Ravenna Woods Plus Giant Drums

This weekend Timber! Fest celebrates its fifth year at the verdant Tolt-MacDonald Park in Carnation, about 40 minutes east of Seattle. Timber! is indeed yet another outdoor music festival among a sea of outdoor music festivals that grows every summer, but it stands apart by virtue of its unique, had-to-be-there moments—midnight pop-up sets and hidden jam sessions scripted by festival producers but unlisted in the program. While other festivals cram as much music as possible onto their schedules, Timber! makes room for experimentation and surprise. This year, for instance, hometown heroes the Maldives and the Moondoggies will perform a 30-minute tribute to Creedence Clearwater Revival. And even more offbeat: Ravenna Woods will play with Seattle Kokon Taiko, an eight-piece Japanese “giant drum” ensemble based in the International District. 

If you know Ravenna Woods’ brand of feral punk folk, pairing with Kokon makes sense. But nothing will drive the point home like seeing the whole thing go boom on-stage. We spoke with Ravenna Woods bandleader Chris Cunningham about how the collaboration came together and what to expect this Saturday. 

When did you first imagine pairing Ravenna Woods with taiko drums?
Chris Cunningham: It was [Timber! producer] Kevin Sur’s idea. This was back in 2012 or ’13—we were talking about having us play and he came up with the idea and called me to discuss it. Automatically it fit. [Ravenna Woods drummer] Matt [Badger’s] drums are very tom-based and the way we approach rhythm in the band is pattern-based, like a drum line rather than your typical rock setup with a high-hat, kick and snare. I was immediately interested but it never materialized. We were having trouble finding a taiko corps around Seattle that would be interested in collaborating with an indie-rock band. It wasn’t until this year that the idea came back around and he located Seattle Kokon Taiko, who was receptive to the idea.

So it was a matter of finding a group that was down to do something unconventional?
I got the impression that Kevin was having trouble getting a response. I’m pretty sure Kokon has done collaborations with songwriters before and it’s something they’re particularly interested in. 

How did you start integrating the drums into the music?
Matt and I sat down and mapped out these drum lines for the drum corps. It’s interesting—these traditional taiko drums come in all shapes and sizes and sounds and there’s this movement that goes along with the drumming that’s almost like dance that makes it so elegant and visually impressive. 

How familiar with taiko tradition were you when you were getting started?
I knew what taiko was. I was familiar with the Western tradition of taiko corps drumming from taking ethnomusicology clases in college. But I wasn’t aware of the more traditional realm of taiko drums in Japaense culture. They weren’t used in an ensemble in Japan traditionally—there was one taiko drum used for various cultural ceremonies. Lika [Siegel, one of Kokon’s principal drummers] gave this example of the way taiko used to be used in Japanese villages: They’d hit the drum and mark the boundaries of the villages by how far the sound of that drum would travel. Stuff like that I had no ida about. I had a general idea of the fundamentals of taiko drums from school but this experience changed my understanding of it.

And how did you actually write them into your songs?
I went to their rehearsal space and met with Lika and watched a rehearsal and after they were done we had a chat about what the collaboration would look like. We decided that the best route to take would be for us to compose the drum lines since we know the songs in and out, and use their expertise in how to perform those lines on the drums in a certain way. We went home and made videos, Matt and I, of these fundamental drum lines we thought would be powerful to add to each composition. And we sent them to Kokon and they studied them and we’d show up for rehearsals and there we’d see what worked and what didn’t. They’d add stuff, we’d add stuff. It got more collaborative at the rehearsals. It was trial and error to figure out the dynamic of a giant-drum drum corps and with the band to see what was overpowering and what was complementary.

Where was the rehearsal space?
It’s a Japanese cultural center called the NVC Memorial Hall in the International District, a giant gymnasium.

There are different sizes and tones to the drums, yeah?
Just as you’d normally think—the bigger they are, the deeper, spacier resonance they have. And the shallower the more high-pitched and snappy and trebly. All played, it’s that whole drum-corps thing where they all blend into one almost apocalyptic wall of sound.

Did you add them to preexisting songs or write specifically for Kokon? What songs will you play at Timber!?
We’re doing a 10-song set—five songs are with the taiko drum corps, and a couple songs are from the last record and a couple are from a new EP coming this fall. They were already written and we didn’t change them for the drum corps. Again, part of the reason this was such a good pairing is that Matt’s drumming already has a lot of simialrites to taiko drumming. All that had to be done was figure out ways they could mimic or reinforce his patterns. That’s all that was necessary. It was shocking to me to see them rehearse on their own and hear them play traditional taiko ensemble pieces and then play our songs. To me it was very similar.

Very cool that Kevin comes up with this sort of thing to make the festival more unique.
Agreed. It’s easy for bands to blur together at a festival. I think creating something that sets certain performances apart from others makes the whole thing a more memorable experience for the concertgoers. 

How’s the new EP?
A way different sound for us. It was recorded by Matt Bayles, an awesome producer. We’ve turned into a differet machine. Very distorted. Punkier, louder, heavier, darker, grittier. More productive. It’s the most fully realized incarnation of the band for sure.

Where do you go after collaborating with a taiko ensemble? Full orchestra? Gregorian choir?
Balinese gamelan gong orchestra. Theres some of that I’ve heard that sounds like Danny Elfman on speed.

Ravenna Woods and Seattle Kokon Taiko play Saturday, July 14 at Timber! Fest alongside Langhorne Slim, Deep Sea Diver, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, the Moondoggies, the Maldives, Telekinesis and more. Tickets are still on sale. 

Kokon photo by David Lichterman.