DeVotchKa's music is as offbeat as its name
The band's goulash of foreign sounds forms the soundtrack to the movie 'Little Miss Sunshine.'
The most conventional thing about DeVotchKa, relatively speaking, is the quartet's name.
It may sound Russian, but the Denver-based group is made up entirely of Americans. The foursome is rooted in rock but the music features tuba, glockenspiel, theremin, sousaphone, and the long-necked Greek stringed instrument called a bouzouki – think a mash-up of Eastern European folk, mariachi, and punk. And while the band celebrates the feminine side of music, leader Nick Urata plucked the name from the controversial book and movie "A Clockwork Orange," which doesn't exactly put women on a pedestal.
Now this unconventional group, dubbed "the best band in America you've never heard of" by Filter magazine, is about to be introduced to a wider audience. Though unsigned, DeVotchKa's music was tapped for the comedy "Little Miss Sunshine,'' starring Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear. The film soundtrack is the capper on a year that has seen DeVotchKa recruit a sturdy fanbase through relentless touring that has included high-profile slots at hip rock festivals such as Bonnaroo and South By Southwest.
"It's a beautiful word and it sounds so cool," says Urata of the name. "I hope there's no association with [the violence of "A Clockwork Orange"]. That's not involved at all.... On a greater scale, the book foresaw the [Berlin] Wall coming down and Slavic people infiltrating Western culture and that's kind of what my band's about – the culture clash, musically."
The group is rounded out by violinist and accordionist Tom Hagerman, sousaphonist and upright bassist Jeannie Schroder, and percussionist and trumpeter Shawn King. Urata chose the musicians for their ability to capture a diverse range of ethnic strains and moods. Indeed, in DeVotchKa, jaunty gypsy and South American sounds blend with melodramatic and mournful crooning reminiscent of Antony and the Johnsons. Consider them part of a wave of Balkan-influenced music that includes Firewater and Gogol Bordello.
Urata, a veteran of four or five groups (most notably, Blacks), will admit that DeVotchKa is, at least nominally, a "rock" band. "I definitely didn't want to have just another guitar band," he says. "I don't know if you'd call us a rock band, but I think if you saw us live, you'd say we've been schooled in rock 'n' roll."
Raised on Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed, the frontman says his music aims to take listeners on a journey, to provide an escape. DeVotchKa's music is often romantic and lush. That's evident on their latest EP, "Curse Your Little Heart," where cover songs by Sinatra, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Velvet Underground snuggle up together. Those qualities also shine through on their just-released soundtrack to "Little Miss Sunshine," directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. DeVotchKa's contributions to the film were mostly reconfigured or pared-down songs from their 2004 cult hit CD, "How it ends." That album was a turning point for the band: People began hearing DeVotchKa's delicate, sad song "Dearly Departed" on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
The directors of "Little Miss Sunshine" became aware of DeVotchKa thanks to airplay on Nic Harcourt's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," a popular radio program on NPR affiliate KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif.
"They happened to be listening to KCRW in L.A. one Saturday morning and [Harcourt] played a song, 'You Love Me,' the first track on 'How it ends,' " explains Urata. "Something about that song reminded [Dayton] of the movie – he said that was the sound of the movie. He called us up, we became friends, and we started working together." The film, Urata adds, "is a comedy with a very dark side. A tragicomic family road trip."
All of that would seem to fit with Urata's worldview. "How it ends," as the title implies, has fatalism running throughout it. "Fatalistic?" Urata says, considering the possibility. "I guess. But 'How it ends' is not a dreary fatalism, but optimistic fatalism. We all know how it's going to end, so let's enjoy it right now."