The odd ones out

Duane Denison, guitarist/founder of American metal group Tomahawk, speaks with 'Post' about band's show in Tel Aviv and boycott pressures.

July 8, 2013 21:56
Tomahawk band members.

Tomahawk band 370. (photo credit: Courtesy PR)


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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.

And unlike 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 touring draw.

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 release.”

“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 cries.”

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 backstage.

“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.

“No! Absolutely not, that’s not true,” said Denison, his voice rising for the first time.

“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.

“I don’t really care for the modern country music side of things in Nashville, it’s a very commercial and formulated kind of songwriting,” he said.

“But over 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.”

Despite pledging 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.

“Some people 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 them.

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