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."