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July 3, 2008

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It’s been a few years since the breakup of Denali, a Richmond band pegged by many as the city’s next great breakout hope. Two albums for the Jade Tree label presented their well-developed identity: a dynamic, restless rhythm section and compelling guitars roiling under Maura Davis’s soaring vocals. But while they disappeared from the music scene, the members have otherwise been closer than you think.

Part of Denali, including guitarist Cam DiNunzio, makes a living these days writing music for commercials. “It’s mostly indie music that we do, and we basically compete against licensed tracks for the hipper commercials out there,” explained DiNunzio, speaking from the company’s Richmond office. “We do Cadillac, we do Gatorade, we do Sharp, and Discover Card.

“Maura is actually the voice of the new Cotton campaign. We did the new music for that, and then Maura ended up singing the vocals on that. You see it every once in a while. So, if you hear a really light, angelic voice (singing) ?°»The touch, the feel of cotton’, that’s Maura.”

After forming in 2000, Denali signed a deal with Jade Tree Records the following year. 2002’s self-titled debut album and the next year’s follow-up, “Instinct”, both received national attention. Richmonders kept close tabs on them as well, though DiNunzio feels that the band was probably somewhat overexposed after a while. “People were excited to hear, I guess, something slightly different out of Richmond, and we kind of fit that bill.

“I think most of the bands that come out of here and do well are harder rock bands. Lamb of God is obviously metal, and the Strike Anywheres of the world, and the Avails, which are excellent guys, and were kind of like big brothers to us, actually, when we first started out, but they’re much harder. So, to hear something like Denali that sounds probably more like it should have come from England than Richmond, or New York, even, I think was exciting to a lot of people.

“We got a lot of (local) support early on. Then I think there was a point of oversaturation, where people were just kind of tired of seeing our name. But coming back into it, it feels really great and special and feels like we’re pulling into Hug Harbor.”

Throughout the life of Denali, bassist Keeley Davis (Maura’s brother) and drummer Jonathan Fuller also fronted the band Engine Down. The pressures of that simultaneous activity led the multi-band members to depart Denali, and a restructured Denali continued with DiNunzio and Maura Davis until their breakup in 2004.

Over the next few years, Keeley Davis joined Sparta, while Maura formed Ambulette (known initially as Bella Lea). Fuller was the first to gravitate toward working on music for commercials, and after DiNunzio spent some time working with major labels on a corporate level he eventually joined Fuller at the company Black Iris.

The rebirth of Denali came naturally enough, after all four original members found themselves back in Richmond. Over the past few months they’ve been getting reacquainted with their repertoire and have even begun working on new music, with one new song under their belts. As far as what direction their music may take from this point, longtime fans can rest assured that Denali don’t appear poised to succumb to anything along the lines of long-suppressed free-jazz instincts anytime soon.

“It’s a little bit early to say, but the one song that we have written definitely still sounds like a Denali song,” said DiNunzio. “Just based on the stuff that we’ve been listening to over the past few years, I would say it would take a slightly more organic approach. We’d like to work more with real instruments instead of synthesizers and guitar pedals and stuff like that.”

They’re happy allowing things to progress slowly, with their show at The National to be followed by a few others, including an appearance at the F Yeah Festival in Los Angeles. During a period where bands are reevaluating their places within the music industry, there’s no reason why a reemerging band like Denali can’t succeed at their own newly prescribed pace.

“As long as it’s on our terms and as long as it fits into the lives that we’ve constructed for ourselves, then, yes, I think we would love to continue on into the future as far as we can see,” said DiNunzio. And this time there’ll be no personnel changes. “I’m not saying that we are a one-of-a-kind band, but for what we do, we just realized that it has to be either all or nothing. It’s got to be the four of us or the band just doesn’t work.”

Richmond Times Dispatch

Hays Davis