Originally appeared in National Post
Tue Mar 8 2011
by Brad Frenette
The story of DeVotchKa is as unlikely as the music they make. The band – whose songs nod to a variety of musical traditions, including traditional Romani, mariachi, klezmer, Arabic and Cuban, as well as Western indie, punk and folk -formed more than a decade ago in Denver’s insular music scene, led by a New Yorker named Nick Urata. After moving to the mountain town, Urata experimented with a variety of players and conscripted the band’s current, and permanent, lineup after a series of chance encounters.
“I’d been trying to get the band going for years,” says the 42-year-old Urata, on the line from his home in Denver to chat about DeVotchKa’s new album, 100 Lovers. “I had a rotating cast, but one by one I met them. I met Shawn [King] at a Green Party benefit. He was playing in an all-girl punk band, dressed in drag. I was looking for a drummer and thought, ‘I have to go talk to that guy.’ Jeanie [Schroder] was playing the Oompa Loompa song at a fashion show. What are the chances you’re going to meet a female tuba player?”
The band coalesced after Urata found his violin player Tom Hagerman, who stumbled up to him in a bar and invited himself into the band. “Denver is sort of that kind of town where a lot of people move to. A lot of open minds. The scene wasn’t that hip. Some people thought we were crazy to have a band with an accordion and a tuba and a bouzki and trying to play rock clubs. But it wasn’t frowned upon. It was supportive.”
The band got their footing in the late 1990s, playing parties and burlesque shows (often providing music for the now-famous burlesque model Dita Von Teese), and released their first album, SuperMelodrama, in 2000. After a few years of establishing themselves as a hard-touring act, their caravan made a stop in Quebec, and Urata and his bandmates were soon comparing notes with a Canadian act that shared some common musical aesthetic.
“We were playing in Montreal, and Arcade Fire stopped by, back in the earlier days. We were doing this covers album and Win [Butler] recommended that we record The Last Beat of My Heart, and my violin player was a big Siouxsie and the Banshees fan. So we ended up recording it and we’re really glad we did.”
The song would be the centrepiece of the Curse Your Little Heart EP in 2006, which gained the band early acclaim, and eventually, a gig scoring the 2006 Oscar-nominated indie film Little Miss Sunshine. The attention helped the four-piece spring from cult status and into the national consciousness. Their follow-up, 2008’s A Mad and Faithful Telling, was supported with the band’s largest tour, culminating with a show in France to a crowd of 80,000 last summer.
Urata credits the sense of humour found in DeVotchKa’s work as a factor that helped catch the ear of Little Miss Sunshine filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris: “I think a lot of [our music] is funny. That’s one of the reasons we’ve gotten opportunities to be in films -there’s darkness, but there’s joy in the sadness.”
Of their eight albums, that shadowy mix of sadness and joy is best captured on 100 Lovers, which begins with the rolling, rhythmic The Alley. Here, Urata’s warbly, groaning tenor aches, “who among you can resist?”, like an invitation, or a dare. Guest percussionist Mauro Refosco (known from his work with David Byrne and Thom Yorke) helps deliver intricate new rhythm work across the album, and stands out on the North African-inspired The Common Good. Things bend sinister on the track The Man from San Sebastian, with its coy taunts of double-crosses and espionage, wrapped in the exuberance of klezmer accordion. And those moments of levity, of joy, are here, too -typified by the jangly, whistle-driven Exhaustible, which features Hagerman’s young daughter and her school choir.
Combining trumpet blasts and theremin, tuba and bouzouki, DeVotchKa may be from Denver, but the music is borderless -a soundtrack for a shrinking world. Urata, who comes from a family of “mostly Siclians,” chalks it up to his longing to find his roots: “I didn’t get to travel growing up. In New York, I had a lot of family from the old country that died out when I was young. I’ve been trying to find a way back to that.”
The band will always be followed by labels -“gypsy rock” seems to be the prevailing one. However, defining a band as sonically ambitious as DeVotchKa is best left to those most familiar with the work. When asked, Urata pauses, considering it as though it was the first time he’d been asked.
“Romantic. Hopefully exotic,” he says. Another pause, and then a laugh. “And good.”