Random Rules: Nick Urata of DeVotchKa
The shuffler: Singer and multi-instrumentalist Nick Urata, head whirling dervish of DeVotchKa. The Denver-based band spent the last 10 years slowly amassing a reputation for crazed, extravagant live shows and a strain of music that's as uncategorizable as it is instantly recognizable. Built from bits of mariachi, gypsy folk, and the primordial jangle of Talking Heads and Violent Femmes—not to mention Urata's quavering, alien voice—DeVotchKa's new Anti- Records full-length, A Mad & Faithful Telling, follows the group's Oscar-nominated score for Little Miss Sunshine and a 2006 EP titled Curse Your Little Heart that featured oddly gorgeous covers of songs by Frank Sinatra, The Velvet Underground, and Siouxsie & The Banshees.
Señor Coconut, "Showroom Dummies"
Nick Urata: I got this album a couple of years ago; it kind of represents the changing of the guard from my CDs to my iPod. Like a lot of people's collections, this sort of came to me. We used to only have a CD player in our van, so we were all forced to ride around and listen to the same albums. I think it kind of informed the way we approached our recording projects, thinking about them as an entire album. I have to say, I kind of miss those days. I guess this whole Señor Coconut album is him doing Kraftwerk songs with this totally electronic Latin percussion. [Laughs.] I don't know who Señor Coconut is, but I love him. We're all huge fans of Latin percussion. Our drummer [Shawn King] studied a lot of it, or at least experimented with a lot of it. To hear something like this is really inspiring. It also really brings out the heart of those Kraftwerk songs. They had some really great hooks.
The A.V. Club: Does DeVotchKa approach doing covers in a similar way?
NU: I like to hear people take the essence of the song, and twist everything else involved. We tried to do that on our covers EP. I don't know if it worked.
AVC: Do you think that EP surprised any of your fans?
NU: Yeah. I certainly still get asked about it all of the time. I think that covers EP was kind of an experiment, just taking our favorite songs from all these different years. We started playing them every night on tour, and every night, I'd notice something else cool about the lyric or the melody. It really astounded me how they stood up to the test of time, the repetition.
Leonard Cohen, "Take This Longing"
NU: Well, what can you say about Leonard Cohen? Actually, I have an interesting story about how I learned about Leonard Cohen. When I was really young, I was playing in a rock band and we opened for this guy in a small bar in New Jersey. The guy turned out to be Jeff Buckley. I hung out with him a little bit after the show, and I told how jaw-droppingly beautiful his song "Hallelujah" was. I had no idea who Leonard Cohen was at the time. He kind of looked at me and said, "Get everything you can by Leonard Cohen." So it was a doubly great experience: I got to hear Jeff Buckley sing "Hallelujah" in front of, like, four people, and I got his personal recommendation to search out Leonard Cohen. I've been a huge freak about those guys ever since.
AVC: One of the contestants on American Idol this season sang Buckley's version of "Hallelujah."
NU: Yeah, I've been hearing that song popping up a lot in sort of dubious circumstances. [Laughs.] I kind of like that show, but I haven't really followed it this year. Was it good?
AVC: It wasn't as terrible as it could have been. Simon actually loved it. But it was pretty much the same thing you'd have heard at any coffeehouse in the last 15 years.
NU: That brings up an interesting point. Leonard Cohen is so powerful; he doesn't even have that great of a voice, but his lyrics cut through. That whole school of singing that's come from Jeff Buckley really focuses on strong vocal technique, but it has a tendency to neglect the lyric, you know? You can't approach a song like "Hallelujah" and think you can sing it well just 'cause you have good technique.
Mystic Rhythms Band, "Gesso's Guitar Song"
NU: I don't really know what this is. [Laughs.] What do we do in this situation?
AVC: Can you remember how it got on your iPod?
NU: I remember when I first got my computer, I was on tour with The Dresden Dolls, and there were about 50 people in the tour. They all had really good music collections, and everyone was so glad I finally made the jump to iPod that they just opened up my Mac and started putting all this stuff on my computer. The next thing I knew, I had, like, 5,000 songs on my iTunes. I'm really thankful, but that's how songs like this got on here.
AVC: Why did you take so long to get an iPod?
NU: Well, for a while, I was enamored with vinyl, then I was actually enamored with having CDs. I think I held off on the iPod for mostly economic reasons. [Laughs.] I was totally broke. Now I don't miss having piles and piles of CDs all over my place that I end up spilling coffee and beer on.
Tiny Parham, "The Stuttering Blues"
NU: [Holds iPod up to the phone.] Can you hear that at all?
AVC: A little. Is that '40s jump blues or something?
NU: I think it was actually 1927 when this was recorded, very old-school jazz, New Orleans-style.
AVC: So more like Louis Armstrong's Hot Five.
NU: Yeah, although I think Tiny Parham was actually from Chicago. I think he died young, in the '40s, so he did get into the swing era and influenced a lot of people. A musician I met on tour gave me this collection. The recordings are just one microphone in the middle of the room; you can almost hear the musicians stepping up to the mic to take their solos. The arrangements on this are really complex and beautiful.
AVC: Have those methods influenced DeVotchKa at all?
NU: Yeah, totally. That's one of the reasons I started the band, just nostalgia for that old-time music, even from the '60s. We just love how that sounds. We've taken some sort of painstaking steps to use analogue gear and analogue tape when we're making our albums. We've just always wanted to sound old.
AVC: That said, DeVotchKa doesn't come off as a retro act. What kept you guys from sounding like, say, Squirrel Nut Zippers?
NU: I also really love rock 'n' roll, so maybe that was it. Basically, we love that energy, and early on, I didn't want to put any kind of limitations on the band. We didn't want to be old-school-sounding or jazz-sounding. We wanted to keep it open. I don't know in hindsight if that was a smart move, but it certainly kept things interesting for a few years.
AVC: You guys were significantly under the radar for a long time.
NU: I know, I know, I don't need to be reminded of it. [Laughs.] People are always asking me to describe our genre, and I don't know what to tell them. Maybe it's a new genre; lots of other bands are kind of doing it.
Dean Martin, "Ain't That A Kick In The Head"
NU: Listen to that horn section! I grew up in an Italian family in New York, where I was required to listen to the entire Dean Martin discography before I was 5 years old. I always loved his voice and his arrangements and his boozy cocktail persona. It's kind of nostalgic for me; it reminds me of my dad and my grandfather.
The Flaming Lips, "A Change At Christmas"
NU: This was on that EP they put out after Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. It's a really great Christmas song. It kind of fits into that whole Wayne Coyne optimism about the world: Every day can feel like Christmas. I just love him for that. I've been a fan since Oh My Gawd!!! came out, and to see them progress as musicians and showmen has been really inspiring to me. They're just outside the mold of normal musicians and normal pop stars, and I don't think it could have happened to a greater group of dudes.