Few 90s rock bands could work an audience into a frenzy like Chicago’s Jesus Lizard. The quartet’s sinister, Zeppelin-esque stomp routinely turned crowds into writhing mobs, body slamming and stage diving with little concern for their own–or anyone else’s–physical well-being. Duane Denison, the band’s lanky guitarist, had grown tired of such antics during the band’s final days, and he’d also become painfully aware of the increasing age gap between his audience and himself–he’s 42. “It’s really unappealing to see a middle-aged man playing for a bunch of kids,” he told me in 1997. So when the band broke up in late 1998 after a ten-year run, Denison went looking for a playing situation that didn’t involve dodging flying bodies.

He found one in Nashville, playing lead guitar with Hank Williams III for almost two years. But the position came with other hazards, including offending audience members who expected traditional country, not the heavy-metal-tinged stuff Williams began playing during the latter part of Denison’s tenure. “We did this show in Lubbock and we almost got killed,” he says. “After the show the promoter and about 20 of his friends surrounded our tour bus, and they wanted blood. He yelled, ‘You play that shit in my club, you ran my customers out, what the hell! If your granddaddy was here he’d give you a licking, and I’m fixin’ to.’ They were belly bumping and it was about to go off, so [bassist] Jason [Brown] pulls out his cell phone and calls the bus driver. He comes steaming in with a pistol sticking out of his pants–it was just like the old west–and he says, ‘Anybody touches my bus and my boys they’re going to have to deal with me,’ and he has his shirt open so they can see the pistol. It was awesome.”

While Denison may have thoroughly enjoyed the adventures, he didn’t feel the same way about the music. “I was tired of the scene after ten years with the Jesus Lizard,” he says. “But after getting away from it and playing the country circuit, I realized I do like the rock thing.” Tonight he returns to Chicago for a headlining gig at Metro as part of a monthlong U.S. tour with his new band, Tomahawk, which sports an all-star lineup of rock extremists: vocalist Mike Patton from Mr. Bungle and Fantomas, ex-Helmet drummer John Stanier, and Melvins bassist Kevin Rutmanis.

Maureen Herman, a former bassist with Babes in Toyland who knew Denison from Chicago, had moved to Nashville in 1997. She was the one who told Denison about the opening with Williams, who it turned out was a longtime Jesus Lizard fan. “He’s into speed metal and he loves Slipknot and stuff like that,” says Denison. The guitarist moved to Nashville in April of 1999, learning the new repertoire as best he could from listening to tapes of Williams’s music. “We went out and started playing the week I got there, with no rehearsals,” he says. “Maybe you run through a song at sound check, maybe not. It was nerve-racking to me. After playing with the same group of people for ten years I was playing with all new musicians, and I was playing music that was still somewhat unfamiliar to me in front of people that were unfamiliar to me.”

To top it off, he’d joined a band rife with veteran Nashville pickers. The only country music experience Denison had under his belt was a recording session with Sally Timms, and he suddenly found himself surrounded by guys who could churn out honky-tonk solos in their sleep. “In Nashville there are tons of great guitar players and many of them are unemployed, so these guys were all wondering, why’s this guy playing with us? I think there was a certain amount of resentment at first, but I just kept at it, and when we weren’t on the road I practiced. And gradually I became more comfortable with it.” He pauses. “A little bit of whiskey helps, too.”

When he first joined, the band was playing the country circuit–county fairs, Indian reservations, and no-frills honky-tonks. “We played one club in West Virginia where the drink special was Everclear shooters.” But by last year Williams had pushed the music into cowpunk territory and all the Nashville vets had been replaced by younger musicians who were more at home with the new sound. Denison left the band in January of this year, mostly so he could work on Tomahawk full-time.

He’d met Patton in the fall of 1999, following a Mr. Bungle performance in Nashville. Patton, who runs the Ipecac label, was interested in releasing something by Denison, and Denison suggested a collaboration; by early 2000 Tomahawk was born. Although the duo wrote most of the songs on the band’s eponymous debut cross-country–the singer and the guitarist mailed tapes back and forth, getting together only a few times over the course of a year–Denison says the whole process was surprisingly smooth. They recruited Stanier and Rutmanis in February of this year. Band members traveled to Nashville to work individually on songs with Denison, but the full group didn’t actually make it there together until May, a mere week before they began to track the album. The whole thing was recorded and mixed in less than three weeks.

Denison’s signature sound–clean articulation mixed with queasy arpeggios–gives Tomahawk a clear connection to the Jesus Lizard, but where David Yow rarely veered from hysterical caterwauling and twisted ranting, Patton employs a much broader range, from creepy ballads to throat-shredding satanic monologues. As he did in his previous band, Denison stays out of the spotlight. “I don’t really like guitar players who put themselves in front of their thing, whether it’s Jeff Beck or Zak Wylde,” he says. “I’ve always liked working with vocalists, whether it’s Hank III or Yow. That’s what sounds best to me.”

Although the rest of Tomahawk are frequently occupied with other projects, the band plans to spend at least three or four months a year with each other, and they have tentative plans to tour Europe, Australia, and Japan next year, as well as hitting American markets they’re missing this time around. They’ve already begun writing new songs. Denison is confident that his return to rock doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the same fans. With the new material, “I don’t think we’re gonna get kids that have so many facial piercings that they look like they had a fishing accident.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gary Leonard.