Features, Print July 17, 2019

The Longest Curve: DeVotchKa returns, plays The Moxi

by Dan England

When Nick Urata finally figured out what band he wanted, he stopped hanging around bars and began shuffling around the University of Colorado’s School of Music.

He was in rock bands, and enjoyed it, but it never felt right. He didn’t think he was being honest with himself. It was impossible not to be shaped by rock music, he said — but all that guitar seemed to be overwhelming the character of his songs, resulting in half-finished tunes that seemed to want something more.

He wanted a band with many instruments, a unique sound and like-minded, intelligent players to push the boundaries of what music could be. He wanted a band capable of playing the music in his head, which sounded more like film scores than Rock N’ Roll. We now know that band as DeVotchKa.

Colorado’s own DeVotchKa perform in Greeley for the first time ever on July 17 & 18.

“I wanted my songs to sound cinematic,” Urata said in a phone interview for BandWagon. “I was fascinated with film music. It was the music I loved as a kid.”

He laughs when compare DeVotchKa’s most recent album to the trailer for an indie flick. It was, after all, an independent movie that brought them out of obscurity. Little Miss Sunshine was a huge smash in 2006, one of the more notable indie movies of the last 20 years. The score DeVotchKa composed and performed for it got them a Grammy nomination, worldwide fame, and their own Wikipedia entry. It made both of Urata’s biggest dreams come true too: his music made it into a motion picture (one he liked) and the band toured the world, playing at major festivals, sparking a career both for the band and Urata. 

The band did more soundtrack work, for the film I Love You Phillip Morris, in 2009, and now Urata composes for films as his “side hustle,” he said. But you wouldn’t be wrong if you called it his main gig.

Urata scored for films such as Paddington, Crazy Stupid Love and Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. In fact, he got so many gigs composing that it took him away from the band. Last year’s album, This Night Falls Forever, was their first since 2011.

And yet, the same band who found each other back in the late 90’s at CU Boulder’s Music School still fit together. They’ve all got lives now, including children (Urata has a daughter) and their own composing gigs to keep them busy when they aren’t being DeVotchKa. 

Urata, Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King each play at least three different instruments, from accordion, theremin and bouzouki to flute, violin and sousaphone. So not only do each of them make up an orchestra themselves, but they each “got it” from the beginning. They wanted the same sound. Urata says he was eventually able to compose using all the colors the band supplied him. He’d written the aforementioned “pretty bad half-songs” as a sideman, but putting himself out front of this group got him over the hump.

Clockwise from upper left: Hagerman, Shroder and King live at Mishawaka, 2018.
Photo by Drew Carlson

“Songwriting was the longest curve,” he says. “You have to write all these bad songs before a good one comes out. It took a lifetime really. I feel like I’m still learning and writing. I was in several bands, the sideman for years, and I just started to envy the frontman spot,” Urata said. “He was driving the creative narrative.”

When Urata finished his first song leading DeVotchKa, he found it freeing; like a permission to write more.

Hanging around the music school was freeing too, despite the protests of bar musicians who said he couldn’t rock if he studied music. He found the opposite was true when he formed his quartet of accomplished musicians.

Nick Urata during 2018’s Mishawaka performance. Photo by Drew Carlson.

“It lends itself to a great foundation for more creativity,” Urata said. “When you’re studying others the whole time, you can get squashed, but then you can take all that knowledge and use it for your own selves. They [Hagerman, Schroder and King] all had a deeper understanding of music, and that made it much easier to branch out.”

Having slept on many couches and even washing dishes for a living, Urata claims that 99 percent of all careers make you more money than being in a band. (Like, you know, film composing) He just finished another score for a documentary called 17 Blocks, which is hitting the festival circuit now, and he has a 9-year-old to support too, so why doesn’t he just write film scores full time? Well, as it turns out, he still loves to rock.

“Really, there’s nothing like traveling the world with a band.” Urata said. “It’s a great, challenging endeavor, but there’s nothing like connecting with a live audience. That’s what we are trained for. Your life feels empty after a while when it’s not there.”

Click above for tickets to DeVotchKa’s first shows in Greeley, part of their first world-wide tour in years since they began decades ago.

Ergo, the band plays Greeley for the first time, July 17 and 18 at the Moxi Theater. Urata says he can’t wait for the chance to play in a new town, so the band will play on despite the distractions, dependents and side hustles. He’s already writing songs for a new album too. He just hopes the film gigs don’t keep him from working on it.

“This is the sweet spot for that, actually, when your album finally gets released,” Urata said. “I can now concentrate on new songs. I’m hoping this one won’t be another five years or so. But I may have to eat those words.”

DeVotchKa performs both July 17 (with Neyla Pekarek) and 18 (with Giants & Pilgrims and The Bright Silence) at the Moxi Theater, 802 9th St. in downtown Greeley. Click here or go to moxitheater.com for tickets.