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.
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
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
"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."
nights people were telling us to get off the stage, which
sucked, but it was still cool."
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."
Published in The Omaha Reader Feb. 11, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.