Among the indie rock bands from the early ’00s that are still standing, DeVotchKa remains among the purest, most admired, most integral. Perhaps because they’ve never been a rock band: Their sound is a trendless amalgam of Romance-language music of the last 100 years, from France and Mexico, gypsy jazz and Italian wedding songs, dark and dusky and lovelorn thanks to lead singer Nick Urata’s gorgeous croon. They toiled in the Denver burlesque scene for years before breaking out on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 and from there took off, releasing a series of popular albums and collaborating with filmmakers, ballets and symphony orchestras in Denver, Portland and Seattle.
Next Wednesday, DeVotchKa return for their second performance with the Seattle Symphony. I spoke with Urata about the band’s veteran status, his creative process and the extreme pressure of performing with a 60-piece backing band.
Thinking about other bands that started in the very early ’00s, most of them aren’t around anymore, and if they are, they’re a far cry, creatively and commercially, from where they started, for better or worse. Mostly rock bands that either sputtered out or lost the plot creatively. But here’s DeVotchKa some 17 years in, still in their prime.
When I started this band many years ago, I wanted something that would age well, that would be able to cross trending lines. And I hope that I’ve achieved that. It seems like it. And lo and behold, when I listen to us we’re still improving musically, which is a curve you wanna be on as a musician. We’re lucky to have this focus.
You were seeking longevity.
It wasn’t longevity. But I wanted it to be timeless.
Defiance of trend might be the key to timelessness.
Early on, when I first started out, it was all grunge, and everyone was doing the same thing. And you sorta had to adapt to what was happening. I wanted to start something where you’d still feel good doing it years down the road.
To break it down further, when you’re joining bands and playing with people, a big part of it was just making sure it’s you. It’s coming from you and you’re not faking it. I can’t imagine doing anything else, you know? And I don’t feel like, What am I doing up here playing this song after all these years? A band I started in my 20s, I would’ve burned out a lot quicker. That’s a huge part of it, being honest with yourself. And coming from a place that you’re not gonna wake up one day and say, This is not me. That’s what I’m getting at.
I think your last album [2011’s 100 Lovers] might be your best. Is that possible? To make your best album 15 years into your career?
I hope so. I was never really satisfied with the other ones. I wasn’t satisfied with that one either. Maybe the next one I will be. Most everyone I know, getting it from the page to the tape or even—I’ve worked with a lot of filmmakers or painters—you’re never really finished. They have to tear it away from you while you wanna keep tweaking it. Sometimes you get great performances and sometimes you don’t get the best one. You just gotta live with it.
A process of creating and a process of letting go.
It’s coming full circle and that’s where I’m at right now. I’m in the letting-go stage of our newest recording. Man, it feels really good. Because it was the longest we’ve taken to put out an album and there was a lot of obsessing and false starts. It feels really good and healthy to move on and it’s cleared my brain for new material. Now we’re just in that terrible limbo before your album comes out and everyone asks what you’re doing with your life.
Why did it take so long?
100 Lovers was a painful birth. And touring the album was great but there was a lot of performances and stuff where I wasn’t at the top of my game. When that was all over it took a while to start flowing on the creative end again. I always felt like the best stuff can’t be forced. I forced a bunch of songs early on and those songs didn’t make the cut. It just took a while to get the writing flow back again. And it came back with a vengeance.
Is there anything you do to catalyze that flow?
There’s alcohol and drugs. But that’s a false catalyst. I found that the best thing to do is to get up and force yourself to do a little every day. You get overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks but if you force yourself, I think that’s the key. You’re not in a creative mood, you’re thinking about other stuff but that’s when, man, you get that lightning bolt and if you weren’t there you’d miss it. You know? That’s one catalyst: Just show up every day.
For the first time in my experience with your music, I heard Depeche Mode, some gothy, synthy stuff in those 100 Lovers songs. Was I reading that right?
That’s one reason we got together. Tom [Hagerman, violinist and accordionist] and I were definitely goth fans, Cure freaks, Joy Division freaks. And that’s always been there with us and we let it out of the bottle on that one because it was fun.
I do like to observe on one floor and go to the next floor and write. I heard a famous painter say that one time. It was an Impressionist, Degas maybe. He’d observe what he was gonna paint and then go into another room and paint it so his mind would have a chance to influence it. Most of those influences are subliminal when they come out. I’m all over the map. I’ll listen to anything that’s good.
This is your second time playing with the Seattle Symphony. How did this whole thing come together? How do you prepare?
A lot of the symphonies are connected throughout the country. We recorded a live album with the Colorado Symphony and had friends in that world, so we put the feelers out to a lot of different symphonies that would wanna do it, mostly as a fundraising opportunity, because symphonies are in trouble nowadays and they need to stay funded. And it was just our long history in Seattle that was one of the first cities to invite us to do the show. They were pretty skeptical at first—they weren’t sure. They weren’t sure enough people would cross over into that world from the club scene and if our program is actually good enough, but I think we proved it so they invited us back.
To prepare for this, it’s been years in the making. Going back three albums ago, we started using two or three string players, then a quartet, then an octet. And getting more and more ambitious with arrangements and we had this opportunity to work with the Colorado Symphony and they let us expand it to the whole entire orchestra. And it worked. That’s a lame explanation.
Ha. Well, who does the arrangements?
Tom, our violinist, did the lion’s share of the arrangements, locked himself in his garage and took what we had and spread it out with the entire orchestra. Some of the orchestral arrangements are awe-inspiring. We’ve all taken gigs writing and arranging for other people, and the fact that it was for our own material brought it home and made it that much more passionate. A lot of times orchestral arrangements are more scientific than passionate, but Tom had the connection to these songs we’ve been living with for a decade and Shawn, our drummer, and myself pitched in on the arrangements.
Writing out entirely different charts for each instrument?
Each instrument has its parts, each section has its part. In the section you divide them up, violin one and two, often two cello parts, two trombone parts. And then the sections divide up in to sections. Some people are playing the same parts but mostly everyone is playing something a little bit different but all together, if that makes sense.
That sounds really complex.
It’s dauntingly complex. And it’s amazing when it falls into place. The amazing thing about it, it may seem like the entire thing will explode but sure enough the conductor waves his wand and everyone starts playing and it sounds like it’s supposed to. And it’s something you have to experience to believe.
The other amazing part about this performance—when you’re just playing with your band, there’s a little forgiveness if someone misses a part or is late. With the orchestra, if you don’t know exactly where you are on every bar and you mess up, the whole train can come off the rails. That’s what I’m dealing with up there. It’s high stakes. It’s a high-wire act. Maybe that’s why people wanna come see it—bloodlust. Things could go horribly wrong.
Can you actually enjoy the sound of the whole thing while you’re performing?
It was hard to relax the first couple times I’ve done it but now that I know where I’m at, I remember the words and I’m counting correctly, you can take a moment. It’s like riding a giant wave having an orchestra behind you. It’s hard to be in the moment without messing up because you start thinking, This is great! And then you’re like, Oh fuck.