Duane Denison started out studying classical guitar before hitting the scene with The Jesus Lizard, a daring noise band that never really got their due amid the alternative craze that defined the 90s. Denison has also performed with Hank Williams III and Firewater, among others. In 2001, he started Tomahawk, a brazen rock band boasting Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle) on vocals and John Stanier (Helmet, Battles) on drums.
Duane Denison started out studying classical guitar before hitting the scene with The Jesus Lizard, a daring noise band that never really got their due amid the alternative craze that defined the 90s. Denison has also performed with Hank Williams III and Firewater, among others. In 2001, he started Tomahawk, a brazen rock band boasting Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle) on vocals and John Stanier (Helmet, Battles) on drums. Kevin Rutmanis (Melvins, Cows) played bass on the first two albums, Tomahawk and Mit Gas, and while there was no bassist involved with 2007’s Anonymous, Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Melvins Lite) joined the band in 2012 and mans the bass on their latest album. Oddfellows, released on January 29, has generated positive reviews and reinvigorated fans of the band, who were clamoring for more during the six years of silence that ensued after Anonymous was released. Tomahawk is heading out on tour behind Oddfellows starting next month, a tour that will bring them to Washington DC’s 9:30 Club on Wednesday, June 5. In preparation for their arrival, we had the privilege of speaking to Duane Denison by phone, in order to get the lowdown on Tomahawk’s history, their future, and their outstanding new album.
First off, Duane, I would like for you to know that there are some big fans of your work here at RVA Magazine. A lot of us are stoked about the Tomahawk show coming up on June 5 at the 9:30 Club, and we’re thrilled to have this opportunity to chat with you about your work with Tomahawk.
Well thanks, I appreciate it.
Now, Tomahawk is your baby, correct?
I guess you could say that, but obviously it wouldn’t be possible without everybody involved, especially Patton.
Tell us a little about how the idea for this band originated.
I had met Patton while he was on tour with Mr. Bungle when they came through Nashville. He told me about his label [Ipecac], and said that if I had something new going on, to reach out to him and he might want to put it out. So I thought about it, and I thought maybe we should try to do something together. That’s how it started. John Stanier has been a long-time friend of mine, and I’ve always enjoyed his playing, so he was a guy that we recruited. Everything else just fell into place. We added people that we liked and who we thought would sound good. We were not trying to have a “supergroup” by any means, we were just bringing in people that we already knew, people we liked and got along with, and we liked the way they played together.
What’s it like being the leader of a band with that kind of talent in the mix? It almost seems like it could be a little intimidating at times.
I wouldn’t say that. I don’t make any decisions completely on my own. Obviously, I’m working with people who, in the case of Mike and John, they’ve both been in bands that have sold a lot more records than I have. I can’t just go around telling them what to do. Everyone throws their opinion on things, and that’s how we have always done it.
Tomahawk seems to thrive on exploration; there’s a certain vibe to the sound, but you guys are definitely free to roam. Is that by design, or does that come as a result of working with so much individual talent?
With people like this, you have to leave room for them to do their own thing, or they’re going to get bored and they won’t want to participate.
You guys have been in business since 2001, and you’ve put out four albums and played a lot of shows in that time. Is it safe to assume that you’re enjoying the ride?
Sure. Tomahawk has had an audience from the start, and that doesn’t always happen with new bands. For instance, John plays with a band called Battles, and they have a large audience now, but that wasn’t the case when they started. They had to start from scratch, whereas we were selling from the start. The fact that we can take time off between albums and we don’t have to worry about losing our audience, the fact that they’re still loyal and there are new people coming all the time, that’s great. We’re still breaking new ground as far as where we go to play, so yes, it’s been very enjoyable.
How has the band evolved over the years?
Well, we’ve got a new bass player. We’ve got Trevor Dunn, who kind of influences the sound and the field a little more. We all listen to different types of music and our tastes evolve over time, so that influences what you play and what you want to hear. It also influences how you hear things, so I think that a certain amount of evolution is natural. To suddenly stop and make a conscious decision to change the way you do things is contrived and unnatural, and we’ve avoided that. Our newest album, Oddfellows, just sounds like a continuation of what we’ve already done, which is how I think it should be.
I would agree, but I think you guys took a real departure in 2007, when you released Anonymous. The decision to cover Native American tunes was intriguing, and it yielded a most unique album. I’m curious about how that came about, and I wonder what pitching that concept was like. Would you describe that experience for us?
That one was very different, and deliberately so. I had been thinking about that for a while, doing a native-based thing—the band is called Tomahawk, and I found some old transcriptions of some native tunes that had been collected about a hundred years ago. As far as I knew, no one had done any arrangements, performances, or recordings of them, and they were in the public domain, which means anyone can take them and record them again, whether it’s Bach, or these native tunes. So we did it. We knew that some people would like it, and we knew that some people wouldn’t even like the fact that we were doing it, but that doesn’t matter to us. We went ahead and did it anyway. I think it’s an interesting diversion from what we normally do, and from pretty much everything else that was out at that time. I think it seems to be holding up pretty well.
Now, you guys didn’t tour Anonymous, did you?
Have you incorporated any of that material into your sets, or do you plan to?
Yes, we’re doing one or two songs from that now.
Oddfellows, your most recent release, is another eclectic mix, but am I wrong for thinking that maybe it’s a bit more grounded than previous offerings? It takes you on a journey, but I don’t think it strays quite as much from the rock undercurrent that drives Tomahawk.
Well, it’s definitely more like the first two albums to me. I think it picks up where Mit Gas left off, ten years after the fact. There are always going to be elements of cinematic or soundtrack style pieces in our work, and there will always be elements of blues or jazz in there, but it’s still rock. It’s still hard rock with an experimental edge to it. That’s our territory, I think, and it seems to be working. It may not necessarily be what’s popular right now, but it works for us, and there is an audience for it.
I definitely see some contrast in the way you and Patton approach your music. On the whole, I think you prefer to be a bit more subtle and nuanced, whereas Patton really likes to crank it up and pile it on. Is there some tug-of-war being played there?
Sure, you could say that. I think of myself as more minimal. I tend to like more minimal things, while Mike tends to be more maximal. He’s a bit more excessive in pretty much everything he does than I am, put it that way. I think that makes it interesting. If I was working with someone who was just like me, the results might seem a bit more restrained, or even dull, to someone else. And if Patton was in a band with people who were all just like him, then it might be a bit too unrestrained. There may be too many different ideas competing for attention, and too many different things going on. It might be cluttered. I think there’s a good balance there.
John Stanier is a terrific talent on drums, and you’ve definitely pushed him in a lot of different directions with this group. What does his presence add to Tomahawk?
Besides being a great drummer, I think John has really good taste in music, and especially in rock. He’s good to have around whether you’re working on the basic tracks, or guitar overdubs, vocals, whatever. His opinion counts. I think that’s an important part of someone being in a band. What they contribute isn’t just what they play, it’s their ideas and their opinions.
Now, as you noted earlier, you guys brought in Trevor Dunn on bass for this album. Much like Mike, Trevor likes to cover some interesting ground. How well has he meshed with your sound?
He’s perfect for Tomahawk. Trevor is very adaptable, and he has been a professional full-time bass player for a long time. He can adapt his style and his technique for what the situation calls for. He was a perfect fit right from the get-go.
How is this line-up faring on the road?
It’s been great. Very solid, very consistent. We seem to get it together fast. A lot of times our schedules don’t give us a whole lot of time to rehearse, so we have to make the most of it. It seems like it works, and everyone is always on their game, always ready to play, you know, being responsible. That might not sound so punk-rock to people, but at this stage in our lives, and at this stage in our careers, that’s how it is.
Have you been pleased with the response to Oddfellows?
Pretty much. I don’t worry about reviews as much as I used to. I care what people think, but there are so many media outlets competing. It used to be just magazines, and now there are magazines and online things, the internet. Suddenly everyone’s a critic. Everyone has a blog, or a twitter, or a website. There are so many of them out there.
Also, with a band like Tomahawk, our success isn’t driven by the press. It’s driven by the music, and the fans who like it. From the beginning, reviews for this band have always been fairly mixed. There are people who just don’t like the band; from the beginning, they’ve seen it as contrived, as some sort of corporation where these guys got together and formed a holding company to go out and play music. But the fact is it’s a real band, the songs are real, and the people who like Tomahawk get it. They know they get it, and they don’t care what the press or the reviews say. Having said that, I will say it does seem like most of the reactions to this album have been good.
Is it too early to ask you what’s next for Tomahawk?
No, it’s not too early to ask. We’re going to finish the year out, we’re going to be touring, going overseas and stuff, and we’ll see where we’re at. I feel fairly confident that there will be another album soon. I’ve got some sketches brewing and some ideas happening. We’ve talked about it a little bit, and it seems like everyone is enjoying it. I think we can expect something else from the band fairly soon.
Now, you’re a busy guy, Duane. What are you doing musically these days when you’re not working with Tomahawk?
I just did a tour with this thing called Empty Mansions with Sam Fogarino from Interpol, and I played on his album. There are other things happening, but they’re taking a while. I don’t like talking about them too much because it takes forever for them to happen and I spend more time talking about them than doing them. So, I don’t know. Let’s just say that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Is it hard for you to switch gears when you move from one project to the next?
No, not at all.
Given the number of artists you have played with over the years and the number of bands you’ve been involved in, how has that allowed you to grow as a guitar player?
I figure there are two ways you can get better. You can stay home and study, listen to things and practice, and then the other way is to get out and play with other people. Play with new people, try to find people who are maybe just a little more advanced than you are. That forces you to dig in and play hard. I try to combine the two.
Assuming that there are times when you’re not playing guitar or working on your music, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m married and I have a daughter, so I’m involved in family activities, school activities. I like to swim, I like to ride my bike. I read. I cook. Basic stuff, really normal stuff. What else? What could I tell you? I drink. I drink wine out of skulls. I use a skull as a goblet and drink 200 year old wine. Or maybe I could tell you that I own silkworms, and I make my own silken robes that I lay around the house in and smoke opium. That’s pretty good, right?
I think we’ll put the quote about drinking wine from skulls in bold and that will be the lead-in for the interview.
Okay, that’s what I do. While wearing silken robes and smoking opium.
What are you listening to these days? Have you unearthed any forgotten gems lately, or are there some new kids doing something wild and crazy somewhere that we should know about?
What have I listened to in the last few days? This morning I listened to John Adams’ Shaker Loops. Have you listened to that piece?
You should. I drove my daughter to school while listening to Bow Wow Wow. Remember them? Actually, there’s a good band from Richmond that I like, that I got a CD from, they’re called Hex Machine. I like that. I got the new Soundgarden, King Animal, I like some of that. Horace Silver, he’s a jazz composer, I’ve got that in my car right now. That’s a pretty good cross-section of what I’ve been listening to lately.
Very interesting. Well, as I noted when we teed this interview off, you’re set to bring Tomahawk to D.C. on June 5. We look forward to seeing you at the 9:30 Club, and thanks for chatting with us, Duane.
Thank you, I appreciate it. We’ll see you down there.
Tomahawk will play the 9:30 Club (815 V St NW, Washington DC) on Wednesday, June 5. Don’t miss your chance to see Duane in action, with Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and John Stanier rounding out the band. Tomahawk is known for delivering stellar live performances. Stanier and Dunn are steady hands with serious chops; they complement Denison’s masterful work on guitar nicely. As an added bonus, fans of bands like Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, and Fantomas can assure you that there are few lead singers who can put on a show like Mike Patton. Buke and Gase will be the opening act, and the show starts at 7:00. Tickets are only $27, and can be ordered in advance by clicking HERE.