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


So you don't really pull any punches?
No. And things can get touchy--we're like anyone else in that regard. Especially Mike and I, we will butt heads about things in the studio. Usually mixing and arranging, things can get tense from time to time because you're dealing with guys who've basically been obsessive about music all their lives, you have a vision for something and that's the difference between working in a group and being a dictator or a solo guy. Well, one guy does not always have the final say, so we like to think, you pick your battles. It's like what I imagine office politics is like. You can't argue about every single thing that bothers you. I mean, I guess some people will, won't they? [laughs] But you have to decide what's the most important to you and what you're willing to fight for, whether it's the volume levels or the tone of something. It could be any number of things. I tend to favor things more on a minimal side, and Patton tends to favor things on more of a maximal side. He's "more-is-more"-minded and I tend to be "less-is-more." Somehow it works, but there's friction there. But we get over it and move on. And you realize that it's not personal, you're working on music and it's not like, "Ha-hah, I have defeated you, I am dominating you with my thing!" And sometimes compromising is good. I will pare things down and make it sparse until what sounds good to me would sound dull to someone else. On the other hand, Patton will load things up until it sounds overcooked or something. So I think there's a balance to be struck there. And not that Tomahawk is perfect, but I think that there is a certain checks-and-balances system that seems to be working.

Did you have a sense of that dynamic when you first started working with these guys way back when?
No. Uh uh. I had no idea. I didn't know Patton at all. We knew each other's music, at least some of it. He probably knew more of mine than I did of his. At the time when I met him,the Mr. Bungle California album was out, which is my favorite album of theirs. That's the one for me and I saw them on that tour and I was very impressed. I was playing with Hank Williams III at the time, and I just wasn't fully satisfied with being the sideman, so I started writing tunes and riffs and I had a drum machine and I'd take it with me on the road and work on things. I started accumulating material. I do it a lot, and I'm even doing it now. It's good to write it out or record it and set it aside, don't try to develop it, don't go down that hole, just get the essence of it and have a record of it somewhere and set it aside, and if it's good you'll find a way to use it. No good work is really wasted.

Is it reassuring for you to know that stockpile exists?
I think so. It can be deceptive fun--when you go jam with people and you kinda think about who's gonna be there and what they're gonna do, and you kinda tuck an idea or two in your back pocket and you pull it out like you just made it up. "Oh, that reminds me of this," and you start playing this thing and they think you're a genius [laughs]. I know I'm not the only one who does that.

The songs on this album are fairly concise--three- or four-minutes long for the most part, which is pretty common for Tomahawk. Are you ever tempted to stretch things out, or did you decide to just go right to the heart of the idea for each song and then move on to the next one?
There is that temptation, and it never seems to work out [laughs]. We've had longer songs in the past, but usually what happens --and when I listen to other people doing longer songs -- what it sounds like to me is the intros are more drawn out, then you get to the meat and potatoes of the piece, and then there's some sort of coda tacked on. And if you do that enough times, you can have a 40-minute record with five songs on it. It's not the same as a large-scale piece, like a symphony that's in three movements where there's not much literal repetition, and where the ideas are allowed to unfold and ferment and grow -- that's a whole different thing. I've been tempted to try that, it just doesn't work out for me. I think there's composers, and then there's rock guitar players who compose. I'm thinking ahead to the next one and what to do, and that would be the challenge, wouldn't it? I'm sort of running out of things I haven't done as far as the rock things you can do, but at the same time, right now for Tomahawk, for basically relaunching a band that hasn't had a rock album out in about 10 years, it seems like shorter, direct songs was the way to go. I feel like this is what a modern rock band should sound like, and while I don't want to go around tubthumping, every time we put out an album and go out there and talk about it, I think we're trying to make that point. I still think rock music is a vital part of American culture, it just needs to get re-stoked every so often.

It seems like you're in a great spot these days, with all these different projects that you're involved in.
Yeah, it's good in a way. On the other hand, I have the same worries any other adult with a family and a house has. Mostly financial worries, let's face it. For me there's an ebb and flow, and right now it's flowing. I stayed home and worked on projects most of last year -- worked on this and worked on [Interpol drummer] Sam Fogarino's [solo project] Empty Mansions, and with Alexander Hacke of [Einsturzende] Neubauten we have a thing called The Unsemble, which is still up in the air --so I just stayed in. I hardly played any gigs last year. On the one hand, I got a lot done. But financially it was a terrible year. But there's a cycle to these things. You stay home and let the ideas gestate and ferment and brew up, and then you go out and play and do all of that. So I'm kind of hitting the upside of the cycle right now. Just in time for spring, like a beautiful butterfly I will fly forth into the world.

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