DeVotchKa: Under stormy skies
They wrote the soundtrack for 'Little Miss Sunshine', but DeVotchKa are all about heartache. Chris Mugan digs deeper
Monday 31 March 2008
One of the most warmly received films of recent years was the US comedy Little Miss Sunshine, the tale of a dysfunctional family who help their daughter to enter one of those creepy pre-teen beauty pageants. A key part of its charm was the high-energy polkas that soundtracked the script's more slapstick scenes.
These tunes were devised by DeVotchKa, a band from Denver, Colorado who, as their Russian-sounding name suggests, are fond of eastern European folk music. But before you pigeonhole them as yet another jumper on the Gypsy bandwagon, you should take note of their breakthrough album How It Ends. It showcases a band with a far wider musical remit and a frontman, Nick Urata, who found an outlet for his pain in the wake of a heart-wrenching break-up.
Rather than being an indie chancer searching for a new angle, this 21st-century crooner adds new urgency to old-fashioned arrangements. Thanks to his band's film work, DeVotchKa finally secured a UK release for How It Ends last year, along with debut headline dates. Better late than never, for the album was originally released back home in 2004. I meet Urata after the soundcheck for one of their shows at an east London dive. It is full of technical mishaps, yet Urata looks ready for the task in hand, all darkly handsome looks and vintage chic.
Urata is bashful, however, about his group's late success and keen to explain the hard work that went before. The band formed in 1997 when he settled in Denver. "I had a bunch of friends in Denver and Boulder and just ended up staying with a guy that played accordion," he explains. "There's an old-school rancher thing going on, but the old West does meet the new. People from all over settle there because the climate's nice and the economy's a little bit better."
Even then, Urata had a picture in his mind of the band he wanted to form. "I didn't want to be pigeonholed into one style and make one record after another that sounded the same. I wanted exotic instruments and exotic flavourings, yet still be accessible to people who like pop or rock. I wasn't sure how to get there, but I visualised it and through trial and failure I honed it. And I found four like-minded individuals who stuck together."
Part of his inspiration came from an area of Chicago, half Mexican and half Polish. The two cultures rarely interacted, though Urata heard the parallels. "They were separate neighbourhoods. But I'd hear the cars roll by with the bass booming from a polka, then I'd hear a mariachi song and it would sound the same. I started thinking that these are such entertaining styles, how can we bring them together and not lose people?"
Urata's family background is Italian, roots that have helped him to develop an emotive vocal style. "Most of my relatives from Italy are dead now, but there was always a big emphasis on accordion music and crooners. I heard a bit when I was a child and it stayed with me, especially when I was in that neighbourhood.I tried to emulate what I heard."
Urata got together with a bunch of mates at the end of their university days, but they moved on to other careers. Violinist Tom Hagerman was in the same circle and helped the singer rope in mistress of the sousaphone Jeanie Schroder and drummer Shawn King to build a new DeVotchKa, slang for a girl in Nadsat argot (itself taken from the Russian) of A Clockwork Orange.
After two albums, though, they had made little impact. Then in 2003, DeVotchKa became the backing band for a touring burlesque revue that on occasion included as its star performer Marilyn Manson's wife, Dita Von Teese. The band went on to support Manson. Was that all thanks to Manson's now ex-missus? "I'm not sure, it was just a one-off," Urata says, squirming.
DeVotchKa learnt from the burlesque practitioners that they could include performance elements in their own shows. In the States, they regularly appear with dancers, acrobats and miscellaneous acts to add visual flair. Indeed, Urata says they were on the cabaret trip long before Dresden Dolls, whom DeVotchKa have supported in the UK, started wearing bowler hats. "We wanted to add a carnival atmosphere, because even with my favourite bands, I get bored after nine or 10 songs."
Urata's emotional upheaval following a break-up inspired How It Ends. From "We're Leaving", through "Dearly Departed" to "This Place Is Haunted", the album wears its heart on its sleeve, even though the writer had not planned to be so open. "It was written during a tumultuous period of my life," he begins carefully, "I've always gravitated towards that kind of song – high romance, broken-hearted, pleading fare – and I had plenty of experience of that."
DeVotchKa escaped to the Arizona desert to record the album, where Urata could get his head together after his break-up. "We were looking for a place to get away from our lives. As a writer, too, as soon as you step away and start travelling you leave your comfort zone and the ideas flow a little better. I'd always wanted to use the desert as an escape, you always want to visit these exotic places."
Just such a location is the Tucson studio of Tex-Mex fusionists Calexico, another group that DeVotchKa have supported. Part of its attraction is the vintage gear perfect for capturing the group's timeless sound, though the foursome were also able to feed off the area's atmosphere. "Tucson has a romantic, cactusy, John Wayne kind of vibe. It amplified the retro aesthetic we were shooting for. We went with a bunch of songs and good intentions, but it became something on its own and part of that is to do with the spirit of the place."
Urata claims he has become much more relaxed in the studio, something that is reflected in their follow-up album A Mad and Faithful Telling, a fresh piece of work only completed last autumn. It continues much of the romantic rollercoaster ride of How It Ends, while delivering a more rounded set of songs, led by engrossing immigrant tale "Along The Way" and the orchestral pizzazz of the yearning "The Clockwise Witness". How It Ends could be just the beginning.
Watch the video for Devotchka's track 'Till The End of Time' , taken from the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack.
'A Mad and Faithful Telling' and 'How It Ends' are out now on Anti; DeVotchKa are touring from 4 to 9 April (www.devotchka.net)
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