Shrewd Mexicali-influenced gypsy punks, DeVotchKa, came to the fore in the year 2000 when native New Yorker, Nick Urata, a soon-to-be pedigreed Chicago musician, left the cold Midwest confines to link up with fellow Chi-town deserter, ex-bassist Jon Ellison to form an early version of his exotic band in Denver. Though formative debut, SuperMelodrama, and its decent ‘03 follow-up, Una Volta, were merely steppingstones, Urata’s apprenticing unit would receive better underground recognition for ‘04’s How It Ends.
Good luck struck in ‘06 when award-winning motion picture Little Miss Sunshine featured DeVotchKa’s soundtrack music, especially sad romantic lullaby “Till The End Of Time,” giving the increasingly popular combo a whiff of aboveground access. A year after, the excellent A Mad And Faithful Telling proved all the acclaim and hype was completely deserved. Chiming xylophone provided melodic guidance to stirring string-plucked confessional, “The Clockwise Witness.” Mystical balladic retreat “New World” and anguished sanctuary “Transliterator” also struck a chord.
DeVotchKa’s reputation was greatened by Gogol Bordello’s Slavic-obsessed peer, Eugene Hutz, who brought their variegated multi-cultured music to another worthy film, Everything Is Illuminated (co-starring the multifaceted Hutz). Plus, the curious Curse Your Little Heart EP brought forth an eerie cover of Velvet Underground & Nico’s sadomasochistic dirge, “Venus In Furs.”
Along the way, Urata gained poise, confidence and a dramatic singing voice to complement his guitar, Theremin, trumpet and piano skills. Surrounded by equally experienced collaborators Jeanie Schroder (bass and sousaphone), Shawn King (drums and trumpet) and Tom Hagerman (accordion, violin and piano), DeVotchKa’s unrivaled blend of nomadic Eastern European gypsy culture and spaghetti Western intrigue with Mexicali blues, norteno ballads, boleros, tangos and mariachi became more structurally refined and stimulatingly defined over time.
And now DeVotchKa return with their most impressive salvo yet, ‘11s Arizona desert classic 100 Lovers. Produced by long-time associate, Craig Schumacher (who’s worked with indie legends Neko Case, Robyn Hitchcock, Dexter Romweber, Dave Alvin, Steve Wynn, Howe Gelb and the Sadies), it captures an epic twilight moodscape shot in the vast terrain of America’s great southwest and pleated by a melting pot of international styles.
Contrasting slow and fast tempos with loud and soft dynamics throughout, several deliberately paced items gain momentum to lead the charge. Ethereal serenading overture “The Alley,” yet another movie composition originated in its much shorter version on the unheralded Fling, picks up a drum-marched beat along its orchestral violin-laced neo-Classical journey.
On “All The Sand In All The Seas,” darting keyboards encounter melodramatic strings decorating Urata’s scintillatingly majestic ululating tenor (beckoning comparisons to U2’s luminescent Bono). Then, oscillating synth loops and wayward flute float across billowy séance “100 Other Lovers.”
After those introductory numbers, DeVotchKa loosen up a bit for devotional Middle Eastern meditation “The Common Good,” opposing icy violin classicism with spasmodic gypsy dance maneuvers. Inside a pervasive accordion design, theatrical Argentinean tango “The Man From San Sebastian” places espionage-like allusions against dribbled surf guitar riffs. And whistled rainy day stroller “Exhaustible,” retains a baroque folk tone counteracting swift Mexicali absolution “Bad Luck Heels.”
Perhaps misterioso Spanglish anthem “Ruthless” resonates best. Reminiscent of the resurgent Os Mutantes, its simple acoustic strumming and crisp Latin percussion help underscore sympathetic strings while Urata reaches whirring emotional heights.
Who’d have thought one of the best ethnocentric revolutionaries would come out of the remote climes of Denver? But there you go.
What made you want to get into music?
My grandparents were immigrants. My one grandfather, whom I was really close with, was a horn player. He inspired me to pick up the horn. He was my hero. I followed in his footsteps. He taught me philosophies of music and life and sent me down the road.
Why’d you choose Denver as DeVotchKa’s home front?
I was bouncing around quite a bit. I lived in Chicago awhile and began seriously writing songs there. One of my writing partners was an accordion player and we had mutual friends. He was from Colorado and the Chicago weather was getting me down. So I tagged along. I found Denver to be a vibrant, easygoing scene to get together with people and make music. In Chicago, I’d been a sideman in the Blacks, a Bloodshot Records alt-Country-folk group. It was cool. We used acoustic instruments and dabbled all over the place.
How has DeVotchKa grown in the past decade?
I grew as a vocalist. I’m not too proud of my early vocal work. I didn’t have the chops. But being on the road helped. I feel we were always treading water with the early albums. I made a lot of records before I felt we sounded the way I wanted. We found a direction to go in. If our third album had failed, it would’ve probably been the end of us. I hope the last few albums sounded like us and not other people.
How has long-time producer, Craig Schumacher, helped you reach your goals?
We hooked up with Calexico early in our career. He’d worked with them. They were a huge influence and took us on tour for our first album. They had a full mariachi band and traded songs with us.
“Bad Luck Heels” has a Mexicali feel similar to Calexico. Its lyrics seem to beg for forgiveness—a common theme here.
I’m glad you grabbed onto the forgiveness. I pictured it as the classic cliché of a guy trying to serenade a girl like a thousand other guitarists all playing nylon strings. That’s the sound I was going for.
There’s also a lot of regret in there as well.
Who doesn’t get to the point where you have a few regrets. There’s a lot of existential crises on 100 Lovers. That came out when I wrote the songs.
Did you try to beef up the surreal Western imagery in the music and black & white inner sleeve photographs?
That has always been there. We do keep images around that aesthetically inspire us and our music fits that. There’s something very comforting about that black and white Western world.
Tell me about the auspices of “The Man From San Sebastian.”
We were traveling around in our van to the Basque region of Spain. It’s this fairy tale place. I became really interested in how these Basque people were still trying to break away from Spain. There could be an insurgency in this beautiful, peaceful place. But as an outsider you could see both sides. It was a cool romantic idea.
The first three songs on 100 Lovers seem to have a more universal appeal and are far less restrictively eccentric. Your best vocal performance comes during the middle track, “All The Sand In All The Seas.”
It wasn’t really about getting a broader audience. It was more about the inspiring performance. There is this pressure to repeat yourself and stay in one realm. But that song we thought was very inspiring to play and different for us, but that’s why we latched onto it. It became a favorite to play live.
I thought “Ruthless” nipped at the heels of Brazilian psych-rock luminaries Os Mutantes.
Wow! Glad you mentioned that. They’re big heroes of ours. I didn’t think of them consciously, but we actually used a genuine Brazilian percussionist and melded that to some ‘60s/‘70s rock elements which was sort of what Os Mutantes did. I’m glad it fits into their world.
As for the ‘70s appeal, I enjoyed the soft singer-songwriter stroll of “Exhaustible.” It could’ve fit in with Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Emmit Rhodes, or Loggins & Messina.
It’s a breezy ‘70s love croon. That was really fun to write and perform. It’s kind of our “All You Need Is Love” as well, since the children’s chorus we tried to do in one room.
I also felt DeVotchKa expanded upon the lush arrangements consuming A Mad And Faithful Telling.
We weren’t as good as we are now. Due to budget constraints, we were somewhat limited in the past. But we were able to do what we wanted to do. We gave our string player, Tom Hagerman, carte blanche to do what he wanted to and it worked out. He stretched out and realized the logistics of our more complex arrangements. He really stepped up to the plate.
Will DeVotchKa’s future albums delve into newer styles?
I predict we’ll hang in this direction for a while.
DeVotchKa’s latest album, 100 Lovers, is available now. Catch them live at Manhattan’s Highline Balroom on March 23 and 24. More info at devotchka.net.