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Always Watching Over Us: DeVotchKa Stirs the Melting Pot

By Cameron Bird on August 13, 2010


Always Watching Over Us: DeVotchKa Stirs the Melting Pot

Two generations and more than one hundred years removed from his Sicilian grandparents’ passage through the protocols of Ellis Island, DeVotchKa’s Nick Urata carries all the transatlantic baggage and New World wonderment of a man freshly discharged from the ship. When he toes the microphone stand with a frock of statically charged petroleum-black chest hair, clutches a cheap bottle of red wine and trills between French, Spanish and English, he makes good on the adjectival mess of a genre he’s coined for himself and his three bandmates: “Gypsy-immigrant-carnival-wedding.”

It may sound gimmicky for a west-of-middle American indie rock band, but DeVotchKa’s European essentials—polka syncopation, flamenco guitar, bazouki and sousaphone—are, in fact, natural touchstones. “We all have that in our roots... You probably do too if you look back far enough,” says Urata in a jet-lagged voice on the phone from Madrid, where the four Denverites recently arrived to entertain packed houses in advance of their fourth full-length, A Mad and Faithful Telling, to be released this spring on Anti-.

The band dug straight through the topsoil of its roots before foraying into the long-player format. Early on, it camped near the proverbial red lights of burlesque, musicalizing neo-pinup doll Dita Von Teese’s national circuit of Eastern European-inspired fetishism. Things grew more thoughtful by 2004’s How It Ends. On that album, Urata sang from the vantage point of a ranchero returning from war to find his fortune depleted and his wife deceitful. Conceptually, A Mad and Faithful Telling is an inversion of that narrative. After spending intermittent chunks of the last decade on the road and abroad, Urata says he can imagine the unease his grandparents must’ve experienced as they crossed the pond; something contemporary immigrants still experience today as they try to traverse the virtual fence along the southern border. “When you leave behind your loved ones to get in a little van and go on tour, it sometimes feels like you’re never going to see them again,” he says. “Who’s watching over them? Who’s watching these people I’m working for?”

DeVotchKa used to work on its own free-spirited terms. 2003’s Una Volta carried a seemingly counterintuitive warning label on its back cover: “Unauthorized duplication of this record is encouraged.” Now, attached to a label for the first time, Urata has gained some perspective on the recording industry (“As much as independence is satisfying, it’s also hampering”), but doesn’t rescind the band’s open invitation to pirates. “In this day and age no one has to be encouraged to copy a CD,” he says. “Our parents are even doing it.”

Some of DeVotchKa’s recent ascendency comes from the mainstream star power of the hit 2006 film, Little Miss Sunshine, a black comedy bought for $10 million at the Sundance Film Festival. When the band received a Grammy nod for the film score, which was compiled from pre-existing material and some tinkering in the studio with composer Mychael Danna (Capote), Urata was ready to stake his claim on financial solvency.

“People who cared about me always tried to warn me about how poor I would be if I tried to be a musician, since I come from a long line of them,” he says. “And they were right. It has been a long road and I have gotten myself into some really degrading situations to make a buck.”

But sonic output is what counts, anyway, and A Mad and Faithful Telling continues to deliver DeVotchKa’s expansive, eclectic sound. Tom Hagerman’s virtuoso violin often dices through the foreground, while Jean Schroder’s tuba rises in the back like a slow-motion, low-end tide. At its best, on tracks such as “Along the Way” and “Undone,” Urata’s tenor reaches an Orbisonian vibrato that can break through the iciest Eustachian tubes; at its subtlest, it offers the camp of Chris Isaak, debauched and philandering at a bridal reception in Bucharest. Amid warm, staccato organ notes on “Transliterator,” his call-and-response lyrics cathartically overlap. “I never get anywhere / I get the space in between,” he sings with the force of an entire family tree of vocalists.

This kinetic movement is a testament to Urata’s restlessness. Like a million others, he says he’s fed up with all the arrogance the U.S. government has projected toward the world at large during the past eight years; after all, his grandparents didn’t leave Europe to fan the flames of an even more threatening empire. Yet he isn’t prepared to expatriate, let alone leave Denver. Pragmatism reigns in the sanctuary city. “I’m not going to give up on America,” he says. “I tell you, the temptation’s there, but I don’t feel like it would do justice if I just ran away. I think about how hard everybody worked to get me here. To run away is to give up on this great experiment.”

“It’s an easier way of life in Denver,” he continues. “I’ve surrounded myself with a circle of friends and family. It’s cheap to maintain a band, not like L.A. or New York, where you have to pay an exorbitant amount for practice space. And if you forget to lock your door, it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

Occasionally, despite his diverse family background, Urata’s safety—the sovereignty of his comfort zone—is threatened by a language barrier. On an early-morning public radio show in Madrid a few days after he and DeVotchKa touched down, for instance, he had to filter his broken Spanish through a translator. “I can’t keep up with those guys,” he says of native speakers. When the band returns from its Spanish mini-tour, he can resume life at his own Anglicized pace, or at least until it’s time to roll out stateside publicity for the new album. And as he exits the front door of his modest Denver digs, he’ll step onto East Colfax, the longest street in America, catch his breath amid the commutes of Gypsies and Gentiles, and perhaps be reminded that trotting out success in any corner of the world is a long, intergenerational project. It’s not easy to rise above the melting pot. F

This article is from FILTER Issue 29