DeVotchKa embraces its small-room preferences at The Grey Eagle

DOUBLE (DECADE) FANTASY: DeVotchKa frontman Nick Urata, in white jacket, is happy to report that working on songs remains "a great motivator" to unite him and his bandmates after nearly 22 years together. "It’s certainly a nice escape from reality — which I guess, looking back, is pretty much the reason why I got into the whole thing to begin with," he says. Photo by Manmade Media

DeVotchKa has taken its instrumentally eclectic indie rock to some of the world’s biggest stages. But in sharing the band’s sixth full-length album, This Night Falls Forever, the emphasis has shifted to playing more modest-sized venues.

“We kind of came up in smaller, dive, punk-rock sort of places, so it’s nice to get back there,” says frontman Nick Urata. “We sort of run into problems sometimes when there’s one of those barricades or people sitting down. We do our best when the audience is right in our faces.”

The Denver-based ensemble’s current tour includes stops in such major cities as Austin, Texas, New Orleans, Nashville and Atlanta, though in rooms that might not be one’s first guess upon hearing that DeVotchKa is coming to town. Such is the case with its Wednesday, Feb. 6, performance at The Grey Eagle — the group’s first Asheville show since playing to what Urata recalls as a “fun, receptive crowd” at The Orange Peel in 2011.

“At this point, it’s really just fun to play places that you like,” Urata says. “We’ve played at the Fillmore in San Francisco a few times. That was incredible. So, choice places like that. I’m not really in a hurry to get back and be nervous. I’m not missing the stage fright that comes with a big place.”

The return to intimate listening rooms makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the large sonic scale of This Night Falls Forever. For the 10-song collection, Urata focused on working out the lyrics, then spent more time than usual crafting their initial versions before passing them on to his colleagues.

“A lot of the demos are really elaborate, and that’s part of the reason why maybe it took so long [to complete the album] because I was fiddling with them for so long. But it’s also one of my favorite things to do — orchestrate and arrange songs,” he says.

“We all love to play anything we can get our hands on and try to put it on a record. Sometimes that makes for great arrangements, and other times we’ve got a problem. But that’s kind of what always keeps us going. Part of the fun of writing songs is collaborating with each other and trying out new instruments that may not have been the first or obvious choice.”

Joining Urata’s vocals, guitars, theremin, trumpet and piano on This Night Falls Forever are longtime bandmates Jeanie Schroder (acoustic bass, sousaphone), Shawn King (drums, percussion, trumpet) and Tom Hagerman (violin, viola, accordion, piano). Working from Urata’s blueprints, the group attacked certain songs together. Others that the frontman had worked up more fully in demo form — and to which he felt more attached — involved following those visions to completion. The mixture of the two approaches is one that’s proved successful for the ensemble, whose sound received a boost through Urata’s film-scoring connections that frequently take him to Los Angeles.

“I wanted to bring some of that grand, sweeping, cinematic style that I’m chasing in films to the record. I hope that came through because we did actually record some of it on Hollywood soundstages with Hollywood players to get that feel,” Urata says. “My dream is to get those two worlds to finally meet. It’s been such a big part of my music travels, so trying to bring those together was always a big part of the goal.”

While he acknowledges that in the film-scoring sector, composers typically can’t dictate the recording process, Urata was able to use DeVotchKa as his backup band on 2015’s The Cobbler, a collaboration with Academy Award nominee John Debney.

“I’m still amazed that I actually got to score an Adam Sandler movie,” he says. “[Film scoring is] such a daunting task. You’re on an extreme deadline and you can kind of carry that [mindset] over to your band life, which tends to be sometimes undisciplined. But it’s also just made me really appreciate that instant gratification of connecting with an audience versus toiling away at your writing desk alone.”

Another recent intersection of those dual musical pursuits is Urata’s score and theme song for “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” The Netflix series is based on the popular children’s books by Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler, with whom Urata collaborated on the introductory tune, “Look Away,” and others that characters sing throughout its three seasons.

“We’d get the assignment, and [Daniel would] feed me these amazing lyrics that were so musical,” Urata says. “He’s a musician himself. They were so funny and musical. It was just such a pleasure to write with him — and as a guy who struggles with lyrics, to have a genius like that feeding you words was a dream come true. I also tried to hide this fact, but I was a huge fan of the books, so that was another level of unbelievable luck.”

Further sweetening the deal was the addition of Neil Patrick Harris, who stars as the nefarious Count Olaf and sings the theme song in character. Similar to how “The Simpsons” does a different couch gag every week, Urata notes that each episode of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” features a different verse that foreshadows events to come. He’s somewhat concerned, however, that a good number of viewers are missing these musical gems in the name of immediate entertainment.

“You can hear that every time if you watch it at home on Netflix, even though they have the stupid ‘Skip Intro’ button, which I hate,” Urata says. “It’s death to theme-song writers. Quote me on that one. People need to know. They’re killing theme-song writers when they hit that button.”

WHO: DeVotchKa with Neyla Pekarek and The Contenders
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 8 p.m. $22 general admission/$55 VIP meet and greet

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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