INTERVIEW: Tomahawk discuss their new album - 'Tonic Immobility'

Tomahawk
Credit: Eric Livingston

At the end of March, Tomahawk released their fifth full-length album on Ipecac Records. Combining various elements of their sound palette, the band presented one of their best works  – “Tonic Immobility”. Dan Volohov sits down with members of Tomahawk – Duane Denison, Trevor Dunn and John Stanier. Duane, Trevor and John speak about live shows, writing “Tonic Immobility” and much more.

What’s your motivation like when you start working on something? 

Duane: Well, hopefully, before you even sit down and start, you got ideas going in your head. And they won’t leave you alone. You have to get them out, or It would drive you crazy.

I usually sit down with the guitar. But sometimes with bass or even a keyboard. And just start noodling and just get it out. Sometimes you restrict yourself. Like, “Ok! High vs low. Fast vs slow. Choppy vs smooth” – all that. Often, you start improvising based on what’s going on in your head, and you either stop or record it. I use a very simple old-school handheld tape recorder. So, you just hit record, and you don’t have to set anything up or anything—no digital extra-work. Just hit record, and here it is. Then go back to it – listen to it the next day. If you still like it – let’s work on it. If you listen to it later and you say, “Oh my God! That’s stupid!” – it may remind you of something you don’t like, and you have to get rid of it.

Trevor: It’s not much different to me. I can totally relate to the idea in your head that won’t leave you alone at night. You’re trying to go to sleep, and I’ve got to get up. Otherwise, that idea keeps crawling around your brains. I also write a lot of music on guitar and keyboards. I go back and forth between instruments - It helps me a lot. Helps my habits. And yeah, sometimes it’s just a matter of screwing around with a vague idea until you’ll find what it is that you’re looking for.

I was asking it because there are obviously lots of different people among musicians. Some of them can write a bunch of songs at a time – and then wait for several years for them to get released. Like Melvins do. Others, like Kevin Shields, can spend 20 plus years doing nothing, which is quite interesting. Have you ever imagined yourself being isolated from music? Like something you do consciously to get back and work as productive as possible.

Duane: Well, it seems like this last year isolated any of us more than it probably had ever been. I mean, a year ago, there were several months where I hardly left the house. So, I didn’t go to work. I didn’t go out at night. I didn’t go to a bar or restaurant - I didn’t even go to the grocery store. I had stuff delivered – we were so terrified! That’s about being isolated as I have been. But I didn’t write that much. I think most of the writing was done.

We were already in the final stages of this album. I ordered the Jamey Aebersold Jazz play alongs - I just got a stack of them because I missed playing with people. And that’s about as close as you can get. So, I’d just sit around and practice. I went through this Charlie Parker book and this other book – not very well; I’m not a jazz guitarist. I can fake it to a point. But I hear about people who say that isolation is good for creativity. And I disagree. I think that being around other people’s work is stimulating.

Often, when people do something in isolation and think they’re original, they’re not. They’re coming up with something that’s already been done. But they don’t know it. Because they aren’t paying attention to what’s around them, and they think they have invented something. And they don’t know – they never do. I’ve never seen anyone that was good. Usually, the people that make good, original stuff are always in New York, London, L.A, Nashville, Chicago, Austin, St. Petersburg, the music towns!

John: Obviously, this last year has been a struggle for everyone. I think that some people dealt with it accordingly, and the isolation suffocated some people. I gotta admit, I get kind of jealous when some people are like: “I wrote two books, learned French, and composed two operettas”.

Trevor: Yeah! I mean, in normal times, if I’m at home, kind of self-isolating, which most musicians are familiar with anyway. When you’re writing music or focusing on something, sometimes you start going stir crazy being “Oh, man! I got to go outside! I got to go for a walk!” – or whatever. I agree with Duane. I’ve been trying to write the music with this last year, and it’s been like pulling teeth. It’s been tough for me. It’s hard to get the motivation – to get up and write when you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off or any band that you would play with or anything. I’ve written a little bit, but man, it’s been hard.

Duane: When you’re in a lockdown in any band a lot of the times, what motivates you to get things done is the excitement, the idea of “Oh, man! I’m gonna come up with this new thing! Ill present it to the guys and we’ll work on it! We’ll make it real! We’ll make it come to life in a group situation! And then, maybe we’ll perform it!” and all that. But when there’s no immediate prospect of that happening, you’re like: Look, I’m not Chaikovsky, I’m not Mahler, I don’t just sit around and write a symphony and let the Symphony Orchestra play it. Usually, we play our own stuff. When you don’t have the chance to do that – that’s where the motivation goes away.

“Tonic Immobility” was recorded about three years ago. What was it like to get back to this record after some time?

Duane: We never went away. We started working on the instruments. Mike’s schedule was all over the place. So the three of us – me, John and Trevor said: “We’re just gonna start tracking the songs!”. He [Mike] already heard the demos. He knew what it was gonna be like. So we said: “We’re just gonna start, and you can work on your vocals when the time is right”. So we did that, and then, we decided: “Well, we’d maybe tweak it…” – the producer lives here, in Nashville. So I’d hear them again. I actually would go through a period when I deliberately stopped listening to them. ‘Cause, I was getting warned out with them. When you hear something too much, it becomes dull. I used to hear it, and I was like: “I’m gonna stop! I won’t listen to it again until Patton would add vocals. ‘Cause, I don’t wanna get used to them at all!” – so there was a lot of waiting. And for us, pandemic worked in our favour. It forced Mike TO STAY HOME AND FINISH IT! Finish the f***ing job, Mike! Let’s focus on one thing and get it done ( laughs)

Trevor: I’ve said the same thing to people recently! I think the quarantine finally got him to focus on that!

John, it was you who said once that one of the advantages of Tomahawk is the fact that four you live separately from each other. That was before Trevor joined the band. At the same time, do you still look at this as an advantage?

Duane: I won’t say it’s an advantage. Right from the start, 20 years ago, everybody was in four different cities. It started mainly as a collaboration between Patton and myself. We wrote a bulk of the material. We wanted to get the best players we knew, the most interesting players, personalities to work on this, and that’s what we did. It kind of didn’t matter so much, and we could communicate. It’s funny. In 20 years, I’ve been watching the technologies change, but the music didn’t change that much. We went from cassettes to CDs and digital files. That’s how you stay in touch. So, I kind of watch it change. But the working method hasn’t really changed: I’d come up with some rough idea, Patton would say “Yes!” or “No!” – he’d do some rough vocals. I’d make a demo; he’d do some vocals, we’d listen to it and say, “How’s about this ?”, “How’s about that ?” – then we all get together tweaking the arrangement, maybe one more time and then record. So, I don’t know if I consider it as an advantage. But it’s definitely not a disadvantage. It’s more of a technology that enables that. This was never anyone’s main thing either. Maybe more so for me, but others – they always had lots of things they were doing, playing etc. It always was a project that worked. That worked and came together easily…And it still does.

John: I think it is somewhat of an advantage. Everyone has their own stuff going on and live different lives. It’s an advantage in the sense that Tomahawk is this ongoing project that won’t go away. I think in the big picture, it makes everyone involved maybe a bit more relaxed. It really is Business Casual.

Trevor: I can’t remember the last time I played in a band that practised every week, and all lived in the same town. I play in a bunch of different bands, it’s all very sporadic, and if we live in different towns, we get together and rehearse before a tour.

Many songs on “Tonic Immobility” like “SHHH!”, the opening track, where you get from incredibly loud parts to something almost chamber. Having such serious dynamic changes, how to put these two together in an organic way?

Duane: I think there are many models for this, not necessarily in rock but in orchestral music. They do it all the time. They create this very sparse, quiet suspenseful thing – whether these are Bernard Herrmann, Luigi Dallapiccola…even Giya Kancheli – extreme dynamics. And so, for me, I was trying to imitate that in a rock setting. So, going from very quiet, clean, plucked sounds with very minimal drums and no bass. Then suddenly, it explodes with these big, loud, slamming slabs of chords. I thought it was a good idea to make that the first song, to establish right away. This will have extreme dynamics, and we’re coming at you right away because we all listen to different types of music – soundtracks, chamber music, orchestral music, modern jazz, free-jazz, where that kind of thing happens a lot.

Trevor: It’s very easy to write music that’s not organic, as you say. It’s easy to throw stuff together that doesn’t work. I can write a clarinet concerto that’s impossible to play. But it doesn’t mean it’s gonna be good. Duane talks about being a composer and orchestrating – he’s thinking about how things come together. That’s what composting is, really.

Each of you been exploring experimental music over the years with your projects – whether these are The Jesus Lizard or Mr Bungle or Helmet or Battles. And to a point, you still do. But at the same time, some of your songs like “Sidewinder” and “Recoil” sound slightly different to some more experimental stuff on the record. How did you write these two?

Duane: “Sidewinder” that one starts very quiet and almost pretty. It almost has a very pretty, almost innocent quality to it. And then it becomes very turbulent in the middle because, after all, we can’t be innocent very long, can we? And it becomes very turbulent and then the same chords as the initial “innocent” version. But now they’re fully grown. They’re older and wiser. They’ve gone through turbulent years. Now they’re back; they’re older and wiser. And more fully fleshed as it where.

“Recoil” – that one was different to me. Because, typically, when I write something, I start from the beginning, and then it goes, other ideas show up. Usually, I come up with a contrasting thing: “Ok! There’s the main thing. And now we need a contrast!” – with this one, the chorus came first. Dow-du-du-du-du-du! Dow-du-du-du-du-du…The big part came first and went backwards from there to try to find a more contrasting thing. It's even in a different key. It’s in a different pitch centre, but it’s connected through the bridge. Those are good examples of brilliant writing and arranging courtesy of yours truly, so I’m glad you brought those up ( laughs)

Duane: You know, Dan, you had mentioned that experimental thing. Really, out of anything that anyone does in this band- Trevor, Mike…Even John. This was probably the least experimental of all of them. And quite designed. Right, from the very first album, this is a rock band. And this is where we go when we want to rock out! Deliberately, it was accessible, right from the very first song on the first album until now. It was built that way. We wanted to have a relatively simple, straightforward rock thing. Though, there are definitely twists and turns. There are definitely sonic collage pieces that show up. But it’s not nearly as experimental as Fantômas, or Trio Convulsant or Battles, even. It’s not nearly out there on edge as any of these groups. And that’s by design!

Have you been discussing a certain concept before writing? Or it was based on your understanding of each others’ roles?

Duane: Not really. I don’t think we needed to. To me, John and Trevor are both super-advanced players with a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge. And they can analyze things as they listen and as they work on it. And everyone else has their own filter. How they view things, how they hear things, and I feel like I can trust them enough, so I don’t have to say: “OK! HERE’S THEME ONE! HERE’S THE SECONDARY THING. NOW THEME ONE IS COMING BACK AGAIN, AND NOW, THERE’S THEME TWO AGAIN. BUT IT’S A LITTLE BIT LONGER THIS TIME – BE CAREFUL!” – I don’t have to do that. They can figure it out! That’s the great thing.

Trevor: And also, by the time, after Duane and Mike kind of crashed out the composition and they’re ready to show me and John songs, they’re basically ready to go. They’ve basically completed compositions. Me and John just have to learn them. If we have little nuances, we wanna add something that I come up with, and Duane says, “No, I don’t wanna do that!” – cool, I’m not going to do that. Duane is presenting to me something he’s already created, essentially. So, my job is just to realise the song's vision as best as I can.

John: Exactly, realizing what to play and what not to play is the name of the game.

The production on this record also different. Previously, you focused more on the arrangement. And the quality of the recording is different. What brought these changes? 

Duane: There is more space within the arrangements than with any of our records. It seems to be a bit less cluttered. Shall we say as much as anything, it had to do with Mike’s contribution. There are almost no samples on this record. Whereas, especially with first and second albums, there were many different keyboard and sample things thrown in. When you collaborate with people, you have to give them room to do things. But on this one, he didn’t do as much of that and concentrated more on just vocals and doing backing vocals and things like that. There are a bit of keyboards here and there. But I played some of them as well. So I think that as much as anything is to me, why this album sounds different. And maybe there are little more guitars. There’s a certain spaciousness in the arrangements that I think works. And it all goes together: it goes together with artwork, it goes together with everything. And to me, that’s what makes this one a little different.

Trevor, for you, “Tonic Immobility” became the second Tomahawk album you contributed to. In what way your approach changed in comparison with the previous “Oddfellows”?

Trevor: I wouldn’t say my approach changed at all. The recording situation was a little bit different. But ultimately, it was the same approach. Actually, I’m really happy with the bass tone on this new record. And it’s partly because I was using Duane’s P-bass on it…

Duane: ( laughs ) – I made him use my bass!

Trevor: I’m not sure why his bass is a little bit younger than mine, and it's built with heavier wood. It has more balls than my bass ( laughs ).

Some of the artists present their songs before they’re already recorded. Like Nirvana did before the recording “Nevermind”. Others – like you, get together and rehearse new material for the tour. When you play some of your songs live, do you look for people’s reaction for the first time?

Duane: In the history of this band, there have been times when we played songs for the first time only after they’d been recorded. Actually, the second album – “Mit Gas”, we toured a lot before we recorded it. And we actually played some of these live before we recorded it. Just a couple of songs, and that was unusual for Patton. I don’t think he’d ever done that. Whereas my band – The Jesus Lizard, I think most bands do that.  You play some songs live; they evolve, you watch the reaction. I’m not such a precious artist that I don’t care what the audience thinks. I do care what the audience thinks.

On the one hand – I’m not some entertainer who’s gonna jump around, clap hands and make people feel happy, feel good about themselves. But on the other hand – I’m not some precious artist. I think it’s pretentious when people say, “I’m doing this for myself!” – I think: NO! You spend time recording and mixing and packaging and distributing and advertising this. You’ve hired a publicist to make sure that your name and images would be in as many places as possible. And now, you’re saying you don’t care what people think? I don’t believe you! So, when we play live, we definitely watch the audience’s reaction.

Usually, it’s fairly predictable. Songs that have an energetic and have big build-ups – they usually go over. They usually catch on more quickly than more atmospheric or subdued ones. There have been times in the past when with this band, we’d put a set-list together with some new songs that we really like, and we really like playing, and we just stopped playing them. Because the audience stood staring at us like, “Why are you doing this ?” – when we just said: “Well, that one just isn’t going over…Let’s just f*CK it!” – that’s my philosophy. Entertainment – art, entertainment – art. You’re kind of both. And don’t pretend otherwise. I don’t wanna hear this: “I don’t care what the audience thinks…” – NO! I don’t believe you!

Trevor: If you don’t care what the audience thinks, just stay in your cave and don’t put it out!

Duane: Yeah! Stay home and don’t perform it! From the minute you step on this stage and start playing – you’re a performer, an entertainer. They’re the judge – not you! They paid money to see you doing your thing, and they get to decide if it’s a success or not. Not you – for better or worse. That’s what I feel. I’ve always felt that way.

Trevor: That totally makes sense. When you step on stage, you’re doing your job. You’re there to, on the one hand, make a living and, on the other hand, to present something you’ve created. With money aside, you ultimately want to be accepted – every artist, whatever kind of art they are making, want people to like it. Otherwise, you wouldn't be presenting it to them. Unless you’re completely subversive, and you’re like GG Allin and want everyone to hate you, which is not that difficult to do, actually!

Duane: It’s an easy job. And also, I’ve noticed I see musicians, some of them I see on Facebook. And I’m not gonna mention names, but they post their reviews on their social media pages. To me, it’s the most artistically pretentious thing you could do. Imagine Taylor Swift posting her royalty checks: “Hey! Look you guys! Thanks a lot! I got a seven-figure check today! I think I’ll go to the grocery store!”. So I see people who’re: “Oh, I don’t care about a commercial thing! I don’t care about charts! I don’t care about that…” – and they post their reviews. I hate that too. It’s like: “Wait a minute! You said you’re an artist, you don’t care what do people think – yet you’re online, looking at it every day, reading reviews and posting them – GET OUT OF HERE!”

When you’re playing live, you usually put your set-list together, choosing the songs from all your records. At the same time, there are such records of yours as “Anonymous” – don’t you think that in this case, you’re putting these songs out of their natural context?

Duane: I think the setlist thing is an interesting idea in itself. Once again, when people buy a ticket to come and see you, they’re not just there to see what you’re doing now. They’re buying that ticket based upon your previous body of work, based upon the characteristics of the things you have exhibited in the past, which makes them want to spend money to come and see what you perform. And I think they have a certain right to do the things your reputation is based upon.

So let’s say that we decided that Tomahawk announces a tour, and we come out, and we just do this John Cage thing where we all just playing radios on stage. Tape-loops and radios and triggering samples while we sit there with laptops – let’s say we did like a laptop-gig. And that’s all we did! No guitars, drums or vocals. Mike Patton would just go: “AI-YA-YA-YA-YA!” – I think people would be unhappy about that. Maybe some people would like that. There’s always a certain perversity level in any audience. But I feel like they’d feel like they’re ripped off. And I’d agree with them because they have the right to expect certain things based upon your past. But as an artist, Frank Zappa would say: “I don’t care about that. I’m here to play my new thing. This is my current thing. And as an artist, I have the right to do, to present, make an artistic statement based on where I am right now…” – well, Zappa didn’t have many friends. Did he? So I think, ultimately, once again, you gotta split the difference.

You got a new album; you got this commercial product. You got this thing that just came out. You’re out there, and you’re not just flogging a new thing. People want to hear all those songs. They want to hear the hits; they want to hear their favourites. And to me, I don’t think it’s really asking so much to do with that. Like Trevor said: It’s a job. You’ve been paid to show up. Between this hour and this hour, you’re up there to fill up some time doing your thing.

John: I think from the get-go, we never really considered playing songs from "Anonymous." We sometimes play one song, but it’s the most doable for us. I’d like to play more, but it would be difficult to pull it off. Maybe one day.

Trevor: It’s true! It’s true! When it comes down to the intent behind it. If your intent is really to go f*CK with people and get them pissed off – that’s one thing. Sometimes, you can include that into a show, where you actually are their entertainer, giving them the best show you can. But it’s really an intent behind it. I want to get up there. Especially with a band like Tomahawk – it’s a rock band. I want to get up there; I want to sweat and beat the shit out of the bass, play rock beats and bass lines. It’s really fun! And if I convey my own enjoyment with it, then people would respond to it somehow.

Duane: I remember, when I was in college, in Michigan, I remember for some reason, the college got The Village Voice, which was a New York weekly, where you’d see who’d play and where. This was the 80’s, and I was fascinated by Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth, Laurie Anderson, John Laurie, and all this great stuff. I remember seeing thing about Rollins Band. I remember they were playing two nights. The second night was ALL new material. They advertise the show as “All New Material”. I thought: That’s a good way of doing it. Let people have the choice. You can go to a regular show.

Or if you’re a super-fan, you know the old songs; you want to see the new shit. Or both! I thought this one is pretty clever. And I wish more bands did that. Maybe they will. Maybe in future, when the world about to burn out. Half of the world is on fire; another is flooding– you can’t travel anywhere anymore. Flights…You can’t take or do that! We’re gonna take covered wagons from town to town and play acoustic sets with candles. Every set would be “Unplugged”. We will be wearing animal skins, cooking on a fire, and that would be that! That’s the future of music! And you’ll never leave your country ( laughs ).

Tonic Immobility

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