What's the Difference Between Tomahawk and Taylor Swift? Our Chat With Legendary Guitarist Duane Denison

Duane Denison
There's a nice mix of moody, atmospheric stuff and then these more intense, sorta violent songs. Did it take a while to figure out the sequencing?
Yeah, it did. There's different schools of thought about sequences. Some people seem to think, "Frontload the album": Put all your biggest, baddest songs up near the front and that way people will be so blown away by the album that they won't even notice the songs of -- what should we say-- "lesser impact." But we didn't do that on this. We kind of spread things out more so that there's different peaks throughout the album. It does seem a little front-heavy still, to me, just because more of the songs I like are there. But it comes back strong at the end. At the risk of sounding cliche, an album is a lot like a movie -- even making one is a lot like a movie, where you have to do it in sections, and the scheduling and all this pre-production, post-production, et cetera, and the final sequence is not necessarily the sequence in which it was shot or recorded. So you have to pace things, and in our case, so that it has some continuity and flow and it's interesting all the way through. So you get moments of repose and then moments of peak activity and all of that. That's what we were going for, whether we did that or not is up to the listeners to judge, but I think it works.

I thought the recurring motifs were interesting -- like on "I Can Almost See Them," it's this kind of tense, slow-burner that you think is going to eventually burst open but about halfway through you realize that it's not, and then a couple of songs later there's "Waratorium" which sounds similar but goes more heavy-rock.
Absolutely, it's basically the same riff, same key, but the more rocked-up, amped-up version. I'm glad you noticed that, because I've had to point that out to people. It seems fairly obvious to us.

Yeah, it seemed like "Part Two" of that song.
That's exactly what it is. We thought about putting it back-to-back but we thought, "Mmmm, that's a little much." But yeah, composers do something like that all the time, don't they? Whether it's a symphonic thing or a soundtrack or chamber music or a ballet, you have certain themes that show up again and again and are reworked, and this is no different, I guess.

So my understanding is that with Tomahawk, you're the chief songwriter, and you're basically the one that rounds everyone up and makes these albums happen?
Pretty much, yeah. I initiated it, and had some sketches for it. The method for this album was pretty much the same as always, where I'll sit at home and record sketches, just a batch of three, four, five at a time, and do very simple, rough home demos. Guitar, bass, drum machine. Then I put a collection together -- in the old days I'd send cassettes and now I just make files and send them to the guys and see what they think. I think by now I know what these guys like, and I know what I like, and I think I know what people will be stoked to work on. So I sent the files out, got feedback --Patton will add touches, start fooling with different vocal approaches and different sounds and things, and then we get together and do rehearsals before we go into the studio, and that's when we finalize the arrangements and tweak things and get the proportions and structure and symmetry going. And then we go in the studio and knock it out.

Because you know these guys so well and their various strengths, do you ever come up with ideas or write parts that you know will take them out of their comfort zones, with the idea that maybe that kind of tension or discomfort will pull something interesting and unique out of them?
I don't ever think that way, but it kind of happens sometimes [laughs]. What's happening now is we've all been doing this so long and each of us has so many different albums out, that the trick now is to find ways of doing things where you aren't repeating yourself. When you're a 22-year-old putting out your second album, the world is at your feet. And when you're 50 and you're putting out your twenty-somethingth album, it's another thing. So that's the challenge. But at the same time, I want it to be rock. There are certain parameters that you work within.

So how do you reconcile the two?
I don't know. Obviously, everyone in this band has sort of a signature style, and you're not going to change that. And maybe you don't want to. At this point, there's a reason people play the way they do, because that's what they want to hear and that's what they like to play. But at the same time, you don't want to literally repeat yourself, and you don't want to literally just plug into a formula. Somehow I feel like we've managed to avoid that. There's definitely some things on the album where I'll say, well this kind of sounds like it could have been Jesus Lizard or Faith No More or whatever, and I'm fine with that. That's just a sign of continuity, and to do it with some variations, and subtle variations, to me is the trick. And to make gradual evolutions, if you will, without it sounding forced or overly deliberate. Because then you end up with something, like, yeah it doesn't sound like you, but it sounds like a bad version of someone else. Or it sounds like a half-assed version of whatever the new trend is. So you can't do that. You want your group to have an identity and a signature sound, but maybe for us the variation is the signature sound. I just try to come up with some new, fresh-sounding rock things and hope the other guys like it. And I figure, if I like it then other people will like it too, because I'm not that different. The books I read, and the TV I like, and the movies I like, it's not that different from a lot of other people. It's not necessarily pop, best-sellers or whatever, but you know what I mean.

What's the give-and-take like between the four of you when you're in the studio? How do you convey musical ideas to one another? Is it a really intense, serious process?
Well, we take the music seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously. We're fairly obscene guys, always laughing about things. We make fun of ourselves, we make fun of each other, we make fun of other bands. Even stuff we like, we'll laugh at. If we're working on a song and we're talking about it, I tend to think we're like a lot of bands where someone will say --if somebody does something different--someone will say "How come you're not doing that Morricone thing you were doing earlier?" Or if I switch a guitar part and I'm playing high notes instead of low notes, Patton might say, "No no, do the Duane Eddy-sounding stuff. The world is full of high notes, let's hear some more low notes!" I might say to him, "Hey, Pagliacci, why don't you pull it back a little bit there...let's be subtle once in a while. Can you try that and see what it's like?" [laughs]

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