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September 8, 2011
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DeVotchKa brings exotic sound to Aspen

ASPEN - DeVotchKa is routinely tabbed as one of Denver's best rock bands. But probably the most accurate honor the quartet has received came a decade ago, when Westword voted DeVotchKa as Denver's "best inexplicable band." The group is now in its maturity, with six albums, a genuine international following, a pair of film soundtracks, and an Oscar nomination for one of those soundtracks, the 2006 dark comedy "Little Miss Sunshine." But it retains its inexplicability, featuring sousaphone, accordion, theremin and violin, and two members who play trumpet, and prominent influences from Mexico and Eastern Europe. Of the exotic flavors in the sound, Nick Urata, DeVotchKa's founder and leader (and thereminist, bouzoukist, guitarist and one of its two trumpeters), says, "That stuff boils my blood."There was a time when Urata, who told me he is in his 40s, was a more explicable musician. During his high school years, in New York's Westchester County, he picked up the standard instrument for the typical reason. "Once I was old enough to get interested in girls, I took up guitar," he said.But before he discovered girls, electric guitar and straightahead rock 'n' roll bands, the groundwork had already been laid to pursue sounds that were out of the mainstream. Urata's primary musical influence wasn't John Lennon or Jerry Garcia, but his grandfather and namesake, a Sicilian immigrant who played violin, trombone and accordion, and played burlesque shows before becoming a bandleader in the Big Band era. When the younger Nick took up trumpet, in third grade, he turned to the older Nick for inspiration."He shepherded me through my early years on trumpet, at the age when it's not easy to practice," Urata said from Hollywood, where he was doing some recording work, DeVotchKa just having finished some dates as part of the Dave Matthews Band's Caravan festival. "It was a bonding thing. He was a big hero - his Jedi-like wisdom, being a musician - and anything to spend time with him, I'd do."After playing in high school bands and studying music at Western State in Gunnison, Urata, in 1994, headed to Chicago to soak up further musical influences. Instead of the electric blues that the city is known for, he found himself attracted to other, less obvious worlds of sound."It always felt like I was treading around that stuff," he said. "One of the real catalysts was when I moved to Chicago. The scene there was very eclectic - a lot of Latin rhythms and bands. You could see polka bands because of the huge Polish community. That was a big part of my musical education. I realized, maybe you didn't have to stick to one genre. You could paint with all these colors."In Chicago, Urata hooked up with John Ellison, an accordionist, and the two made a colorful pair, playing on railroad platforms (the 'L' in Chicagoese) - "Just trying to find a voice," he said. The musical partnership dissolved, but when Ellison left Chicago's lousy climate to attend CU, Boulder, Urata saw his excuse to find a more comfortable environment. ("The weather's so awful, it fosters a great music scene," Urata noted of Chicago. "People will come into a crappy bar to see a band because it's so cold outside.")Urata brought with him the album he had recorded, featuring the songs he played at the 'L' stations. Resettled in Boulder, then Denver, he used the album as a calling card to attract other musicians. By this time, not any ordinary musicians would do."I pined for an Old World sound more than what I was finding in the New World," he said. "And I searched for musicians with the same sort of leaning."He also picked a name with a similar leaning: DeVotchKa, which is Russian for 'girl.' ("I thought it was a beautiful word. To me, it's a very sexy word," Urata said, adding that he picked it up from the movie "A Clockwork Orange.")In time for "SuperMelodrama," DeVotchKa's 2000 debut, Urata located Tom Hagerman, a violinist, accordionist and keyboardist of Japanese and German heritage. By 2003's "Una Volta," Jeanie Schroder, a bassist and sousaphonist of German and Russian descent, and Shawn King, a percussionist and trumpeter with Lithuanian blood, had joined the fold, solidifying the current lineup.With 2004's "How It Ends," with songs like "Lunnaya Pogonka" and "Charlotte Mittnacht (The Fabulous Destiny of ...)," DeVotchKa's offbeat blend of styles - often referred to as "gypsy punk" - caught on. The cinematic title track was used in commercials, TV shows and trailers for several films. A team of emerging filmmakers, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, heard DeVotchKa's music and enlisted the band to create the soundtrack for their debut film, "Little Miss Sunshine." The 2008 album, "A Mad & Faithful Telling," with string section and additional wind instruments rounding out songs such as "Comrade Z" and "Strizzalo," was a hit, earning the band a slot at that year's Coachella Festival. Earlier this year DeVotchKa followed with "100 Lovers," which features what has become the standard mix of the exotic: strings, a fleet of trumpets, a bandonen (a member of the accordion family), and flourishes of Latin, Slavic and Indian sounds.Urata says that in the decade since he formed DeVotchKa, listeners have become increasingly accustomed to an approach that mixes American rock with Brazilian rhythms."The world is getting to be a smaller place," Urata, who appears with DeVotchKa Friday at Belly Up Aspen, said. "It's not so much where you're from, but what direction you're going in. People who connect with DeVotchKa see it as coming from a passionate place and they want to connect to that. It's less about genres and more about whether it speaks to you."As Urata sees it, among the most influential builders of that groundwork has been David Byrne. In Talking Heads, Byrne used some rhythms from outside of rock; in his post-Heads career, Byrne went further afield and formed the Luaka Bop label to explore his interest in foreign sounds, especially those of South America."I loved Talking Heads records as a kid. I was drawn to their originality," Urata said. "Then when David Byrne went solo, his Luaka Bop stuff was inspirational and educational. He'd find artists from other countries we'd never heard of, great music, and put it out." DeVotchKa toured as the opening act for Byrne in 2009, and when I mentioned that several songs from "100 Lovers" could fit seamlessly into "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today," Byrne's 2008 album with Brian Eno, Urata took it as a supreme compliment.DeVotchKa has taken the international influence farther out than Byrne, reaching from Central America to Romania for its sounds."Because I was a trumpet player, and still fancy myself as one, I'm drawn to mariachi music. And that's one thing great about Chicago and Denver - a lot of Latin musicians around," he said. "And Eastern Europe - that's a huge influence. The gypsies, because of their nomadic nature, influenced so many places - Israel, India, the Middle East, Spain. It's like the music of the people, of humanity."Urata's music is reaching listeners in all sorts of places. He composed songs for the current hit romantic comedy, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." And he is at work rearranging songs from "100 Lovers" and several older DeVotchKa tunes to record with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in February.DeVotchKa appeared last summer at Jazz Aspen Snowmass' Labor Day Festival, as an opening act for Wilco. This year's Labor Day Fest, I told Urata, prominently featured one foreign musical influence, heard in the electronica band Thievery Corporation, in the conscious soul music of Michael Franti, even in the country act the Zac Brown Band. It was reggae music, an influence that is conspicuously absent from DeVotchKa's music. I said I was grateful for this; reggae is hardly exotic these days."I'm not gonna lie - I love the reggae," Urata said. "But I think I can't do it justice. Maybe someday I'll try."stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Sep 9, 2011 06:32AM Published Sep 8, 2011 05:50PM Copyright 2011 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.