The members of DeVotchKa found success by following their own muse
For the bulk of their band's career, the members of DeVotchKa have been viewed as curious outsiders because of their unorthodox instrumentation and their deliberate, unlikely melding of disparate styles. In searching for ways to describe the act's unique, rapturous sound, ambitious music scribes across the country have crafted effusive similes invoking terms such as "exotic" and "worldly" as they link the music to everything from Eastern European folk odes and polka sendups to gypsy street serenades and mariachi marches. And more than a few writers have expressed bewilderment that beatific music like this could spring forth from a city such as this one.
"I've kind of become a de facto ambassador of Denver," says Nick Urata, DeVotchKa's soft-spoken frontman, sitting on the Meadowlark's patio on a warm afternoon. "I get that all the time. You and I know that this is an untouched gem. I'm astounded by the beauty of this place. It's almost as if people have to be convinced that there are actually vibrant people living here."
As worldly as the act may seem, and as valid as some of those effusive similes are, at its core DeVotchKa is a distinctly American band — not in the Grand Funk Railroad we're coming to your town, we'll help you party down sense, mind you, but a more literal one. DeVotchKa's music is emblematic of the diverse cultural fusion this country was built upon. Supported by a talented cast of players, Urata, the offspring of Sicilian immigrants, has taken the strands of his varied influences — listening to crooners on his dad's hi-fi, taking in classic Westerns with his father when he was a kid in New York, later living on his own on Cicero Avenue in Chicago — and seamlessly braided them together with the sensibilities of his bandmates into a remarkably cohesive fabric.
That Chicago neighborhood provided the impetus for DeVotchKa's birth. It was flush with immigrants, each embracing their respective cultures even as they became Americanized, and Urata was exposed to a wide range of sounds that soon permeated his own music. Before long, he and bassist Jon Ellison, who also played the accordion, began their musical exploration, mating seemingly unlikely sounds while busking in a train station. "I think even from those Cicero Avenue days," Urata points out, "I realized how much more powerful music can be when there's just one guy standing in the corner playing an accordion or a balalaika on a subway platform, and I just kind of wanted to have something that wasn't all bells and whistles."
When Ellison opted to trade in the bells and whistles of the Chicago scene for the decidedly unassuming environs of Boulder, Urata parted ways with the Reejers, a burgeoning Chi-town act, picked up stakes and followed suit. Both he and Ellison were seeking a more simplistic approach to making music. And soon after moving to Colorado in the mid-'90s, they found like-minded musicians to play with — which was really as far as their expectations extended back then.
"It's like you start these things out, and I imagine it's like having a baby: At first you just want the thing to have ten fingers and ten toes, and then eventually you want it to be president," Urata muses. "At first, I just wanted a venue for my songs and people to actually play with me. I had this kind of open-door policy, like anyone who would actually endure learning a song of mine could be in my band anytime they were around."
It's awfully hard to imagine anyone having to endure Urata's songs. The most intoxicating listening experience imaginable, they take you to an entirely different place, where beauty is personified, a place with expansive skies and wide-open desert terrain, where the setting sun hangs in a state of perpetual arrest, painting everything in its path in vibrant hues of red and orange.
"That was the aim," Urata concedes. "That's why I started playing music to begin with, and why I started composing my own stuff — as a form of escapism. When I started to see that other players and other people were sort of making the journey with me, I thought maybe I was on to something, and so I continued with it."
He continued despite the detractors.
"People told me that it wasn't good right from the start," Urata recalls. "If you do anything creative, people will line up to tell you that you can't do it — 'What are you doing using a tuba and accordion and a violin?' That's sort of changed, now that it's sort of come into fashion. But the audience responded to it, and that's what got us out of bed in the morning. And that's the only way you're going to stay inspired, doing something that you want to do."
And Urata has done exactly what he's wanted from the very beginning. After Ellison and some of the original members moved on, he and violinist/accordionist Tom Hagerman, who also played in the first incarnation of DeVotchKa, rounded out the lineup with a stellar pair of gifted multi-instrumentalists: Jeanie Schroder on sousaphone and bass, and Shawn King on drums and percussion. With these players, Urata's songs have become transcendent, almost spiritual.
Making the music has had a similar effect on Urata, only he's transported to the area surrounding Wave Lab studios in Tucson, which the members sought out at the suggestion of their friends in Calexico and where all of DeVotchKa's albums were recorded in analog with Craig Schumacher (except for their 2002 debut, Supermelodrama, which was captured by Bob Febrache). "It's kind of hard to articulate," he says, pausing as he searches for a way to explain his inspiration. "Not to put myself in this realm, but there's a great quote by Gauguin — you know Gauguin? He did that series of stuff in Tahiti. I guess he couldn't make it back there as he got older, so he'd always say that to be happy, he'd go to Tahiti in his mind. For me, writing, the stuff that sounds good to me, just sort of takes me to — for lack of a better way to describe it — to there.
"It's a very inspiring place, just the drive down there," he continues. "I grew up in New York, and to drive through these desert plains with these giant red mesas, it looks like you're driving through a John Ford movie or something. That in itself is inspiring. I think it definitely influenced me. I remember getting back here and sitting in my little room and sort of playing the songs and going back there in my mind. It is such a beautiful, romantic backdrop. It's sort of like that whole 'Tahiti in my mind.'"
Romance plays a big part in DeVotchKa's appeal. Beyond the gorgeous melodies, there's a certain romance and heartbreak attached to Urata's lyrics, which tend to be simple yet eloquent, particularly on songs such as "Till the End of Time," which boasts lines like these: "They're just words, they ain't worth nothing/Cloud your head and push buttons/And watch how they disappear/When we're far from here/And everybody knows where this is heading/Forgive me for forgetting/Our hearts irrevocably combined/Star-crossed souls slow dancing/Retreating and advancing/Across the sky until the end of time/Oh, who put those cares inside your head/You can't live your life on your deathbed/And it's been such a lovely day/Let's not let it end this way."
That tune and several others provided the backdrop for the breakout film Little Miss Sunshine, which DeVotchKa helped score. Although its music had been featured in the movie Everything Is Illuminated, the band's work with Sunshine earned it a Grammy nomination and ultimately thrust it into the mainstream. This much-deserved notoriety was subsequently bolstered by well-received appearances at Coachella and Bonnaroo, as well as a performance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. And after years of doing its own bidding, this spring DeVotchKa finally found a home at Anti-, an imprint known for producing compelling music from such venerated artists as Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Billy Bragg; that imprint released the act's latest, A Mad & Faithful Telling.
"It was pretty hard to refuse," Urata says of the label's offer. "We'd been courted by other people, and it never felt right. You could tell they weren't really that enthused with the musical part of it and just wanted to make a buck off of it. It felt totally natural [with Anti-]. If there was ever a roster that we wanted to be on, that was it. They just said, 'Do what you do, and we'll help you on the other side.'
"We never would've gotten there, though, if we hadn't done so much of the earlier legwork ourselves," he stresses, pointing out that until now, DeVotchKa has been beholden to no one, having released its own records and toured on its own dime. "I'm really thankful that it's happening at the rate it's been happening. When you're young and cocky, you're like, 'Hey, look how great we are.' You've got to be careful, because chances are you're not as good as you think you are. And there have been situations on this last album tour, the TV shows and the giant festivals, where you can't hear each other, and you're just sort of using ESP and the Force. If we were a younger, inexperienced DeVotchKa, we would've just melted and folded. So I'm very thankful that we're seasoned and experienced to be on that big stage.
"It's nice to sit back and say this in hindsight," he concludes, "but it certainly wasn't easy, and as you know, it wasn't an overnight success. There were thousands of decisions that we could've made wrong. The ones we made just always seemed sort of natural."
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