If Mike Patton's headfirst dive into experimentation after his 1998 departure from Faith No More suggested that the idiosyncratic vocalist felt most at home making noise, his participation in Tomahawk indicates otherwise. Formed in 2000, Tomahawk's brand of heavy rock sounded almost shockingly straightforward when compared to Patton's then-current work with Mr. Bungle, Fantômas, The Melvins, John Zorn, Rahzel, and Melt Banana guitarist Ichirou Agata. By not throwing another curveball at his audience, Patton effectively threw a curveball anyway.
Which isn't to say that Tomahawk doesn't break new ground. Their last album, 2007's Anonymous, for example, locates the missing links between Native American folk music, the blues and East Asian harmonic patterns, thanks to a book that founder, principal songwriter and former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison stumbled across while browsing in Elder's Bookstore in Nashville. Even then, though, the quartet favors discretion over outright subversion.
"I feel like we can do anything," says Denison. A Nashville transplant since '99, he left Legendary Shack Shakers at the beginning of the year and maintains a rehearsal space in Bordeaux. "But I think the trick is to keep it reined in somewhat, to try to maintain some focus and not go in too many directions."
Nevertheless, with their forthcoming Oddfellows, Tomahawk manages to expand their range while also delving further into pop than with their previous three albums.
"Some of this album is, to me, fairly straightforward hard rock," Denison explains, "and then some of it is ... I don't know what you'd call it — avant-pop or something? If anything, I think the album is a bit hookier and has bigger choruses than anything we've done. There's a lot of group vocals from song to song, almost these Greek choruses showing up. To me, it's kind of depressing when I go see a band or hear a record where the songs all have a similar rhythmic feel or the vocals always start on the downbeat. At the same time, you don't want things to be so different that it doesn't even sound like it's the same band. You want it to sound like it's the same people with the same point of view — you're just expressing it in a different way."
As with much of the band's existing catalog, the new songs feature winding guitar lines and glimmering chords from Denison, while Patton's ghostly melodies recall the drama (and relative restraint) of his approach in Faith No More, as well as his 2006 Peeping Tom album. On the other hand, Battles/Mark of Cain drummer John Stanier continues to drive the beat with his distinct marching stride while also revealing shades of his playing that were never apparent in his former outfit, Helmet.
"I liked John's playing better than I liked Helmet, to be honest," says Denison, "and I think Mike feels the same way. The Jesus Lizard toured with Helmet, and I got to know John. Just from hanging out and talking about music, I realized he was into a lot of different things. So when I had a chance to get Tomahawk started, he was my obvious choice."
Oddfellows marks the addition of fellow Mr. Bungle alum and longtime Patton compatriot Trevor Dunn (Fantômas, Trio-Convulsant, The Melvins, etc., etc.). If Dunn's jazz acumen gives the band any greater flexibility than it had with original (and former Cows/Melvins) bassist Kevin Rutmanis, you won't necessarily hear it on your first pass.
"This is not a jazz band," stresses Denison, who holds a music degree. "This is not John Zorn. This is a rock band. There's little hints of jazzy things here and there, but not that much. Mostly, Trevor's chops just save us a lot of pressure and headaches because he can learn material fast."
A far cry from when The Jesus Lizard lived and quarreled in the same Chicago apartment, Tomahawk can't afford to live, breathe and eat together as a band. But greater working efficiency and geographical separation hardly guarantees smooth relations.
"It's the same now," Denison offers. "Egos collide, and personalities grind against each other. I imagine it's like working in an office or something — a lot of times you have to give ground, and other times you stand your ground."
With such a long history of playing alongside eccentric, forceful personalities like Patton, Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow and Shackshakers leader J.D. Wilkes, Denison yields plenty of ground onstage.
"For the rock 'n' roll bands that I like — The Stooges, The Birthday Party or The Rolling Stones — having that guy up front who's singing and dancing and verbalizing is a big part of the appeal. And that's just not my personality. It would be unnatural for me to get up and try to do that."
There was a man named Jimmie Rodgers once.
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