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Denali: Playing on Instinct

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: February 10, 2004

w/ Pinebender and Call In Call Out
Sunday, Feb. 15, 9 p.m.
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha

Just the night before our interview, Maura Davis, lead singer for Richmond, Virginia-based indie-rock band Denali, found herself in another make-or-break situation.

It all started a few months earlier when her brother, bassist/synthist Keeley Davis, and drummer/sequencer Jonathan Fuller, decided to up and leave Denali so they could refocus their energy on their own band, the angsty outfit Engine Down. That left her and remaining member, guitarist Cam DiNunzio, with no rhythm section and an impending tour to support their just-released CD.

"Keeley and Jonathan finished at the end of November, and then we didn't play for two months," Davis said via cell phone from the back of a tour van headed to Providence, R.I. "It was sad that they left, but they had to do what they had to do."

Sad, but not the end of the world. Davis and DiNunzio looked around the community of friends and fellow musicians in their "second city" of Chicago and quickly found bassist/keyboardist Stephen Howard from experimental indie band Pinebender and drummer Ryan Rapsys of the jazzy, Tortoise-like instrumental band Euphone.

"There were no auditions or anything," Davis said. "We had them in mind. We had played with their bands before, so we knew them."





Which brings us up to last night and the debut of Denali's new line-up at a sold-out show at Brooklyn's newest hip hotspot, Northsix.

"We had only rehearsed for five days before we went on tour," Davis said. "It was tiring, but Stephen and Ryan learned really quickly. It was all in their hands. When we found out about the Northsix show, I said this may not be such a good idea, but it worked out amazingly well. Everything sounded great."

It was just another in a string of make-or-break stories for a band that has had a remarkable impact on the indie rock scene after only two albums. Denali formed in April 2000 after Maura approached brother Keeley to help her flesh out some of her songs. The result was the band's 2002 self-titled debut on reputable indie label Jade Tree records that ended up selling a reported 10,000 copies. One copy found its way to legendary post-grunge band Deftones, who asked the band to open for them on tour, an experience that Davis said was "very scary" going in, but turned out to be a great experience.

"The singer of the Deftones was a fan of Denali," Davis said. "The label had given them a list of bands to tour with, and we weren't on it. He suggested us instead, and they called us out of the blue. It was crazy."

Davis barely knew who the band was, having only heard a single by Deftones a month earlier. "Then I found out that they've been around for 10 years. Where have I been?"

With just a slew of club dates behind them, Denali instantly found themselves performing in front of sold-out coliseums. "All the Deftones fans were up front pushed against the stage, while the Denali fans were stuck in back," Davis said. "Some nights people were telling us to get off the stage, which sucked, but it was still cool. We got some new fans out of it, and we only got booed off stage a couple nights."












"Some nights people were telling us to get off the stage, which sucked, but it was still cool."












"When we do play with a band that has women in it, I say 'yeah!' and want to talk to them about fashion magazines and boys."



After the tour, the band went back into the studio to record their second album, The Instinct, with producer Peter Katis, who's worked with Interpol, Mercury Rev and the Get Up Kids, among others.

The result was a lush, spacey, noir-ish indie rock album that melds atmospheric, tonal guitars, trippy sequencer effects and chanteuse Maura Davis' dreamy, loungy vocals that sound like The Cardigans' Nina Persson fronting a classic 4AD band. Denali plays in two gears -- graceful and grinding. They're either kicking out My Bloody Valentine-style rockers like the CD's dark, flaming title track, or leaning back into the shadows like on the shimmering, moody centerpiece, "Nullaby," which fades to black with the entire band singing a chorus of rising and falling "ahs."

Anchoring it all is Davis' amazing, professionally trained voice, clear and perfect amidst the buzzing chaos. She says her training has paid off, especially on long tours like the one that brings the band to Sokol Underground Feb. 15 and runs through the next three months to Europe and Japan. "I do warm-ups and stuff before I sing," she said. "If I don't, I'll lose my voice. It also helps to eat a cold, crisp apple before you go on stage to balance the pH in your mouth. That's actually something I learned from my high school music teacher."

What wasn't included in the lesson was how to feel at home in the male-dominated world of rock 'n' roll. Davis says she doesn't mind being the "odd woman out."

"I don't think about it until I get to the club and realize that, of all the bands playing, I'm the only woman," she said. "You can feel lonely. When we do play with a band that has women in it, I say 'yeah!' and want to talk to them about fashion magazines and boys. I always wanted to do something that not a lot of women would be doing, so it's cool."

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Published in The Omaha Reader Feb. 11, 2004. Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.