Interview: Duane Denison and Trevor Dunn of Tomahawk

words by Matthew Schuchman
| Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Tomahawk

With their new record, Tomahawk has shot back onto the scene with an eclectic mix of rock goodness that expands on their signature sound without treading the exact same ground they’ve traveled before. Recently, I had a chat with guitarist and songwriter Duane Denison and newly added bass player Trevor Dunn to talk about Oddfellows, the public views of music genres, and the taboos of the term “supergroup.”

Duane, can you give a quick rundown of the writing process that goes into making a Tomahawk album? Does it all start from your point of view, or is it a complete collaborative effort?

Duane Denison: It typically does start with my point of view. I usually just sketch out a couple of riffs, or a chord progression or something, and make a rough home demo, and then forward that around. Typically, Patton will add vocals, samples, and electronics — then eventually we all get together and kind of collaborate and finalize the arrangements. So, it’s a little bit of both. Typically, things do start on my end.

Did sliding Trevor into the lineup change anything in regards to that process, or was it a fairly simple substitution?

Denison: No, it didn’t really change much — you know, Trevor is just such a great player that he just catches on so fast. He has such a great ability that he can play anything well; it meant that we could just get it all together really quickly and pretty much do whatever we wanted.

Trevor, were you approached to join the group, or did you know they needed the spot filled and offered up your services?

Trevor Dunn: Basically, knowing all these guys for awhile — especially Patton — I think I was probably the obvious choice. I don’t really know exactly what they had in mind, but I know that when Patton asked me about it, his first concern was whether I would actually be interested or not, because it’s more of a straight ahead band than what I normally do. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, because I’ve always liked the band. Tomahawk is one of my favorite Patton projects. They asked me if I’d be into it and I said yes — it was that easy.

It’s funny you say it, because recently you formed Madlove, which is certainly a more straightforward kind of rock band. Are you just in that mindset at the moment of wanting to revisit those types of musical ventures?

Dunn: That was sort of the idea with Madlove because I felt there was a void in what I was doing in that realm, and it’s something I like to do. It doesn’t mean I’m having a midlife crisis and trying to get back to my roots or something, because I still like progressing musically in what I’m doing — but I felt it was a sort of niche that I wasn’t experiencing in my own music, which is why I started Madlove. It’s very difficult to get a new band off the ground, and I still want to continue to write and produce music for that band. But in the meantime, Tomahawk is filling that niche at the moment.

Now like you said, you know these guys and you certainly have a working relationship with Patton — but do you still feel there is a time frame for growth within the group, or a feeling that you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes?

Dunn: Yeah, there’s a level of that, especially if my job is to help realize someone else’s vision. You know, Duane and Mike wrote this music; when I play in bands with [John] Zorn, it’s his vision — I’m there because they want me to be there. They want my voice and my vision in there somehow, so I have to be conscious of where it’s going. If I have an idea or something that’s a little outside of the realm, they’ll let me know for sure. I can assert myself as much as I feel comfortable with, and hopefully it will be sifted through their visionary process.

When you sit down to write, whether it’s for Tomahawk or another project, do you move forward with the idea tht you’re going to work on material for a specific group? Do you ever find yourself writing and realizing a piece would work better in one band as opposed to another? Or Trevor, in your case, maybe it’s the difference between writing something more avant garde as opposed to straight and narrow.

Denison: It’s both. A lot of time — for myself and I think for other people I know who write, whether they’re musicians, or writers — if you’ve got an idea, you just go with it, and just get it out, and record it. Either record it physically, or write it out — and that way, you’ve got it. Just make sure you get it down before it goes away, and don’t worry about developing it or elaborating on it. Just get the essence of idea, and then when an opportunity comes up, you’ve got that there. You’ve got a backlog of material that you can pull up and adapt to whatever the situation is.

Though, in the case of Tomahawk, once we got rolling on this album, once it was in the air that we were going to do it, and the ball was rolling — then I started to think in terms of that particular group of guys, and what they want to hear, what they want to play, what they think will sound good. I tend to think that’s how most composers work. If you got an idea, get it out, then when a project starts happening, you can then start to focus on writing for specific people.

Dunn: I have the ensemble in mind first, and the concept of the band; whether it’s Madlove or my Trio music [Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant] which is totally different — but the process is basically the same. How I try to come up with ideas and what’s used for inspiration, all of that is kind of the same. I try to keep my eye on what the goal is and that’s how it becomes shaped.

Do you even listen to other music while you write, or does that get in the way?

Dunn: I definitely do. When writing music, I have certain things in mind that are directly influencing it, and I might listen to things to gain some perspective or to give me a sense of orchestration, or the way an entire record is put together in terms of different tempos or what makes it cohesive. Kind of vague things in a way — well, some vague, some not so much, but I also listen to things that completely oppose that, just to clean my head out. Obviously I’m not interested in creating a copycat record — I just want to take the ideas that influence me and mold them into something that’s my own.

I don’t like labeling things, but I think the album definitely has what one could call, a pop sensibility to a handful of songs…

Denison: Sure.

I’m always a little confused on how the mainstream sees that idea of pop music. If you do take a song like “White Hats/Black Hats” and think about it on a base level of music theory, it’s not all that dissimilar from what people attach to in pop music — but those people who only listen to the pop radio stations probably won’t react to that song. Where do you feel the disconnect comes in? Is it due to the media, or maybe something chemical?

Denison: I think it’s just conditioning. There are a lot of people that, if they heard that song, would probably like it. Pop music is such a huge expanse where at the low end, it’s literally marketed at children, and I’m hyper aware of that these days because I have daughter who’s seven, and she really likes Taylor Swift and stuff you like. You know, I don’t have a problem with it, but I’m super aware of how those videos look and how that music sounds, because that’s what she listens to. I’m not influenced by it, but I can’t help but notice things.

On the other end, you’ve got the pop music of, let’s say, the R&B and hip-hop influence, and that’s marketed and presented in a certain way. With us, what gives [our music] that pop sensibility — and what I think what you’re [suggesting] — is just more about the structure: intro, verses, choruses, hooks — all those kind of things. Yeah, there are a couple of songs on the album, a few actually that incorporate that sensibility, and I’m not the least bit ashamed of it, and I don’t think Mike is either, because for us that’s different. It’s a challenge to write something that has all those things, and still aggressive and abrasive, and sounds like Tomahawk — that’s more of a challenge than just doing everything we’ve already done.

Getting back to what you said, I think that most people who buy popular music, they just want to hear whatever is popular — they don’t really care who the artist is. There’s just this gigantic, floating market of people who buy popular music, sometimes just because it’s popular; they want to be in on the new thing.

I bet it we had an expensive video that had celebrities in it, and we had a remix by whoever the hot producer of the moment is — this might be a hit too. That’s just such a gamble though. You spend so much money on those things, so you’d better be pretty damn sure it’s gonna be a hit. I don’t know, I just think for us the fact that you like it and your ears picked up on that — that’s good, that’s what it’s supposed to do, and there are a couple of songs like that for those who get into the album. Let’s put it this way, if those songs draw people in who wouldn’t normally listen to us, then that’s how it’s supposed to work, and if we can do that without alienating old fans, then that’s great too.

At this point, we’re almost kind of re-launching ourselves. We haven’t had a full-on rock album since 2003, and that’s a big gap. So this is kind of picking up where that left off, and we can’t just assume that all the old fans are still there. I’d like to think most are, but you never know; people grow up, they get older, and rock music becomes less of a priority.

Dunn: I would say it’s a combination of both [promotion/chemical], and also luck; it’s who know you and all of those sorts of things. There’s never any rhyme or reason why one particular thing becomes a hit, or one video goes viral. Usually, [what is] most base, simple, easy to accept, and access mentally is going to be really popular — that’s what popular is by definition. People have been trying for years to figure out some formula, and I suppose there is on some levels which may be more, like you say, chemical. Though again, there are these factors that are sort of amorphous, too.

Have you seen changes in your maturation through the rock business — both personally and in the politics? You were all pretty young when you started, and now that indie music has a steady entrance into the public through the internet, does your paid dues or having Ipecac there to back you up affect the way you go about your business?

Denison: Absolutely, as you get older, you evolve. Maybe you get married, you start a family — maybe you have other things going on, and you don’t have as much free time or expendable income. So, I don’t go out to see shows as often as I used to, and I don’t buy as much new music as I used to; so there’s a big thing right there. I still do go out — the other night I saw John Spencer’s Blues Explosion, and I do still buy new music. I think as you get older, you do tend to mellow out a little bit. I mean, I still do listen to a lot of rock, but not as much as I used to. I just don’t need my nerves to be jangled that much anymore, and I don’t need to be hammered, you know, the way certain rock music can just hammer away at your brain. When you’re younger, when I was younger, I loved that. I still do, just not all the time. I’ve always listened to a lot of different stuff, and that’s no different now.

Definitely one thing though, as I’ve gotten older — high notes on anything, whether it’s a singer or a guitar, or whatever — high notes really irritate me. (chuckling) I don’t like high notes anymore.

Dunn: I feel like being close with Mike and Ipecac and everything, I’ve been able to do pretty much everything I want because of those guys, and they’ll put it out. It’s more like a family thing, which is great, and I’m grateful to have that because I don’t really believe in labels anymore; just shopping a record right now feels like a total nightmare, even more than it used to be. People really don’t buy records anymore anyway.

Basically, I’m lucky that I have friends with a label, but regardless of that, I’m going to write the music that I want to write, and hope that it gets out there. Having this so-called “clout” or whatever, it’s funny, sometimes I think it would be to my advantage, but I also put a lot of effort into some music that no one comes out to see. Or I’ll play solo — I did a solo tour last year where I was playing this piece I wrote on upright bass to very small audiences, and every once in awhile some kid would come up to me and say, “Man, what the hell are you doing here?” I’m doing what I’ve always done, you know — I’m playing music. I’m very familiar with playing music in cafes where maybe three people are actually listening to what you’re doing, and I’m not saying that out of any bitterness at all — it’s just kind of the way it is; I accepted that a long time ago.

Just having my name out there and the associations I have with me name isn’t enough. Mr. Bungle was also incredibly lucky to be able to be on Warner Bros., which the obvious cause of that was the association with Mike Patton and the fame he gained in Faith No More. I don’t have any problem with that, but that’s the way people found out about our business — without that, we wouldn’t have had the success that we did, and I have no qualms realizing that (laughter). It is access, but there is also this cult of personality thing going on, which I have no control over.

Like you say, even if you’re playing for a small group, you’re doing what you love, and that’s what is most important.

Dunn: Yeah, and I think people realize that. They see it happening, which is why they want to come see it again.

Do you have any thoughts on or aversions to the term “supergroup?”

Denison: Yes, I don’t like it, and I never liked it. I can understand how it happened, but number one, that was never the intent when we started; it was just Patton and I when we started, picking out people we wanted to play with. At the time is was John Stanier, who of course is still in the band, and who I think is a great drummer and a great guy — fun to hang out with. Now we have Trevor Dunn playing bass, and it’s the same thing: great player, great musician, interesting personality — fun to hang out with. That’s all we wanted to do.

To me, when I hear the word supergroup, it implies this contrived, corporate, boxed thing. It also seems to imply that the songs and the albums will never really be that good — you’re only going to go see it because it has famous people in it. I’d like to think with this new album Oddfellows they can’t say that about us. I think we’ve made a really good record, if I dare say so myself, and it would stand up on its own, no matter who made it.

Dunn: Yes and no, I guess. It’s not a term I would use; it’s obviously a marketing term. All it really means is, “guys from other established groups,” you know. It doesn’t mean the music is going to be good. (laughter)

Is there an expanded tour planned after the set of dates you have on the docket right now?

Denison: As of right now, we’re heading to the West Coast and then to Australia to play some festivals and things; then we’ll be doing more of that sort of thing in South America after that. We’re working on a run from the Midwest, East Coast, and I imagine in the summer we’ll be going into Europe, and then who knows after that.

We’ll do a few weeks here and a few weeks there, rather than slogging along for months at a time. Once again, all of us have gotten older and just touring constantly is such a grind. It can be so wearing — not just physically, but mentally. Then you get sick of each other, and the next thing you know, people are arguing and every little thing becomes magnified and blown out of proportion. So we’re keeping it a nice, controlled amount of dates, so we’ll see.

Trevor, is Tomahawk all that is on your mind, or do you have other things lined up? I know you’re on tour right now, is that solo or with the trio?

Dunn: I just did a short run with the The Nels Cline Singers. We did a little residency in a new venue called Duende in Oakland, California. We recorded a record over a few days, and now I’m just chilling for a few days until Tomahawk starts its West Coast tour.

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