Words by Andrew Humphrey
It’s been over eight years since Tomahawk’s previous full-length, “Oddfellows”, was released. A lot has changed over that time, obviously in the last year in particular. That’s what makes “Tonic Immobility”, the band’s newest album out March 26th via Ipecac Recordings, the truly special edition to their catalogue that it is.
The band wasn’t afraid to touch on subjects like the pandemic or existential crises like global warming. How could you not? If you’ve written almost an entire album in isolation because of this God-awful quarantine like they did, it’s bound to show up somewhere in your material. Still, the satirical grit and sonic experimentation that Tomahawk is well regarded for helps lighten the mood. They don’t beat you over the head with these themes to the point where you can’t enjoy some mental relief from this era of bleakness. It’s balanced.
If you’re unfamiliar with this avant-garde rock quartet, it features some of alternative rock’s most respected architects, including Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard), Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Faith No More), Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant) and John Stanier (Helmet, Battles). “Tonic Immobility” is a beautiful celebration of everything that makes these characters unique, but it still packs enough experimentation to prevent it from becoming predictable or cliché. It’s truly some of the group’s best work to date, and it could not have come at a better time for their fans.
Off Shelf: I wanted to kick off this conversation with a little personal anecdote for something we have in common that I think is actually kinda cool. I first got introduced to Tomahawk, this would have been in like 2005, when I was studying at Eastern Michigan University.
DD: Oh no kidding!
OS: What was your time like when you were studying there?
DD: I was a music major and I graduated in ’84. I actually started in ’78, and my first two years I was completely immersed in music. I did probably the opposite of what most people do where they knock out their general studies and then focus more on their major. I didn’t pay attention to advisers. I was totally focused on the performing side and working on music and composition. Then I dropped out for a couple years and didn’t get much done.
Michigan was a terrible place in the early eighties, as you might remember. Just high unemployment, high crime, just miserable conditions. Both of my parents lost their job during that time. Then I came back and finished up and got a degree. By this time I had gotten back into playing rock, so I just wanted to graduate and get out of there.
I will say the first two years were great. Dr. Nelson Amos, who just recently retired was a great guitarist and professor. They gave me a lot of leeway. I worked on a lot of modern things. My memories are all quite good.
OS: My time there was a lot of music exploration as a listener. I do want to thank you for kick starting a lot of that. In particular, there was a video of a live recording of you guys all dressed up as police officers playing “God Hates a Coward”. I just thought that was the coolest thing.
DD: Yeah, that was in Australia. We kind of rocked those things. My cop outfit wasn’t nearly as good as the others. Mike and Kevin [Rutmanis, former Tomahawk bassist] both had access to real, honest-to-goodness cop uniforms. I had to come up with a makeshift one that I just bought. I was more like a bicycle cop wearing shorts. A transit cop.
But good, I’m glad we actually had a positive influence on someone.
OS: Dare I ask how Mike obtained an actual cop uniform?
DD: I think there’s someone in his family who is a cop.
OS: So how does it feel getting back together again with Tomahawk, and how did that come together?
DD: Well, it’s very weird. It’s a weird period for everyone right now. We started getting together again about three or four years ago, and just running through new material. Practicing and getting the bits together. We recorded it in little bits and pieces over the last two or three years.
We haven’t really been together that much. With this pandemic period, it just doesn’t feel like we are back together, to be honest. It’s been over eight years now since our last release. We got back together again but then a lot of it came together remotely. Mike works from his home studio. So, there’s a bit of unreality to it for me. And now, we all live in different cities and we can’t book any shows. It’s like we were together for a while, but now we’re not.
OS: As a fan, I can say it feels very real on our end. So I can appreciate you guys working through the technical logistics during a pandemic to put out another really great record. It reminds me a lot of some earlier stuff, like the self-titled and “Mit Gas”. Does it feel like that to you at all?
DD: Yes, I agree with you, and that was deliberately so. On the one hand, obviously these are all new songs, and while a lot of it is fresh, a lot of it is almost deliberately referencing the earlier stuff. It was sort of a summary of everything on this album. There are little bits and pieces, guitar things, sometimes even complete songs…we are definitely referencing that stuff.
OS: Yeah, I heard a teaser Ipecac put out on Facebook. A little clip without any singing or any context of what it was. It was just drum and bass. And I knew immediately it was new Tomahawk and I got really excited.
DD: Yeah, there are just certain things we do, and when you work with the same people over time, and the same people are doing the writing, you tend to have certain things that come out, no matter what. Sometimes it’s rhythmic patterns. Sometimes it’s melodic patterns. It just comes out for their whole life. Whether you’re a rock guitarist or a Broadway composer that just seems to be how it works.
OS: I think about the guitar playing, for instance on “Predators and Scavengers”, and the way the drums fit underneath that. I think if I heard that guitar riff with a different band… it’s almost like a thrash riff, but the way the drums come in underneath it, it’s just a different vibe. It’s pique Tomahawk to me.
DD: John Stanier pulls that off as well or better than anyone I know. Typically with a riff on that song, a lot of bands, that beat would have been half time. It would have been slower, almost like Cashmere by Led Zeppelin. But no, we wanted it to be fast and energetic, so for better or worse, that’s what you get.
OS: Do you have some favorite tracks from the new album?
DD: Sure. When we were working on it, we always called it “High Noon”, because it had a Spaghetti Western kind of vibe. But “Doomsday Fatigue”, it’s one of the more atmospheric ones, but it’s got things in it that I really like about what we do. You’ve got this sinewy, slow riff snaking out of the speakers. Then it switches from this minor key kind of grinder to this major key. There’s a keyboard part that kind of floats in, and then that goes away and right back into the heavier side. That, to me, is a classic thing. That might be my favorite song on the album.
The first song that we leaked out was “Business Casual”. I think that’s a pretty good example of Tomahawk. That’s the first one that Ipecac put out that you heard. It had almost that signature bass and drums kind of groove, then the guitar comes in, and Mike’s vocals… it’s a nice bit of escapist rock music.
OS: I’m glad you mentioned that one in particular too, because I love Mike’s lyrics on it. They’re very fun and satirical. He’s obviously got an infamous range in terms of performance, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for his lyrics specifically as much. And I’ve always felt that the best stuff he put out as a lyricist was in Tomahawk.
DD: You’re right, Mike doesn’t get much credit as a lyricist. And lyrics are hard. It’s very hit or miss. A lot of times, people who are considered the great lyricists, usually the music isn’t all that good. The music is fairly pedestrian. Sometimes it’s dull. For them, the lyrics come first. Whereas with Mike and with the rock bands I’ve been in, they don’t necessarily come first. A lot of times, the words and the vocal line…it’s more about the sound of the word and the rhythm then the literal meaning.
I think what Mike does well is that he writes really good choruses and that’s really hard to do. It’s hard to come up with a refrain that is repetitive that doesn’t sound corny, or silly, or overdramatic or something. And everyone interprets things differently, so that’s a tough one.
But yeah, I agree. I sort of helped with some of the lyrics here and there on this so, you can thank me too [laughs].
OS: What are some of your more notable lyrical contributions?
DD: In this case, I kind of push the titles like “Predators and Scavengers”. I came up with the concept, and that was the concept behind that song. We’re not getting overly political on this record, and not because I don’t care. I care a lot about things and my views are known somewhat through my Facebook or whatever. I just feel like there’s so much of it out there, and we’re just bombarded by it, with twenty-four-hour news, that I can only put up with so much of it.
For me, having a rock album is a nice detour away from that. But still, there’s a little bit of that in there. For me, “Predators and Scavengers” was like… is this what the world is? Is this what we’re coming down to now? Even in wildlife in America… I live in Tennessee, you look around and you see a fair amount of bird life. But even then, it’s like, it’s the scavengers and predators that are taking over. And why? It doesn’t have to be this way.
Even “Doomsday Fatigue” is fairly obvious. Everyone’s kind of tired of this constant barrage of negativity and Nihilism. A lot of it is realistic. We have to address these things. Like, we have to address climate change. I think that’s the most important one, because if the planet is constantly flooding or on fire, nothing else really matters. You can’t grow food or drink water, all these other problems don’t matter. We have to start there.
On the other hand, I don’t feel the need to wear it out and bombard people with it, because after all, you know, you’re listening to this music while running the electronics on your stereo and maybe you’re drinking a beer with it. You’re still consuming things, you know what I mean? You’re still part of consumer culture. So I don’t feel like it’s my position to preach to people. We can point things out but we can’t preach because we’re guilty too.
OS: In the same vain, you describe the predicament of writing this record, you have to write with what you feel is true for you at the time. If you’re feeling a lot of these global things, how could it not reflect how you write your songs?
DD: Yeah, of course.
OS: Along those lines, your guitar writing has always struck me as visceral and emotional but it also has, like, an academic lens on it. It’s so music theory driven, but not to the point of it being alienating. How do you walk that line between the classical training that you know but still making it be something that comes from the gut?
DD: It all has to start from a real place. I like to think that’s what it does. A lot of times, I’ll just start noodling around on a guitar or a bass, and just start playing… and trying to come up with something. Or, I’ll have a mood in mind. Do I want to come up with something fast or slow? Smooth or choppy? High or low? Agitated or more reflective? And then I try to go from there.
To me, the theory and composition stuff, that doesn’t really help inspire anything. The inspiration has to come from within. The theory and composition training helps you develop an idea. It helps you stretch things out and find new ways to come up with, say, contrasting material. But those main ideas have to come from somewhere inside you, or it just doesn’t ring true.
So, I’ll just sit there and play something over and over again and then I’ll either write it down or record it and then come back to it later and listen to it. Do I still like it? Does it still effect me? Do I still enjoy hearing it? Is it exciting? Does it do what it’s supposed to do? I will obsess over home demos for weeks and weeks at a time before I even let anyone hear them. I will pair things down and trim things and edit things, and chop it and start over. So yeah, it’s a process.
OS: So it’s almost like, music theory can unlock different ways a song can go, but they can’t necessarily help originate an idea for a song.
DD: Yeah, absolutely. You might have a theory-based concept in mind, but by the time it’s done, if that’s what driving it, it’s probably not going to be that good. At least not in the rock music sense. Rock, to me, is about energy and excitement. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s more heavy, or dark. But that’s what drives it and that’s what to me makes it different than other styles of music. It has to have that or ultimately none of the theoretical things mean anything.
OS: Are there any things you do, even before you sit down and noodle with a guitar or even a different instrument for that matter to help spark ideas? Like, I know sometimes scriptwriters for instance say “I get the best ideas when I’m in the shower”. Are there rituals or things you do to get the creative juices flowing?
DD: Nothing like that. But it’s good to get started early in the day where you’re not just fresh, but you haven’t been sidetracked by any problems yet. You’re not in like, strategic or analytic mode yet. Your brain is still half awake, and that’s when the best stuff comes. Then I’ll have a coffee and sit around and get the energy going and then you can start churning.
Something I was doing for a while was every day, try to improvise and record something that’s just one minute long and then save it. I actually did this when we started this record. Then just set it aside. Don’t listen to it, don’t even think about editing it or whatever. Think of it like this…if you do a minute a day for a month, you’ve got thirty minutes of raw material. Now obviously, it’s not all going to be good. In fact, most of it won’t be good. But there will always be something in there that is good and can be developed into something else. Play little games with yourself and try to come up with things.