For more than a decade, DeVotchKa pushed their dramatic, orchestral music to fuller and bigger arrangements.
And, no surprise, Nick Urata found he could only push that sound so far before borrowing an entire orchestra to do it.
With their romantic, gypsy-Latin folk-rock apparently ready-made for grandeur, DeVotchKa joined the 60-plus-member Colorado Symphony Orchestra for a pair of performances in February, then brought the show outdoors to the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre late last month.
"Musically, it was amazing," Urata says. "We've always been trying bigger and bigger arrangements on all of our albums and our film projects, and we have many friends in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, so it's a collaboration we always wanted to try."
The Sept. 20 CSO show was also a bit of a personal triumph for Urata, who spent some time working at Red Rocks as a "glorified towel boy."
"I was a production assistant at the venue for years when I was younger, so it was a nice redemption to go back as a performer," he says.
This fall, DeVotchKa will follow up 100 Lovers (ANTI-, March 2011), with a live album recorded during the band's performance with the CSO in February at Denver's Boettcher Concert Hall.
"We've always been outside the norm, and this is just a bigger, better example of that. It's tricky working with all those microphones and all those performers at once," Urata says. "We rehearsed the set a few times before we had an audience. Oddly enough, the night we recorded happened to be the one perfect night when everybody got it right, and it was one of those rare moments that was captured on tape."
DeVotchKa has been in contact with other symphonies around the country and in Europe about future collaborations—perhaps even in Tucson.
"Symphonies are much more open to performing with artists of our ilk these days," Urata says. "It's a truly beneficial thing, and it's something we'd like to continue doing. It's hard to come down from that cloud of all those players holding you up."
Though they're based in Denver and frequently tour the world, much of the creative work for DeVotchKa (Urata on vocals, guitar, piano, trumpet, theremin and bouzouki; Tom Hagerman on violin, accordion and melodica; Jeanie Schroder on sousaphone, upright bass and vocals; and Shawn King on drums, percussion and trumpet) starts in Tucson. Craig Schumacher's WaveLab Studio has been DeVotchKa's recording home for most of the band's run, including the breakthrough Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack, which earned a Grammy nomination.
"We ended up in Tucson by chance," Urata says. "One of the joys of being a traveling musician is you get to meet and play with so many great players. Joey and John (Burns and Convertino, of Calexico) happened to be at Plush when we played our first show there, and they invited us to play some shows."
The friendship and collaboration has proved fruitful: WaveLab has given DeVotchKa a unique and creatively rich environment in which to record.
"I felt like there was a strong connection there to the past. Staying at Hotel Congress and working in that old building with Craig and using all that analog gear and hearing the old train line cranking past every night, it felt like I was transported back in time. That's what keeps us coming back," Urata says. "It's always good to step out of your comfort zone when you're creating. Tucson in July is not comfortable, but it makes for good music, because you're trapped indoors, and you just have to keep working."
DeVotchKa's unorthodox sound and versatility were built in right at the start, when the band played backing music for burlesque shows. Stepping a good way outside of the norm was a very conscious decision, Urata says.
"When we started the project, we wanted to do something different. At the time, everyone was locked into the standard lineup of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards. You had to have those things, but I started looking outside that," he says. "It was a big goal of mine just to find different instruments to work with onstage and in recordings. One of the first people I hooked up with was Jeanie, and I found out she was a tuba-player, and we started replacing as many bass lines as we could."
The band's unorthodox style also translates into an undeniably cinematic sound. Urata composed most of the score for 2009's I Love You Phillip Morris, and Little Miss Sunshine filmmakers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton returned to Urata to compose music for their follow-up, this year's Ruby Sparks.
"It's a very different process," he says. "Logistically, you don't realize how much more freedom you have to write an album than you do when you write a film. What's happening on the screen and in the story dictates the music, and the directors are a huge part of it. An album can go anywhere; a film has boundaries."
But Urata says he enjoys the opportunity to reach listeners in an entirely different manner, as well as the challenge that film work presents for DeVotchKa.
"You're reaching people on a subconscious level, which is an interesting way to work. You're tinkering with their emotions, and they may not even know it," he says. "It also backs you into a musical situation you'd otherwise never be in, so it brings forth music you might have never stumbled onto yourself."
Recently, Urata and Hagerman contributed to the debut album from Sergio Mendoza's Y la Orkesta project. Mendoza plays keyboards with DeVotchKa on tour, and Urata says he was glad to return the favor, taking the lead vocal on "Sueños Amargos."
"We were in our bus somewhere in Europe, and he introduced me to that song, and it was about a lonely musician losing his girlfriend on the road, so I could relate," Urata says.
In between everything else, Urata has begun writing new songs for another DeVotchKa album, and is planning again to record in Tucson, hoping to recapture that creative burst that's served the band so well.
"As a musician and writer, that, for me, is the greatest place to be: on the other end of a microphone recording—that's where the magic happens."