DeVotchKa: Denver’s Eastern Bloc Sunshine
DeVotchKa= isn't a familiar name within the jamband world. As a matter of fact, this odd tag doesn't ring a bell in very many musical circles. But for an ever-expanding group of music aficionados, DeVotchKa’s tag is becoming increasingly commonplace. Hailing from the mile high confines of Denver, the self-described "eastern bloc indie rock band," had made a quick rise over the last few years, capturing audiences throughout both minor and major markets with an unfamiliar but welcoming sound.
Boasting an array of eclectic instruments-harmonica, guitars, piano, trumpet, violin, Theremin, accordion, sousaphone and trumpet for starters-DeVotchKa enjoys a style seldom seen in today's music scene. They are comfortably capable of treating crowds to a unique experience each night out, from the sit-down theatre audiences to jam-friendly rooms coast to coast.
The inimitable quartet is made up of Nick Urata (vocals, Theremin, guitar, bouzouki, piano, trumpet), Tom Hagerman (violin, accordion, piano), Jeanie Schroder (vocals, sousaphone, double bass) and Shawn King (percussion, trumpet). Taken together, DeVotchKa has assembled enough diverse and rarely seen styles this side of the Atlantic, complete with a multitude of intriguing instruments that make for a completely original experience each night out.
But it took some time for the band to get there. Forming in 1997 as an opening band for burlesque shows, DeVotchKa would soon hit the road with hot-to-trot fetish model Dita von Tease. After brief tour stints with von Tease, the band also traveled the States with other highly artistic acts such as M. Ward, Regina Spektor and The Dresden Dolls. Everything finally came together for the band when "How it Ends," the title track off their 2004 release was featured on the trailer of the film Everything is Illuminated. Still going strong, the band took their first dip into the jamband sea with a highly touted performance at this year’s Bonnaroo and finally putting the finishing touches on a successful year by co-writing (with composer Mychael Danna), the majority of the soundtrack to 2006’s hit movie Little Miss Sunshine.
Jambands.com was fortunate enough to spend some time speaking with DeVotchKa front man and multi-instrumentalist Nick Urata earlier this month to dig deeper into the band that some publications have touted as, "the best band in America you've never heard of."
CC: So tell me a little bit of the not so obvious assets of DeVotchKa. How did everything come together so quickly? Did you all envision this success coming from a background of being a backing band for a burlesque show?
Nick: Well it was many years in the making. I first started writing songs as an accordion player years ago. It took a long time to find the key members (for DeVotchKa). Well, I always kind of envisioned (pause), I wanted to do something different. At the time all I saw was bands with two guitars, bass and drums and maybe a DJ and I wanted to get as far away from that as possible. I wanted to play exotic and romantic music.
CC: In researching the band and reading some recent press about you, I came across this extremely interesting self-description. You were quoted as labeling the band an "eastern bloc indie rock band." Listening to you music and seeing you live, that seems fairly appropriate. Does that description still hold true to you and the band’s instrumentation?
Nick: I don't know. It's a fun label (laughs). It's hard to label us. I don't like labeling us as a band but I realize it's a necessary evil.
CC: How did the band make the transition from backing a traveling burlesque show to touring with Dita von Tease then to touring nationally on its own then to helping score the music for Little Miss Sunshine? That’s quite the evolution.
Nick: The backing of burlesque shows was actually a pretty big break for us. We were exposed to a lot of people and more importantly, the right kind of people. The main thing we did was keep touring and touring. Being on the radio in Los Angeles was how we got picked for that movie. It was kind of a stroke of luck.
CC: Speaking of Little Miss Sunshine, of all the bands that play on radio you were selected. Do you find that kind of crazy?
Nick: We'd always wanted to do it. We're kind of an ideal group for that sort of thing. They heard something in the song, in the instrumentation, approach and style and we started talking. We had to convince them that we could do it. Eventually, we got it.
CC: Who are DeVotchKa’s loyal fans? Who are the people you see in the audience night in and night out? Or are the crowds different with each city?
Nick: We definitely have a really diverse audience. I've noticed that. People have always commented on that fact. Ethnicity, age and I think also, we'll get people from the indie rock camp and from the hip hop camp. It kind of crosses a lot of genre barriers.
CC: One of the most intriguing press quotes I’ve read about the band in recent weeks puts a large stake on DeVotchKa. Have you heard this one? "DeVotchKa may be the best band you’ve never heard of?" I’m interested to hear your thoughts on that one.
Nick: I think it's a flattering and kind of dubious honor. But nobody's heard of us, that sucks. That was 2004 I think. That's starting to change a little bit now.
CC: For our readers who haven’t heard your studio projects, or haven’t heard you live, or actually haven’t heard you at all, how does live DeVotchKa compare and contrast to your in-studio work?
Nick: We try to respect that live feel in the studio as much as possible. Some studio songs of course, we go all out with the production. You're never going to fully capture it. I think there's good part about each area.
CC: Since many of our readers either haven’t heard the band perform or possibly never even heard of DeVotchKa, how would you capture the essence of the group performing live? Can you truly put the sound into words or is it something you have to witness to fully understand?
Nick: Well, you know I've never actually seen the band live myself, (laughs). We've been playing together for five years. The four of us are all pretty decent players. You'll see a lot of emotion, hopefully some good songs, some great musicianship. You'll see a crowd that gives off a good vibe. I don't know. I just want to give people their money's worth. We aim to please.
CC: How does it feel to be garnering so much great and praising publicity from both regional and national press? It seems that everyone has been speaking highly of the band lately.
Nick: I'm really happy. Anyone who's gotten a bad review knows how devastating that can be. It's a pretty rewarding feeling. It makes us want to keep going.
CC: Let’s shift gears briefly to you New Year’s Eve performances here in Denver. What kind of tricks does DeVotchKa have up their sleeves for this year ending, two-night extravaganza?
Nick: We've got some really great opening acts lined up. Andrew Byrd is going to be with us. We've got our acrobatic troupe performing with us. It's going to be hopefully a great time. And lots of champagne.
CC: So I’ve noticed that the band was quite a diverse collection of both cover and original songs. How do you come up with such eclectic setlists? And more importantly, how does the band choose all your cover songs? Is there any method to the madness?
Nick: You know, we've picked the ones that we can put a little bit of our own unique twist on and that are still fun to perform live. That's the main test. If it's a great song and it's time tested, it's no problem.
Hopefully this article will you some sense of what the anomaly that is DeVotchKa is all about. While they still may be a foreign entity to many, they have become an increasingly known and popular group amongst music appreciators searching for something new, unique and innovative. Whether you catch them on tour, pick up one of their five albums or hear them on Everything is Illuminated and Little Miss Sunshine. Remember the name, because they are poised yet to rise for years to come.