By Drew Ailes
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By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
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"I just want to buy a house and make some concrete investments," says Cam Di-Nunzio, speaking of his artistic aspirations with tongue partly in cheek. And while he may voice the pragmatism and quotidian concerns typical of a guy in his late twenties, DiNunzio is far from typical. As a member of Richmond, Virginia's intoxicating and acclaimed trip-hop/rock outfit Denali, the gifted guitarist and multi-instrumentalist is preparing to spend the bulk of his time living in a van. Quickly gathering a following on the strength of its debut album and bewitching live performances, the band is poised to unleash a second full-length opus, The Instinct, on Jade Tree records. This release, and the subsequent touring in support of it, are certain to add momentum to the group's rise to renown.
If last year's self-titled debut was an expression of the act's ego, then its sophomore effort gives voice to its id. Whereas the first record was all about restraint, the latest is all about release. There's still a mysterious and cinematic quality to the music, but now it's complemented by an elegant urgency that makes Denali the ideal soundtrack for a future David Lynch/Quentin Tarantino collaboration. In place of icy reserve and sublimated emotion, The Instinct exudes a rawness and immediacy that fans are sure to recognize from their intense live shows. Maura Davis's transcendent, classically trained voice -- still the centerpiece of the group's sound -- rises from a whisper to a scream with passion and grace, while DiNunzio's guitars riff, wail and chime. In the hands of Maura's brother, Keeley, the bass pounds against the woofers insistently as Jonathan Fuller's drums deftly explore the entire dynamic range.
With the new directness of the music comes a sense that the writing process was more collaborative. No longer providing a mere backdrop for Maura's musings, the elder Davis, Di-Nunzio and Fuller now add conspicuous and unique contributions to Denali's gestalt. Given the fully formed sound and approach documented on the first disc, fans may have worried that the band had nowhere to go, but Instinct -- a notable step forward that cements the originality and inimitability of the act's sound -- puts any one-trick-pony fears to rest. All of the Portishead comparisons that dogged the bandmembers after the release of that first record will fall by the wayside as they make a name for themselves as a true original.
"Maura wanted to make a more rockin' record this time," DiNunzio says. "She made an effort to make more immediate songs, and we sensed that and kind of changed spaces." He means this in both a figurative and literal sense: "We got kicked out of one practice space and moved to another. This helped stir the blood, but everybody was reacting to Maura."
DiNunzio's statement could just as easily apply to the band's genesis. When Keeley Davis, frontman for Richmond scene stalwarts Engine Down, heard the songs his younger sister, Maura, was beginning to write, he wanted to become a part of the unique beauty and power she had tapped into. Jonathan Fuller, Engine Down's drummer and a longtime friend of the Davis family, quickly got involved, and the threesome recruited DiNunzio -- a seasoned veteran of the Richmond scene whose credits include time with Lazycain, Four Walls Falling (one of Jade Tree's first signings) and River City High -- to flesh out the new band's ideas. As the quartet began to develop a cohesive sound, everybody, even then, reacted to Maura.
Driven by her muse, most songs still take shape following a pattern that has become comfortable and successful for the group: Maura writes her elements all at once, coming up with basic guitar and piano parts, lyrics and vocal melodies in a single creative burst; she brings those song ideas to her bandmates, who either dissect or build upon what she has created; and then collectively, they spend a good deal of time woodshedding before they even demo the songs. With The Instinct, the players demoed and sequenced all of the songs on their own, just to make sure they had charted their course before going into the studio with Peter Katis (Interpol, the Get Up Kids and Mercury Rev).
DiNunzio and Keeley, both of whom have spent plenty of time as frontmen, could have had some difficulty subjugating their own rock-god egos to Maura's creative vision, but because of her captivating stage presence and stunning vocal finesse, it's been surprisingly easy for both of them.
"I realized my shortcomings a long time ago," says a typically self-deprecating DiNunzio. "I'm a much better contributor to other people's ideas than I am an originator of my own, and I don't mind taking that role." Keeley, who still has an outlet in Engine Down for his spotlight-stealing urges, is equally unfazed by taking a back seat to his sister's striking talents. The members of Denali have a great deal of trust in one another and realize that each member has his or her role to play. "In some ways," DiNunzio observes, "it's like being part of a construction crew: Everything starts to fall apart when you try to play someone else's role."
Fans have faith that DiNunzio's analogy will hold true and assume that Denaliand The Instinct are merely the first of many remarkable musical landmarks to be constructed by the crew. But even in the early days, friends in high places took note when they first heard the outfit taking shape. And when the first demos were coming together, the band was courted by a few major-leaguers. Ultimately, however, Denali eschewed this big-box attention in favor of Jade Tree, a label known for the great care it takes of its artists. Matt Smith, one of the guitarists for Richmond's incendiary political punk outfit Strike Anywhere -- another member of the Jade Tree roster -- came to a show and felt compelled to let the label in on his home town's latest secret.
This kind of support from other musicians hasn't let up since those formative days and has resulted in some fortuitous touring arrangements. Just as the new record was nearing completion, the band was tapped to warm up the crowd for metallic monsters the Deftones, as part of that act's fall tour. Denali is preparing to make its presence felt across the country; the group will play thirty shows in a month, in venues ranging from mid-sized arenas to famous clubs like Hoboken's Maxwell's to rising-star cabarets like Denver's own Climax Lounge, exposing as many people as possible to its music along the way. After taking a few weeks off, the players are slated to embark on a short European tour in January, followed by another five-week jaunt across America in February. Though DiNunzio admits the touring experience can really sap creativity and enthusiasm, he acknowledges that it's all part of the job.
"You just have to take your girlfriend out to dinner, clean your sleeping bag, resign yourself to a lot of time away and bring a lot books," he quips. The bandmembers say their significant others are very supportive of the traveling that is required, so those dinners out probably won't have to be too expensive. And they're all voracious readers -- especially on the road, where there's plenty of time to read. Maura, who dreams of being an autopsy assistant, has just finished Michael Crichton's Airframe, and DiNunzio is re-reading John Krakauer's explornographic Everest saga, Into Thin Air. But DiNunzio is most excited about the fact that there will not be many days off on the upcoming road trip, since downtime usually means long drives.
And while he says he'd rather spend more time playing than navigating his way across the vast expanses of this country, it's life on the road that may eventually lead to that white picket fence and day-trading life of which he dreams.