Tomahawk and ex-Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison celebrates his birthday today.
As a tribute to the legend of alternative music here are a selection of interviews.
The Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison: The Cream Interview
Last week I was fortunate to do an interview with Jesus Lizard guitarist and Nashville resident Duane Denison for this piece I wrote about the band in the current issue of the Scene. I only had so much space for the article and focused exclusively on the band's reunion tour, the U.S. leg of which kicks off on Tues. at Exit/In. However, in my conversation with Denison we touched on much more, including the current state of the music industry, the Shack Shakers indecent exposure incident at last year's Rancid RCKTWN show, amusing anecdotes about John Cale, Mike Patton, David Yow and more. Before the interview I posted on Cream to ask if anyone would like to suggest questions. I ended up using the two questions submitted by (user name) Matt. The other questions he basically answered before I got a chance to ask and a couple came in too late. Enjoy.
So you live in Nashville; how long have you lived here?
I've been here just over 10 years.
So what brought you here?
Well 10 years ago, the Jesus Lizard pretty much officially broke up. Actually, it will be ten years exactly today I think. We played our first show ever July 1, 1989 and then we decided to break up July 1, 1999.
For what reason?
A number of reasons. We had been doing it 10 years longer, actually. We actually started before that but our first official show was in 1989. After 10 years and six or seven studio albums we kind of felt like we had sort of run out. Things had changed, our original drummer, Mac, had left a couple of years before and the chemistry wasn't the same so we just decided to call it a day and that was that...when the band broke up I got a call from Shelton Williams from Hank III, we had some mutual friends and he called and asked if I might want to come down and play guitar in his band, which I did for about a year and a half. That's really what brought me here, and then I just sort of liked it and stayed and got married and bought a house and all that. But yeah, that's what brought me here.
As far as getting back to the reunion thing it's been 20 years since we started and to be honest people have been sort of asking about it for years it seems like. I've been playing with other people and touring and stuff and everywhere I went people would ask about the Jesus Lizard, but to me it just seemed like we haven't been broken up for very long. What's the point 5 years, 6 years there's no reason to reunite, you haven't been apart. What happened this year everything seemed to line up. A) it was ten years from the time we stopped. B) Touch and Go has been remastering all the back catalog and its going to be reissued. There's already a singles pack out and all the albums are coming out in the fall with liner notes and photos and stuff like that. So it just seemed like if we're ever going to do it, let's do it now and our original drummer Mac was amenable to the idea.
We got an offer, actually, last December to come over and play the All Tomorrow's Parties that was curated by Mike Patton and the Melvins. We couldn't do it. We couldn't quite get it together in time for that, it was a little too sudden, but that kind of opened the door to it. We started talking about the possibility of it and then when we found out that Touch and Go was going to reissue the catalog we said well let's do it next year and make a party out of it, so yeah that's kind of how it all came together.
Is the ATP show the show the only one you've done so far?
No, we did two on the west coast of England, and one in London and we also did two shows, one show each in Paris and Barcelona. One of which was also an ATP show or some festival, I don't know I get them confused. So we've done 5 shows so far, all overseas and they've all been a gas. The crowds have ranged from--the London show was 1,600 or something like that and then up to, I don't know, 10,000 or 15,000 in Barcelona, something like that.
Have you noticed a lot of people coming out to these shows that haven't seen the band before?
It's a very mixed audience. My wife went with me and she was checking out the audience more closely than I was. She said it was all over the place, like you'd see older guys, guys who looked like they probably were there the first time around, guys and gals. And younger people, people who probably read about it or heard it somewhere and figure this was their chance to see the band.
What can we expect at the Exit/In show in terms of song selection and performance?
You can expect high decibel derring-do, she-male shenanigans. [Laughs.] No, for that show, who knows, we'll probably play everything we've been practising. We've actually been practising here in Nashville under the radar. We started last January and we did a few days here. I have a space out in Bordeaux; do you know where that is?
I actually don't, where exactly is that?
Bordeaux is north. It is still part of Nashville but on the other side of the river it's kind of north and west of town if you look on a map. It's an interesting part of town, it's where they put all the stuff they don't want to think about like the sewage treatment plant and the old prison.
Oh sure I know what you're talking about, that kind of industrial area off of Briley and what not?
Exactly. So I have a place out there and we've rehearsed twice and actually they're coming again in about a week or so before that show. We have as of right now about 25 songs or so that we can play. Typically at the festival shows you have a fixed amount of time to play so you play an hour or so, but I don't know we might run through everything but we will go all the way back to the beginning and play everything from I think every album we've ever done expect for the last one on Capitol but we will do a couple songs from Shot, which was the first Capitol thing. But yeah all the Touch and Go stuff, all the singles.
Can we expect a full performance of "Tight and Shiny?"
Ha ha, I don't think so, we haven't done that. David Yow has been flying through the air with reckless abandon at all these shows so far. You can go to YouTube and see what things about been like and what we roughly sound like now and look like. That kind of thing, I don't know, I think we all like to think he's beyond that.
How long can we expect this reunion tenure to last? Do you have plans to record or anything long term like that?
No, there are no long term plans. We don't want to milk it, it's not going to be an on going thing. It is a reunion in the sense that we will go out and play some shows and that's it. I think as of now we will probably play 20 or 30 shows spread out between now and up to December, maybe the end of November or the beginning of December. At least, that is the general consensus right now. Personally, I always leave the door open for things, like recording. Personally, I kind of like that idea just because I know for a fact everybody is in good health, everybody's chops are up, we still get along great, we have fun hanging out and playing, so if new ideas present themselves, why not? But there is no ulterior motive or hidden agenda behind it. This isn't something that we are re-launching here, if it happens, great, if it doesn't seen to be happening, I don't think anyone needs to force it.
Which of the Jesus Lizard records is your personal favorite?
Probably Liar. Though to me Goat and Liar are almost two sides of the same coin. It seems like Goat was when we really started to sound like an original band and Liar was where we refined it just a little more with the song writing and arranging. It seems like those two albums are the ones that seem show up on lists as well, like Rolling Stone's Top 100 of the '90s and Pitchfork. I guess I have to agree with it, because it seems like that's when we were peaking and really hit our stride.
When you say an original band, how do you mean that exactly in terms of what you would say the idiosyncrasies are?
Well it seems like before that, we did an EP called Pure and an album called Head and like most bands, usually that first release or first couple of releases you can hear the influences pretty plainly. Almost song by song you can say, "well this kind of sounds like Birthday Party or this kind of sounds like Public Image and this one sounds like Big Black." To me by the time we hit Goat it wasn't like that anymore. We kind of hit that thing where the bass and drums would set up a certain type of groove, this very sharp sort of angular guitar surfing on top of it, and then these vocals sort of going against the grain in and out of time, that kind of thing. Then, by the time we got to Liar it was even more streamlined and stripped down, just rhythmic energy, texture, and then some sort of vocal information, and that was it. That was what we thought a rock band should sound like.
What was the major label experience, in the case of Jesus Lizard, like for you guys?
Well our situation was mostly good I have to say. It's funny; it's kind of complicated. By the time we had signed to Capitol, we already had like four albums and a couple of EPs out, so we were not kids. We had good legal representation; we made a very well informed decision. We had talked to a variety of labels and we had friends like Sonic Youth and the Melvins etc. who had also been on major labels and told us what to watch out for. So, unlike probably a lot of bands here in Nashville, we did not get ripped off. We signed a contract that guaranteed us x amount of money over x amount of time, and that is exactly what we got. Now on the negative side, obviously for a band like that, that cut its teeth and worked its way up from the underground or independent scene, by a lot of people we were seen as traitors at that point. There was a definite backlash, because people felt we had turned our back on that scene. Which basically, a lot of people did not like that first album on Capitol. They made up their minds they weren't going to like it before they ever heard it. We all thought it was much better than the one before it that was on Touch and Go, or at least I do, personally. So, we kind of got it from both ends, I guess you could say. We kind of anticipated that sort of thing but we did it anyway. By being on Capitol it also enabled us to have a higher profile, and we immediately found ourselves playing bigger venues. We immediately found ourselves playing the main stage of Lollapalooza, opening for larger bands like, oh God, Rage Against the Machine, which I guess some of our fans found as distasteful as well. From our stand point you have to think about we had been doing it for a long time, not just in the Jesus Lizard but other bands as well. So for us, a chance to go out and play bigger places, why not? We went back to playing clubs, didn't we? I still do, it was not like I stepped off the boat forever.
Who do you have better stories about; Steve Albini, John Cale, Andy Gill, or Mike Patton?
Probably Patton, maybe Albini. I spent way more time around Steve and Mike than Cale and Gill....The truly awful things, I don't want to repeat...John Cale I ended up not really liking very much in the studio. When we recorded with him, I don't know what the reasoning was we just thought it was interesting, something different, we had a budget where we could do it. I kind of liked some Velvet Underground and some of his solo stuff, the Academy in Peril that's a very unique album. A lot of times to me when junkies or alcoholics clean up they kind of go overboard the other way, they become overly health nuts and overly zealous about everything and that's kind of how he was. He's an old man by this time, I mean this is ten or twelve years ago, so he's at least 60. He was wearing these like plastic work out clothes the whole time in the studio, like running shoes, shorts, and plastic vests. He drank so much carrot juice that his skin was bright orange. So he had bright orange skin, plastic clothes, and he had this very condescending attitude. I asked him if he brought his viola and he snorted and smirked and just shook his head like, can't you even answer my question.
When we were mixing he forbade us to come into the studio before 4 o'clock, it's like he didn't want to expose his secrets, but we went in anyway. I think that he didn't want us to see that his assistant was doing all the work. So John Cale: drag. Um, Steve, I kind of had a falling out with Steve years ago but since then we've kind of patched it up, I guess he's alright.... Let's see, Patton. We're in England on a Tomahawk tour in Manchester I think. We're back stage, and it's a pretty nice set up for a band like us. We have beer, liquor, wine, water, juice, soft drinks and snacks. It's a pretty good-looking spread, but there's no coffee. Patton drinks like 10 cups of coffee a day and he's like, "There's no coffee! I need some coffee!" So, the local stage guy comes back with a thing for boiling water and a jar of instant coffee crystals. Patton looks at it and goes, "You can't rule the world with instant coffee!" He takes the jar of crystals and throws it and smashes this giant glass case, then leaves the room. So there's broken glass everywhere, and actually the guy left before he smashed it so he didn't see him do it. Then he (stage guy) comes running back in and says, "What happened?" I say, "Man these fans came in and they were trying to get at Patton, and we told them they couldn't. We had to throw them out and one of them kicked it on the way out." That's where we left it, and they believed me.
Better [story] actually with David Yow. It used to be, if you went from one country to another in Europe--like now it's pretty easy, they just kind of wave you through--but there was a time when you had to get out and go through customs, fill out forms, they'd look at you, and you had to bring your passport. Now they're really not so strict, it's kind of weird. So, we were going into Germany where they're very fastidious and very strict, at least they were then. Their uniforms were crisp and neat and their hair was just right. David Yow was so loaded from the night before, that we could not get him up. We could not get him out of his bunk. We could not get him to open his eyes and stand up. So we took a drum rug, like a rug for putting drums on to keep them from skidding around, and we wrapped him in the rug and carried him through customs and set him upright, but his eyes weren't open. They're looking at him and they were like, "what is this? Is he sick?" And we're like, "No. No, he's just tired." and they're like, "Is he alive?" and we're like, "Yeah, look," and I had to take my glasses off and hold them under his nose to show that he was breathing.
So it was that like a Weekend at Bernie's type thing?
Yeah. Then I had to put a pen in his hand and held it while he filled out forms, and they were just disgusted and waved us through.
I Drink Wine Out Of Skulls: An Interview With Duane Denison Of Tomahawk
Duane Denison started out studying classical guitar before hitting the scene with The Jesus Lizard, a daring noise band that never really got their due amid the alternative craze that defined the 90s. Denison has also performed with Hank Williams III and Firewater, among others. In 2001, he started Tomahawk, a brazen rock band boasting Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle) on vocals and John Stanier (Helmet, Battles) on drums. Kevin Rutmanis (Melvins, Cows) played bass on the first two albums, Tomahawk and Mit Gas, and while there was no bassist involved with 2007’s Anonymous, Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Melvins Lite) joined the band in 2012 and mans the bass on their latest album. Oddfellows, released on January 29, has generated positive reviews and reinvigorated fans of the band, who were clamoring for more during the six years of silence that ensued after Anonymous was released. Tomahawk is heading out on tour behind Oddfellows starting next month, a tour that will bring them to Washington DC's 9:30 Club on Wednesday, June 5. In preparation for their arrival, we had the privilege of speaking to Duane Denison by phone, in order to get the lowdown on Tomahawk's history, their future, and their outstanding new album.
First off, Duane, I would like for you to know that there are some big fans of your work here at RVA Magazine. A lot of us are stoked about the Tomahawk show coming up on June 5 at the 9:30 Club, and we’re thrilled to have this opportunity to chat with you about your work with Tomahawk.
Well thanks, I appreciate it.
Now, Tomahawk is your baby, correct?
I guess you could say that, but obviously it wouldn’t be possible without everybody involved, especially Patton.
Tell us a little about how the idea for this band originated.
I had met Patton while he was on tour with Mr. Bungle when they came through Nashville. He told me about his label [Ipecac], and said that if I had something new going on, to reach out to him and he might want to put it out. So I thought about it, and I thought maybe we should try to do something together. That’s how it started. John Stanier has been a long-time friend of mine, and I’ve always enjoyed his playing, so he was a guy that we recruited. Everything else just fell into place. We added people that we liked and who we thought would sound good. We were not trying to have a “supergroup” by any means, we were just bringing in people that we already knew, people we liked and got along with, and we liked the way they played together.
What’s it like being the leader of a band with that kind of talent in the mix? It almost seems like it could be a little intimidating at times.
I wouldn’t say that. I don’t make any decisions completely on my own. Obviously, I’m working with people who, in the case of Mike and John, they’ve both been in bands that have sold a lot more records than I have. I can’t just go around telling them what to do. Everyone throws their opinion on things, and that’s how we have always done it.
Tomahawk seems to thrive on exploration; there’s a certain vibe to the sound, but you guys are definitely free to roam. Is that by design, or does that come as a result of working with so much individual talent?
With people like this, you have to leave room for them to do their own thing, or they’re going to get bored and they won’t want to participate.
You guys have been in business since 2001, and you’ve put out four albums and played a lot of shows in that time. Is it safe to assume that you’re enjoying the ride?
Sure. Tomahawk has had an audience from the start, and that doesn’t always happen with new bands. For instance, John plays with a band called Battles, and they have a large audience now, but that wasn’t the case when they started. They had to start from scratch, whereas we were selling from the start. The fact that we can take time off between albums and we don’t have to worry about losing our audience, the fact that they’re still loyal and there are new people coming all the time, that’s great. We’re still breaking new ground as far as where we go to play, so yes, it’s been very enjoyable.
How has the band evolved over the years?
Well, we’ve got a new bass player. We’ve got Trevor Dunn, who kind of influences the sound and the field a little more. We all listen to different types of music and our tastes evolve over time, so that influences what you play and what you want to hear. It also influences how you hear things, so I think that a certain amount of evolution is natural. To suddenly stop and make a conscious decision to change the way you do things is contrived and unnatural, and we’ve avoided that. Our newest album, Oddfellows, just sounds like a continuation of what we’ve already done, which is how I think it should be.
I would agree, but I think you guys took a real departure in 2007, when you released Anonymous. The decision to cover Native American tunes was intriguing, and it yielded a most unique album. I’m curious about how that came about, and I wonder what pitching that concept was like. Would you describe that experience for us?
That one was very different, and deliberately so. I had been thinking about that for a while, doing a native-based thing—the band is called Tomahawk, and I found some old transcriptions of some native tunes that had been collected about a hundred years ago. As far as I knew, no one had done any arrangements, performances, or recordings of them, and they were in the public domain, which means anyone can take them and record them again, whether it’s Bach, or these native tunes. So we did it. We knew that some people would like it, and we knew that some people wouldn’t even like the fact that we were doing it, but that doesn’t matter to us. We went ahead and did it anyway. I think it’s an interesting diversion from what we normally do, and from pretty much everything else that was out at that time. I think it seems to be holding up pretty well.
Now, you guys didn’t tour Anonymous, did you?
Have you incorporated any of that material into your sets, or do you plan to?
Yes, we’re doing one or two songs from that now.
Oddfellows, your most recent release, is another eclectic mix, but am I wrong for thinking that maybe it’s a bit more grounded than previous offerings? It takes you on a journey, but I don’t think it strays quite as much from the rock undercurrent that drives Tomahawk.
Well, it’s definitely more like the first two albums to me. I think it picks up where Mit Gas left off, ten years after the fact. There are always going to be elements of cinematic or soundtrack style pieces in our work, and there will always be elements of blues or jazz in there, but it’s still rock. It’s still hard rock with an experimental edge to it. That’s our territory, I think, and it seems to be working. It may not necessarily be what’s popular right now, but it works for us, and there is an audience for it.
I definitely see some contrast in the way you and Patton approach your music. On the whole, I think you prefer to be a bit more subtle and nuanced, whereas Patton really likes to crank it up and pile it on. Is there some tug-of-war being played there?
Sure, you could say that. I think of myself as more minimal. I tend to like more minimal things, while Mike tends to be more maximal. He’s a bit more excessive in pretty much everything he does than I am, put it that way. I think that makes it interesting. If I was working with someone who was just like me, the results might seem a bit more restrained, or even dull, to someone else. And if Patton was in a band with people who were all just like him, then it might be a bit too unrestrained. There may be too many different ideas competing for attention, and too many different things going on. It might be cluttered. I think there’s a good balance there.
John Stanier is a terrific talent on drums, and you’ve definitely pushed him in a lot of different directions with this group. What does his presence add to Tomahawk?
Besides being a great drummer, I think John has really good taste in music, and especially in rock. He’s good to have around whether you’re working on the basic tracks, or guitar overdubs, vocals, whatever. His opinion counts. I think that’s an important part of someone being in a band. What they contribute isn’t just what they play, it’s their ideas and their opinions.
Now, as you noted earlier, you guys brought in Trevor Dunn on bass for this album. Much like Mike, Trevor likes to cover some interesting ground. How well has he meshed with your sound?
He’s perfect for Tomahawk. Trevor is very adaptable, and he has been a professional full-time bass player for a long time. He can adapt his style and his technique for what the situation calls for. He was a perfect fit right from the get-go.
How is this line-up faring on the road?
It’s been great. Very solid, very consistent. We seem to get it together fast. A lot of times our schedules don’t give us a whole lot of time to rehearse, so we have to make the most of it. It seems like it works, and everyone is always on their game, always ready to play, you know, being responsible. That might not sound so punk-rock to people, but at this stage in our lives, and at this stage in our careers, that’s how it is.
Have you been pleased with the response to Oddfellows?
Pretty much. I don’t worry about reviews as much as I used to. I care what people think, but there are so many media outlets competing. It used to be just magazines, and now there are magazines and online things, the internet. Suddenly everyone’s a critic. Everyone has a blog, or a twitter, or a website. There are so many of them out there.
Also, with a band like Tomahawk, our success isn’t driven by the press. It’s driven by the music, and the fans who like it. From the beginning, reviews for this band have always been fairly mixed. There are people who just don’t like the band; from the beginning, they’ve seen it as contrived, as some sort of corporation where these guys got together and formed a holding company to go out and play music. But the fact is it’s a real band, the songs are real, and the people who like Tomahawk get it. They know they get it, and they don’t care what the press or the reviews say. Having said that, I will say it does seem like most of the reactions to this album have been good.
Is it too early to ask you what’s next for Tomahawk?
No, it’s not too early to ask. We’re going to finish the year out, we’re going to be touring, going overseas and stuff, and we’ll see where we’re at. I feel fairly confident that there will be another album soon. I’ve got some sketches brewing and some ideas happening. We’ve talked about it a little bit, and it seems like everyone is enjoying it. I think we can expect something else from the band fairly soon.
Now, you’re a busy guy, Duane. What are you doing musically these days when you’re not working with Tomahawk?
I just did a tour with this thing called Empty Mansions with Sam Fogarino from Interpol, and I played on his album. There are other things happening, but they’re taking a while. I don’t like talking about them too much because it takes forever for them to happen and I spend more time talking about them than doing them. So, I don’t know. Let’s just say that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Is it hard for you to switch gears when you move from one project to the next?
No, not at all.
Given the number of artists you have played with over the years and the number of bands you’ve been involved in, how has that allowed you to grow as a guitar player?
I figure there are two ways you can get better. You can stay home and study, listen to things and practice, and then the other way is to get out and play with other people. Play with new people, try to find people who are maybe just a little more advanced than you are. That forces you to dig in and play hard. I try to combine the two.
Assuming that there are times when you’re not playing guitar or working on your music, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m married and I have a daughter, so I’m involved in family activities, school activities. I like to swim, I like to ride my bike. I read. I cook. Basic stuff, really normal stuff. What else? What could I tell you? I drink. I drink wine out of skulls. I use a skull as a goblet and drink 200 year old wine. Or maybe I could tell you that I own silkworms, and I make my own silken robes that I lay around the house in and smoke opium. That’s pretty good, right?
I think we’ll put the quote about drinking wine from skulls in bold and that will be the lead-in for the interview.
Okay, that’s what I do. While wearing silken robes and smoking opium.
What are you listening to these days? Have you unearthed any forgotten gems lately, or are there some new kids doing something wild and crazy somewhere that we should know about?
What have I listened to in the last few days? This morning I listened to John Adams' Shaker Loops. Have you listened to that piece?
You should. I drove my daughter to school while listening to Bow Wow Wow. Remember them? Actually, there’s a good band from Richmond that I like, that I got a CD from, they’re called Hex Machine. I like that. I got the new Soundgarden, King Animal, I like some of that. Horace Silver, he’s a jazz composer, I’ve got that in my car right now. That’s a pretty good cross-section of what I’ve been listening to lately.
Very interesting. Well, as I noted when we teed this interview off, you’re set to bring Tomahawk to D.C. on June 5. We look forward to seeing you at the 9:30 Club, and thanks for chatting with us, Duane.
Thank you, I appreciate it. We’ll see you down there.