As spine-chillingly majestic as DeVotchKa’s sixth and latest album, 100 Lovers, would eventually turn out to be, the birthing process was anything but pleasant. There were times when the Colorado-based quartet was convinced it had completely lost the momentum it had spent the better part of the last decade building.
“I was just talking to another Canadian reporter, and he was asking me which tracks that I was proudest of,” DeVotchKa frontman Nick Urata says, on the line from Denver. “It’s sort of all of them. It sounds stupid, but all these songs started out as just little demos. And there were a lot of times where we sort of doubted ourselves, and whether we were ever going to make it to the end. So just hearing them completed”¦ We’re sort of in the proud-father stage, I guess.”
Urata and his bandmates—Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder, and Shawn King—have every right to be proud of what they’ve accomplished with 100 Lovers, a record that arcs from the sepia-toned symphonic grandeur of “All the Sand in All the Sea” to the stardusted cinematic pop of “The Alley”. From start to finish it’s thrilling stuff, with “The Man From San Sebastian” top-loaded with James Bond–theme guitars, “Bad Luck Heels” gorgeously rooting itself in Tex-Mex territory, and “Contrabanda” coming on like Brazil during carnival.
Given his recent track record, fans will wonder what in hell Urata had to be worried about going into the recording of 100 Lovers. Over the past few years, the musician has taken on a second career, scoring such films as the indie smash Little Miss Sunshine. During that time, DeVotchKa has gone from regional obscurity to solid international draw, this thanks to the band’s dream-theatre blend of hallucinogenic country, soft-bulletin psychedelia, and exotic world music of all flavours. The concoction has resonated with forward-thinking adventurists on both sides of the Atlantic. Urata is well aware of the way the band’s profile has been raised. As a result, with 100 Lovers, DeVotchKa was determined not to rush things, something the frontman will argue that he’s been guilty of over his career. When it’s suggested that he seems to have regrets about past DeVotchKa records, Urata’s response is delivered without so much as a pause.
“You’re right—you’ve just hit on something big,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of the musicians I know definitely have regrets about their recordings and things they’ve left in them. We’ve done the same thing, so I was really happy to take some time this time. There are still things that bother me, but far fewer than in the past. That was a big part of us stepping back—because I sometimes can’t go back and listen to the old stuff.”
For DeVotchKa—whose songs incorporate theremin, sousaphone, melodica, and bouzouki, in addition to standard drums, bass, and guitar—stepping back meant hitting the road once it realized that the initial sessions for 100 Lovers weren’t going well. Even though touring is a mentally and physically exhausting grind, Urata has come to realize it’s an invaluable part of his creative process, and not just because it gives the group the opportunity to discover what does and doesn’t work when honing new material.
DeVotchKa’s extensive road work is one of the big reasons 100 Lovers doesn’t sound like the product of a band based in North America. Consider, for example, the Middle East–flavoured “The Common Good”, which suggests that the group’s members have spent some time sitting in front of the hookah in faraway lands. Urata has indeed been to countries that he never dreamed he’d see, and while he jokes that sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, he acknowledges that 100 Lovers reflects his experiences.
“We really wanted that to inform this record,” he says. “We’ve gotten to go more and more places, and play for more and more diverse audiences. When you do that, you start entering into conversations with these crowds of strangers, which gives the chance to take that back to the studio so you have something to say next time around.
“I mean, I was just thinking the other day about how we played this small place in Madrid that’s been around since the 16th century.I never even thought I’d make it to Madrid, but we sold it right out. It was an exuberant crowd, to the point where at one point I stopped singing and they started singing the lyrics for me. It wasn’t like a U2 concert or anything—there were maybe 300 people there. There was a time where I’d be sitting in my kitchen thinking ”˜I’m never going anywhere.’ So to have a bunch of Spanish people singing lyrics that you wrote back at you—that’s a once-in-a-lifetimer.”
DeVotchKa plays the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (March 4).