The incomparable DeVotchKa returns to Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Tuesday, Feb. 10, 9 p.m.
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
It was improbable that DeVotchKa would rise from Denver musical oddity to internationally known, Grammy-nominated rock star status. More improbable, perhaps, is that the band wouldn’t compromise on its journey to the mainstream – retaining its offbeat blend of operatic drama and international sounds, reaching from South America to Eastern Europe, from punk to polka.
The band’s founder and frontman, Nick Urata, said that DeVotchKa was heartened and emboldened early on during its late 1990s tours as they witnessed the reaction their flying circus sound won from crowds.
“Even though we were only selling a few tickets and opening for bands in Denver, we bought a crappy van and made a commitment to get on the road and travel and take our show to other places,” Urata said from Denver, where the band was preparing for a tour that brings them to Belly Up Aspen on Tuesday. “We couldn’t convince anybody in the music industry to get behind us, but we found we had an audience from all different walks of life.”
Mentored by his grandfather on the trumpet, Urata studied music at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, then moved to Chicago where he started honing his Old World sound, before coming back west and founding DeVotchKa in Denver in 1997. The band solidified into a four-piece with Urata and bandmates each adding second, third and fourth instruments to their musical quivers, writing songs with combinations of guitar, theremin, bouzouki, accordion, horns and strings.
On the road, the band played coffee shops and art galleries and served as a backing band for burlesque shows. Playing wherever would take them, slowly an audience grew around DeVotchKa.
“We were encouraged but he diversity of our audience,” he said. “That was an early indication that we should keep going.”
One early show in particular stands out to Urata. During one of those barn-storming van tours, they got put on the bill at a hardcore heavy metal club in Milwaukee.
“There were five other bands that were all pretty heavy, and we were like, ‘We’re gonna get slaughtered,’” he recalled. “So we went out with our tuba and accordion and we played a set as hard as we could. And we won the crowd over – they loved us. So go figure. We weren’t making any kind of cash or getting any record deals, but we were kind of doing it on our own and finding places to play all over the country.”
In Denver, the popular 1990s alt-country act 16 Horsepower took interest in DeVotchKa and started using them as an opener around Colorado. Tucson-based Calexico took them out on their first big tour.
“They brought us on the road for a tour of the Southwest when we were starting out and that was a huge break for us,” said Urata.
Calexico has since assisted Devotchka in recording all of their albums. These days they’re also sharing a bandmember. For the current tour, DeVotchKa has added a fifth musician to beef up the Latin element of its compositions: Sergio Mendoza, who has pioneered the “indie mambo” sound as the frontman for La Orkestra and also played with Calexico.
“He’s kind of a fifth member of the band,” said Urata.
After toiling in obscurity, building a cult following and self-releasing five records, DeVotchKa broke out with the 2006 “Little Miss Sunshine” soundtrack and score. The surprise critical and commercial hit earned DeVotchKa a global fanbase and breakout songs in “How It Ends” and “Til the End of Time” alongside instrumentals that showcased the grand sweep of the band’s sound.
Urata has continued composing scores since then, working on a handful of films each year, ranging from “I Love You Phillip Morris” to “Crazy, Stupid Love” and “The Cobbler.” His most recent is for the children’s’ book adaptation “Paddington.”
“It comes from the same place [as writing DeVotchKa songs], but there’s a definite fork in the road,” Urata said of his score work. “Sometimes I’m able to write in the same manner, but you’re beholden to what the film needs and what the producers and filmmakers want. … It definitely sets you on a path that you wouldn’t necessarily have been on.”
Writing songs with DeVotchKa, after 18 years, he said, hasn’t grown stale and remains unpredictable because of their diverse stable of styles and instruments.
“A lot of the songs do start with the lyrics and the story that needs to be told,” he said. “We do various incarnations and try all of our battery of instruments on it. That’s one of the things that’s made it such a rewarding process.”
The band has been recording a new album – which would be its 11th – and they’re aiming for a fall release, Urata said. Tuesday’s show will showcase a few new songs, along with tracks from their catalogue. The Boulder-based Jaden Carlson Band will open the show.
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