Talking with Nick Urata about the cinematic new DeVotchKa LP, This Night Falls Forever
Nick Urata created DeVotchKa to bring focus to the eclectic sounds he grew up with. His mother was a gypsy, so the sounds of Eastern Europe joined the jazz and rock he was hearing on the radio. He picked up the trumpet when he was eight, but was also drawn to the guitar and accordion. “There was always talk of the gypsies in our bloodline,” Urata says. “As I got older, I began to pine away for those old world sounds.”
When he put together DeVotchKa, he was hoping that adding accordion, Theremin, sousaphone, bouzouki, upright acoustic bass and exotic hand percussion instruments to a rock quartet would push the music in new directions. It did. Two decades, and seven albums later, DeVotchKa is still exploring the outer limits of world music. Their blend of American R&B, Gypsy abandon, Spaghetti Western weirdness, Argentinean tango, surf guitar, odd Balkan back beats and angular funk has won them a legion of fans, despite being dismissed by the mainstream music industry. “Our fans are always saying, ‘Give me more and, the wackier, the better,” Urata says. The band got a big boost when directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris put several songs by DeVotchKa in their 2006 film, Little Miss Sunshine. It resulted in a Grammy nomination for Urata, leading to more work scoring films and TV shows, including A Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix. The band’s latest album, This Night Falls Forever, is their most ambitious, and most cinematic; a love song to all that is precious in this wonderful world. Urata shared his thoughts about the new album with The Globe from his Los Angeles apartment.
DeVotchKa took a couple of years off after the tour to support 100 Lovers, your last album. What did you do with your down time?
We really didn’t have much of a vacation. Because of the bizarre instruments we use, we attracted a lot of people interested in collaborating, so we’ve been doing a lot of that. Since our experience with Little Miss Sunshine, I do lot of film scoring. It seems like just yesterday we finished 100 Lovers, and then, oh crap, we have to finish the new album. Now that it’s done, it’s great to get back to playing live, which is what we like to do.
Does the work you’ve been doing on film scores influence the songs you write for DeVotchKa?
NU: I think it does. Anything intense that takes you out of your element, and forces you to go places you’ve never gone before, has an effect on your writing. It makes you appreciate the instantaneous transaction of playing a song in front of an audience and connecting with them. You start to miss that when you’re locked in a room and writing all day.
I co-produced Night Falls with Jason LaRocca. We’ve been collaborating on films for years now and fantasied about making an album together, so it was emancipating to focus on this record. When you’re working on a film, you don’t have Carte Blanche to do what you want. You have to compromise. On the album, we were able to throw off the shackles and do what we wanted to do. I always wanted our albums to sound like a film score, so Jason was a perfect fit.
Why did you call the album This Night Falls Forever?
As I was polishing up the songs, I found that the recurring theme was those seminal nights that happen when you’re growing up. You don’t know if this night is going to be the one that changes your life forever, but that’s your hope. Looking back, you can see those nights clearly. I always felt that once the sun goes down, and you see the brilliant, twinkling colors in the sky, no matter how bad the day was, you get a sense of optimism. It’s a feeling you want to last forever, hence, This Night Falls Forever.
It’s an album of love songs, but there’s a thread of longing and desperation to them, a feeling of wanting to let go, but being unable to.
I agree. (Laughs.) That’s where the motivation comes from. We all share those feelings and insecurities, but we have to live this life optimistically, knowing that it’s all going to end tragically. We have to put that out of our minds and soldier on through the darker moments, so that feeling is always haunting the songs.
Every artist I’ve ever met is battling that feeling of futility. I’ve had my wins and losses in that area, but I don’t want to wallow in it. Music has always been my therapy. Can you think of any happy songs you really like? It’s the sad songs that really bring you hope. I think one thing we share with our audience is the knowledge that things aren’t that great, but music gives us a springboard to jump into something better.
How long did it take to write the songs?
It took a long time. I’ve heard other creative artists talk about the problem of finishing. Painters say a painting is never finished. You always want to go back and touch it up. I’m constantly revising and rewriting. What drove me to write songs was dealing with relationships, the feelings that open the doors and let me tap into the place where I want to sing. On 100 Lovers, I came into the room with all these ideas and let my band mates shape the songs. This time I had all the lyrics written. I wanted the emotions to drive the songs.
Did you have any notable experiences recording them?
One of the perks of writing film scores is getting to work in Hollywood, in some of the best recording studios in the world. We got to record part of this album at Capitol Records and bask in that atmosphere of history, thinking of all the amazing things that went down in that room. It was inspiring. We got to use Nat ‘King’ Cole’s piano. It was sitting right there. And there was a mic that’s known as the Sinatra mic. The one he used on all his albums. I got to use it to sing my lead vocals.
They still record on tape there too, so we made LPs of this album. I have a test pressing of this record on my turntable and I love the sound. It’s a crowning achievement. We made LPs for the last album, but there was a snag in the production. The LP didn’t come out until a year after the record. This time, they’ve been there from day one. It’s a cool bit of closure to hold something in your hands, with music on it that was just an idea in your head for a couple of years. I grew up with vinyl and remember thinking, ‘How the hell did those humans get their voices put onto this device?’ It was like sorcery and it still blows my mind.