In any band situation, especially with busy musicians at the helm, there will always be the quandary of waiting too long between albums. In the case of Tomahawk, it has been roughly 6 and a half years since the public was given a crop of new material to soak up. “I think we have to walk the line between taking time off and waiting too long, because then there’s no one there to open the door when you knock,” explains founding guitarist Duane Denison. “At this point, we can’t really assume that the old fans are still there. They grow up and move on, even when they still like you, so at this point we’d like to see some new people climb on board.” The point in discussion is none other than the fourth studio album from Tomahawk, “Oddfellows,” which was released in late January of this year and certainly is what you would expect from this gang. In Denison’s own words “it’s more user friendly than things in the past. There’s hard/heavy, dissident, dark stuff like we’ve always done, but there’s a couple of other things that are a bit more ‘art pop’ or ‘heavy pop,’ whatever you want to call it, which for us is a new challenge, to try to do that and make it not suck.”
Forming in 2000, Tomahawk is comprised of some well-known musicians in their other musical projects. Denison comes from The Jesus Lizard, while vocalist Mike Patton is known for his numerous bands such as Faith No More and Mr. Bungle. Rounding out the group on drums is John Stanier, formerly of Helmet, and currently a member of experimental rockers Battles, who have enjoyed prominence through a series of EPs and two full-length albums. Continuing with their workhorse line-up, bassist Trevor Dunn (Melvins/Secret Chiefs 3) makes his Tomahawk debut on “Oddfellows” which Denison describes as “a great fit!” Bringing new blood into any band is a tricky process, but in this case, it was a no-brainer. “I never gave it a second thought,” continues Denison from his Nashville home. “Trevor Dunn is one of the top bass players in the world, and he makes a living by being adaptable and fast, quick on the uptake, and being totally pro and easy to deal with. Right from the very first time we played with him, he and John locked up the rhythm section and it sounded solid and good. We were like ‘there it is, we don’t have to worry about that.’”
In the down time that Tomahawk had no one was really kicking back and relaxing, especially not Denison, who kept busy with The Jesus Lizard’s reunion in addition to a stint in The Legendary Shack Shakers. “During that time, I kept accumulating ideas and putting them together bits at a time,” he continues. “Just simple sketches really; guitar, bass, simple drum machine beats, and a touch of keyboards. Then I just set them aside, and didn’t overwork them. Once we started doing this, I would send the files out [to the others] and get feedback from that.” From this creative process, and once everyone’s input was generated, a total of 15 songs were brewed, with only 13 of them making it on to the final album. So were these two extra tracks just not up to par with the rest of the material? “We had some continuity going,” explains Denison. “These other pieces interrupted that somehow.” The final result, “Oddfellows,” is the album that Denison says is the perfect follow-up to their first two albums, which are more than ten years old at this point. “It’s like ‘Mit Gas’ ends here, and ‘Oddfellows’ starts there, and it sounds like Tomahawk!”
By the time the band was ready to convene and begin working on the album before its production a setback reared its ugly head into the mix resulting in the absence of Patton for much of the rehearsal process. “Mike had a death in his family and had to leave and then come back,” Denison continues. “It didn’t really impact us, we just carried on and we knew what we were doing at that point. It was pretty much ready to go; we just worked around it and dealt with it.” Further explaining the process of putting “Oddfellows” together, Denison explains that his songwriting and sharing with his bandmates prior to getting together greatly aided the studio process, but at the end of the day, he firmly maintains that it was still a great deal of hard work. “It’s like putting together an hour long tv show or short film, in that you aren’t doing it in the order that people see it or hear it,” says Duane. “There’s a lot of time spent in production work; getting the levels, balancing the sound in the speakers… In Tomahawk, that’s where most of the butting heads happens. No good album has ever been made where it was just a breeze. No matter what anyone says, it’s not true and not true in our case either.” It certainly is no stretch of the imagination to think that there’s a good amount of tension in the air when anyone is making an album, but at the end of the day, Tomahawk remain true gentlemen to each other and their craft, keeping their grudges out of the process. “We’re all obsessive about music and have egos to go along with that. We do sometimes butt heads and you have to realize that you won’t always get your way on things. We’ve all made a lot of albums at this point, so we all know how it works. On the one hand there are tense moments, but we don’t take it personally. It is work, and you have to be an adult about it.”
“Oddfellows” was certainly the highlight of this writer’s January album releases, not only due to the anticipation built around it, but it was a nice, creative breath of fresh air. The album isn’t rushed and blends wonderfully, which is a far stretch from bands that are quick to release continuous albums to keep their popularity wave in the limelight. However, sometimes the worst critics can be those that are responsible for the construction from the get-go, with continuous nit-picking and the horror of hindsight. Denison clearly agrees but maintains that this latest opus is the best of Tomahawk to date. “It’s the one where everything seems to fit together; from the music and lyrics, to the artwork and the overall vibe. It’s focused and diverse and the response has been good so far,” Denison states.
Any musician who is worth his word will maintain that critics’ and reviewers’ opinions aren’t even in their general focus and Mr. Denison is no exception. Still, there is one pet peeve that he seems to bounce around in his brain thirteen years into Tomahawk’s existence. “Ever since we started Tomahawk, right from the get-go, we got tagged as a super group, and we never liked that. We never thought of it that way. And once you get tagged as that, to me, no one ever takes your songwriting seriously, they just think you’re a bunch of stars getting together for easy money. I feel that if enough people enjoy the craft of this album, the songwriting, the production and lyrics, maybe we can get passed that, that we are a real band and making real albums. I’d put [“Oddfellows”] up against any rock album I’ve heard so far this year.”
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