Oddfellows may be the title of the latest album by hard-rock act Tomahawk, but
at least guitarist and chief songwriter Duane Denison seems like your
well-adjusted, all- American guy.
“There’s a certain attitude we have
where on the one hand, we’re a smooth-running organization, everyone works
really hard and plays their asses off.
And on the other hand there’s this
level of humor that’s going on below the surface that’s somewhat perverse. It
may not come across quite as much in the music but it does to us,” said Denison
last week from him home in Nashville.
The “perversity” that the affable
Denison is referring to might be the peculiar energy and unpredictable onstage
shenanigans that Tomahawk’s celebrated front man Mike Patton brings to the
arena. The versatile vocalist, who can spew a shredding growl followed by an
operatic run and a cocktail bar jazz scat (remember the huge Faith No More ‘90s
hit rendition of The Commodores’ crooning classic “Easy”?), is the wild card in
the alt-metal supergroup whose members boast past affiliation with some of the
bigger fringe bands of the past 15 years.
In addition to Denison from the
‘90s grunge band The Jesus Lizard, and Patton, who became an international star
with Faith No More and Mr.
Bungle, Tomahawk features drummer John
Stanier, formerly of Helmet, and recent recruit bassist Trevor Dunn, also of
Mr. Bungle and the Melvins.
Alright, they’re a questionable
“supergroup” – those former bands never really packed them in. But the players
still bring strong resumes with a wealth of experience in the sludgy 4/4
headbanging sound that will never go away as long as there are jean-wearing,
testosterone-producing young men in the world.
“You play with people for
a while and you develop a vibe – if it’s the real thing, it will grow its own
group personality. And that’s what we have – especially with Trevor, there’s
kind of a new angle on the personality aspect,” said Denison, who earned a
degree in classical guitar at Eastern Michigan University.
rock’s A-listers, who may get together in various configurations for an album
and tour and then implode, Tomahawk has staying power. Over the course of 13
years, they’ve released four albums and have established themselves as a top
Out in support of Oddfellows, the band has been impressing
audiences and critics alike, with the New York Times
touting their New York City
performance last month for its “coiled tension” and “volcanic
“For all the revving heat of its engines, the band is largely
defined by a sense of compression, whether in the form of Mr. Denison’s terse
guitar parts or Mr. Stanier’s clenched-fury drumming. It all forms a taut canvas
for Mr. Patton’s chameleonic outflow, all those glottal smears and goblin
Denison and Patton found themselves to be kindred spirits after
the guitarist attended a 1998 Mr. Bungle show in Nashville, where he had moved
to following he breakup of Jesus Lizard after a multiyear run which saw them
rise through the ranks from their Chicago indie punk roots to Kurt
Cobain-championed altrock heroes.
“At the time, I was writing songs and
accumulating material without knowing exactly what it was for – just recording
demos and collecting them,” said Denison, who met up with Patton and Dunn
“Patton mentioned that he had just started his own record
label Ipacec, and he said ‘if you have something new going on, I’d be interested
in hearing it.’ I thought maybe I should ask him if he wants to work on
something together, and he was open to it.”
The results arrived in 2001
with the release of Tomahawk’s eponymous debut, which also included drummer
Stanier and original bassist Kevin Rutmanis. An urban myth around the album,
that it was recorded using file sharing without the band ever seeing each other,
grew over the years and was vehemently shot down by Denison.
Absolutely not, that’s not true,” said Denison, his voice rising for the first
“I’m so tired of hearing that, and I’ve been saying no to that
question for 10 years. We recorded the album all together in Nashville, all
playing together live in the studio.”
As versatile as Patton is vocally,
Denison meets him lick for lick on the guitar. And while Tomahawk’s approach may
dictate keeping within the confines of a certain style, he’s certainly branched
out throughout his career, working with artists ranging from indie rockers
Firewater and Sally Timms to even learning country licks to back Hank Williams
III in the early 2000s.
“I really had to do my homework and practice a
lot to play with Williams,” said Denison. “But by the time I felt like I was
getting a handle on that style, I ended up quitting to form Tomahawk, so there
you go,” he said with a laugh.
Despite its emphasis on country music,
Nashville has proved to be a good fit for Denison, who said that a vibrant rock
community in the country capitol has emerged in recent years.
really care for the modern country music side of things in Nashville, it’s a
very commercial and formulated kind of songwriting,” he said.
the last few years, the scene has kind of changed – the Black Keys live there
and so does Jack White and Kings of Leon. There’s definitely more of a rock
thing happening there than when I first moved there.”
allegiance to Tomahawk, both Patton and Denison have enjoyed delving into
various side projects, including participating in fullfledged reunions in 2009
of their former bands Faith No More and The Jesus Lizard, respectively. For
Denison, it was a triumphant visit to the past and a reaffirmation that at least
most of the band’s material held up over the years.
“In some [ways] we
were a product of that era, maybe even a little ahead of the game in some ways,”
he said. “It was simple – guitar, bass, drums and vocals, with virtually no
studio electronics or lots of post-production. It holds up well because the more
you rely on fancy production tricks from the era it was recorded in, it’s going
to sound dated.”
“The good ones sound timeless, but there are other
things I listen to and cringe – ‘why did he have to sing it like that,’ and ‘why
didn’t I tweak my guitar sound?’” Regrets he may have a few of, but Denison is
grateful for having had the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of
vocalists during his career, from the Jesus Lizard’s David Yow to British indie
singer/songwriter Sally Timms to Williams. But he said he’s been most inspired
standing next to his Tomahawk muse Patton.
“What I’ve discovered is that
they all have their own view of things – like their own filter on a camera. It’s
true with everyone, with your own way of looking at and listening to things –
and it’s always a little different from myself,” he said.
“So it’s always
interesting to get to know someone and learn about their opinions on what they
like and why they like. It’s revealing about people and it’s a big factor for me
in my relationship with Patton.”
While Patton has appeared in Israel a
number of times – with Faith No More, Mr. Bungle and even fronting an orchestra
– Tomahawk’s show on July 24 at the Nokia Theater in Tel Aviv will mark
Denison’s first visit to the country.
He’s heard both sides of the
boycott debate, and doesn’t buy the calls to isolate Israel.
might have mixed feelings or a problem over the political situation. But to me,
I feel like I’m a citizen of the US, and for me to take a stand about a
country’s policies when so many of my own [country’s policies] are wrong, would
be extremely hypocritical,” he said.
Quirky, eccentric, deafening – many
are the attributes of Tomahawk, but it appears that hypocritical is not one of
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