Words of wisdom from Tomahawk's guitarist Duane Denison

The new album, sausage parties and touring in Australia...

Duane Denison, guitarist with Tomahawk, has a dreamy hypnotic voice. It’s like the tide lapping on a beach; all laid back and relaxed. I reckon he could get a gig doing self hypnosis tapes (‘You’re getting sleepy’). He’s in Nashville and apparently “It’s been raining cats and dogs for days”, weather report aside, let’s push on with the interview.

I’ve heard Tomahawk described as an ‘experimental, alternative rock super-group’, do you feel like a member of a super-group? “Yes, I do. “ Eh?! But then he continues “I feel like I’m in a super-group every time I go to the grocery store or vacuum out my car...I’m in a super-group!” then he drops the sarcasm and adds “I’ve always kind of bristled at that description but you know, I guess there’re are worse things they could call us.”

Is it true that Tomahawk recorded all 15 tracks for the new album Oddfellows in six days? “Not exactly. We did the basic tracks. We rehearsed for a week and we tracked all the basic tracks; rhythm guitar, bass and drums in about six days.” He’s doing some mental arithmetic and suddenly remembers “Oh! And then we did overdubs too. That’s right! It was six days – we did overdubs and all that…but then we spent a bit more time with vocals and mixing after that - we didn’t crank out that album in a week!” There would have been a lot of drugs involved if you did? “That would have been non-stop, you’re right, that would have been around the clock.”

So working so intensely in Nashville, did you find elements of country music seeping into the production? “No, not at all.” Says Mr Denison, chuckling, “It’s pretty much just rock, garage, blues-rock and a little bit of R ‘n’ B – pretty much a bit of everything except country.” I’ve heard adjectives such as heavy pop, soundtrack-esque, and jazzy to describe Oddfellows but now the album’s finished would you say it’s just straight up rock? “Yes, I would – but to me with straight up rock you can incorporate all those things – otherwise, what is rock? What they call ‘classic rock’ where you turn on the radio and they’re still playing Foghat or Bob Seger? Tomahawk sounds to me what I think a modern rock band in 2013 should sound like.”

This is the first album with bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr Bungle, Fantomas) so I have to ask if he’s fitting in well. “I think he’s fitting in wonderfully. Obviously him and Mike (Patton) have worked together on and off for years, and John Stanier (drums) and I have known him for a while, and it was a pretty natural fit, right from the get-go; musically, personality-wise and everything. It was a good move.”

I heard his nickname is ‘field-mouse’ – what’s that all about? “I never called him that! Probably because he wears a lot of brown and grey?" Asking the tough questions, that’s my job, folks…

As much as I hate the term ‘avant-garde’, it seems an easy label to pin on you guys. Do you see what you create as avant-garde or is it just what you’re drawn to create? “I feel that Tomahawk is quite accessible and very much a ‘rock band’ that plays songs that, for the most part, are fairly traditional in structure. We’ll have an intro and verses, middle eights and choruses and the occasional guitar solo and things like that, so from that angle I think, although we’ve all done other things, this is actually, especially for Patton, the most accessible of all his projects.” He adopts a desperate, whiney tone, adding “And that’s why people like it!” Resuming his normal, mesmerising voice he continues “For me it’s rock; it’s not supposed to be about dungeons and dragons. It’s not supposed to be a sausage party in the church band.” He cracks himself up at this rather bizarre turn of phrase, laughing like a mad-man before composing himself. We talk briefly about one of his side projects Unsemble, a collaboration with Alex Hacke from Einsturzende Neubauten and Brian Kotzur, which he describes as “Noisy rock idiots trying to be pretentious artists.” as well as “Neo-primitive with touches of minimalism and musique concrete…”

You’ve been out to Australia before so are you prepared for the Soundwave shows? “We came over on the Geek tour (with The Melvins and Phantomas) and I came over in…I think it was ’96 with Jesus Lizard on the Big Day Out…” I saw Jesus Lizard at a Reading festival back in the 90’s, you all appeared off your nuts…“I don’t think so! Well…maybe one or two of us…”

When I ask for Duane’s view on Australian fans and touring this side of the globe, he sounds genuinely enamoured: “They’re very enthusiastic, they’ve always been into Tomahawk right from the get go, and I’m very appreciative of that. But with Australia, at least for us, it doesn’t seem like we do much driving, we always seem to be flying between gigs because the bigger cities are so far apart. But it’s always such a lovely little getaway! I almost feel guilty when I go on tour there, you know?  It seems like there are always days off and I find myself swimming in an ocean. Then a week later, it’s like ‘I’m swimming in a different ocean now’; and now I’m eating shrimp…When they first settled Australia, it was mostly what? A bunch of convicts? You guys got the best deal! Let’s see…England? No. Ireland? No. New Zealand? Ah! New Zealand’s pretty good…Australia? Yes! Thank you, thank you, Queen…who would that have been? Victoria? Thank you, Vikky, thank you for banishing me to this ‘horrible’ place…”

Duane’s inspired by a vast array of different musical genres including film soundtracks, chamber music - even John Cage and other freaky experimental composers, and admits that “I still listen to actual radio, that is, terrestrial based radio, and I catch odds and ends. The next day it might be French nouvelle vague soundtracks from the early sixties, and the next day it might be some free promos I got in the mail from a label. It’s all about just keeping your ears open and listening to different things and weeding out till you find things you like.” We digress into the evolution of music and Duane notes that as he’s gotten older, he’s become “more willing to let other things in”, often revisiting “music of earlier periods” He says, in summary, “That’s the nice thing about rock, there’s room for experimentation and there’s a certain – I’ll use a big word here – malleability, there’s room for that. It’s a mutating virus. It’s a hybrid that keeps evolving.”

When it ceases to evolve, it dies? “Exactly. To me, that’s why a lot of radio stations are dying in the United States because they say (adopts a rock DJ voice) ‘We play only classic rock’…well, if you’re gonna turn it into a museum piece then it’s dead! It’s gotta keep evolving or it’s gonna die. That’s true with anything.”

So did you think there would be any longevity to Tomahawk when you first started trading demos with Mike Patton 12 years ago? “I had no idea. I figured we might do a couple of albums and it would run its course but here we are! But I think sometimes taking time off is good, and if you can do it, then you should. There seems to be this thing in the music business where it’s like (this time he adopts a gruff music executive voice) ‘Oh no! You have to have an album out every year and you have to tour every year and you have to do this and that for your band to be successful’ and it’s not necessarily true. I think there’s something to be said for taking time off and letting your ideas regenerate; letting your relationships become fresh again - and we’re fortunate in that we seem to be able to do that.”

Have you tested any of the new songs in a live environment? “We did about a week’s worth of shows here; we did a warm-up show here in Nashville, and everybody came here and rehearsed and then we went out and played. I think we mostly played the southern back waters; Memphis, New Orleans, Houston and Austin, and it all went really well. We didn’t play a lot of new ones because when the album’s not out, it’s difficult to get people into songs that they just don’t know – especially if they haven’t seen you in a long time. They wanna hear the old songs and I don’t blame them, but for the most part, the ones we played seemed to go over just fine.”

And finally any words of wisdom for the Australian fans/Soundwave attendees? “Are we Grinderman now?!” He does a delightful impression, complete with “ I’VE GOT SOME WORDS OF WISDOM!” before finishing the interview with the following pearls: “Stay hydrated, drink plenty of fluids, don’t exercise too much and try not to look in the mirror so much – you’ll get more out of life.” 
Duane Denison, life coach and top bloke.
Oh! And he plays in Tomahawk too…