DeVotchKa received a huge career boost when the makers of the 2006 indie-smash Little Miss Sunshine asked the band to contribute to the film’s soundtrack. Thanks to all the unexpected exposure, when the time came to record a follow-up, the Denver quartet was determined to come up with something extraordinary. Or at least as good as How It Ends, DeVotchKa’s acclaimed full-length.
“You don’t want to get all this attention and then make something that sucks,” says sousaphonist-bassist Jeanie Schroder, on the line from her home in the Mile High City. “We did try really hard to not just rest on the usual things that we always do, or make something that sounds exactly like How It Ends. We tried to come up with new ideas and experiment with different instrumentation. We let Tom [violinist Tom Hagerman] do a lot more string arranging, and we brought in a string quartet and some extra trumpet players.”
Not exactly a household name when Little Miss Sunshine filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris first rang up, DeVotchKa was at that point better known—along with Firewater and Gogol Bordello—for trying to make the alt-underground safe for Eastern European sounds. Wailing vocals, polka beats, accordions, bouzoukis, and violins have all been part of the mix since the band released its debut, SuperMelodrama, in 2002.
DeVotchKa’s latest album, A Mad & Faithful Telling, continues the tradition. Like previous releases, which include a 2006 EP of covers called Curse Your Little Heart and 2004’s How It Ends, the disc boasts plenty of the kind of klezmer-fuelled outrageousness that brings unlikely audience members (i.e., geriatric Ukrainians and Romanians) out to what’s essentially an indie-rock show. This is especially true of tracks like “Head Honcho”, which sounds like it was made up in a Gypsy encampment during a full moon. “Comrade Z”, meanwhile, has so much Eastern European flavour that, in trying to recall its name, Schroder at first refers to it by the title of the little movie that had all of Kazakhstan in an uproar.
“I’m sorry, it’s not called ”˜Borat’, it’s called—”˜Comrade Z’,” she says with a laugh. “We nicknamed it that because it sounded like something from the Borat movie.”
The songs that really stick, though, are the stirring, broodingly intense romantic dramas like “The Clockwise Witness” and “Transliterator”. These have their fair share of DeVotchKa’s trademark exotica, with piercing violins and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Nick Urata’s Old World croon, but they more readily bridge the world of Eastern European music with western pop.
The group has a few different ways of writing songs, says Schroder, which may account for the disparity between some of the material. Urata, who writes all the lyrics, sometimes comes in with a nearly complete tune, while with others the band members make them up from scratch in the studio. And Hagerman will occasionally bring in a song complete with all the parts, as in the case of “Comrade Z”.
The DeVotchKa sound was already coming together when Schroder met her bandmates through a connection at the Denver record store where she worked. At first, she filled in on bass duties. But eventually, Urata, Hagerman, and percussionist Shawn King let her bring in her beloved sousaphone (an instrument that’s basically a wearable tuba).
“I started playing it in high school,” says Schroder. “I’d played the flute before, and there were a lot of flutes in my high school. So I decided to switch, since there was only one other tuba player.” Changing over to the new instrument was the best choice she could’ve made, she says. She went on to study tuba at college, and her proficiency with the horn has allowed her to play in a number of different outfits—a brass band, a brass quintet, a Dixieland jazz act, a Civil War–themed string group, and a folk duo with an accordionist.
But it’s her current gig that feels like home. “I loved the music as soon as I heard it,” she says. “I knew this was what I wanted to play.”
DeVotchKa plays Richard’s on Richards on Friday (May 2).