When DeVotchKa landed a Grammy nomination for its contribution to the soundtrack of 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, it was a welcome vindication. The Denver-based quartet had been waging an uphill battle for recognition since the late ’90s, when bandleader Nick Urata (vocals, guitar, trumpet, piano, Theremin) put together the first version of the band with largely different personnel.
“It took a long time to find the right quartet,” Urata says from his Denver home, where a blizzard rages outside. “I was a sideman for my whole life, so at the beginning [of DeVotchKa] I was having such a good time doing my own songs with my own band, I let anyone who wanted to play join in. When we finished the first record (Supermelodrama, 2002), everyone was done with school and needed to move on. [Multi-instrumentalist] Tom Hagerman was one of them, but in the long run it was good. It forced me to find people who wanted to play for a living. Finding Jeanie [Schroder] and Shawn [King] is a long story, but eventually Tom came back and we convinced him to stay.”
Urata grew up near New York City in a large Italian family. “My grandfather was a musician and had a great influence on me,” he says. “I began studying trumpet at age eight and was exposed to music from all over the world. There was always talk of Gypsies in our bloodline. As I got older, I began to pine for those old-world sounds.”
It’s those old-world sounds that make DeVotchKa so unique and hard to define. The band is tagged with blurbs like “Gypsy mariachis playing funky boleros at a Greek taverna” or “Eastern Bloc cabaret rock,” but its blend of rock and world music is part of a burgeoning new style one could call global pop. DeVotchKa’s mash-up of American R&B, Gypsy, spaghetti western, Argentinean tango, surf guitar, odd Balkan back beats, and angular funk sounds eccentric and strangely familiar, even to those unfamiliar with the band’s myriad influences.
“Music-business people are always telling me there’s no place for [DeVotchKa],” Urata says. “But the fans are saying, ‘Give me more, and the wackier, the better.’ Almost every label in America turned us down. One of them, after a long courtship, walked away because we were too ethnic. Nine months later, right about the time they would have put our record out, we were featured in Spin as part of the hottest new trend in music.”
Undaunted, the band created its own label, Cicero Recordings, and followed up Supermelodrama with two more excellent recordings: Una Volta (2003) and How It Ends (2004). When the directors of Little Miss Sunshine put tracks from How It Ends on their soundtrack, it brought the band some well-deserved mainstream recognition, as did its one-off EP, Curse Your Little Heart, for independent label Ace Fu.
Enter Anti- Records, the adventurous LA label that’s home to Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Billy Bragg, and Nick Cave. “We were interested in Anti- because they have Tom Waits,” Hagerman says. “They finally came to a show and signed us.”
A Mad and Faithful Telling, DeVotchKa’s new album, is their most ambitious yet, featuring ten luxuriously produced tracks that brim with international rhythms, lush orchestrations, and Urata’s soulful croon. The band produced the album with Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Giant Sand), who also helped with Una Volta and How It Ends.
“Craig has great musical ideas and keeps us from hurting ourselves when we record,” Urata jokes. “He’s good at placing mics for maximum effect and coaching a good performance out of us.
“There was an urgency when we wrote and recorded the last two albums. This time we were more ambitious musically and little more relaxed. I felt like we could sit back and let this one be itself without trying to interfere with the creative process. We left a lot to chance, with more improvisation and input from the other members — more spontaneity. The last few I had mapped out before we recorded, due to financial constraints and lack of confidence.”
The tunes on A Mad And Faithful Telling are marked by a clear, clean mix that gives every instrument its own distinct voice. “Basso Profundo” begins the album with Latin-influenced spaghetti-western sounds before moving into a Russian Gypsy jam during the coda. The backing vocalists sing a merry wordless hook that instantly embeds itself into your brain, while Hagerman’s fiddle goes into overdrive, zooming through the mix like a hummingbird on nitroglycerine.
“For me, playing violin is the most potent musical expression.” Hagerman says. “Communicating an emotion through a wordless musical phrase is really powerful.” Hagerman also shines on “Comrade Z,” an instrumental rave-up that’s part Balkan brass, part Gypsy fiddle insanity, with a driving, irresistible bass line. “We tried to cram as many notes into the motif as possible,” Hagerman says of the tune’s frenetic pace. “It’s a tune we started a long time ago. The string quartet we use on that tune gave us more choices in orchestration. I like arrangements where the strings take over the melody or rhythms that are usually played on guitar.”
“The Clockwise Witness” showcases DeVotchKa’s growing confidence in the studio. Toy piano and staccato strings set up the rhythm while Urata’s guitar, Schroder’s bass, and King’s drums counter with a dance-rock groove.
“Tom came up with the toy-piano riff a couple of years ago,” Urata explains. “We played a different version of it on the road, but when it came time to record, Tom wrote an amazing arrangement for strings and oboe. The new arrangement has a strict metronomic beat and reminds me of the seconds of our lives ticking away. The lyrics ask, ‘Is there redemption in living the straight life, or should we just trample everyone in our way for immediate gratification?”
Another dark track is “Blessing in Disguise,” a military waltz with a lyric of lost love and regret, with a lot of swing in the drums and string charts despite the martial tempo. “I wrote this on my own,” Urata says. “I was having a terrible time writing and couldn’t find anything good for months, then it wrote itself all at once. I tried to explain that process in the lyrics. In those rare moments of clarity, you realize that losing love or facing death, although extremely painful, can lead to profound changes. I wanted it to be somewhere between a wedding and a funeral march, so we brought in marching band instruments and recorded it all live in the same big studio room.”
“Undone” sounds like Roy Orbison fronting a Gypsy band while singing the tango; “Strazzalo” employs an odd oompha waltz; “Transliterator” features rocking disjointed funk that sounds vaguely like the Talking Heads, one of Urata’s favorite bands during his youth.
A Mad And Faithful Telling takes its title from a line in Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, perhaps fitting because the lyrics Urata has crafted for the album are full of his usual concerns: mortality, lost or unattainable love, and the brevity of happiness. His vocals, which combine David Byrne’s uneasy yelp with Orbison’s powerful but restrained croon, often float free in the mix, adding another element of mystery to the music.
“I try to get across a mix of conventional wisdom and poetry, portraying emotional experiences with enough poetic license to make it interesting,” Urata says. “I like songs that are a little bit ambiguous. One day it means one thing, the next day it means something else, the way conversations you’ve had in the past can come back to you in a whole new context. The best stuff comes subconsciously; it has nothing to do with me. Once they’re finished, songs become their own entities that have nothing to do with you anymore. The vocal mix is dictated by what the song or that particular performance needs. Sometimes the band has to overpower the vocalist. I am a bit shy about putting the vocals way up front.”
Urata and DeVotchKa traveled a long road to achieve their current success, never compromising their sound or vision. Now that they’ve arrived, they find themselves lumped with other bands that are exploring Eastern European tonalities like Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello, part of a so-called “Gypsy wave.” It’s a pigeonhole that has mixed blessings.
“We have been type cast as a Gypsy band from the beginning,” Urata agrees. “In our case, it was a positive thing. As we got to know other like-minded bands like Gogol Bordello, we started telling people that Gypsy music has been going on for a long time, so where were you ten years ago? In fact, the Gypsy influence has been shaping music all over the world for hundreds of years. To say it’s some new anomaly is kind of laughable.”