Duane Denison, far right, with his band U.S.S.A.

“An imaginary scenario of radio broadcasts that go out into space and float around forever, and come back through the radios of abandoned cars across the country”: Check out Duane Denison and the Les Paul BFG on “Dead Voices” by U.S.S.A. Click here to download.


While his name may not be recognizable to every aficionado of aggressive, experimental rock, Duane Denison’s influence can be heard in dozens of guitarists who’ve followed the paths he blazed while laying the sonic foundations for such bands as the Jesus Lizard and Tomahawk. His lurching, blues-based playing was an obvious inspiration to Kurt Cobain—who wasn’t shy about expressing his admiration for Denison’s work—and countless other denizens of post-hardcore America. Now based in Nashville, Denison and former Ministry mischief-maker Paul Barker have put together a moody quartet called U.S.S.A., which just released a dark and stormy debut entitled The Spoils. Bolstered by Denison’s work on the Les Paul BFG, the album is something of a departure from the sound of his previous bands, but every bit as individualistic and gripping as anything he’s done in the past.

When did you first start playing Gibsons?

Oh, awhile ago. Before U.S.S.A. and even overlapping with my group Tomahawk with Mike Patton. Tomahawk’s got three albums, including one that just came out a couple months ago, and I played an ES-135 all over those albums. Even before that, starting around ’99 or so, I was playing with Hank Williams III, and the 135 was a really good, all-around guitar for country, rockabilly, and rock. I always come back to Gibson. It just seems like as far as tone and playability, Gibsons are pretty hard to beat.

You’ve been playing the BFG lately—what’s the appeal for you?

I like the sharpness of attack and the fact that you get enough chunk with it, and I like the rougher, sort of unfinished look and feel about it. It’s modern yet vaguely rustic, and it’s chambered so it has a nice balance and is easy to get around on. It’s also interesting tonally because you’ve got two different pickups in there—the Burstbucker and the P-90. I actually played the BFG on the first three songs on the new album—“Autumn Flowers,” “Blue Lights,” and “Dead Voices.”

You’ve called “Dead Voices” the emphasis track on your new album. How did you come to write that song?

It’s built around a fairly driving sort of riff and there’s a chorus that’s almost like an anti-chorus. It steps off the rhythmic motif and takes it in a different direction tonally, and from a lyrical standpoint it’s an imaginary scenario of radio broadcasts that go out into space and float around forever, and it’s the idea of them coming back through the radios of abandoned cars across the country.

How has your playing changed in the context of the band?

In the Jesus Lizard, and to some extent in Tomahawk, I’d just plug in and play. Lately, I’ve been more into exploring effects—opening up my choices and not being so obvious. These days, I like to use a couple of different Gibsons because I’m doing a lot of different tunings, lower tunings. So many people default to a drop-D and they think that was invented by some heavy metal player, but if you’ve ever played any classical guitar, you know that tuning has been used since the Renaissance.

In both the Jesus Lizard, with David Yow, and Tomahawk, with Mike Patton, you played with singers who really took the spotlight. Did that have a lot of impact on your style of playing?

Although I’m a guitarist, to me, great rock and roll bands are all about the singer—that’s where the excitement comes from, more than an instrumental passage. At the same time, though, stuff that’s really been memorable to me has had that interaction of a guitarist and a singer who’s either really singing or screaming and shouting—from Elvis and Scotty Moore to David Lee Roth and Van Halen.

You’re prone to playing relatively complicated structures, but they’re not super-improvisatory.

Most of what I play is very constructivist. Those are very well-defined parts, things that fit rhythmically and texturally. I always believed that excessive improvisation is very selfish, very self-serving. There’s this view among some musicians that something improvised is somehow more important and I strongly disagree with that.

You did your share of improvising in the Denison-Kimball Trio [a two-piece consisting of Denison and drummer Jim Kimball of aggro-rockers Laughing Hyenas].

I actually just pulled out one of those albums after having not listened to them in years and years. That was just a reaction to having played in a rock band for so long. I needed to play something a little bit looser.

Does that looseness extend to U.S.S.A.?

To some extent. I’ve known Paul Barker for years and I always liked his playing, because I thought it was very disciplined, not flash-oriented. We started writing together to see if we were on the same page and found that we were. A lot of it has to do with emotions. In so much of so-called modern rock, the predominant emotion seems to be anger and that gets awfully one-dimensional after a while. I understand anger—I can’t pick up a newspaper without getting angry—but I think that the way it’s presented in music tends to be too simplistic.

Was it the country music scene that drew you to Nashville?

While I’ve technically worked with some people you could tangentially call ‘country,’ like Hank and Bobby Bare Jr., they’re not typical country. The Jesus Lizard had run its course, and I was afraid that if I stayed around Chicago, I’d end up getting stuck in a rut. I had an offer to come down to Nashville and do some work with Hank III, and I enjoyed the change of pace and the atmosphere. If you’re an artist of any kind, you’re aware of your surroundings, but your core doesn’t change.