest either. This is not an avant-garde soiree where a bunch of jerks are sitting around with laptops making funny noises and stroking their beards. That's a different kind of sausage party, a dude's only technocracy. I'm not anti-technology, we rely on it quite a bit; we sample on stage, and I have a lot of electronic gizmos on my guitar. But ultimately it's about energy and excitement and fun. If people want a dance then they should dance, if people want to run in circles they can do that too. We wanted to make a rock record that people could do what they wanted to: dance, mosh, nod, sit and listen to, whatever you need. And whether that means a sexual undercurrent, or just a plain old getting unhinged undercurrent, that's what is means to me. It should be open to everyone and not be such a closed off thing.
One of the things that struck me about the record is that it is very complex but very accessible, and in a lot of experimental music there is the tendency to be as impenetrable as possible. This is not what Oddfellows is like. It is an easy album to become immersed in, which is not to say it is simple at all. A party in the desert, but still a party.
Once again, I didn't want to create something that is inaccessible to people who just want to rock out. There's a way to do it, but you don't have to pander, you don't have to be stupid or obvious about it. I feel like we kind of did that in every way, from the lyrics to the artwork to everything. I think it all kind of hangs together and it gives off a solid, consistent vibe, even though there's a fair amount of variety in the music itself. We're bringing in outside influences to the rock thing, whether it's jazz here or R&B or even reggae or dub. We're hinting at it, not necessarily pretending to be that, and mixing it once again with a core of rock: straight loud heavy beats, crunching guitars mixed with other things, vocals that are sometimes screaming, sometimes shattered or whatever. That's what it means to me. It's supposed to be: there are no rules, there is no rule book, and there is no judgement. We're tired of judgement. In the very first song, Patton throws it back: "Who judges you tomorrow?" So, I don't know, I think we all felt fairly liberated with this record, after taking so much time off.
It's been six years since we got a release. Was that a deliberate choice? Were you all busy, or were you waiting for the right confluence of elements to come together where a record would suddenly appear?
Pretty much all of that. All of the above. And notably, Mike [Patton] and I both had reunion tours that we did a couple of years ago, Mike of course with Faith No More and me with the Jesus Lizard. So that took some time, there were things to coordinate around that, and then were were also playing with other people. But we'd run into each other from time to time, and John Stanier as well, and Trevor Dunn, and we started talking about doing it. That's all it takes for me, so I started putting sketches together and demos and sending them around, running them up the flagpole and seeing who salutes. Then it just started to work out, and we managed to find the time last year to rehearse and record and do all that. It just worked out great.
It seems that while Tomahawk records can take some time to come together, at the same time once the planets align they are made in a compressed period of time. You use the sweat lodge theory of album creation; it seems very intense. Do you find that it helps with the creative process for all of you?
Yes. Well, honestly, that's more about just being efficient with you time and everyone having it together. If you're in the studio and you're still working out arrangements and practicing things, well you're just spending money. So the thing to do is to get as much done before you go in the studio, so you know exactly what songs you want to do and exactly what you must do on the. You work through those quickly then you'll find you have extra time in which maybe you can experiment a little bit or just try different things.
That takes a lot of chemistry between the band members to be able to meet up and have everything so tight that you can get together, launch into the recording process right away and experiment from there.
Yeah, I think also at this point we've done this kind of thing so long we're all pretty much aware of how to keep things moving along, and how to not let things run off the rails, especially in situations where you've only got so much time to get it together. The same thing happened when we did a short tour last year, the first touring we had done in about ten years, and it went great. It was only like a week's worth of shows, but there were a couple of festivals and it was fun. We got it together after ten years in just a couple of rehearsals, like one full rehearsal and a couple of partial ones. It got better as we went along on the tour, as tours should do, but you know we've just learned how to manage our time and prepare for things so that we can make the most of a short amount of time. We have to; and I think that's one of the reasons why we're all still doing this is that we can do that. It just takes focus. There is a point where you develop a sort of, dare I say, professionalism.
And you have the benefit of having four band members who are all that enlightened state of professionalism, working together to create this kind of thing.
Most of the time.
Of course, everybody has moments. I wanted to ask you about the title of the record, Oddfellows. Was that a reference to the guild structure, the benevolent society, or are you poking fun at yourselves and each other?
Once again, all of the above. Yeah, definitely, we've all been aware for some time of this weird thing called the Oddfellows, and it's vaguely like the Masons or something like that. And just the idea of a secret society and the idea of belonging to this thing has always been interesting, to me and Mike in particular. My grandfather was a Mason, I have a Mason ring but I haven't quite made the jump. And Oddfellows is just a funny word to call something, how did they ever hit upon that? I don't think there's ever been a time when that was a term recognizing quality.
It's not terribly flattering, necessarily.
Right, and it sounded great, and it lent a vibe to the album, to the lyrics and the art and everything. It just took off.
Another thing I found notable about Oddfellows is that each of your individual aesthetics and styles is preserved. You each sound very much like yourselves as artists individually, as well as playing together as a cohesive unit. Not a lot of your individuality is polished out.
Well, over the years we've learned to leave room for that kind of thing, but at the same time we tend to go with what is right for that particular song. At times, people's particular ideas or parts get... I wouldn't say rubbed out, but altered or just messed with along the way, so there is some of that as well. But that's part of the deal, to leave room for people to do their thing. The songs start off as sketches and then we all fill them in from there.
That makes a lot of sense; it seems that you are very generous about space for each other, you don't get a sense of competition from the record, every body respects each other's space in the record.
I think so.
I do have a the Jesus Lizard question. I remember you saying in another interview that you were attempting to get your band members back into the studio, but in the end it was better for you to direct your energies elsewhere. You did mention that you had started to write some material, and I was wondering what happened to it, where it ended up.
Some of it I am still sitting on. A lot of my living comes from writing music, so like a lot of creative work, you never waste anything. If you write for a project or a situation and then that falls through, if it's good material then you should find a way to modify it to fit a different situation or people, within reason, obviously. If you're writing like a noir jazz soundtrack for a play and then that doesn't happen, that's not going to go to a rock band. I don't remember exactly, but I think some of that Jesus Lizard stuff actually ended up on Oddfellows. Sometimes I just come up with things very simply, just bass lines with a simple guitar part on top, or a guitar part with a drum beat under it that just sound good to me, and so I just record little bits at a time and set it aside. I don't usually think about developing it, just getting the essence recorded and then save it. Then I come back to it and it just seems like this fresh, amazing idea. But, I think some of what I wrote did end up on Oddfellows. I don't remember exactly what, but I don't throw things away. As a writer, if you come up with a great story, if it doesn't get picked up the first time you'll find somewhere else to put it.
I cannibalize stuff constantly; half an article will become something else completely, or I'll cut a line from a poem that I really like, and it gets dumped in a pile for something else. There's always a place for that, there's always a place for a good line, just as I'm sure there's always a place for a good riff.
Well, not always.
True; sometimes they sit there, sad orphans, eternally waiting.
They wither away. Sometimes, though, you do need to know when to throw away something. You pitch it a few times; two tries is all you get. If you pitch an idea or a composition and it falls through or is met with less than glowing enthusiasm twice, then you have to throw it out, no matter how good you think it is. It's just not happening, for whatever reason. It's not getting people going, so forget it.
That's a good editing rule.
Maybe three strikes.
Heh. So, you mentioned you did some touring last year; with the new record out, what are your future, if any, tour plans?
We have quite a bit coming up: we're going to the West coast next month, and then to Australia, then we have a little time off, then South America in March, and then there'll be more stuff going across the summer and probably into the fall.
Maybe some North American dates?
We're working on stuff for the corridor, roughly Chicago to New York, that kind of thing.
Any ventures into Canada?
There's nothing on the books yet. It's become more difficult for bands, it used to be so easy, and now it's become a lot more difficult, I don't know why. I wish things were easier between these two countries. My grandfather, Brandon Dennison, fought in the Canadian army in WWI.
Yep, my grandfather fought for your country, him and his two brothers.
Yeah, my great uncle Fred has a piece of shrapnel in his cheek, he had like this dent in his face, from "the Jerries shooting off grenades."
That is the coolest thing!
Yeah, there were from Ontario.
Then you're an honorary part Canadian.
That would be great, because I want to have the option of moving there. Yeah, there's nothing on the books yet for Canada, as much as I wish there was.