Music: Beyond the Usual Reference Point

DeVotchKa brings Balkan nuptial music to the limelight

May 22, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Anti Records

DeVotchKa's work on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack kicked off a string of acclaim that continues with the band's most recent album, A Mad and Faithful Telling

This year's Coachella Festival in Indio, Calif., was probably fucking fantastic. There were approximately 34 bands I wanted to see on the lineup, including Portishead, the darkly melodic and salacious Techno/Soul fusion band that ostensibly abandoned their legions after their sophomore effort in 1997.

When the initial Coachella lineup was first released this winter and I saw that Portishead would perform for the first time in a decade amongst a legion of glorious Rock acts, I began to seriously think about how I could feasibly get to California, how much it would cost me to get there and how I could possibly amass the capital to make it there and back alive.

These questions lead me to, where I combed through cheap airfare rates and hotel accommodations, eventually finding a roundtrip flight to Palm Springs (the airport closest to Indio) for roughly $250. Once I arrived, I could rent a Chevy Aveo with automatic transmission and air conditioning for only $31.38 per day in addition to the cost of gas (approximately $40).

Once at the festival, I could purchase a one-day ticket for $90. I would spend roughly $50 for food, cigarettes and beer, stay up all night and be on a 6 a.m. flight back to Ohio for an estimated total of $461.38. It seemed impervious to failure; however, being that I had tens of dollars in my bank account at the time, my dream was quashed before it had even begun.

While I never made it to Coachella, many others did, including the multi-instrumental Euro-Gypsy Folk quartet, DeVotchKa. They had the (mis)fortune of playing around 3 p.m. in 100-degree weather.

"We made it about three quarters through our set and our bass player actually passed out," singer Nick Urata says, chortling. "We had to cut it a little short."

Perhaps all the wine the band reportedly chugged while performing contributed as well.

Hailing from Denver, ostensibly by way of Eastern Europe, DeVotchKa is one of the most eclectic groups of working indie musicians that you've probably never heard of. Their latest effort, A Mad and Faithful Telling (Anti-), combines Slavic, Greek, Mariachi, Punk and Polka influences in a mélange of brusquely melodramatic arrangements spliced between power chords and horn sections.

But while you might not have heard of DeVotchKa, you have probably heard them. The band is a more prevalent force in pop culture than one might think. They scored the Academy Award-winning film Little Miss Sunshine and were nominated for a Grammy Award for the film work. Not bad for a Indie Pop Polka band.

"It certainly has exposed our band to a lot of people that otherwise wouldn't have sought it out," Urata says.

The film and music pairing was equivalent to gin-and-tonic-water: perfect. The offbeat soundtrack, replete with strings, horns and a Theremin, complemented the offbeat indie film about a young, talentless, Welcome to the Dollhouse-esque heroine on a beauty pageant pilgrimage with her grotesquely dysfunctional, socially inept family.

"(In) the film world, same with the music world, when you put something out independently, you never really know where it's going to end up," Urata says. "When we were working on (the score) we had no idea it would reach this mass audience and become a hit."

The most notable track of the score, "How it Ends," serves as the impromptu theme for the film. The track flickers to a start with a lone accordion playing syncopated major chords, which could easily be the intro to 14 Moby songs off Play if the chords were stacked and played on a Moog. It's very simple and itching for multi-instrumental layering, which it receives blithely as the track develops gradually into rich crescendos of baleful string sections and Urata's signature whimper. It perfectly accompanies the mustard-seed yellow VW bus as it sputters towards Redondo Beach.

A Mad and Faithful Telling, the first release since the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack, achieves similar degrees of excellence. It houses the same richness of sound and theme, as in the track "Undone," that is reminiscent of a what a Mariachi funeral procession might sound like if it were engaged in a battle of the bands with P.T. Barnum.

For a normal band this would be problematic, but for DeVotchKa it's unceremoniously common. Between the group's four members, the bands boasts more than 10 separate instruments — more than enough to compensate for a rich Old World orchestral sound blended deftly with modern themes.

"When I first started the band, I didn't really have any musicians or anything, but I just sort of had this idea of trying to re-create an ethnic wedding bash," Urata says. "I tried to recapture some of the music that I heard in my early childhood."

As a child, Urata began played the trumpet and eventually graduated to "more Indie songwriting tools" — the piano, the guitar and eventually even the Theremin, the accidental broken radio that eventually birthed the synthesizer.

"I was always really fascinated with the instrument and I had several prototypes that I tried to build. It was really just a lot of tortuous trial and error and especially tortuous for other people in the immediate area," Urata says.

"Most instruments at least have some sort of reference point, like a fret or a key or a button, and the Theremin is just the air," he adds.

This is an apt metaphor for DeVotchKa's musical aplomb. There was no one road to travel, so they essentially traveled them all.

"People thought we were crazy when we first started," Urata says.

Seriously, how do you account for a Rock band that boasts a sousaphone and a glockenspiel?

DEVOTCHKA performs May 22 at the Southgate House with Basia Bulat. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.