If you look up “experimental rock group” in the dictionary, I am fairly certain Tomahawk would be one of the top bands that would appear. They are constantly shifting, changing, and evolving their musical soundscape to even more bizarre atmosphere’s, yet are completely cohesive. Tonic Immobility is a bit of a different subject all together with the compositions more concentrated on instrumentation versus whatever tricks Duane Denison has up his sleeve. There is an ease to this album which takes you on a relaxing and enjoyable ride, but still has that ambiance Tomahawk so effortlessly presents.
The year was 1999 when two forces met. Mike Patton (vocals) and Duane Denison (guitar, keyboards) came together and started exchanging music and ideas. Helmet‘s John Steiner (drums) then joined as did the Melvins’ Kevin Rutmanis (bass). Rutmanis exited around 2007 and Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle/Fantomas) took his place on bass. This was the one and only member change in over two decades. Over these 20 plus years, the band has released five albums, including their newest, Tonic Immobility which was just dropped on Patton’s label IPECAC on March, 26, 2021. Thankfully 2021 is delivering something positive for our minds and ear holes.
Denison took some time out for Metal Nation to give us some insight into Tonic Immobility.
Tonic Immobility is finally out, how do you feel it will stand out against the other albums?
“I think it is every bit as good as any of them. People have told me it really reminds them of the earlier stuff, the first two, and that’s fine, we reference things from the first two. You’re always going to be proud, at least hopefully, always going to be proud of whatever your latest thing as and this is no different for me.”
I can see what people mean by that, but I think it can stand on its own, as all of them do, they all have their own flavor which is what is one of the cool things about Tomahawk. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. Even within this album there is a lot of diversity from song to song. It is really thought provoking and just chill.
“There is a fair amount of different sounds, but there is still continuity there, it is still basically a four piece rock band. There is not as many samples are things on this, as there has been on previous albums. It is a bit more spacious and there are a bit more guitars, and backup vocals, so yeah, it kind of goes in some new directions I guess.”
I really like the guitars and quite a few of the songs. There are some progressive pieces in “Predators and Scavengers” as well as “Tattoo Zero” that I thought were really cool mixes and fun to listen to. I love both of those songs.
“Oh, thank you. Me too. Yeah especially in ‘Tattoo Zero’ there is that lengthy middle instrumental part where it is definitely prog rock. I grew up listening to prog rock, those were my heroes, Yes and Gentle Giant, and King Crimson, and stuff like that, so now it is sort of referencing that through a sort of more modern rock sensibility and is enjoyable. ‘Predators and Scavengers’ also has that progressive notey busy kind of thing. I didn’t want to do an entire album of that, but I think it works in small amounts.”
I really like the changeup on “Predators and Scavengers” where it goes from chugging guitars to the progressive rock riff with Patton’s haunting vocals in the background. It was composed so well.
“Oh thanks. Yeah, then it has that nice chorus in the middle of the song that kind of ties it together. You have to kind of maintain a balance, match the spaciousness and thickness and then texture too, having different textures and density. With a lot of hard rock, there is so much density and material and it is presented so fast, it get’s a bit overwhelming for me as a listener and I like to have some spaciousness and sparseness just to kind of give it some breathing room between the different levels of activity, I guess.”
Making it a little more airy and giving you more of a chance to take a breath and just enjoy the ride.
You like to do many different guitar tricks. You are very diverse in your musical composition, I know you have a degree in music, but you also have these different experimental tricks that you seem to throw out of your hat. Which would you say is your favorite, or maybe more shocking one you have been able to pull of in the 20 plus years?
“I don’t think I did that much of it on this album, there are a lot of weird harmonics and odd sort of little noises and things. One thing I did, I remember a long time I was taking guitar lessons from a flamenco guitarist who showed me how to make a snare out of the bottom two strings. You put your fingernail between the two strings and wrap them around each other. I think I even did an instructional video where I showed how to do it. Then you flip the string around each other and hold it down on the neck. When you play it, it creates this sort of snare sound. It is a great fun little trick you can do that is easy, it doesn’t cost anything, and yet makes a noisy, loud rockish sort of sound. I would say that is probably my favorite.”
That is pretty cool, but it does not sound easy. How do you hold the strings there?
“You really have to grip it, and you can’t move it. Once you are holding it down, that’s it. You are stuck there. If there is a will there is a way.”
My favorite song on this album is “Sidewinder”. It almost reminds me of Faith No More’s cover of “Easy” with that softness, but then that bass line comes in and takes it in a totally different direction. Every time I hear that lyric, “Stand up, stretch it out”, I automatically want to get up and stretch.
“That’s funny. I like that one too. It is very different than most of the rest of the album. It starts out with piano and drums, very sparce, then it gets heavier in the middle, then it returns to the same chords that was in the intro, but now they are played on the guitar and gives it a little full. To me that one almost seems like a David Bowie song, who was one of my heroes. I think I threw in some Bowie references actually in the middle of ‘Doomsday Fatigue’ where it switches keys and keyboards come in, once again, and switches into a major key, just for a few measures, and I think, this sounds kind of Bowieish, if I might pat myself on the back a bit.”
Go ahead and pat yourself on the back, because I definitely had the same thoughts on a few as well. It is hearing the influence, but it is not so glaringly obvious. You almost have to take a step back and try to figure out what influence you are hearing, because it stands apart from it as well.
“Yeah, and that is not a conscious thing but to me when you make an album or make a song and you listen to it, if it reminds you of things you like, that is good. If it reminds you of things you really don’t like, that’s really bad. I think I got luck in a couple of things.”
Speaking of “Doomsday Fatigue”, those lyrics are clearly written during Covid even though I know the musical parts of the album have been in the making for years. There are a lot of Covid references. I felt like I was in a ghost town listening to this one.
“Yeah, absolutely, it is almost like you are in a western and there is a showdown and two gunfighters are walking down the middle of the road and you don’t know if they are really there or not and what is real and what isn’t. That whole song lends itself well to that sort of mindset of that sort of isolation. It is also not meant to be dwelling on negativity, it kind of switches and picks up in the middle, like it doesn’t have to be this way and it won’t always be this way. At least for a while, then it switches back to the dark sort of feel. I guess no big message there except we have all suffered and hopefully there is now some light at the end of the tunnel.”
I don’t think you can put negativity and Tomahawk in the same sentence. “Recoil” has a bit of a reggae influence to it which I thought was enjoyable, although it kind of threw me off. I was fully into the journey of the album, then thought, “That’s a left turn”, but I really dig it.
“It builds up though and goes into a heavier sort of double time thing with a riff that to me, again listening to it after it was done, is what I like about Led Zeppelin, which is an influence too. So once again mixing a sort of, I wouldn’t say softer, but sort of atmospheric verses and then it gets to the harder and heavier choruses. Mike can sing that stuff well. I think in a perfect world he would be an R & B singer. He even told me when he was recording the vocal parts that he was thinking more like The Four Tops and The Temptations and things like that in some of his vocal harmonies, which is funny because the album doesn’t sound like that, but the vocal stuff does and he has always kind of leaned that way.”
That is interesting, I have never thought about it that way but definitely. He has such an intense vocal range and is just a master of his craft, as are you of yours. You guys have built a really strong foundation for Tomahawk and it is fun to see where each album is going to take you.
“Dog Eat Dog”, I am fairly certain I have had nightmares since I have seen it *laughs*.
“Oh come on. It’s comedy. Yeah you got these two men beating on each other, but then you have dogs doing tricks, you got the audience, and then at the end they overthrow their masters and become friends. It is slapstick, but at the same time you can say it is social commentary. We live in this endless competitive world where you are constantly fighting being the people at the bottom fighting the hardest for the scraps the overlords are throwing to them. It works on a couple of different levels, depending on how you want to interpret it.”
I definitely interpreted it more the latter, but it is genius. It is tough to watch but in a really realistic and genuine way. It is well done and thought provoking.
I had heard you mention at one point how you felt this quarantine should be a learning experience. Do you care to elaborate on what you meant?
“At one point I saw my doctor about something and he actually pointed it out. He said for some people this has been a time of opportunity and for me I was relatively fortunate and I had to agree with that because I was relatively unaffected. I had this library job that I was still getting paid from so I wasn’t desperate for money. I didn’t really have anything scheduled music wise for gigs or anything, so I wasn’t losing anything there. I stayed home, I practiced, I worked on material, I was giving online lessons, and the rest of the time I was staying home and staying in shape and doing simple things in the evenings with my family whether they were doing crossword puzzles of jigsaw puzzles or building models. So it wasn’t terrible, but I feel genuinely sorry for a lot of bands and musicians that were maybe getting started and this was going to be their big year and they had stuff scheduled and were ready to go and had a great new album. I know people who fall into this category, but then they weren’t able to do anything. All these people and then all the crew people who have been struggling. I know a lot of people on the crews and then the club and restaurant industry, who have been practically wiped out by it. So I feel supremely fortunate in that it didn’t happen to me. I was able to make it, I wouldn’t say a good experience, but it wasn’t terrible. I just genuinely feel for those that just got ruined by this.”
I am a Tomahawk fan, so Tonic Immobility was a no brainer to pick up. It stands up very well with the previous albums and has some incredible instrumental work. Patton’s vocals are on key (pun intended), as always, and the overall feel is very relaxing, which is what I think we can all agree we need right now. It is quite a journey throughout with twists and turns, but remains level and flowing. There are some key progressive guitar elements and interesting time signatures that keep you invested and curious to hear what is next. When you add in the lyrical content, some specifically related to Covid, it turns into therapy in an album. Make sure you check this one out and please support the artists, now more than ever!