“We understand how important DC’s support was to the rise of our band, so I hope that we’re able to please everyone coming out to the show.” When you’re Devotchka’s Nick Urata, still maintaining humility is a notable and amazing trait. Not many bands can say that they’ve spanned the gamut of playing as a backing band for burlesque shows to opening for massively popular UK arena rock act muse in front of 80,000 people at the Stade de France in December 2010. But that’s the span and excellence of the career trajectory of the Denver, Colorado-based folk quartet playing tonight at the Sixth and I Synagogue. (and then @ Bowery Ballroom this Friday and Saturday, and the Music Hall of Williamsburg this Sunday)
Regarding the band’s unique beginning, Urata is, as typical per the Tuesday evening conversation, candid yet understated. “We were booked as a backing band for burlesque shows. Our unique look, with the ruffled shirts, folky style and world influences, attracted us to people who booked us at first. We (Devotchka) were able to really gain our footing in that atmosphere, and were able to come together on some early tracks that really defined our sound.” Initial fame found the band not as much for their sound but for their clientele. As the players supporting then-rising star Dita von Teese, the band’s connection to the pale and risque star provided unique benefits. “Dita’s an incredibly nice woman. When she was married to Marilyn Manson, we had the opportunity to open for him in concert, which was amazing.” A strange story for sure, but when you’re a multi-instrumentalist and the lead singer of a indie folk band who counts the bouzouki (a four or six-stringed, Native Greek, mandolin-styled instrument) as one of your specialties, oddities must be par for the course.
The band’s latest album is 2011’s 100 Lovers, another solid effort in the eyes of their passionate fan base, but one that met with some critical panning. The band’s mega rise arguably came from a constant stream of television placements of songs as well as film soundtracks. 2006 cult favorite Little Miss Dynamite was sound-tracked by the quartet and received a Grammy award nomination, proving the band’s incredible flexibility in a multitude of recorded realms. “Recording film soundtracks is a completely different process than making an album, for sure,” says Urata. “When you’re working with a film, you’re working within someone else’s vision. In recording an album, there’s a lot more of your own ideas invested there, so the level of yourself that is personally involved is different.” Pitchfork’s critique of 100 Lovers addresses this concern: “what this record lacks so painfully is the sort of clearly defined personality that an accompanying visual element so easily provides, be it Dita von Teese, Parisian alleyways or New Mexican landscape.” Urata’s response is again, forthright and telling. “Whenever you create anything, you know that there’s going to be people that are going to love it, and those who are going to hate it as well. I think that the album showcases a progression in our sound.”
Marcus Dowling: In some cases I feel like reviewers don’t allow space for bands to head in directions, that though likely to be panned, are spaces where a band’s music deserves to go as part of their artistic process.
Nick Urata: Exactly, there’s definitely some truth to that statement.
For 2006 EP Curse Your Little Heart, the band took the advice of Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler and recorded a cover of Siouxie and the Banshees classic “The Last Beat of My Heart.” The connective energy between the smoky, haunting and yet entirely ear-worming vocals of both Siouxie Sioux and Urata make the track a standout. Regarding the nature of indie-to-mainstream success that’s shared between Devotchka and Grammy’s Best Album award winners from 2011, Urata’s as succinct as ever. “It’s zeitgeist. Every few years, the tastes of people in the mainstream change, and bands like ours and the Arcade Fire happen to benefit from that.”
Moving from intimate clubs to playing large festivals, and yes, the high-ceiling possessing acoustic dream that is DC’s Sixth and I venue has been one of the benefits of Devotchka’s rise. Many bands fail in finding comfort at this stage, as being unable to find a happy medium for allowing their minimalist style to excel in spacious venues proves difficult. “Yeah, our success afforded us the chance to play in much larger venues, spaces where being a four-piece acoustic act would appear to be difficult. But. we figured it out, don’t play as many slow numbers, you know, we make it work. However, with any instrument, if played correctly, it doesn’t matter how large the venue is, your sound will work there,” says Urata with confidence.
Regarding Devotchka’s maximal development, when Urata divulged their next move, it fit the bill. “We’ve been writing out and recording some tracks back in Colorado with an orchestra, and we’re going to play them at Red Rocks!” The literally cavernous mountain venue is one of America’s most picturesque spaces and insofar as being a fitting stage for the act, feels like a perfect fit for encompassing the breadth, depth and scenic expectation of their sound.
But for now, the humble quartet that mixes global influences with a traditionally folk-driven edge is at a space between their past and future, on tour in Washington, DC. “I’m just glad to be able to be successful doing something I love.” With a decade of success and a packed house expected in the nation’s capital, Devotchka’s success, as always it would stand to reason, is a humbly understated story in a delightfully over-achieving package.