DeVotchKa's Nick Urata on the band's new album and its cinematic approach to songwriting
With DeVotchka's forthcoming album, 100 Lovers, the Denver quartet has released possibly it's finest album to date. Frontman Nick Urata says they spent about a year making the album in Tuscon, and let the songs cook a bit longer and ferment than on previous efforts, which might explain why the album sounds so delicately crafted.
Tonight, Urata and DeVotchKa violinist/accordionist Tom Hagerman will perform "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" at Carnegie Hall in a tribute to Neil Young along with Patti Smith, the Roots, Cowboy Junkies, Bettye LaVette, Glen Hansard and quite a few others, before coming back to Denver for a date at the Fillmore Auditorium this Saturday, February 12, to celebrate the release of 100 Lovers, which hits stores March 1. We spoke with Urata about recording the new album in Tucson with producer Craig Schumacher at his Wavelab studio, the band's cinematic approach to songwriting and touring with Gogol Bordello.
Westword: You guys have recorded most of your albums in Tuscon... What is about the place that keeps you going back down there to record?
Nick Urata: I guess part of it is comfort zone. I don't really remember the reasons, but Tucson was one of the first places we ventured to outside of Denver. We kind of serendipitously ended up meeting Calexico on that trip, and that's kind of their home studio, too. So it was the perfect fit. For us, it was like the first time we actually recorded something and heard the sound like we wanted.
And the other thing, Craig the producer, who owns the studio, he's kind of a master of analog gear, and we still use tape and as much analog stuff as we possibly can. It's a little more magical than just sitting at your computer. So that's part of the reason why we make the trip down there. Some of it's nostalgia. Some of it's comfort zone. But we don't want to alter the course of...
Did you approach 100 Lovers any different than, say, A Mad and Faithful Telling?
Now that we can look back at it, we can see what we were doing. We just took a lot more time, because when we started recording about a year ago, we recorded one round of it, and we just said, "You know what, these songs are... we should let them cook for a while and ferment." We knew that they were good, but we just wanted to give them time to take more of a life than themselves.
We took a couple of stabs at each song and kind of took a more patient and organic approach... I hate to use that word organic. It sounds like a vegetable or something. We just took a more deliberate pace. We knew we had deadlines, but we kind of took the phone off the hook, and we just kind of wanted to make a record that we liked.
Did the songs kind change over the course of the year? Did they turn out different than you originally intended?
I think they got better. At first, I think they were a little self-indulgent. We just kind of hacked some of that and made them a little more accessible. I like the way they matured. Sometimes, like on our previous albums, the recording would be kind of a jumping off, and the song would continue to develop on the road. But this time, we kind of did it the way it should be.
Did you road test any of the new material before going into the studio?
Yeah, we have been secretly torturing audiences for a while. This one song that wasn't hot was probably one of the new ones.
You've scored a few films, but when you write songs for DeVotchKa do you kind of take a cinematic approach? Do you have images or scenes in your head?
Yeah. I've always sort of done that, and it's kind of funny that the tables actually turned on me. We as a band have always sort of aspired to have a sprawling, cinematic sound. I mean, it's just an aspiration. I don't know if it comes across or not.
I definitely think it does. For whatever that's worth.
It's kind of liberating after you actually have worked on some films to have your own band and no rules or boundaries. So it's kind of like we're making a film without a camera.
I just kind of hope that the songs, without any images locked to them, would sort of take people on their own journeys. I guess everybody probably aspires to that when they make a record. That's definitely something we though of. It's one of the exciting parts about working in the studio.
Do you like explaining what the songs are about, or would have the listener come up with his own impression?
I'd like the sentiment to come across, but if any sentiment that comes, I think, that's good. A lot of times I'd heard people tell me what they thought what the song was about, and I actually thought their idea was better than mine.
You've talked about playing for 90,000 people when you opened for Muse in Paris. And I think you were talking about how you feel naked up there in front of so many people and you wanted to capture that feeling on tape.
Exactly. We got thrown into a lot of those situations since the last album. Just blank faces staring back at you, and you kind of enter this conversation with these people, musically. We took that back with us, and we're hoping to have something to say to them, you know, when we come back.
How was it touring with Gogol Bordello? How did those crowds receive you?
That was an awesome experience. We did a couple of tours with them, and went all over Europe. Their crowds are great, and they're there to have a good time. They're very musically astute, I've found. They're up for a challenge and a good time. And, of course, we really love Gogol. We've known those guys for a long time. They're such good musicians and good people to hang out with.
Can you tell me about the story behind the name of the record, 100 Lovers?
Well, I'd kind of like to leave that one open ended. It does go back to a lyric in one of the songs, and we just kind of thought it had a dramatic ring to it. And it's a little bit ambiguous... I'm going to leave it up to everyone's imagination.
Why did the album get pushed back a few weeks?
It's probably our fault. We were kind of late. We were tinkering with it too long. I think also that the release world is weird. But I'll take the blame for that one.
How do you know when a song is finished?
I think it's hard. It probably happens to almost everybody. Most people I know who record, when they get to that last stage you just can't let it go, and you keep obsessing over what you might have missed, until someone actually has to yank it out of your hands. Especially today with modern recording techniques; you can literally keep working on something forever. But it wasn't every song. There were just a few songs that there were so many ways different we could have gone. We just recorded so much stuff, and that part was kind of hard at the end.
Were there any points where Craig came in said, "Okay, that's enough"?
Yeah. He definitely pulled us back from the edge a few times. And I had to pull him back from the edge a few times.
Were there any kind of new inspiration or influences that seeped into the new songs that maybe weren't there on previous records?
In kind of a broad stroke, it's kind of what we were talking about before. Since our last album, we've just seen and experienced so much, and the musicians, too. You get to see so much great music. And we kind of just hopefully absorbed it and spit some back out. I mean, without being too specific, I just think we've kind of focused more on what we kind of wanted to sound like. We were on the road with Gogol Bordello for weeks and weeks. I'm sure that had some kind of impression on us.