Immigrant song

“Isn’t it irrelevant?” asks DeVotchKa drummer and trumpet player Shawn King, referring to how the Denver quartet’s music no longer comes with the printed message “Unauthorized duplication of this record is encouraged.” By comparison, the back cover of DeVotchKa’s new album, A Mad and Faithful Telling—the band’s first for the Anti label—bears the standard legal warning that copying is a “violation of applicable laws.” The familiar text, the lexicon of an all-powerful music industry, sounds kind of funny in this day and age, like a relic from the past. And the band, whose go-ahead-and-download-it attitude hasn’t really changed, is clearly aware of the disconnect. In fact, bandleader Nick Urata recently told Filter magazine that even band members’ own parents copy their CDs.

Newfangled Old World: DeVotchKa brings gypsy soul to the mainstream. Photo By Gary Issac

“Call it a technicality from the distributor,” says King. “Either way, we’re going to want more people to hear the record. And, in other parts of the world where we don’t have distribution, there is no possible way to get the music out there. We had a group of fans at Coachella [music festival] who drove up from Mexico City to see us. Three weeks ago in Istanbul we played to hundreds of fans who sang along and knew the lyrics. Beyond what a label or distributor can do, the digital age can be immensely powerful for a band like ours.”

It’s no surprise that DeVotchKa’s rousing mix of Eastern-European gypsy and Latin-American folk (among other) styles can travel and connect so freely. With its sense of movement, casual absorption of influences and loose smattering of ingredients from here and there, the music sounds like a diaspora—the migration of ideas and people that it stems from. Urata, who is of Sicilian/Eastern-European descent, was always drawn to the music of that part of the world. And, though DeVotchKa reflects his consious effort to pursue the artifacts of his heritage, it comes off as remarkably natural. Its bustling, whimsical, almost carnival-like atmospheres have thus far enabled the band to evade the clutches of both multiculti world-beat cliché and overblown indie-rock exoticism.

Starting out as the musical accompaniment for a travelling burlesque troupe, fittingly enough, DeVotchKa makes use of antiquated instrumentation and turns it on its head. Each member of the band, which is rounded out by Jeanie Schroder and Tom Hageman, plays multiple instruments. The cumulative effect of acoustic bass, sousaphone, violin, piano, theramin, acoustic guitar, etc, etc. all existing side by side in the arrangements is a tumultuous, piled-on sensation underpinned by irresistible beats. And, as Mad and Faithful Telling displays from the first note, this is dance music in the purist sense, rather than an overt exercise in ethnomusicology. Indeed, part of DeVotchKa’s easy, border-crossing appeal lies in how nimbly the band can shift rhythmically.

As King explains, the experience as a backing-band helped.

“Back then,” he recalls, “we would cater to the acts we were accompanying, so much that our set would go from 30-second Mariachi interludes to rock renditions of Henry Mancini numbers. There was the benefit of becoming nimble as a group, and there are certainly some elements of that era in what we do now, but having the stage to ourselves was liberating.”

In an interesting role reversal, once DeVotchKa struck out on its own, the band made it a common practice to bring visual performers such as belly dancers and trapeze artists on the road. And now, for the first time, it has begun to appear with outside musical accompaniment as well, an approach that helps the band recapture the new album’s density and also gives Hageman in particular room to flex his skills.

“We still make the visual side of the show a priority,” says King. “On this tour we have two aerialist performers in a few select cities (mostly due to the height of the venue’s ceilings), and the colors on stage are a constantly evolving project. We’ve been playing shows with a string quartet lately to fill out the arrangements that are on A Mad and Faithful Telling the best we can. We’ve been lucky to have an orchestral madman in the band—Tom creates the charts and leads the ensemble through the night with aplomb.”

With DeVotchKa now past its 10th year, it sounds like the band members are still being struck by their music’s potential to reach people.

“There’s no doubt that some melodies and rhythms are part of a collective consciousness,” King offers. “We’ve witnessed it when we’re playing to new crowds.”


who: DeVotchKa with Basia Bulat
what: Dance-ready folk fusion
where: Orange Peel
when: Wednesday, May 14 (9 p.m. $18. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)

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One thought on “Immigrant song

  1. TitoP

    I find this band endlessly fascinating. Even if they get lumped in with bands like Beirut, they still stand apart because of their seasoned performances of a variety of musical types that they manage to make their own. Plus the romantic energy at their shows is so unique. Yeah, I really love this band, man.

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