Brave New World

DeVotchKa's cultural collisions make for fascinating art

Chicago is a city known for neighborhoods with unique little names that distinguish one from the next; among them can be found the artist/hipster/Hispanic mishmash of Wicker Park and the ethnic, working-class potpourri of Lincoln Square. There's also Uptown, a cultural blend as overrun with students from nearby Loyola University as with East Indian, German and Serbian families. But when Nicholas Urata and Jon Ellison of the Boulder-based, seven-piece DeVotchKa were full-fledged Chicagoans in 1995, it was an apartment on Cicero Avenue -- nestled in a nameless neighborhood on the outskirts of town, above the Bucket o' Suds bar -- that they called home.

Cicero runs through a part of town that is a demographic anomaly. Dominated by both Latin and Polish immigrants, the area is equal parts Mexico City and Warsaw ghetto. If you didn't look up to read the street signs every once in a while, you might think you'd been dropped off in some foreign land where two disparate cultures labor and scrape -- side by side -- to get by. On Cicero, you're as likely to find a street-corner kielbasa as a good bowl of spicy green chile, and you'll never want for music: The avenue seems to live off the stuff. Mariachi sounds beam from cars and apartment windows, competing for volume with polka and other Slavic stylings.

All of this exposure and eclecticism seem to have had a strange and immediate effect on the pair of musicians who'd come to Chicago with little on their minds but a desire to make music. His proximity to nonstop polka inspired Ellison, a bass player by training, to pursue an interest in the accordion. Urata, a studied trumpeter, guitarist and vocalist, simply absorbed. Sounds: little bits of everything, Mexican guitar flourishes, the melodramaticism of Slavic strings, Latin-styled percussion. Images: People living their lives, the ways they developed or destroyed them, how Cicero looked and felt at different times of day. He and Ellison frequented the Suds bar, where owner Joe Dano, a former Chicago jazz DJ, shared stories of jazz greats with his beer-swilling audience, of which Urata and Ellison became an eager -- and regular -- part.

DeVotchKa was inspired by the cultural melting pot of 
Chicago's Cicero Avenue.
DeVotchKa was inspired by the cultural melting pot of Chicago's Cicero Avenue.
DeVotchKa: Describing the band's sound involves a 
lot of hyphens.
DeVotchKa: Describing the band's sound involves a lot of hyphens.

"I think it all kind of filtered into our subconscious," says Urata, laughing. "The neighborhood was basically like its own subcontinent, completely removed from American culture. There was just so much music. When we were living there and it was all around us, we were drawn to it. It just stirred our blood."

It also inspired them to become direct participants in the area's hybrid culture. Urata and Ellison began hauling whatever instruments they could easily transport -- acoustic guitars, accordions, hand drums -- into the nearby subway station, one of the city's few subterranean train stops, and performing for confused commuters.

"There were all of these people trudging to work in terrible neighborhoods and terrible weather," Urata says, "and there we were, playing Spanish polka in the subway of the most depressing city in America." The response? "They hated us."

Weary Windy City travelers may not have appreciated the pair's efforts, but the busking gigs were hardly in vain. Rather, they were the first step in a series leading up to the current incarnation of DeVotchKa, a quizzical, neoclassical outfit that, in the past two years, has established itself as one of the most engaging live acts in the West. Embellishing themes from nearly every geographical nook and cranny imaginable, from Urata's quasi-yodeling and frequent south-of-the-border vocal stylings -- which find the New York-born Italian-American augmenting his physical resemblance to Desi Arnaz -- to classical string arrangements, tango flirtations and Russian, gypsy and American folk themes. (The word devotchka, incidentally, isn't similarly rooted in any exotic culture, but a fictional one. It's the word that Alex DeLarge, Malcom McDowell's character in A Clockwork Orange, uses to describe women, as in "a little of the old in-out, in-out on a weepy young devotchka.") The band's beguiling ax-driven orchestrations might even christen a new subcategory or two: gypsybilly, or chambercore.

The second step, then, came after Ellison -- tired of Chicago's music-industry racket -- moved to Denver, and Urata followed, leaving behind a gig playing with a successful Chicago band, the Reejers.

"The Reejers were picked up by the William Morris Agency, the same people who manage Sugar Ray and bands like that," Urata says. "It got to a point where there were all of these industry concerns, and it really felt like a job for me. I had this desire to strip it down to music, to not hide behind volume or imaging. I think that's what drove me to DeVotchKa."

To those who have experienced one of DeVotchKa's live shows, or listened to the band's self-titled recordings, Urata's pledged resistance to volume may seem at odds with the auditory blast that the band emits. Each instrument is amplified, and when he's onstage, Urata sings through not one, but two vocal microphones; presumably, one is for his impassioned wailing, the other to make him sound as if he's underwater. DeVotchKa's frenetic delivery -- peppered with a distinctive '50s-era performance ethic (think the Tropicana Club on a particularly hot night in Havana) -- belies its infancy as a largely acoustic affair.

Yet the soundwall that DeVotchKa constructs is derived not from a heavy-handed tendency to simply crank up the volume control on the ol' Stratocaster or the amp, but from a sheer mass of instrumentation and force of talent. The music that DeVotchKa creates is not to be attempted by the meek; in lesser hands, such an amalgamation of ethnic styles could easily be reduced to sonic mud. In DeVotchKa's, it is an experiment that works. In addition to Urata and Ellison (known to DeVotchKa watchers as "Sweet Jonny V"), the band includes drummer Sean King, percussionist David Rastetter (who plays an originally designed drum kit to accommodate his penchants for everything from Afro-Cuban to rockabilly), Jeanie Schroeder, and cellist Paul Fonfara and violinist Tom Hagerman, both classically strained string players.

Add to this Ellison's accordion, Urata's trumpet, occasional theremin solos and choruses where whistling is as prevalent in the mix as the mighty string section, and you have a sound that is odd without being isolative or pretentious, worldly without being traditionalist, joyful with moments of devastation, both lyrical and musical. ("Danglin' Feet," for example, manages to mate a cheerful Americana country aesthetic with a fragile violin and a chorus about a woman discovering her lover hanged.)

Urata, who pens the lyrics for the band, has also been known to slip in and out of Italian and Spanish, to achieve both a cosmopolitan effect and exploit artistic license. ("I try to check my grammar before I do that stuff," he says. "Sometimes I think it's good that they can't understand what I'm saying.") When he does sing in English, which is usually, Urata's theatrical delivery and the band's experiments with amplification provide a stunning framework for his lyrics. They are often cinematic, sometimes funny -- images that at times elevate DeVotchKa's sound to the almost operatic.

"Sunrise on Cicero," for example, finds him having a disjointed, imaginary conversation with a friend or lover for whom he seems willing to die. And with its Italian-language interludes, "Head Honcho," is a spellbinding, lovelorn plea for mercy: "It's love that I'm dying of/It's a truth that will break your heart in two/Has it always sounded like this?/My name upon your lips?" This is the stuff of Technicolor romances, swoony fare that would make Valentino proud, even if the music made him dizzy. Elsewhere, as on "Gasoline Serpent," a breezy, poppy melody is countered by a cityscape narrative full of gutters, blood and religious imagery: "This town is a garbage pile/If it takes us down, we'll go out in style/She swears she's seen God and we're all forsaken/Hide the guitars, man, there's windows breakin'."

"I try to get back to experiences and feelings, and it's really a battle not to be self-conscious," says Urata, who stops far short of calling himself a poet but cites a history of writing verse for both the page and performance. "A lot of what I write are mirror images of things I've seen, or they're fictional. It may sound corny, but it's really just all about baring your heart. I think that we all try to do that -- we just put it all out there."

Playing the front man role and baring his soul to audiences of strangers is a position the slightly shy, slightly quiet Urata only seems comfortable with when he's actually onstage. Wary of self-promotion, he mentions almost apologetically the band's Web site (www.devotchka.net), as well as little facts about the collective's successes. Among them, that the band was one of a handful of unknowns that played the '99 College Music Journal Festival in New York City after the festival director, blown away by a DeVotchKa demo tape the band sent in on a lark, called in a personal invitation. The band was invited again in 2000, an offer it politely refused. ("It's really not worth it," Urata says. "We played the same night as June Carter Cash. I mean, how can you compete with that?") The band has also been well-received on its regional jaunts, earning props from press along the way, including the Chicago Sun-Times, which praised the band's "wonderfully weird set of great songs."

Though the Times was referring to a DeVotchKa live show, it could have been writing about Super melodrama, the band's first full-length released last year. A 13-song CD recorded in various locations -- including Urata's basement -- Super melodrama was mixed by noted Mile High City-based sound guru Bob Ferbrache (Built to Spill, Bush). Blissfully produced, the album proves Urata and Ellison have come a long way from the subway days, and that sometimes a crazy musical notion -- to marry Eastern European styles with redneck rockabilly, for example -- can still somehow sound subtle, can be at once clean, delicate and larger than life.

Urata and his mates should probably get used to people saying nice things about them. Perhaps sensing the comic potential of such an exercise, or simply hoping to find a catch phrase for some promotional material, employees at Denver's Fox Theatre recently queried members of the establishment's extensive e-mailing list as to how a person might describe DeVotchKa. Response attempts invariably included lots of hyphens ("Hillbilly-mariachi-polka," for example), but simplicity seemed to sum it up best: "DeVotchKa," another response reads. "Da Shit."

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