Ravenna Woods have become a staple in the Seattle music scene over the last couple of years. Their latest two releases, Demons and Lakes (2010) and Valley of the Headless Men (2011) have received plenty of play on KEXP, resulting in Ravenna Woods getting a chance to play all over town, including October’s City Arts Festival. Chris Cunningham took some time to sit down recently to talk about Ravenna Woods, his time in the Marshall Islands, and doing everything he can to not be a boring band.
What’s Ravenna Woods up to right now?
We’ve been tracking for a ridiculously long time. Which is unusual for us. When we did Demons and Lakes, we knocked it out in a period of 2 months. When bands buy time in a studio, they tend to pump it out in a weekend or week because they’re paying for time. But because we’re recording in our basement, we can just go and record whenever we want and it tends to stretch the time out a lot.
This time around, right when we started writing and recording the new album, we had a fourth member coming on. We took a step back and thought “if we’re going to have a fourth person, do we want to keep it simple or see how we can employ this guy who’s an amazing musician?” I wasn’t sure how to go forward writing like that, so I had actually written almost a full album and scrapped half of it and rewrote it, so that’s what is there now.
When you’re writing music, ideally every song you write will be your favorite song and you’ll feel really good about it. With this album I feel like that exponentially. This was the first time that I felt like I could reach into the future of what Chris five years from now would be doing and somehow could hold it down and write from that perspective. I’ll be able to die happy after putting this album out. Like, if I got hit by a car, I’d think, “Oh no! But wait, we put out that album.” [laughs]
Did you feel that sort of satisfaction with any of the last ones?
Absolutely. We were in completely different situations. For Demons and Lakes, it was more of an experiment because I had been playing nothing but electric that was super drenched in effects, very Radiohead-y. Then, I leave the country for a year with nothing but an acoustic guitar and swing back and was trying to figure out how to apply this to a band like I had before that would be sorta punk-y and aggressive. That was the experiment. We were super proud of Demons and Lakes. That album is what got [Seattle radio station] KEXP interested. We had been trying to contact KEXP for years and hadn’t gotten anything until then.
Where do you see Ravenna Woods in the Seattle scene? I imagine KEXP opened a lot of doors.
Definitely. Our record release show would have been at [smaller venues] like the Black Lodge. I think because of KEXP we got more thrust into places like Neumo’s and the Tractor Tavern and the Paramount Theatre. I’d have never thought about playing places like those before. I don’t know how it all happened, but KEXP talks, so when you get pushed by them, people get a chance to hear you and there’s a feeling of legitimacy.
KEXP is so awesome to us. They are awesomely supportive and rad. We just dropped off three new songs with a note telling them what we’ve been working on and they were playing it a day later, which is crazy.
Last week I got to check out a couple shows at the City Arts Fest, which was awesome, including your show at the Crocodile and the SSG Music showcase the next day at the Crocodile’s bar. What was it like to play a few shows with other Seattle artists during that festival?
It was awesome! To be honest, it was frustrating at first, because you try to strategize how often you’re playing in your hometown and who you play with. You try to play with touring acts when they come into town so you can get some new exposure. So, the only downfall was that we were playing shows in Seattle for prices that were higher than we’d usually charge, but it didn’t matter because people showed up anyways, which was rad.
The only band I knew at our show was Land of Pines, who are fun and write good songs. There’s a good camaraderie. The next day [at the SSG showcase] with Lemolo and Motopony was cool. We’ve been coming up at the same time as Lemolo. We’ve gone on tour with Motopony. Our keyboardist plays for Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band.
He’s been playing with us since January 2012. We were about to go on tour and we were getting ready to leave with a kickoff show here at the Comet, which sold out in five or ten minutes. We were trying to find a couple of friends to come roadie for us and that night we had someone drop out, so we asked him to come with us. On our way down to LA he picks up this piano to mess around with.
We were playing this showcase at ABC in LA for the president of music or something with all of these producers and writers. They were commissioning us to write them a song. We go into this room and it’s just you and the producers and they just want you to do it, ya know. On the way down to LA, I got a call from one of the producer’s asking if we’d play the song I had thrown together for them and, to be honest, it wasn’t even a Ravenna Woods song. It was just one of my demos, which was more low-key. We had never played this song together that I recorded by myself. It was kinda weird. Luckily, we had a night off, so we pulled into the hotel and started practicing the song. [Keyboardist] Sam was listening to us and started messing around on the keys and it was a great fit; made it twice as good. So he played the showcase the next day and he started playing on more and more songs with us and eventually became fully integrated.
We met him when we opened for his band in New Mexico. Have you ever paid attention to him playing for us? He’s a force of nature. When we were down there, we would have jam sessions until the sun came up. Well, he eventually moved up to Seattle and was living with my drummer, so that’s how we had this fairy tale match. At the [SSG Music showcase] he was just playing along with every song that everyone was playing. He’s all about playing something once and thinking “Oh, we should record that tomorrow.”
I’ve heard a little about your experience abroad, so how did that come about?
Yea, I was living abroad in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, a couple thousand miles west of Hawaii. It’s basically a coral atoll island, which are giant rims of sunken volcanic rims, so in the middle there’s a giant lagoon. It’s a totally different world out there, completely surrounded on all sides by water.
So, I went to the [University of Washington] for cultural anthropology, because close with one of the professors in cultural anthropology, Holly Barker, who’s spent most of her life doing nuclear work in the Marshall Islands. The US was doing about 99% of their nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands and would do radiation tests on the people of the Marshall Islands. They’d do tests, come do evaluations of the people, send them back, and then come check for effects later. It was called Project 4.1 and it’s [expletive] weird. A lot of it has stopped, but it’s funny because when I’d explain this to people they’d say, “Wait, no. No. No. America would not do that. No.” But, it is true, it’s public information.
She got me super interested in the Marshall Islands and, at the time, I was sorta getting sick of just playing music in Seattle and was ready to leave, so she said she could get me a job as a private contract teacher with the ministry of education. So, I went out there, got to live on one of the outer islands and was there for about 9 months.
Cool, so the songs that you wrote out there, did they eventually become Ravenna Woods songs or did they just influence what you’d write later on?
I brought a little digital 4-track out there and ended up recording something like 60 songs or something crazy like that. I don’t think any of them directly became Ravenna songs, but it was the next batch after that.
What are some of the biggest influences in how the music has evolved since you got back and created new music with Ravenna? Musical? Non-musical?
I take in new bands really slowly, but Radiohead is always a huge source of inspiration. I’m completely blanking on music since I got back. Books and news stories for lyrical content. Dreams and films, too. All of that mixed in together. Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors. Philip K. Dick.
I also do this thing that’s a sick addiction. Three or four times a week I’ll search out the most atrocious news stories; crimes against humanity. I have this feeling like, “I know something terrible happened this week.” The guys at work, they’ll know. They’ll hear me down the hall, “Oh God, no!” They won’t even read it. I’ll email them links to these horrendous stories. So yea, I find inspiration in that weird [stuff]. The world’s too strange and I’m too scatter-brained to write a love song.
I wrote up a review of the shows from last week and described you as a Five-Hour Energy representative. It seems like Matt has a lot of that same energy, too. That’s not really a question so much as an observation.
It’s always been a frustrating thing to watch bands that are boring. I’ll try to say this without sounding too cheesy; we are literally that excited to play together. Oftentimes we end up going crazy playing shows because we have so much fun playing together. Even if it’s in a smaller space where we feel like we don’t have to push ourselves as much, we find ourselves five songs in doing exactly that.
It’s funny, we’ll be so critical and hard on ourselves that we feel like we can’t let the audience get bored, but there are so many boring acts out there. So many boring bands. People just stand there and their songs are boring.
Coming from out-of-town to here I’d say that seems to happen a lot here. People want to stand there and observe; which can be me, too.
For me, I know that, but I want to have this dynamic music. Every show we have a couple live songs that we cut after we feel it out. It’s annoying because it’s self-perpetuated because we get the crowd riled up. We’ve suggested playing the slow songs first and then kick it into overdrive.
As a performer and an audience member, what makes for an amazing live show?
First and foremost, the band’s songs. They have to have good songs. The basics; great songs, tight, together, an air of humility. When anyone thinks they’re the [stuff] it makes me want to not be around them. The energy factor, too. If they look bored with their songs, why should you get excited? You can tell that they care; that makes a big difference to me. It’s an event; it should be exciting. You can make anything exciting.
Have you had any favorite venues, events, or shows you’ve played that stand out a lot?
That kickoff show for that tour last January at the Comet was ridiculously fun. Small club, packed to the brim; that was amazing. It’s fun to play small places like that. It sounds stupid because Neumo’s and the Tractor have great sound and everything. Honestly, this City Arts show was one of the sickest shows. We’ve played bigger shows than that but they weren’t nearly as fun. It was fun playing the Mural Amphitheatre for 1600 people, but it was terrifying and the sound was [bad].
It’s really fun to see shows at the Black Lodge. There’s a really strong intimate feeling. It has a really tight-knit feel. We played Doe Bay 2010 and 2011 and those were great shows. We played with Typhoon in San Francisco at Bottom of the Hill and it was awesome. Early on we played a show in Boston with Hey Marseilles that was awesome. We played with Deep Sea Diver at Neumo’s. Any time we play a headlining show in town it’s super fun. We get to help bill it and pick bands that we love and the crowd is always great.
Can you pinpoint a show or a venue where you just have that holy [crap] moment?
It’s funny I keep these moleskin journals and I just pulled out like eight of them and opened to a spot from the first year with the band that hit on this exact moment. We headlined our first show at the Tractor and it was packed. We were like, “why?” There was no getting around the fact that people were there to see us. When we got off the stage, we had never played an encore before, but the whole crowd would not stop. We were backstage honestly confused. We were like, “Oh, is this where we have to go back out?” So we went out and played three more songs. At that moment, they wouldn’t stop. We weren’t going to play an encore at the Crocodile [City Arts show] either. Our drummer was refusing. We got back there and there was just too much and people weren’t stopping. I messed up the lyrics on one of those songs, too.
Getting asked to play the Paramount with Devotchka, too. We opened up for John Fogerty at the Chateau St. Michelle Winery.
Coming from Pittsburgh, people still see the Seattle music scene as grunge like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and indie like Death Cab for Cutie and The Shins. Where do you see the scene now?
The scene is pretty versatile. There are a lot of amazing bands. That band, Mercy Ties, that played last night; tech-metal. Stray Killings is the last great punk band. They’re highly evolved punk rock. Their lead singer is a cartoon punk rock character. Great lyrics. In your face. Best scream. Tongue in cheek. Funny and offensive and super brutally honest. The songs are way more exciting that punk rock.
It’s weird to talk about the scene for everyone in our band. We’ve played for so long that it’s been hard to break over to the other side. We describe it as this room that’s pitch black and filled with people. You know there’s a door somewhere that will get you into the next room where things are more clear, but we’re all in that confusing room for so long. Then, putting out Demons and Lakes, we finally got out of the first room. It’s interesting to branch off, play with different people, become friends with different bands. I don’t even feel like part of the scene. It feels like more of a structured thing from the outside, but then when you’re playing these events it’s not like you’re wearing a nametag and going to monthly meetings. We are friends with a lot of bands around town and they’re the nicest people around. People are super nice, humble, hilarious, and weird.