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Devotchka front man reflects on breakout album 'How It Ends'

Paul Flahive

For Nick Urata, lead singer of Devotchka, everything hinged on the band's third studio album. If that album was a bust, he didn't think the band would last.

He felt the first two albums released by the four vagabonds who make up the band were good, but they didn't catch a big audience. Urata said in an interview with the Aquarian last year that he didn't feel comfortable with his vocals on the first album, that he was still struggling to find his voice, so the third studio album, 2004's "How It Ends," was the one they needed. He said in the same interview that if it failed, the band would have dissolved.

"You know, that might have been overly melodramatic," Urata said when asked about that interview. "I'm sure we'd still be playing in some fashion, but we wouldn't being continuing down this journey."

Over the phone, it is clear his voice is pretty ragged from singing. Ragged because that album wasn't a disappointment, and while that record's importance might have been slightly exaggerated, four of the band's songs found their way onto the 2006 "Little Miss Sunshine" soundtrack, which was nominated for a Grammy.

"How It Ends" was a hit, with the title track charting overseas and used in myriad trailers and commercials, like Nutella ads in Germany and the climbing film "First Ascent." As a result, Urata has been putting his vocal cords through a workout on several continents and doing so continuously since the band's last studio album, "100 Lovers," released last year. The band just got back from Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, and had two dates in Los Angeles, which is where Urata spoke to Play via phone about 30 minutes before one of his shows.

"I have to say, in our little universe, it's certainly gone beyond whatever I dreamed of when starting a band," he said.

Devotchka isn't a freshman success story, a flash in the pan or a band of 20-somethings still figuring out their craft. The players are veterans of other bands you've probably never heard of who somehow met up in Denver, four folks -- Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder, Shawn King and Urata-- who decided to try again to make music and touring their number one thing. Four folks who bounced around a lot in their 20s, playing and trying to find their place and people. Dumb luck or kismet played a role in those four people meeting at that time in that place.

"I think it's much more romantic to believe that things are happening for a reason," Urata explained. "I mean, if you don't have that belief, the world seems kind of cold."

"Romantic" is a term he and others use to describe the band's sound. "Off-kilter" is another one he is perfectly comfortable with. The band is known for unique arrangements and instrumentation that you wouldn't see in too many places. Theremin, bouzouki and sousaphone are just a sample of their "traveling arsenal," which Urata estimates is about 11 pieces of their already large luggage contingent.

"We just have this philosophy -- I think I just got to a point as a composer of songs and a leader of a band where I want to get outside the normal set of instruments," said Urata.

You can get bored playing the same four instruments, he added. The orchestral nature of Devotchka led them to collaborate with the Colorado Symphony for a September show at Red Rocks. That resulted in the Dec. 18 release of "Devotchka Live With the Colorado Symphony," a natural pairing that shows on songs like "How it Ends" that have orchestral elements already.

Searching for collaborations and experimenting in style, instrumentation and the like are integral in keeping the band engaged. Urata talked about exploring different cultural influences, for instance the tango movement that is alive and well in Argentina and heard on Devotchka's "100 Lovers."

On the other end of the line Urata apologized, but he had to go onstage soon. A quick pre-show ritual question: Surely a band that plays theremin, started out opening for burlesque shows and has at times gotten decked out in full Aztec costumes has an eccentricity for before the show.

"Other than drinking a lot of wine, we'll most likely be hashing out parts and crossing our T's and dotting our I's." said Urata. "I know that's not very exciting."


By Paul Flahive
Daily News correspondent