When we talk about chameleon drummers – players who blend into any musical situation – John Stanier is the first to admit he is not one of them. If anything he is an anti-chameleon. That sounds suicidal for someone who lives off his drums, but for Stanier it’s more like an endless opportunity.
Consisting of refugees from Jesus Lizard, Melvins, Fantômas, Mr. Bungle, and Faith No More, Tomahawk is an experimental rock quartet with a penchant for ironical things such as dressing like ’60s-era NYC beat cops. The band’s weird and catchy sides come together like never before on Oddfellows, once again finding a perfect home on singer Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records, and featuring the wistfully beautiful jam “Stone Letter.”
As a preamble to the March release of Oddfellows, Tomahawk’s got a short but manic schedule in the coming weeks: first it’s Voodoo Fest in New Orleans then on to Austin for the Fun Fun Fun Fest before Soundwave in Australia and then on to South America. “We’re almost touring backwards,” Stanier says, sounding awfully upbeat for someone who just got off a transatlantic flight. “Australia and South America used to be always toward the end. Those are like the vacation tours.”
Stanier’s musical zigzagging trickles down to his living situation, too, which he divides between Berlin and Brooklyn. “The two B’s,” he jokes. We suppose Brooklyn wasn’t cool enough, so he had to go bicontinental with a pied-à-terre in Germany. Typical.
“No, it’s exclusively a girlfriend thing,” he protests. “She’s not even German, she’s Japanese. She’s a tattoo artist. This is kind of a blessing in disguise. I need to work abroad for one, possibly two years, so she chose Berlin and, well, because I’m just touring so much anyway I’m like, ’That’s fine with me.’”
Stanier hadn’t thought much about his fellow ’Hawkers until Denison decided it was time for a quadrennial meeting of the minds. “Duane’s just like, ’Hey, everybody. What’s up? Got a whole new record here, I’m going to send it to you right now,’ like, out of nowhere. So it’s just kind of ’Alright! Yeah, let’s do this!’” For Stanier, this meant more or less coloring inside the lines of the demos that Denison sent, figuratively speaking. But within those “more or less” parameters is a decent-sized arena for Stanier to voice his drums.
“Tomahawk is a very cinematic kind of rock band, but at the same time kind of formulaic,” he says. “So it’s not Gentle Giant—style, anything-goes improv, but at the same time it’s not Oasis. It’s a gray area in between the two. So with the demos that Duane has it’s pretty obvious what you would do with them. But, of course, I can do whatever I want. It wasn’t like me spending weeks and weeks, like, ’Does a 7/8 beat work better over this than a 4/4 beat?’ or something like that. I don’t think any of our records have ever been like that. It’s kind of just like here are the songs – the blueprint that he gives everybody – and then we kind of just show up and bang it out, really.”
From the kick patterns to the drum tone, Stanier developed a signature style with Helmet, the band that kickstarted the whole “alt-metal” thing in the early ’90s when grunge was king and hair metal was the uncoolest thing in the world. After Helmet wound down, Tomahawk gave voice to another side of Stanier’s playing, albeit one that has cropped up infrequently over a decade and change of the band’s existence. “Definitely the beauty of Tomahawk is that obviously everybody else has other things going on but we just at certain points will be lucky enough to stop what we’re doing and everyone’s schedule works out right. We meet up and do another record, then tour a little bit, and then everyone goes back to what they were normally doing.”
Oddfellows was recorded at Easy Eye, the Nashville studio owned by The Black Keys. Stanier likened the two weeks spent there to a slice of analog heaven. “Just the whole vibe,” he gushes. “The gear that they had there was ridiculous.” Including a Quad Eight console hand-built in Nashville in the late ’60s. “It was the most relaxed, easygoing record I probably have ever done. When we showed up, it was like, ’Which vintage drum set do you want to use?’ That kind of thing [see sidebar]. We’re not a bunch of 20-year-olds that are doing this for the first time, we’re all much older than that, and we’ve been doing this for the better part of all our lives. We’re all pretty much from the ’80s/’90s school of recording, and it’s nice that that [older way of recording] still exists.”
Getting into the Tomahawk mindset isn’t easy after recording and touring extensively, mostly in Europe, behind two Battles albums. The bands share a certain wacko sensibility, but in terms of counting and time – a fluid concept in Tomahawk – they are worlds apart. “Coming from the Battles environment back down to Earth to do something like Tomahawk was – a challenge is the wrong word,” he says before a pause. “I’m so Battles brainwashed. It was really strange, recording without a click [for Tomahawk]. In Battles we don’t need a click but there’s a constant loop that I’m listening to which functions as a click. I’m playing off what the master loop is doing for each song, so it’s that sort of mentality and that way of doing the music, which we’d been involved with for so long now that [in Tomahawk] it was kind of like, ’Oh, it’s just like bass, guitar, drums ... ’Nah, we didn’t need a click track.’”
In fact, the band tried a metronome for a few songs on Oddfellows but then abandoned it because it didn’t feel right. “I was really into it,” he says. “As far as the drumming [in Battles], I can’t think of a single song where I’m not locked into some sort of loop, that everyone is triggering and playing off of, but with Tomahawk, it’s the complete opposite of that, so it took us two seconds to slip back into that world.”
The bipolar dynamic of Stanier’s creative portfolio is one of the joys of being, well, Stanier. “Totally,” he gushes. “I feel like that makes me maybe a better musician somehow. Or it makes me just enjoy playing music much more. I’m glad that I’m not in another band that’s like Battles, or another band that’s like Tomahawk, you know? I think that’s really great.”