Nick Urata of DeVotchKa on the Visual Element of Music

Nick Urata of DeVotchKa on the Visual Element of Music
Photo by Brandon Marshall for Denver's Westword. Slideshow.

In 1997, Nick Urata and his band DeVotchKa began playing background music for local burlesque dancers in Denver. Soon the band's unique combination of Eastern European folk music and indie rock began gathering the attention of critics and fans alike. With the release of How it Ends in 2004, DeVotchKa started touring to wider acclaim.

From his home in Denver and in anticipation of playing Dada as part of Index Fest on Friday, Urata spoke with DC9 about hating the term gypsy punk and getting a big break creating the soundtrack to Little Miss Sunshine.

I read where you are sick of explaining to people where the band got its sound. Are you as equally as sick with the term gypsy punk?

Yes, I am. I don't know who came up with that term or exactly what it means. I think we have grown out of that. When we started, it was the idea to combine many musical ideas. We left the door open to different styles with the intent on making new sounds. We tried not to have any boundaries. Why hide in the basement making boundaries for yourself? We immersed ourselves in the whole burlesque thing that was part of our thing early on. Our early sound fitted that. We had to be able to change directions a lot and we had to have different genres up our sleeves.

Does the burlesque background influence the way you present the music now?

Yes, definitely. We always sort of dreamed about having some sort of variety show atmosphere when I was first imagining this thing. On that particular point in our journey, we could have gone many ways. It was much more fun to incorporate visual items and other performers as well.

Hard to believe the band has been around 15 years.

I can't believe we have been around for that long. I guess it has been that long since I been writing and recording songs for this outfit.

Are you working on a new album?

We did the live album with the symphony orchestra. We put that out in the fall and we are writing new material right now. We are going to try and put together a new record.

Was it a difficult challenge to work with the orchestra?

It wasn't easy, but we sort of worked our way up to it. We've incorporated strings and horn sections on several albums, getting bigger and bigger each time. You have to be on the same page, but we had warmed up for that. It is a whole different ballgame.

You played to 80,000 people when you opened for Muse in France. What was that experience like?

It was a pretty impressive place to sing. To hear the band on that big of a stage was pretty cool. It was pretty neat, but it was hard to connect to that crowd. They were hundreds of years away. It was an amazing experience, but I don't like not connecting with an audience.

Were you nervous?

It was funny because the nerves were pretty much the same as playing in front of 80,000 as for playing in front of 50. Before, I am always nervous, but after we start playing, it's all good.  

How much did doing the music for the film Little Miss Sunshine change the fortunes of the band?

It was a great, great launching pad for us. We had put an album out [How it Ends] that featured a lot of material that was used in the movie. The record got some good reviews, but we only sold a few hundred copies. Then we are in this hit movie and eventually the movie is a hit around the world. Now, when we travel to places like Belgium and Turkey and Japan, they have seen the movie and they are into us. It was a once in a lifetime thing for us. It was a hell of a way for a band to get onto a bigger stage.

The music seemed to fit the mood of that film perfectly; so much so that it seems odd that it was not written expressly for the movie.

It was a pretty nice pairing. We got together with the director very early on. I think he already had our music in his head. That helped the way the music came together with what was happening in each scene. That was a great movie with such a great cast.

How many people misspell and mispronounce the band name?

It's a slang term anyway. I am not using the real Russian spelling or pronunciation myself. It is kind of a hybrid. It is a rip off from A Clockwork Orange. It's been mispronounced from the very start.

Would you like a dollar for every time you've been asked what it means?

Yes, I would. I've been asked that ever since I started the band. It does mean girl, but I kind of stumbled upon it when I was reading that book over and over. Anthony Burgess was pretty prophetic.

DeVotchKa plays on Friday, October 18, at Dada as part of Index Fest.

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