Good birthday presents are few and far between, but Oddfellows was definitely one of the best ones I’ve ever received, and this is compounded by the fact that it was released on my birthday back on the blustery day of Jan. 29, 2013. The long-lived American purveyors of transmogrified rock just put out their first album in six years and it’s quite the pastiche that one would expect from a band with members from Jesus Lizard, Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Melvins and Faith No More. Oddfellows is definitely a grower of a disc. The stripped down and minimalistic guitar lines mask a maniacal, labyrinthine atmosphere that only a musician like Mike Patton could pull off. This album has a lot going on at once; however, it keeps the fundamental rock elements that reel it in enough to avoid becoming an experimental disaster.
After a nine-year touring hiatus, Tomahawk will celebrate its rebirth by (wait for it) taking over the world and going on a touring rampage that will find its way to the East Coast in snazzy venues like NYC’s Best Buy Theater on June 2 and Philly’s Union Transfer on June 4. Resident guitar slinger and time traveler Duane Denison gives the highs and lows that come with being in the abstract collective that is Tomahawk in the interview below.
Is it true that you guys wrote Oddfellows in six days?
Not exactly, the basic instrumental tracks were done in six days, but the vocals, overdubs and mixing were in addition to that. It was more like three weeks.
A lot of the riffs on the album are straightforward, but the vibe is quite complex. Your guitar playing is very upbeat, but Mike Patton sounds like a maniac, so there is a sort of happy insanity going on.
There was a conscious attempt, on at least a couple of songs for the tonality, to not to be so relentlessly minor. I think it’s quite a challenge to, in musical terms, write a piece of music that has more of a major or upbeat feel that doesn’t suck. We’re not trying to sell you on some pop-cultural ideal, or have songs where the chorus isn’t necessarily in the same key as the verses. On the one hand, people say, “Well, gee, your parts aren’t as complicated as we thought they’d be.” Well, that’s by design. We wanted them to fit together.
As far as the band goes, you often see the term “supergroup” thrown around when Tomahawk comes up. How do you guys feel about that tag?
I’ve never liked it and I’ve never felt comfortable with it and I don’t think any of us do. It seems sort of silly and unnecessary. On the other hand, people want to call it something, so I’m not going to talk them out of it. I guess I can see why they might do that, but that certainly wasn’t our intent.
[Drummer] John Stanier and I had been talking about playing together for ages, and then when Patton and I met up and started talking about doing something, John was my natural choice for playing drums. Now with Trevor [Dunn] on bass, he’s obviously been friends with Patton for decades now, so that is a pretty natural fit. We all get along and have very similar tastes, from food to comedy. So it works out really well. So people want to call it a supergroup, it’s fine, but it doesn’t mean much to me.
I think “supergroup” is a very indulgent thing to put on a band. It sounds like people are getting together just to indulge their own geniuses and it doesn’t exactly have a positive connotation to it.
If I can interject, usually with supergroups, it is usually a situation where well-known soloists get together to jam and they hope that their names alone will draw people out to it. Whereas with Tomahawk, it is not about soloists, it’s the songs. We put our focus and energy on the songs themselves. That’s where our interest is. The time and effort goes there rather than picking some standards and improvising. There is nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but that isn’t what we do.
I know you enlisted a cartoonist to do the album artwork on Oddfellows and when I was listening to the music, it really made me think of this old cartoon called The Tick. Do you know that one?
I don’t know that. Ivan Brunetti was a Chicago-based underground comic, in the ‘90s, when the underground comics were really busting out. He had a really subversive, transgressive and hilarious comic book called Schizo. Patton and I were both fans of him and it was Patton’s idea to contact him. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do something like that. That’s how that happened.
You’re all involved in lots of interesting projects, but you guys don’t go too far down the experimental path. You rein it in and focus.
Tomahawk is a rock band. This is where we go to rock out. It’s different from Fantomas; it’s different from Battles; it’s different from John Zorn. This is where we rock out. If you want to hear something more experimental, there is plenty out there.
I find a lot of experimental music to be a bit self-indulgent and I kind of feel like the golden age of rock guys doing experimental side-projects was the ‘90s and I find it got a bit excessive. I want to hear ideas that have been worked out and thought through a little more rather than just random musings thrown out there. Personally, that’s how I like it.
The album before, the native-based Anonymous, was experimental and a lot of people didn’t like it because it wasn’t a rock thing. We started playing some of that live. Y’know, you can’t win, but I don’t worry about that because Oddfellows has been very well-received by the fans. We played the West Coast of the U.S., some Southern shows and in Australia and South America, and the audiences have been huge, very enthusiastic—and I’m surprised by how [young] they are. So there is a very big audience for this kind of thing and what we do and I feel like we’re very lucky in that regard.
We’re not driven by the press; we’re not driven by trends; we’re not driven by the media. People go see this band because they know they’re going to hear good songs and have some fun. There is a certain unpredictability with Patton and our performances in general. We don’t have to be all that experimental, but who knows?
I wanted to ask about the group’s dynamic. I’ve noticed a bit of a parallel: Your guitar playing is very minimalistic, but Patton seems like he goes all out all the time. How do you balance each other out?
That’s exactly how it works: I am more of a minimalist and he is more of a maximalist, so we have some push and pull going on there, some Yin and Yang, if you will. I think it works for us. We butt heads sometimes, but a little friction is necessary to get the heat going. That is how it works.
We play festivals where we watch other bands, especially in the hard rock and heavy metal genre, just hammer away in every song and, compared to them, we have huge gaps. Those gaps are what give the music drama and intensity and dynamics. That, to me, is what makes it more exciting than just hammering away constantly in every part of every song. So, I think it works. Obviously we’re not big pop stars and it’s not like we’re taking over the radio, but within our own genre this is what makes us sound distinctive.
I read that you have a classical guitar background, but on this album I felt more of a jazz vibe. On “I Can Almost See Them,” the beginning riff sounds like classical fingerpicking, but the rest of the CD has a jazzed-out vibe. Can you speak on that a little?
I suppose, it’s funny, it doesn’t seem as jazzy to me as other people seem to think. There are songs where it is fairly obvious where that kind of vibe jumps out, but I think that with Tomahawk we’ve always had a couple of different influences going that I’m surprised lots of people don’t pick up on. Sure, there is always going to be a jazz and blues thing, but there has always been a certain Latin influence as well.
Some of the guitar things I do, a lot of the ideas I get are from listening to reggae or calypso, so to me the trick is to mix those things in and make something that still sounds heavy or stripped down or abrasive. To me, there is a touch of Latin influence in there, but it’s not the Gipsy Kings. I don’t want to sound like a band playing in a Mexican restaurant. The jazzy thing, huh, maybe I’ll have to get away from that on the next one.
There was a six-year gap between this album and the last one. Did you decide to explore different things during that time, was the band on hold, or were you just taking your time with the album?
Life goes on. In 2007, that was Anonymous, and I had a daughter that was really young and I decided it was better to stay close to home for at least a little while. The other guys, like Battles, became popular and then Faith No More reunion shows—that seemed to go on for years—and then, of course, the Jesus Lizard reunion and I was playing with Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers for a while and Trevor’s been playing on and off with the Melvins. We all had other things going on and the way the timing worked, this year, with touring was how it all worked out. It was very fortuitous and we are taking advantage of it.
Is the title of the album referring to you guys as the “odd fellows” or do you have a particular reference in mind?
You know, the Odd Fellows has been a fraternal order similar to the Eagles, the Moose or even the Masonics or Freemasons, right? Odd Fellows is a fraternal order along those lines. You don’t really see it and it’s not that common these days and it’s probably mostly disappearing. As far as who it applies to, well, it could be you. It might be us or it could be you. Look at the way those animals are looking on the cover. They’re looking at the viewer. On one hand, they look comical. On the other hand, no they don’t. Perhaps it is you they’re looking at.
Are you a member of the Odd Fellows fraternal order?
No, I am working on becoming a Freemason, though. My grandfather was a Mason, so we’ll see.
Is that why you’re joining, or do you have an interest in it beyond the family legacy?
I just want to control the world.
When you control he world, will you allow me to have a castle?
No, I’ll put you on a spaceship to Mars. All people born after 1990 should be shipped off to Mars to save the human race.
I can respect that. How was it getting back on tour? It was about nine years since your last tour. Did you get much time to practice or rehearse?
Sure, I have a rehearsal space here in Nashville. I’ll probably go there again today. So, we rehearsed for a while and worked on the album. We went into the studio and played a lot. For us, getting together was running through the old songs, getting those back to speed, and we played a warm-up show in Nashville. We kind of worked the bugs out and then we did a short trip to New Orleans and Dallas.
We just started playing back together again. In cities like that, I think it is enjoyable because they’re not media centers. It isn’t like playing in New York, L.A. or London, where people are watching your every move. You can kind of work your bugs out as you go along and that is basically what we did. It didn’t take long to get back up to speed and we’ve stayed there ever since.
You’ve been dropping hints at influences, so I wanted to know if there was a particular musician that got you to pick up the guitar.
No, there is no one person. I’ve always liked lots of different stuff. I’ve always been eclectic without trying to be. When I was a kid, music was just in our house. My parents played piano; they both sang; there were lots of records around.
I grew up in Southeastern Michigan. I grew up in a town right between Detroit and Ann Arbor, so in the ‘70s there was a lot of music coming out. Not just Motown, but all the rock that came out of there, so it wasn’t that unusual for people to play in bands. There was a little youth center where I used to work in exchange for being allowed to practice in the back room. I was like a lot of other kids that age. I was very impressionable and very observant and paid attention to things.
Oddfellows is available through iTunes and Amazon. Tomahawk will be swinging through the Best Buy Theater in NYC on June 2 and Union Transfer in Philly on June 4. For more information, go to facebook.com/tomahawkband.