Scary good

In a late August night at Seattle Center, Ravenna Woods was prepared to take the stage for one of KEXP’s Music at the Mural events, an ongoing summer concert series that has featured some of the Northwest’s best up-and-coming artists. The fading sunlight and the ambiance of summer’s decay lingered, but this vibe was almost perfect for a group like Ravenna Woods. With lyrics that dark and angry, a diverse arrangement of instruments, and the unrelenting voice of lead singer Chris Cunningham, the group is slowly propelling its way up the ranks with other folk-inspired groups from the Seattle area.

In the last five years, the influence of Seattle’s music scene has drastically taken a turn from what put it on the map 20 years ago. Once and forever known as the grunge capital of the world, the tone has settled down in the Pacific Northwest, and while hip-hop and electronic music is hard to miss, a more mellow sound predominates. Now a wide range of folk groups have gained national attention, from the masterful works of Fleet Foxes to the more mundane sounds of The Head and the Heart. Where Ravenna Woods lies is yet to be determined. The band’s unusual sound has had some describe them as having an almost “folk-punk” sound: heavy vocals and lots of speed, all while relying on the acoustic sounds of folk.

Coming out of college, Chris Cunningham’s path to forming Ravenna Woods was an unusual one. A University of Washington alumnus, Cunningham earned his B.A. in cultural anthropology, with a minor in American Indian studies. After an inspiring few years at the UW, Cunningham, who admits to still scanning through old course readings, had to decide where to go next. Upon leaving college, he played music and worked, but he grew restless while away from academic pursuits. He remembers being inspired by anthropology professor Holly Barker, who also served as a senior adviser to the ambassador of the Marshall Islands and spent time learning about nuclear testing issues in the country. Barker’s teachings interested Cunningham in the subject during his time at the UW.

“I wanted to assist others in some way, somewhere far from the USA,” Cunningham said. He contacted Barker, who got him in contact with the Marshall Islands Ministry of Education. There, he acquired a job as an independent contract teacher. The job required him to teach at a boarding school on the outer island of Jaluit where he taught subjects such as comparative governments, English comprehension, and music to kids aged 16 to 22. Cunningham brought an acoustic guitar, a drum machine, and a four-track recorder with him and ended up recording about 45 songs.

“The experience definitely changed my perspective on songwriting and sort of forced me to learn how to make more with less; musically and otherwise,” he said.

After returning from the Marshall Islands in the summer of 2008, Cunningham stayed with his parents for a few months while searching for a secure job and a place to live. It was during that time he was introduced to future bandmate Brantley Duke through mutual friends.

“[Duke] ended up recording a band that I was playing with at the time, and through the process he and I became aware that we shared very similar musical ideas,” Cunningham said.

The two started recording demos together, and those demos eventually made their way to a friend of a friend named Matt Badger. Badger, the group’s drummer, was also a UW graduate who earned a degree in biology, yet he and Cunningham had never encountered one another before.

“[Matt] approached me at one of our shows. He loved the songs, and we got talking,” Cunningham said. “By the end of the conversation, I invited him to play with us.”

Since its formation in 2009, the band has put out two albums: 2010’s “Demons and Lakes” and 2011’s “Valley of the Headless Men.” Both have been well-received by critics and local fans. As for 2012, Cunningham says the group’s immediate plans are touring, but it will also start writing and recording their next full-length album.

“Along the way we plan to put out some music videos and play new songs at live shows to give audiences an idea of what direction we’re heading in,” he said.

That August night Ravenna Woods played a riveting set, and its unique sound felt like an introduction to the fall season. The lyrics that contained such topics of ghosts and graves haunted the diverse age group that watched from the grass. And yet, in between songs, Cunningham made a point to thank the audience for their support and even to come hang out with the band afterward. Just because Ravenna Woods has an intimidating sound doesn’t mean they carry it off stage.

Reach reporter Michael Lantz at arts@dailyuw.com.

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