Among the megawatt stars at the Grammy awards ceremony this Sunday will be a little band you’ve probably never have heard of. But if you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine you’ve heard its music. In fact, after years of toiling in relative obscurity, Denver-based quartet Devotchka may finally be getting the recognition it deserves. The group, which has been honing its idiosyncratic breed of Eastern European dance and folk-inflected indie rock for a decade, was hand-selected to provide ten of the fourteen tracks on the film’s soundtrack, and has earned a Grammy nomination in the process. “We were on tour somewhere between Wyoming and Idaho when a friend called and said we were nominated,” says Devotchka frontman Nick Urata. “I was shocked.”
Devotchka snagged the Little Miss Sunshine gig when the film’s directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris heard one of the band’s songs on powerhouse radio station KCRW and began scouting the foursome for possible soundtrack work. “They came to a couple shows without telling us,” Urata says. “Then they called me up and we became friends.” During production, Dayton and Faris gave the cast iPods filled with Devotchka albums. Greg Kinnear, who stars in the film, became a fan. “He came by the studio a couple times while we recording,” Urata says. “He even played some glockenspiel on a couple tracks.”
The core of the soundtrack is typical Devotchka: Lovely, immaculately crafted stuff that draws on Urata’s big, beautiful croon and the band’s delicate instrumental touches. (Bouzouki and sousaphone are regular features.) Recent Devotchka albums have been even more eccentric: 2004’s How It Ends jumped between rocking Eastern European dance music, mariachi jams, pretty ballads and catchy pop, and the 2006 covers album Curse Your Little Heart proffered inspired takes on Sinatra and the Velvet Underground, among others.
Devotchka’s sound owes a lot to Urata’s past. The grandson of Italian immigrants, Urata grew up in and around New York City playing trumpet, guitar and piano. One grandfather played in a swing band back in the Forties, and Urata’s musical memories include listening to backyard accordion jams and Italian crooners. After college, Urata moved to Chicago, where he worked as a bike messenger, played in alt-country bands and busked at El-train stations. He also began writing songs and soaked up more of the ethnic sounds that would help define Devotchka. “I lived in this weird Polish-Mexican neighborhood,” Urata says. “It brought out the influence of the accordion and the tuba and the waltzes and the polkas.”
After following friends to Denver in 1997, Urata formed Devotchka with some buddies, taking their name from Anthony Burgess’ word for “young girl” in A Clockwork Orange. After settling on the current lineup, the band toured relentlessly and stuck to DIY principles, self-releasing albums, acting as their own distribution team and even declining to let McDonald’s use their music in an ad.
Devotchka has opened for everyone from Belle and Sebastian to gypsy-punkers Gogol Bordello and Marilyn Manson, but their weirdest gig had to be a stint as the house band for a burlesque show in Denver, playing anything and everything for a variety of trapeze artists and strippers, including Marilyn Manson girlfriend Dita von Teese. “The last show we did in Denver, Dita and another girl ended up on top of a twenty-four-foot inflatable black penis covered in whipped cream,” Urata says. “I can’t even remember what we were playing. We were just watching with our jaws open.”
Live, the band’s weird sound often meets a weirder spectacle. Onstage, the four members cover violin, accordion, tuba, upright bass, theremin, trumpet, guitars, drums and keyboards. They regularly dress in formal wear, and have trotted out aerial artists, belly dancers and video montages to supplement their sets. The whole package is part performance art, part intimate gathering and part blowout. “Sometimes people just want to go crazy at our shows,” Urata says. “We’ve learned what tricks to pull out to keep people happy.”
Nowadays, things are looking good for Devotchka: Their last tour saw the band playing bigger venues and finally enjoying the luxury of a tour bus. They’re currently working on a deal with a major-indie label they’d prefer not to name, and hope to have a new record finished this summer. “We’re excited and kind of exhausted,” Urata says, laughing. “But I feel like now’s our moment.”