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We Interviewed Guitarist Duane Denison about Tomahawk’s New Album, and Sexual Candyland

Tomahawk is a band comprised of grand experimenting kingpins Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas), Duane Denison (the Jesus Lizard), John Stanier (Battles, Helmet), and Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Fantômas). This past year they holed up in Nashville at...
Trent Moorman
Κείμενο Trent Moorman

Tomahawk is a band comprised of grand experimenting kingpins Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas), Duane Denison (the Jesus Lizard), John Stanier (Battles, Helmet), and Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Fantômas). This past year they holed up in Nashville at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studios to record Oddfellows, their fourth full-length album, a raucous, careening affair out on Ipecac Recordings. It’s been six years since their previous release, and it's nice to see the men return from their forest wanderings. Oddfellows' opening track begins with Stanier’s drums alone, burrowing a measure of his kick, snare, and open hi-hats into a slab of granite. On the second time around, guitarist Denison and bassist Dunn latch on to the hammered pattern in cycling minor key jabs. Vocalist/brain surgeon Patton oozes out a low, doubled, morbidly muscled call.

From there the album goes, taking ears and listening heads through a circus sideshow of bent metal, wierded hard core, and peculio-sound theater. Some is more straight ahead and driven, like “South Paw” and “White Hats/Black Hats," where Patton’s singing voice emerges. “Rise Up Dirty Water” curves with 60s mod-jazz swing. Above electric drums on “I.O.U.” Patton’s reverb doused voice sings (someone correct me if I’m wrong), “I owe you a love song. For everything I’ve done wrong. Cause out the gates, I’m all guns, love, and nuns.”

For the album artwork, Tomahawk enlisted the honorable cartoonist and comics scholar, Ivan Brunetti to render an animal image and an all seeing eye that are perfect in the way they don’t work. But Tomahawk isn’t concerned with what works, they’re concerned with exploring the underbelly of their muse’s muse, with Patton staring as a nonchalant, guru of the dark. He’s a demented savant scribe, preaching, moaning, orating, and chopping with a guttural wolf-whisper. He screams in vein-bulged shots like he’s being tortured, then on a dime goes into handsome baritone and falsetto. Oddfellows is difficult in places, but Tomahawk doesn’t want it to be easy. Duane Denison spoke from his Nashville home. All his words were enunciated incredibly well.

VICE: I heard someone say Oddfellows was straightforward. But it doesn’t seem straightforward at all to me as an album. Is it straightforward to you? “White Hats/Black Hats” is my favorite.

Duane Denison: We went in Easy Eye Studio and set up, live, all in one room, and knocked it out pretty quickly. So it was straightforward in that regard. And there's not a lot of hocus-pocus post-production. But yeah you're right, it's funny, before the album was out, we said, "Ah, this is just straightforward stripped-down heavy pop, it's Beach Boys.” And then you listen to it, and you're like no it's not, it's just as dark and weird as anything else. The first thing that we put out was the single “Stone Letter,” now that's a little more short, snappy, catchy, and accessible I think. But the very first song on the album, "Oddfellows", certainly isn't, and "White Hats/Black Hats” musically, it's fairly upbeat and snappy. But there you go, maybe we shouldn't mislead people with our straightforward talk.

In “I Can Almost See Them," what’s it about? Who can you almost see?

Well I think all of these songs can be interpreted or misinterpreted any number of ways. Like that one, you can hear the words, "up periscope," so there's an element of surveillance in it. But then the final things that the voice is saying as the song is fading is, "We all need some rope." Well, who's he talking about, for himself? And there's lots of little things like that throughout the album where, you think, is this a love song, or are they in prison? Is this a gangster song or does it have to do with immigration? Is this a love song between men or is somebody about to get killed off somewhere? It's full of that.

I think that's the thing that keeps bringing people back to Mike Patton time and time again, because his mind is like this dark, deranged preacher. I'm always going to want to know what he's up to, because his mind is this crazy machine.

Yes it is.

Listening to Oddfellows made scenes appear in my head. One was a sexual Candyland. You know the board game Candyland? Then another game arose, Chutes and Ladders, but with serial murderers. It's all happy and jovial, and you've got the cute little board game piece, but really, it’s Harold the serial murderer who lives down the street, and he’s been watching you for months at night through the window with a butcher knife in his hand, and writing poems about WWI tanks in his head because he thinks he’s a soldier. It's a demented fucked-up weirdness. Then the last one I wrote down was: A barn with a maze in it, full of tranquilized goats in heat. Somebody that's really into bestiality, and jacked up on Viagra and cocaine, gets put in there and they turn off the lights. He’s in there in his dream world, but he can’t see. The goats continually elude him. He never gets what he wants.

Wow. That’s reading a lot into it [laughs]. Let's go back to Candyland, I like that because it almost suggests there are these trap doors set for you in the barn. I like the sort of weird sexual undercurrent to some of these songs, and there's an element of make-believe. There's also an element with our stuff about people out there who you never quite know just how far they'll really go with something. And that's not always bad, right? But it seems like it usually ends up that way. Because it seems like we live in such a casual society where focus and obsessiveness are suspicious. People say, "Whoa, too much information." You and Mike should talk.

Mike is a Lord. How often are the Patton fans too much? He has adamant fans.

I've seen people waiting after the show, saying, "You're my Mike, you're my friend, I know you're my friend." Someone he's never met, you know. One time someone chained themself to him with handcuffs or something.

That's a fan.

Super fan. Super maybe-too-much-of-a fan?

How do Tomahawk songs come together? Walk me through some creative process.

Typically what happens is, I sit in my basement music room, a rehearsal space that I rent on the edge of town, and I sit in there and riff away and tinker away until I have a batch of material. I do home demos, play guitar, bass, drum machine, keeping it simple and stripped down, to get the essence of it. Then I start running it by people, usually Patton and John Stanier, who besides being a fantastic drummer, is a pretty good judge of whether something is good or not. At that point it becomes common property. So I put it out there, saying okay which ones of these do you like, which ones do you not like, which ones we should work on, and then get feedback.

By now, I know what these guys like, and I think I'm pretty good at what I do. So I'm not going to waste time and send a bunch of stuff that I know they're not going to like. I want to come up with material that people will be psyched about working on and will be inspired to come up with things that maybe they wouldn't have otherwise. I like people to do that for me. Patton will take the demos to his home studio and start experimenting with different versions of it, different vocal approaches, different takes, different sound samples, and then he'll run that back, what do you think of this, what do you think of that, and we all listen. And then eventually we all get together in the flesh and rehearse, and do final arrangements and final tweaks, while we're playing live in real time. Then it's usually straight to the studio from there. For Oddfellows I think we rehearsed for about six days here in Nashville at my practice space, and then straight into the studio from there.

How did you choose Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio? Do you know him?

I do know him, through my wife, who kind of works for them. We met a few years ago, I think we had the same booking agent or something. They live here and Dan had bought a building and turned it into a studio. I'd heard about it and stopped by from time to time as it was progressing, and I really liked what I saw. I thought they were really smart, building in a really good blend of vintage and modern, they've got the analog old-school stuff, but you've also got the digital modern things. It's not just a funky time-warp place, it's a functioning efficient get-it-done kind of place. I really liked it and the fact that it has a nice big main room where you can set everything up and everyone can be making eye contact and playing live. In this case, like on basic tracks, I wasn't even wearing headphones; I liked that, that was a big part of it. And we got a good deal, and their house engineer Collin Dupuis is really good.

Everyone in Tomahawk is involved in other bands and music, how much of that is consciously drawn into the Tomahawk sound? Or do you all want this to not have anything to do with other projects? Like your guitar tone, you can hear the Jesus Lizard in there. And Mike with his bands, and with Stanier I hear Battles.

It's hard to avoid at this point. If you play music long enough, your sound and your style become part of each other, and that's your thing, that's where it seems to end up. You know, I'll experiment with different types of gear and amps and guitars and effects, and I always seem to come back to that sound. That bright, abrasive, moderately distorted, with a subtle use of effects, but a certain metallic clang. A metallic crunch to it. Because that's what I like and that's what I want to hear, and when I listen to other rock things, it seems like the stuff I like the best, well that's because somebody else kind of has that too, but not quite like mine.

It's funny, I'll get new gear from time to time, people will give it to me or whatever, and I'll tweak it until I think it sounds good, and then I'll realize I just made it sound like the old one. That happens again and again. Sometimes you have to consciously step off and do something different. You have to try things and evolve. I like to think that I've evolved, that my sound's not exactly the same as it was twenty years ago. It's not, I know it's not, I'm into different stuff. But still there's similarity there, there's continuity there. To me, that's how it should be, you evolve the continuity rather than have an abrupt departure, because to me that's a sign. If you make an abrupt turn, when you consciously decide to something different, then it's probably a little too premeditated and a little too self-conscious, and it's not true.

The jazz feel on "Rise Up, Dirty Waters" was a surprise on Oddfellows.

Jazz and some gospel get-down in it. A jazzy rainy night kind of thing. Yeah, that's a good example, it's different, but it's not retarded stupid different.

Where did that one come from?

I don't know. Songs tend to come in batches, at least for me. I tend to come up with most of the music. So you're writing batches, or in groups, almost like mini-suites. You don't want them all, at least I don't want them all, to have the same sort of feel, or the same sort of texture, or the same sort of tempo, or whatever. So I felt like there was a need for something different, and something where it had that kind of moving bass line that I knew Trevor could play. I didn’t want a cliché jazz thing, and then with this sort of airy arpeggiated tremolo guitar, just all atmosphere. I thought we need something atmospheric but with rhythmic drive, something that will peek out. And that song just kind of showed up, so it didn't take long.

What kind of guitar do you play?

Right now I'm using all-aluminum guitars made by the Electrical Guitar Company in Pensacola, Florida. I always seem to come back to these aluminum-based instruments. When I was in the Jesus Lizard, I played guitars made by Travis Bean, and those were aluminum-neck guitars. I wasn't the only one who ever used those; Steve Albini, and Keith Levine from Public Image use them. Now, with the Electrical Company, these are a little more refined, I helped co-design the ones that I play. Buzz from the Melvins is playing EGCs, and I think some of the guys in Isis. It's a little company, but it's U.S. made, original stuff, you know, young guys, independent.

Even before the Jesus Lizard, I had one of the first, Kramer actually made some aluminum-based for a while. So I always seem to end up with them. I go and play other things for a while, like semi-hollows, it's not like I hate wood, but it just seems to me like aluminum is the next step. The planet is running out of wood, it takes a lot of water and resources. Aluminum is cheap and durable, it actually sounds really good, and it acts as natural shielding for electronics. So a lot of the hum and noise you get from conventional instruments is simply not there. But there are downsides, it's cold, and sometimes they have to warm up, and it's hard, it's kind of unforgiving. [Funny voice] It's just like me, cold and hard and unforgiving [laughs].

Are you one of these guitar players that names their guitars?

I didn't used to be, and I don't really, but they wanted me to come up with a name, so I went with "Chessie.” My daughter's name is Francesca, and I wanted a cross between that and Chet Atkins [laughs]. And there it is, "Chessie."

Does your daughter play guitar?

No, I'm not encouraging it, I don't want her to go into that world. She likes music, she can sing and she plays a little piano, and she has good pitch and rhythm and all that, and loves to sing along with things. In fact, after a couple listens when I'd drive her to school in the morning, she'd sing along with "The Stone Letter," the single. I thought that was a good sign.

So you're not like, here honey, this is a guitar, we're just going to put this in your hands like this.

No, no. She has one of my old ones, and it was just hard for her to play. The first thing I ever showed her was "Spoonful," you know, the Howlin' Wolf song. She just got a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and that seems to be far more interesting to her now than a guitar.

Maybe in time you’ll be able to shred with your daughter.

We sometimes play piano duets. I have a piano downstairs, and I taught how to read music and gave her a few piano lessons. Piano is the proper instrument for a young lady [laughs]. You know, just like the old days, it's proper breeding, it's a good sign of refinement in a young lady to perform well on the keyboard instrument.

Because you're in Nashville and they do they do the whole debutante thing there. And you got some true gospel happening up in there as well. You mentioned gospel get-down earlier, and that struck a chord. There are times on Oddfellows where Mike hits this preacher tone, where he half sings and half talks. And times where he’s almost chanting, doing a Gregorian kind of thing.

Yes, I'm glad you noticed that. Throughout this album, instead of having keyboard samples or electronics, there's backup vocals he's recorded, almost like a Greek chorus, sort of repeating the words, or sort of just commenting on what's happening. And it actually works live too, because then you can turn those into samples and trigger them from the keyboard as well. That's what we've been doing live, we're playing some of those songs live now, where at his fingertips he can have his own backup vocals right there.

How do you describe Mike Patton to people? What’s it like working on an album with him, through the process?

Ohhh, you know, in any group, in any album I've ever done, sometimes the best albums are the ones where you butt heads the most. And with Mike and I there's always going to be some of that. It's hard to avoid. I'm more of a minimalist, and I think he's more of a maximalist. Somehow there's always some give and take here. But I think that's part of what happens when you work in a group, you have to be willing to bend on things. Some people don't, for example I imagine with someone like Trent Reznor, there's a reason why all those Nine Inch Nails are all just him, because he wants to do things one way and that's how it's going to be god damn it, and it seems to be successful for him. For most people that isn't successful, for most people it just doesn't work.

For me, with music, I prefer it as a group activity, I prefer interacting with other people instead of getting caught up in my own mind. And I think that wouldn't work so well for me. I think that ultimately making music is a very elemental human thing to do. The want or the urge to create sounds, make your own sounds, and then organize them in a way, and then put them in motion with other people's sounds. I think that's a pretty good social thing to do, which is why a lot of modern music in particular, popular music, I don't care for. Where it sounds like it's been done too much by one person, usually the producer. Where nothing is organic, nothing is real. Or even some things, when a lot of music is sample-based. I'm not a purist or anything. I'm not anti-technology. But when a song is based completely on pre-existing ideas that someone has cribbed and then recycled, I don't think that that person deserves to be called a genius at that point. I suppose it's still valid, obviously for a lot of people maybe that's the only kind of valid music there is, but it's just so far removed from what I think the initial human idea of music is.

John Stanier is an absolute beast. Playing with him must be like flying, or something.

John has been maybe my overall favorite drummer for a long time. He's had a remarkable career when you think about it for someone to go from one band to another and have them both be very influential and popular, with Helmet and Battles. I can't think of too many other drummers who've done that. He gets the overall idea of the concept of things. And he's just got this weird style, right? I mean how he dresses and everything, you know? It's cool! I wouldn't want to be in a band with the drummer who wears the gloves and has the wrestling boots and sits there with his practice pad backstage, and rubs himself with oils and does the stretch routine, like come on man, fuck that. Whatever, I'm older, and I take care of myself and I warm up and do stuff, but you don't have to be a fucking jerk about it, Jesus.

So Tomahawk officially does not sponsor the drummer gloves.

You will not find drum gloves on our rider. No wrestling boots, no wrestling pants [Laughs].

You need a bobble head. No. Tomahawk Silly Puddy.

Like a line of Silly Puddies. Yes. In Guitar Center. With the Tomahawk Line you’ll get, some sort of amplifier that's loud but not overbearing, that has some beef to it but has some very bright playing. You'll get some sort of aluminum guitar. You'll get some sort of premium beer. And probably a Fender bass, just a basic Fender P-Bass, no five-string basses, no six-string, none of that guy holding the bass up so high it looks like a chin strap, none of that. Drums, no double-kick, no cage, none of that, just a simple drum kit, you know, one kick, one snare, one high-hat, maybe some percussion or whatever on the side, but not too much. We're not here to teach Latin polyrhythms. I want monorhythms. I want rock monorhythms. We want unity, not diversity, unity!

Where does the Tomahawk dementedness come from?

I think you're dealing with guys who've just been into this kind of thing ever since we were just barely no longer children. And I think that for all of us, we are all just obsessive about music and are affected by it more. To me an album is a seductive world. With a good album, from the minute it starts, you’ve stepped into a funhouse, or like you say a barn that has a maze inside, or a funhouse where you might get hit. It might be paintball, or it might be a cumshot, or it might be spit, or it might be feces. I think that any album is good like that, it can be seductive in a way, it can repel you or seduce you, or both, or you have to think about it for a minute, you come back to it later. Some of my favorite albums are ones that I hated it at first, and then I realized wow, I haven't had that strong a reaction in a while, I think I'd go back and see just what it's about.

What's an example of an album that repelled you at first?

A lot of earlier punk rock and stuff, I couldn't believe. I remember hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time. I just couldn't believe how raw it sounded, and I couldn't believe the nastiness in the vocals, like the sneering. The just sly negative venomous quality, especially with Johnny Rotten-John Lydon. And then hearing it in other singers, and hearing the rawness of the production, like God I can't believe they're doing that, I can't believe that got recorded. And then it started showing up everywhere, and it was exciting, it was liberating. People have lost sight of that fact, how liberating and how pulverizing it was. I remember a time when if you had spiky hair or short hair or whatever, you took a risk of getting attacked, almost every day, whether from rednecks or bikers or jocks or cops, wherever you went. And now, I see little old ladies with those exact haircuts.

It’s been five or six years since Tomahawk’s last album. What has changed for y’all in that time, and what hasn't changed?

What hasn't changed I think is just the way we do things, the kind of music that we like to hear, that we want to play. For this band, this is a rock band, so it's about energy and dynamics and momentum. But at the same time, we want it to be not necessarily what everyone else is doing at the time. What's changed is funny. Since we did that last album, Patton and I have both done reunion tours with our old bands. He's done Faith No More stuff and I did Jesus Lizard stuff. And for me that was very enjoyable. It was great to get back together with the guys, and go out and play well, and get paid, and have all that fun. And I think for Mike it was kind of the same thing. It’s made me think about permanence, and wonder if anything is ever really permanent anymore. Maybe it shouldn't be. I think we've both become more into enjoying things in the moment.

One thing I've certainly let go of is thinking ahead and stressing over things. Like when I did that reunion tour with the Lizard, at the time something that occurred to me was, since we're only doing this once, I don't have to worry about or be concerned with reviews. I don't care about whether the venue sold out quickly or not. I'm not concerned with “oh I hope the promoters will have us back and pay us more next time,” or “oh gee I hope we get a good review so that blah blah blah.” I didn't even think about any of that stuff the whole time, and I had a great time! And played well the whole time. So I think I'm applying that mindset to everything now.

We haven't talked about it, but I kind of get the impression with Patton, that it's the same thing, where, when you do those reunion things and it's a finite period, and you're not concerned necessarily with what everyone else thinks of it, or whether or not from a business standpoint how that affects things, or what the long-term thing is going to be. You're not thinking about that, just go out and do it, play the show, you will know if it's good or not - the audience will let you know if they think it's good or not. And just enjoy it for what it is. And if you do more, fine, and if you don't, that's fine too. Maybe it's because I'm older, maybe that's just because that's where I ended up.

Tomahawk Tour Dates:

February 12, Seattle, WA - The Showbox

February 13, Portland, OR - Wonder Ballroom

February 15, San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall

February 16, San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall

February 17, Santa Ana, CA - The Observatory

February 19, Los Angeles, CA - The Mayan

February 23, Brisbane, Australia - Soundwave

February 24, Sydney, Australia - Soundwave

February 26, Sydney, Australia - Metro Theatre

February 27, Melbourne, Australia - Billboard

March 1, Melbourne, Australia - Soundwave

March 2, Adelaide, Australia - Soundwave

March 4, Perth, Australia - Soundwave

Unicorn picture by Tim Moss.

"Women" picture by Vincent Forcier.