Talking with guitarist Duane Denison about this great American supergroup’s first new album in eight years
It’s been eight long years since the four-headed rock beast known as Tomahawk last graced us with an album.
Their bludgeoning yet atmospheric, Spaghetti-Western indebted brand of alt-rock sounds as fresh in 2021 as it did 20 years ago, and it’s a testament to the pedigree and talent of vocalist Mike Patton and guitarist Duane Denison, the band’s architects, that almost a decade can pass and they’ve lost none of their menace or edge.
Denison was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule as a librarian in Nashville to talk about the band, their great new record Tonic Immobility, and the challenge of being an active band in the middle of a global pandemic.
Your last record, Oddfellows, was released close to a decade ago. What made now the right time to bring the guys back together for another one?
We actually started recording two or three years ago before any of the pandemic stuff. I had just accumulated some material and I made some demos and sent them out and said, “Hey, what do you guys think of this?” And everyone liked it. And Mike (Patton) is like, “Well, dude, I’m just so busy. I don’t know when I’ll get around to it.” So I told him we’re just going to start tracking instruments and you can jump in when you can. And that’s kind of what drove it. We had most of it done before everything got shut down, like about a year ago. Mike basically just finished it up at home, doing stuff in his home studio, vocals, the occasional keyboard part. It’s funny, it worked out where we needed the timing and it couldn’t be better. Everyone’s been locked up for a year and now we’ve got a new album, something for fans to look forward to and to get off on a little bit.
Did you record everything together with you, Trevor (Dunn, bass) and John (Stanier, drums) all in the same studio or did you track separately?
No we tracked down here in Nashville. Because of work for me and other things and we had to spread it out a little bit over a short period. We couldn’t just take a month off and focus and do the whole thing. So we had to do it, you know, half here, half there, but that’s us playing together.
The dynamic with the three of you together is really great. The title of the new album is Tonic Immobility. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist, so I’m familiar with the concept of tonic immobility in relation to sharks. Was that something that kind of came out of this last year or was that an idea you went in to the album kind of writing around the theme of playing dead?
That was definitely a pandemic concept and it came from Mike really. I’d never heard that term before to be honest. But he pitched it and I thought, “Well, that’s as good a thing as any, it sounds a bit technical or intellectual”. We don’t always get accused of that (laughs). So, I was fine with that.
When you’re writing, you said you send stuff out to Mike and the guys to just put some ideas out there and get feedback. Do you write with a particular project in mind or does the feel of what you’re doing kind of dictate where it ends up?
Yeah, I think about Tomahawk when I’m writing the thing. And I think about, John Stanier’s drums and Trevor’s bass; and with Mike, you know, he can come up with vocal parts for virtually anything – he can hit the notes and the intervals that other singers just don’t even try and shouldn’t. Writing for Tomahawk is definitely very freeing. I know that we like things that can be a bit proggy but at the same time also keep things that are stripped down and just rocking out. We can do things that are heavy and hard as well as things that are more atmospheric, which is kind of what we’ve always done.
The Tomahawk stuff has a very definite feel to it that’s different than The Jesus Lizard or some of the more jazz inflected and Nashville stuff that you’ve done. With Tomahawk, you write most if not all of the music – is there communication between you and Mike about the lyrical content or is it simply a matter of letting him add what he thinks the song needs?
Typically, yeah, I’ll come up with the music and then I’ll make demos and get the thumbs up, thumbs down, whatever. I work with Mike a bit on lyrics here and there. On this album, I definitely had some ideas and I keep a little notebook of things and I would share it with him to just plunder anything, even if it’s just a line or a title. Mike also has always liked to do more free freeform kind of things. And you can hear it in a song like “Sidewinder” for example – he does this almost spoken word,/beat poet/semi-rap type thing where I can tell he’s improvising or semi-improvising and not doing it exactly the same way every time. So, I will definitely share lyric ideas and he will pick through them and keep some things, discard some things, and then there’s other things that are just all him. That’s kind of how it’s always been.
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This is the second record you’ve done with Trevor on bass and he’s a very different player than Kevin (Rutmanis, former bassist). What does he bring different to Tomahawk’s music?
Well, it’s funny, some people heard that first song that we kind of leaked out there, “Business Casual”, and they asked if that was Kevin (laughs). Trevor is, I think, one of the best bass players in the world as far as versatility and just overall ability. He brings a lot of flexibility. You can do really anything. If you want it to have a jazzier, more proggy kind of feel he can do that. If you want it just heavy, hard, straightforward, well, he can do that too! It’s very liberating. And then him and John together just sound fantastic. That’s a unique bass and drums rhythm section there. I remember talking about him with Buzz from the Melvins and he said that Trevor just makes every group he plays with sounds better when playing with them. And to me, that’s the highest thing you can do as a musician. It’s not always about you. It’s you interacting with others in a group situation and how you make the others sound. It’s not just you sounding good. It should be everyone. And in his case, I think everyone he plays with sounds better because he’s playing with them.
The interplay with John and Trevor in the way that the three of you lock in is a really beautiful thing. In your press bio, you joke about the 20th anniversary of the band being kind of a good excuse to throw out a livestream. Are there any plans to play the Tonic Immobility material live or somehow commemorate it?
I wish. No, there really isn’t. We just found that we just couldn’t seem to make any plans for a lot of reasons. The pandemic thing is not over and it seems like the rules and laws are different almost state to state and country to country. And as far as festivals, I’ve had booking agents say it’s almost impossible to get insurance now for big events. So, working around that, it’s just this big ball of confusion. And then on top of all this, I’m a worrier by nature. You hear talk of people saying that we should do more things in the summer and more open air things and like, okay, that’s fine. But in the United States, I don’t know if you’ve noticed the summers are just getting hotter and hotter every year. And the weather is getting more extreme every summer – this side of the country is having a drought and it’s on fire while the other side of the country’s got too much water and there’s flooding everywhere. It just feels cataclysmic. Maybe we’ll get a handle on these things, but you know, we’re so busy arguing over philosophical differences. Meanwhile, there are these very physical issues – the climate and these viruses. It’s more important to get a handle on that, because none of that other stuff matters until we deal with these real, tangible issues.
The virus doesn’t care about your political affiliation.
Yes. Neither, neither does a tidal wave or a massive forest fire. It’s like, you guys want to sit around and argue about terminology. Meanwhile, we’re just going to wipe everything out.
One last kind of question for you on a more personal level. You work in the Nashville library system – what’s the last good book you read or something you’d recommend that people pick up now?
I’d be happy to recommend some things. There’s a book by a contemporary Mexican writer, a woman named Fernanda Melchor, called Hurricane Season. It’s got witchcraft, sex, drugs, violence, et cetera, in a bizarre setting. And that book is actually making some waves. And then I just recently read the new Joyce Carol Oates. To me, she is the grand dame of what I call Northern Gothic writing. The book is called The Other You and It’s a collection of stories about alternate destinies and it’s very good.