Chris West and Deni Hlavinka began to collaborate before they even met. As incoming students at Berklee College of Music, they browsed a site for future students that the school had set up, looking for roommates and bands.
“I had written half a song,” said Deni, crinkling her eyes in a smile that involved her whole face. She was dressed elegantly in a white lace shirt, tan sweater and minimal makeup. “I posted it online, and Chris wrote another verse to it. It was amazing.”
“We finished the song together in September,” Chris said.
So began the Western Den, the band that fellow students have described as “hands down the best band at Berklee.” I met Chris and Deni on a sunny Sunday afternoon in their neighborhood in South End in Boston. Render Coffee, the cafe where we were originally going to meet, was overcrowded, but that was okay—we ended up doing an impromptu tour of some of their favorite haunts. Mike’s Diner was also a no-go, as the line extended out of the door. As we wound through the cobblestone streets of the neighborhood on our way to Jaho coffee shop, our last hope, I tried to hold my questions until I could sit down with my notes and recorder. However, I had to at least ask where they were from. Having already been to three of the Western Den’s shows, I felt like I was hanging out with friends.
“Bermuda,” said Chris.
“I hate answering that question second,” said Deni, laughing. “I’m from Virginia. I mean, I love it, but it never sounds as cool after he says Bermuda.”
Chris and Deni are dating, and they are the core of the Western Den. They front the band together at shows, equally sharing stage banter and song introductions. As we walked into Jaho, Chris held open the door for us. He’s genuine in the way that draws people to him– after shows, you’ll find him in the middle of the audience, talking with friends and thanking people for coming. We pulled up chairs around a small, unsteady, circular table and I delved into the history of the band that had captivated me at a Sofar Sounds concert in February.
Chris attends Berklee for guitar and Deni for voice, and their harmonies are ethereal. The Western Den is a vibrant, evolving group of friends that all seem to have in common a certain reverence for Chris and Deni’s songwriting. I have seen them play with groups of five to eight people, which have ranged from violinists to trumpet players to cellists. Their music could most broadly be defined as folk. However, this categorization would fail to describe the complexity of their sound, which has haunting melodies, unpredictable time changes and plenty of imagery.
“Stories,” said Chris. “I’d describe our music as stories. Some of these are very specific and some are very broad, but they all mean something. We also try to make it textural—there’s a lot of planning that goes into the layers. Our time changes happen naturally, but we like being deceptive for sure.”
Their music certainly is layered. “For The Sake of Seeking,” which is off of their EP Battle Hymns, starts off with an vigorous chorus of harmony, melody and percussion. This soon drops off to reveal Deni’s soulful voice, lightly accompanied by keyboard and guitar. The energy builds again as Chris joins her, the drums start back up, and more instruments come in. Just when you expect a climax, however, Chris and Deni are alone again, singing hymn chords in perfect harmony.
The venues where I’ve seen the Western Den are varied, from the spacious apartment at Sofar Sounds to the stage of the Middle East to a small basement living room packed with Berklee students in the South End. But, one thing was present every time– something I call “the Western Den look.” People under the spell of the Western Den often watch them with their heads tilted upwards, their mouths slightly open, pulsing subconsciously in time to the music. It’s like observing someone having a very strange dream. I recently brought friends to a Western Den show and saw them seduced by the look, and knew it wasn’t just my imagination.
Another element that always stands out to me is the camaraderie and familiarity among the musicians. It speaks to the benefits of going to a school filled with musicians, which can sometimes make for a competitive environment. Despite being formed at Berklee and comprised of Berklee students, the Western Den doesn’t like to describe themselves as a “Berklee band,” as they don’t limit themselves to the Berklee scene. They love Boston’s music culture, talk about playing for enthusiastic audiences who always seem to want to get to know them better, and look forward to exploring it further.
“Right now, we’re operating maybe at 50%,” said Chris, “because we’re full time students. We’re definitely set on performing and touring once we’re out of school.” Chris and Deni will both graduate this year, and they plan on going full speed ahead with the group in Boston after they leave Berklee. The Western Den will record their first full-length album this summer.
“None of us in the band has a backup plan and we think that’s such a strength–It forces you to know that you have to do it. Whatever comes of that, we’ll do,” said Deni. I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes of it.