Pragmatic Management’s Rob Thomas couldn’t know that his longtime friendship with DeVotchKa’s Nick Urata was actually part of a cosmic puzzle whose pieces were yet to be found. But he recognized brilliance when he heard it.
"Back in the day, I was managing a couple of bands and Nick played guitar in one of them. His band’s practice space was next to my office, and he started to write and play his own songs," Thomas told Pollstar. "As I listened through the wall, I couldn’t believe how incredible his songs were and how his voice was so intense and real."
DeVotchKa, comprising frontman Urata, Jeanie Schroder, Shawn King and Tom Hagerman, is the culmination of Urata’s search for kindred spirits that began in 1997. The quartet collectively play bouzouki, guitar, theremin, sousaphone, violin, accordion, piano, drums, upright bass, trumpet and organ on songs influenced by Urata’s Italian and Romani heritage as well as rock, Eastern European, Spanish flamenco, mariachi, punk and other genres.
Urata said there were a few lineups before he found the "puzzle pieces" that fit his vision. Hagerman had worked with Urata before but he met King and Schroder by chance.
"I found Jeanie when I got dragged to this fashion show. For some reason, they had models dressed like Ooompa-Loompas. The little band that they had started playing the Ooompa-Loompa theme song, and that’s when [Jeanie] whipped out the tuba. I thought, ‘I’ve got to talk to her,’" Urata told Pollstar. "Then we were playing a political rally opening the show with an all-girl punk band. The drummer [King] was in drag. I thought he was someone I should talk to, too."
DeVotchKa hit the road hard in 2000 and built up its fan base through its vintage-style theatrical shows while recording albums for Urata’s label, Cicero Recordings.
Despite some success, it was still an uphill climb.
"A lot of people thought we were crazy for using tubas and accordions but we always seemed to get a really good audience response," he said. "I always felt there was an audience out there for this. It was just a tough time convincing promoters and agents that people want to hear this stuff."
The Denver-based quartet caught a big break when the organizers of a local burlesque review saw the band in action and liked its vintage style. That led to DeVotchKa joining Burlesque Fest, a national tour that featured performers such as Dita Von Teese and Catherine D’Lish, which further expanded its fan base.
Co-manager Mat Hall of We Will Make It Happen, also a friend of the band, joined the team after he’d moved to New York to gain experience in the industry. While working at labels including Jet Set and Atlantic, he realized DeVotchKa wasn’t just a niche act.
"Coming to New York and getting acclimated to the music industry here, you have an opportunity to see basically everything," Hall told Pollstar. "It was clear pretty quickly that band out in Denver wasn’t just a great local band; it’s a great band everywhere.
"Nick is a brilliant songwriter. Even though the band has evolved musically in a lot of ways, what still stands is the quality of the songwriting. When people see and hear this band, they turn over fans."
Support slots on tours with Calexico, 16 Horsepower and The Dresden Dolls helped to solidify the band with fans of all ages, a factor that Hall says is key to the band’s success.
"The whole package is something strange and unique and if you put it on paper, it sounds wildly inaccessible," he explained. "But the band’s gift is that … the songs reach people. You could unwrap everything else, and the songs are there."
DeVotchKa’s fortunes turned again when directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris asked the band to score the soundtrack for 2006’s "Little Miss Sunshine" after hearing one of the band’s songs on the radio. The film earned four Academy Award nominations including best compilation soundtrack.
"The film was a great stroke of luck. It was an independent film so there was a lot of room for experimentation and artistic freedom," Urata said. "The film was a big hit in Europe, so it opened up a lot of doors for us to play to audiences there."
DeVotchKa is doing just that as it heads to Europe for a round of festival dates through mid-July. After that, the band will perform at Seattle’s Capital Hill Block Party, Lollapalooza, Montreal’s Osheaga Festival and the Monolith Festival at Red Rocks.
For Thomas, seeing the band’s evolution in the face of many obstacles is gratifying.
"What began with Christmas lights, candles and wine has evolved into aerial dancers, mariachi players, string sections and Nick popping out of a coffin to start the show," he said. "From the start, I believed this band could appeal to many people regardless of how eclectic and obscure."