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DeVotchKa creates ‘big drunken tuba party’

Accordion, theremin, bouzouki, sousaphone, violin, horns and upright bass pumping away create just some of this bunch's charms.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Asked if his band’s performance in an hour’s time will include any theatrics, Nick Urata warns: “There will be some death-defying feats of glory.”

He laughs and then adds: “Seriously. Not by me.”

When Urata’s band DeVotchKa soon thereafter performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, they don’t disappoint. To go along with their gypsy sounds, they’re joined by the acrobatic Amazing Slavic Sisters, a duo who suspend themselves high above the stage, supported only by wrapping their wrists and ankles in a tapestry hung from the rafters.

This is the Old World bizarre that is DeVotchKa. With accordion, theremin, bouzouki, sousaphone, violin, horns and upright bass pumping away, the Denver-based rock quartet creates what Urata calls “a big drunken tuba party.”

That party has grown considerably in size for DeVotchKa, who take their name from Anthony Burgess’ word for “young girl” in “A Clockwork Orange.” After years of toil (the band formed in 1997), their fortunes changed suddenly and serendipitously.

Several years ago, the filmmakers behind “Little Miss Sunshine” were driving in Los Angeles when they were struck by a DeVotchKa song (“You Love Me”) they heard on the radio. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, quickly contacted the band, and soon DeVotchKa was laying down most of the hit film’s soundtrack.

The soundtrack was also nominated for a Grammy last year. DeVotchKa had officially broken through.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” says Urata, the group’s singer and songwriter. “It’s just a little tiring. It took so long to get here.”

In March, DeVotchKa released its fifth album, “A Mad & Faithful Telling.” It features two of the band’s finest tunes yet: “The Clockwise Witness” and the album closer “A New World,” both of which would excite any Arcade Fire fan by their swelling, violin-led finishes.

“A New World” — like “Along the Way” — is a meticulously refined ballad that shows DeVotchKa has range far beyond just raucous “tuba parties.” Urata sings: “There’s this place I know/ Where they say everything slow ... Come on let’s go.”

Critics’ darlings
Speaking to the bemused Urata, it’s hard not to get the impression that the good guys have won, finding success after years of scraping tours together and self-releasing albums. Urata readily admits that if things hadn’t changed for the band, “we’d probably throw our hands up and go back to school or something.”

The band sought to succeed on their own terms, too. They turned down an offer from McDonald’s to use their music in a commercial.

Critics have applauded DeVotchKa’s worldly rock ’n’ roll. Their 2006 covers EP “Curse Your Little Heart” also showed they have no reticence in traversing genre borders. On the disc, they do their own versions of Siouxie & the Banshees, the Velvet Underground and Frank Sinatra.

Urata has noticed larger crowds at shows and a much warmer reception in Europe since the “Little Miss Sunshine” soundtrack. The film is also present on “A Mad & Faithful Telling.” The movie’s star, Greg Kinnear — who quickly became a fan — can be heard playing glockenspiel.

Urata, who grew up in and around New York the grandson of Italian immigrants, says their international inspirations originated in his time living in a Polish-Mexican neighborhood of Chicago after college. The group members are all multi-instrumentalists. Drummer Shawn King is a punk rocker raised by polka musicians; sousaphone-player Jeanie Schroder used to be in a Civil War recreationist band; and Tom Hagerman is a classically trained violinist.

“It’s all making a leap of faith in starting your own thing,” said Urata. “I had this vision of doing something like this, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get there. Kind of one by one, I met like-minded individuals who knew what I was going for.”

DeVotchKa draws on many musical traditions, but their Slavic and Baltic inflections have become increasingly common in rock of late — most notably represented by Beirut and Gogol Bordello.

“I know there weren’t too many people doing it when I was starting out,” said Urata. “But it would be hard for me to say that it was my idea because it’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

DeVotchKa will play “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” on Monday and perform at the large New York venue Terminal 5 on Tuesday. Their tour continues through the U.S. before heading again to Europe in late June.