It has been seven years since indie-folk rockers DeVotchKa released a new album. While a break like that is hardly unusual in the music industry, the seven-year hiatus seemed lengthy for a band that was putting out new albums – including film soundtracks – every one to two years for a decade.
Even more surprisingly, the Denver-based quartet went quiet following their major arena tour in 2012 that saw them at the peak of their popularity. Frontman Nick Urata admits that despite DeVotchKa’s accomplishments like producing the wildly popular Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack, he wasn’t enjoying the band’s success as much as one might expect.
But his feelings of disconnect were not for nothing. Spurred on by feelings of detachment from his music and audience, DeVotchKa traded the big arenas for smaller, more intimate venues. It was at these smaller shows that he saw the connection the crowd had with the lyrics. This would drive Urata to take time with the band’s next album – developing the lyrics, revisiting them and letting the words drive the music.
Released in August, This Night Falls Forever marks the return of DeVotchKa – a band whose sound is bigger and whose lyrics prove more authentic than ever, but with all the signature characteristics their fans know them for. Ahead of the band’s stop at U Street Music Hall on December 12, we caught up with Urata to reminisce about the past and look ahead to what’s in store for DeVotchKa.
On Tap: How do you feel about coming up on your first album SuperMelodrama’s 20th anniversary, and playing with bandmates Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King for two decades?
Nick Urata: Wow, well you know, pretty scary when you put it in that frame [laughs]. We released that album in the year 2000 and man, it’s been quite a journey. For us, it seems like just yesterday. But I’m actually really proud that we’ve held it together this long.
OT: Not a lot of people can say that.
NU: No. If you’d ask me back then, I would have laughed in your face [laughs].
OT: Do you feel like the chemistry between the four of you is the same after all these years, or do you feel like you all have changed?
NU: I think we have grown up together. And the chemistry is even better right now because we’ve been through a lot together, and so now we’re just like a family. And you know, in your family you can have massive disagreements and still get together and have dinner.
OT: What drew you and the band to the folksy, Eastern European-inspired and sometimes dark sound you all have and what keeps you going back to it?
NU: I was always fascinated with it. I wanted to create the kind of music that I wasn’t hearing and I was able to find the same people that wanted to help me with that. We’ve always been drawn to that sort of palette – that gypsy, folk sound that we have. And in those early days of traveling around playing hostile environments, we found that really broke down barriers and connected with people.
OT: You grew up listening to that kind of music, right?
NU: Yeah. I think that was a big part of it, too. There was a lot of sentimentality to that music, and when I was trying to write my own stuff, I was just kind of searching for who I was and that was the kind of stuff that was deeply ingrained in my bones.
OT: I would imagine a lot of people could relate to that. For example, I’m Italian and I also grew up listening to that kind of music. Frank Sinatra was always playing in my grandparents’ house.
NU: I’m glad you said that because I think that was a part of it, too. I can relate [with] one story. We got booked at this bar in one of the subway stations in New York. But when we got there, the staff was very angry, the patrons were angry and the bar manager was acting like he was going to kill us [laughs]. But when we started playing and brought out our accordions, that same big, tough, scary guy came up with tears in his eyes and said that his grandfather played the accordion. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
OT: Your 2012 tour saw the band playing big arena shows and at the peak of popularity, but you were having a bit of an identity crisis. Could you elaborate on where you were in your life at that point?
NU: I don’t want to sound too negative, but the main problem was I had lost my connection with [the music]. We got to the end of that album tour and release and unfortunately, I sort of hit a low point and had this emptiness. In the end, it was good because it forced me to rebuild and the rebuilding process was the album [This Night Falls Forever] that we just released.
OT: Why the switch to playing more intimate venues?
NU: We came up that way [in smaller venues], and I just think there’s a purity to it. I was losing the connection with the crowd and it wasn’t feeling as natural as when we’re in a smaller place where everybody has a good seat and everybody’s part of the show.
OT: How have all of your professional experiences over the last couple of years influenced your new album?
NU: The experiences made me want to go back to really focusing on the lyrics and letting the lyrics guide the song. The lyrics really drive where the music goes. That was one of the reasons why it took so long [to make the new album], because the lyrics take a long time to develop. Because of all our experiences with writing and arranging for orchestras and producing soundtracks, we were able to have a big, epic sound as well.
OT: Where did the album name, This Night Falls Forever, come from and what does it mean?
NU: A lot of the songs and subject matter deal with the fact that your entire trajectory romantically, or even your destiny, can change in one night. You never see it coming, you’re never prepared for it and I just wanted to capture that feeling that this night is going to be with you forever.
OT: Moving on to your upcoming tour, how do you handle having so many instruments onstage?
NU: It can get a little overwhelming and sometimes it doesn’t work. We end up having to each haul a lot of suitcases around [laughs]. But going back to our origin, it was one of the reasons we all connected so much because we have a love for picking up new or underrated instruments and bringing them into the fold and making them do things that maybe they weren’t meant for. So bringing them onstage is definitely a part of that.
OT: It’s been a few years since you’ve done a tour. What are you most looking forward to and what should people coming to your shows expect?
NU: I think we’ve done a good job of performing the new songs live, which was a challenge because they are large and epic on the record. We’re doing a nice mix of our past albums with our new songs and new instruments, and we have a few new guest players. It’s going to be a good time.
OT: Any final thoughts?
NU: Man, I think I’ve added a lot! No, I just wanted to add how excited we are to get back to DC. We didn’t mean to take so long to put out a new album, but these things take time. We hope it will be the beginning of a stretch of new albums and a new period of creativity.
Catch DeVotchKa at U Street Music Hall on Wednesday, December 12. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25. Learn more about DeVotchKa at www.devotchka.net.
U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW, DC; 202-588-1889; www.ustreetmusichall.com