DeVotchKa dives into show with CSO

When band meets orchestra, there’s no margin for error

Photo by Gary Isaacs

Nick Urata, the guitar-slinging, bouzouki-picking, theremin-conducting lead singer of Denver’s DeVotchKa, is ready for yet another performance with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Friday, June 14. And while his group has been practicing for the show, he doesn’t deny that when the orchestra isn’t around, they slack off a bit.

“Without them, we are actually a little more lax and irresponsible,” says Urata, laughing. “We spend most of the time talking about unrelated topics. But when you’re with the symphony you kind of have to have your shit together. It’s kind of an expensive group. They get bored easily.”

Despite having the opportunity to work with so many talented musicians, Urata says that talent alone will not make the performance go smoothly. The band has to be incredibly precise when playing with the symphony, allowing only a “small margin of error.”

“It is fun, but when you have that many people, it requires a great deal of precision,” Urata says. “We have to be exactly right or the whole thing will trainwreck. You can’t really let your hair down and jam when you have such a large group of players together. They all have to be on the same page, no pun intended.” 

DeVotchKa and the CSO have played together before, turning a February 2012 performance into a live album, DeVotchKa Live With the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Since then, the band has played with smaller orchestra groups to hone the collaboration. And although it may seem like it would be intimidating to play with a large group like the CSO, Urata says the collaboration was something that both groups were ready for.

“The collaboration was a long time coming,” Urata says. “We have lots of friends in the orchestra who have played on our albums. Of course, the two entities, our band and the orchestra, both live in Denver. We were looking for a way to collaborate and bring the two worlds together for a while, and it was coming together for a while, and it seemed like the perfect time.”

Although DeVotchKa uses orchestral elements in their studio work, Urata says playing with an orchestra the size of the CSO is one of the most incredible feelings he has as a musician.

“It is an awesome feeling being supported by an orchestra. It is like being lifted up by a giant wave or soaring on a wind current. I don’t know how to describe it. It is an awesome feeling as a musician to be supported by that many amazing players. It’s really indescribable. I’ve been in smaller orchestras and smaller bands, but on stage it’s something else.”

Urata adds that playing with the orchestra was not a stretch for a band that uses similar arrangements.

“I always thought that we’ve been aspiring towards that on our records anyway,” Urata says. “We’ve always used orchestral instruments. We have been making arrangements bigger and bigger as each album went on. It wasn’t a total leap to go in that direction. We built our whole band on being nontraditional, as far as instrumentation goes. We’ve always used softer acoustic instruments, so it was kind of a natural fit.”

Urata says he hopes to have new songs for this upcoming performance.

“We have expanded the catalogue,” Urata says. “We did all of the arrangements ourselves. It’s been a work-inprogress, but we added a few songs and we’re definitely going to play a bunch that we played last year.”

Urata says that some of his favorite songs to play with the orchestra are some of the band’s best. One of his two favorites, “All the Sand in all the Sea,” fits the orchestra well.

The tremolo-picked guitar melody, drenched in reverb, asks to be supplemented by an orchestral string section.

“When you’re writing pop songs, you want to have a sense of grandeur,” he says. “You try to do that with your little band. When we added the orchestra, it had a sense of size and space and the oceanscape itself. The builds and drops were perfect for a group like that.”

Fitting extremely well into their eastern European and Spanish influences, “Comrade Z,” Urata’s other favorite, features dueling trumpet and violin melodies that, when played in large groups, are exponentially more impressive.

In fact, he says, playing the song with the orchestra was exciting due to its demand for technical proficiency.

“It really flexes the muscles of the orchestra,” Urata says. “You can tell. You can hear it in the way they play it — how much fun they’re having.”

DeVotchKa and the Colorado Symphony play Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Friday, June 14. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Amanda Palmer opens. Tickets start at $25. 18300 Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494.