Tomahawk's Duane Denison talks Oddfellows

As Tomahawk return to the fray with album number four, guitarist Duane Denison accounts for the experimental rock supergroup's five year absence

Feature by Dave Kerr | 04 Jan 2013
  • Tomahawk

“I’m sure I was in Edinburgh with the Jesus Lizard… maybe Tomahawk too, or maybe that was Glasgow… I get it confused…” Sitting down with Duane Denison to discuss the reprisal of Tomahawk, it seems the touring life has become a bit of a blur for one of the more prolific guitarists to walk the fringes of modern rock. It’s hard to believe that the band’s last album, Anonymous – by turns a playful and chilling collection of reconstructed Native American folk songs – was released some five years ago now. More perplexing, though, is that prior to a run of gigs last autumn, they hadn’t played live in nearly a decade.

Then you remember the profiles that Tomahawk’s constituent parts have maintained in the intervening time – singer Mike Patton’s shock return to Faith No More and myriad projects that ran the gamut from voicing computer game effects to performing Italian pop classics with a Dutch orchestra. Then there was drummer John Stanier’s heavy shift behind the kit for nebulous math-rockers Battles (peppered by inspired collaborations with glitch-hop maestro Prefuse 73 and minimal techno producer The Field). And of course there was Denison’s own trip down memory lane with The Jesus Lizard, in-between time served with Ministry’s Paul Barker (as U.S.S.A) and four years in the ranks of Nashville rockabilly hell raisers Legendary Shack Shakers.

With this exponential growth of their collective taste buds since the last go-round, did a fourth Tomahawk album ever start to drift out of reach? “It was always there in the back of my mind,” says Denison. “I just had no idea how things were going to play out. Faith No More and Battles were busy, and I was doing other things as well. I just kept writing and tucking ideas away… letting them accumulate and ferment on their own. We stayed in contact; I’d see the other guys every so often when travelling and it just seemed like the time was right.”

As the project finally came back into focus in late 2011, the addition of long-term Patton associate Trevor Dunn (ex-Mr Bungle, Fantômas) galvanised the group as they set about fleshing out the “riffs, beats and general things” that Duane had brought to the table for what would ulimately become the band's fourth LP as we now know it: Oddfellows. “Bringing Trevor onboard kind of kicked it into overdrive,” Denison admits. “Everybody already knows Trevor, we’ve hung out, toured together in different groups and his reputation precedes him, doesn’t it – such a great all around player. Mike’s obviously known him a long time, since they were kids practically, and they’ve worked together, so that was comfortable. When we got together to rehearse, right from the get-go, I thought that the rhythm section – him and John Stanier playing together – just sounded great, a natural fit. There wasn’t even a second thought; it was as if they’d been playing together for years.”

With Dunn’s versatility compounding the collective’s mounting idiosyncrasies, the question becomes: What would a new Tomahawk album even sound like? “I like to think Oddfellows picks up where [2003’s] Mit Gas left off,” says Denison, ignoring Anonymous as its own entity. “We kinda started from there and took off.” But anyone looking for a retread of Captain Midnight’s drum ’n’ bass inspired mania, or for the record to end in an abstract haze of howls, tape-loops and disorienting references to Big Country, might want to open their mind to a more outlandish possibility. Although the quartet’s sense of chaos remains at play, they’ve surely produced their most direct and unconventionally poppy offering so far. “It just sort of happened,” Denison remarks of the gambit. “Mike and I had talked beforehand about making an album that was definitely more live sounding – even though there’s a tonne of vocal overdubs – ha! But we definitely wanted to have a thing where we could play those songs and record them live with everyone in the same room, and that’s what we did.”

Is this to say they actively sought to broaden their appeal after such a long time away? “I think there was a conscious attempt, not necessarily to try to be popular…” Denison chews on the dilemma. “Y’know, it had been a while since we put out a full-on rock album and we didn’t want to repeat what we’d already done. We had to do something a little different, something that might bring in new people, new listeners, because we don’t know who the old ones are anymore. I think there’s a good balance of elements that are accessible and ‘poppy’ in a weird way, than typically darker and heavier. I’m very pleased with how it turned out. We’ve all changed and gotten into different things; this album reflects that.”

Now they’re finally out of hibernation, Tomahawk’s touring plans are firming up well into the New Year with gigs in the US, Australia and Europe beginning to surface on the itinerary. Will we finally see them in these parts? “I’m sure we’ll come to the UK,” he says, perhaps more determined to remember the occasion lucidly next time. “But keep in mind, with Tomahawk it’s always tricky scheduling!” 

Guest Question: Fraser Stewart (Fat Goth): Did you really sleep with Courtney Love?
Fat Goth? Oh boy… Hahahahahahaha…. [pause] Hahahahahahahaha…No, NO! She took a shine to me when Hole and The Jesus Lizard played Lollapalooza in ’95. I was just trying to be nice! Their bass player Melissa – beautiful gal – she took me in to meet Courtney, and I went out of my way to be nice. If you’re gonna be around someone on this big rolling tour for weeks, get to know ‘em – or at least reach out and try. But that’s all. You know what, I should just say ‘Yes – I did, and while we were doing it I put on a green cardigan sweater and a blonde wig!' 

Oddfellows is released via Ipecac Records on 28 Jan