Back after a nine year absence, Tomahawk's new album 'Tonic Immobility' is a supremely crafted set of focused yet breathable alt rock songs, and the most accessible album of their two-decade career. "It sounds like four guys in a room, you know?", says bassist Trevor Dunn, as we sit down to chat; "I guess it was a conscious decision". Talking the band's return, as well as the re-emergence of Mr. Bungle, and his numerous other projects, we caught up in business casual with Trevor. Open arms and a smiling face; Eamon O'Neill.
Hi Trevor, how are you today?
I’m good. My whole past year, my sleep patterns have been erratic, so for some reason this morning I woke up really early. I actually set my alarm because I wanted to get some stuff done before I did some interviews, but I woke up extra early, I had breakfast, and I did my exercise routine.
In the last year we’ve had the return of not just Tomahawk, but also Mr. Bungle, which must be bittersweet, given how the pandemic has affected things.
Yeah, Mr. Bungle had planned on doing some more shows last year after that short little run we did in February, and still at this point, every band I play in is just waiting to see what’s going to happen, waiting for the next time we can go back to work. Apparently, we’re not essential, but I’m kind of glad we’re not essential; I’m happy to stay inside!
We’re here to talk about ‘Tonic Immobility’, and it’s probably the most accessible album that Tomahawk have done yet.
It’s very kind of poppy and catchy, right? You know, it’s interesting, Duane [Denison, guitarist] pretty much writes all the music, and after Duane finishes writhing all the guitar and bass, and contributing drum and even vocal ideas, basically then [Mike] Patton comes up with the vocal melodies, and most of the lyrics. So, yeah, that’s all on Duane, and I guess that was just kind of the direction he was interested in at that moment. But yeah, the other thing that’s interesting about that record is that me and Duane and John [Stainer, drums] actually recorded it almost four years ago, I think.
You’ve had the album in the can for four years?!
Yeah. Basically, Duane had the material, and he wanted to do it, and Patton was busy, so we just did it and waited for Patton to be ready to do it. I think lockdown kind of forced him to work on this record!
The first song that was released ‘Business Casual’, is honestly one of my favourite tracks of the year so far; it’s got such a great, down the line bass line to it.
Yeah, it’s great. One thing I really like about this band is, because I don’t write anything, I can be a little bit objective, and I can say; “yes, that is a great bass line”, because I didn’t write it! Yeah, I mean, Duane, his writing is great. I love it, and he always has these bass lines that are the kind of thing a bass player would write.
It’s such a contrast, that sort of straight ahead, measured bass playing compared to the likes of Mr. Bungle's ‘Travolta’, which is incredibly complex.
It is a challenge, and actually, it’s really fun [to play minimalist bass lines]! Tomahawk is a band that is a completely different band than Fantômas, obviously, and mentally, for me, it’s a particularly fun band, Tomahawk, because I’m almost like a side man in that band. I learn the part, and they’re tricky enough to be interesting, but not insanely complicated. I love playing that way, and I don’t get to do it that often, so it’s all good for me.
You’ve kind of pre-empted me a little, but you’ve been a member since of the band since 2007; what attracted you to join?
I play in a lot of bands and they’re all different, and that’s what I like about what I do, really. I wouldn’t want to play in only one band, and I wouldn’t want to play in a band that sounded the same all the time, or a different band that sounded the same. I like doing different stuff; It’s why I like going back forth between electric and upright bass. I like the variety; if I’m away from one, I start to miss it, and then, you know, if I’m with the other one, I miss the other.
Another great track is ‘Howlie’; the band sounds so tight, and there’s a lot of room for the song to breathe.
Yeah, I think that that’s a general thing with the record. Patton really, I think he has a tendency, as far as I know, with the previous Tomahawk records, to really add a lot to what Duane gave him, and this time he really left things sparse and left a lot of space, which I think is great. I mean, it sounds like four guys in a room, you know? I guess it was a conscious decision.
‘Recoil’ is a great example of that minimal approach, but it then explodes with this huge, cinematic feel.
Actually, I think that’s probably my favourite song on the record. I really like, Patton is kind of in character there for the verse, and it stands out to me. And I think it’s a great chord progression, so again, that’s Duane’s writing, really.
Mike Patton is fantastic with that approach, getting into character, as you’ve found when you’ve written together for Me. Bungle.
Yeah, absolutely, and has been for years. Sometimes, the way I write for Mr. Bungle, a lot of the times I would come up with vocal melodies of my own, and then he might tweak them to make them work better, as a vocalist. But I think Duane gives him more freedom, which also is, incidentally, I think the way – I’m not 100% sure on this – but I think that’s the way Faith No More kind of works. Like, they write a lot of stuff, and then they hand it to Patton and he comes up with…. He’s the thing that makes it interesting, to me, and before I was in Tomahawk, I would say that Tomahawk was my favourite 'Patton project', because I love the way that Duane’s writing and Patton’s ideas about melody work together.
Another track that really jumps out is the very understated ‘Eureka’, which is named after your hometown.
What’s funny is we recorded this music several years ago, and then this summer when I was out in California actually doing the livestream show with Mr. Bungle [‘The Night They Came Home’, broadcast on Halloween Night, 2020], I was hanging out with Patton, and we actually drove down from San Francisco down to L.A., and that was the first time I heard the record with all his vocals. We listened to the whole record, and I thought; “oh my god, that sounds great!” So, he was telling me the names of the songs and stuff, and when he told me one was called ‘Eureka’, I was like; “what?!” I mean, I think, part of the ‘Eureka’ thing was because there was a lot of, you know, putting together the ‘Raging Wrath’ [Mr. Bungle reunion album], and there was a lot of throwbacks to our teenage years, especially with the artwork, and really with the ‘Yearbook Edition’ of that record – there’s a lot of photos from the ‘80s in there – so I guess that was on his mind.
I recently spoke to Trey Spruance about how you recorded the atmospheric material on the first Mr. Bungle album, and he said; “only guys from Eureka would be so stupid”.
Yeah, there was a period where we were recording everything. Trey had a portable DAT machine, so he was recording stuff, and I had this Sony Walkman that had a really good condenser microphone on it, so we would walk around in the seedy part of town and record whatever kind of domestic violence or weird activity that we would come across. We were essentially, looking for it!
That first Mr. Bungle album is regarded as a real cult classic these days; do you view it in the same way?
No, I don’t, not at all. It’s a little bit strange for me. It’s impossible for me to be objective about it. There’s so much more in it that music. There’s this whole other side that other people can’t see because they weren’t there, just like, the history of those songs; the history of me and Mike and Trey working on those songs together; being in that studio - who was around; how we were arguing about how things should go - there’s so much. And we were pretty young when we made that record, so there’s a lot of things that I’ve learned since then that I would do differently, in terms of how to record things, or how I would negotiate production of a song, or talking with my band mates; all kinds of psychological stuff. So, I’m grateful that people put so much thought into it. Bungle fans are definitely an obsessive lot, that’s for sure.
Not to ask you too much about your future Mr. Bungle plans, but surely you’d love to play a song like ‘Travolta’ live again?
Yeah, maybe we will, who knows? It’s always a good feeling to get a positive response from the audience, definitely, and that one definitely invites it, for sure. You never know with us. I don’t even know! I don’t have any control. Not that I’m not part of that loss of control, but I don’t know; Mr. Bungle is greater than the sum of its parts, I’ll say that.
Did you ever think that a Mr. Bungle reunion would happen again, or did you think it as dead and buried?
We’d been thinking about it for a couple of years. The idea came up, and so it was on our minds for a little while, but it didn’t necessarily feel like a reunion until we got to the first rehearsal with the whole band, and we were rehearsing music, in particular with Trey and Mike. It was like; “oh wow, we’re actually doing this together”, you know? It was also weird because it was with music we wrote when we were teenagers. It was also a lot easier than previous versions of Mr. Bungle because technically, that music is easier. I mean, physically it’s not easy, but in terms of arrangements and instrumentation, it’s a lot easier to tackle.
Just touching on the ‘California’ album, Trey told me that it was your song ‘Retrovertigo’ that inspired the entire direction of that album.
Yeah, it was. I mean, me and Mike and Trey, to me this is the magic of Mr. Bungle; we never discussed the direction of what we were going to do next. Even for ‘Disco Volante’ , we didn’t sat down and say; “this needs to be THIS kind of a record”, you know? With both cases - with our second and third record - we just started writing individually and then bringing ideas to each other. I guess it’s possible as we were doing that, that we fed into each other, but with ‘California’, I just decided I kind of wanted to write, I think my initial goal with that song was I was certainly influenced by Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’, and I thought; “man, I want to write like a melancholy, like, radio hit”, and that was the best I could do at that point. Then it just so happened that the stuff that Trey and Mike were working on was also kind of these melodic pop songs, for lack of a better description.
What was it like for you to see Mike Patton perform ‘Retrovertigo’ with a full orchestra in 2019 with his Mondo Cane project?
That was great. He actually called me and got me – not that he needed to – but he got my blessing, and asked if it was okay that he did that. I thought it would be cool, and I know the conductor is a Bungle fan, so he did the arrangement, and yeah, it was great. It was cool to see songs that you wrote in your bedroom be transformed into different things. It wasn’t any surprise hearing him sing it, but it was cool to hear real strings. There’s real strings on the record, but you know, a live version or whatever.
Mike doesn’t tend to cover songs from other projects, in his other bands.
Right. Well, Mr. Bungle used to do these kind of medleys of cover songs, and occasionally we’d throw in ‘We Care a Lot’ just to kind of taunt the audience. And of course Fantômas did Slayer, and this new version of Bungle has done Slayer and S.O.D. That’s kind of a different thing.
Getting back to Tomahawk, and have you any livestream shows planned now that the album is coming out?
I haven’t heard about that yet. I suppose it’s possible. It would be a smart thing to do, but Tomahawk is spread all over the country. John is in and out of Brooklyn, and I live in Brooklyn; Duane’s in Nashville, and Patton’s in San Francisco, so it’s going to require a few flights, if that happens. I think right now, everyone’s being particular about travelling, so I don’t know what’s going to happen with that.
You must be itching to get out and play some of these new songs live.
Yeah, it’s tough. My chops are fading fast, man! I’m trying to practice occasionally, but it’s hard when you don’t really have any motivation, when there’s no goal in mind. But yeah, I would love to be on stage again, absolutely; do a couple of private gigs first before you actually go out in public!
Finally, what’s next for you; I’m guessing it’s difficult to say given the current state of the world?
Well, I have a couple of things on the horizon. Right now, I’m looking for a label for this duo project I have, Sperm Church. I’m not having a lot of luck. It’s a pretty abstract project, so I don’t know, I may end up just putting it out myself. In the meantime I have this group called Trio-Convulsant which is kind of a weird ‘jazz trio’, for lack of a better term, and I’ve been writing some music for that trio, annexed with a chamber quartet. So I’m hoping to finish writing that in the next couple of months and then hopefully, at some point this year get those people in the studio and get them to record it. I also have a film soundtrack that I did for a guy in New Zealand that’s finished, so I also may end up putting it out via Bandcamp or something; I’m not really sure yet. The idea of record labels these days, it’s basically everyone’s just putting out their own stuff, so I may end up doing that myself.
Is it strange to have had two relatively high profile releases come out back to back when you’ve got so much else happening?
Well, ‘high-profile’ is a relative term, I think, if my name is not attached to other people who are more famous than me, it has less value in the market - I’m not saying that with any bitterness, that’s just a fact, and I totally can deal with that, and I’m fine with that. If it means I have to do more on my own, that’s great. I’ve finally got active on Bandcamp, and I’m building my fanbase there, and I’m building my own social media presence to sell my own things, so yeah, I’m hoping that some of these releases will enhance that, and I will have my own brand instead of relying on someone else’s.
Tomahawk's 'Tonic Immobility' is released on 26th March 2021, via Ipecac Recordings. For all things Trevor Dunn visit his Bandcamp and Twitter profiles.
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