Event Preview: SoundTown Music and Camping Festival

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August 15, 2011 // UPDATED 12:01 pm - August 18, 2011
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

One of Minneapolis’ biggest late summer events is about to kick off – although it’s not actually in Minneapolis. The Soundtown Music and Camping Festival opens its gates tonight at 4 p.m. at the Somerset Amphitheater in Somerset, Wisconsin. Despite the Wisconsin address, make no mistake – this is definitely a local event. Aside from big-name national headliners like The Flaming Lips, DeVotchKa, The New Pornographers and Ghostland Observatory, the festival lineup is all locals bands.

A sampling of some of the big-name local acts at the festival: Pink Mink, Phantom Tails, The Goondas, Heiruspecs, Joey Ryan & The Inks, Sims, Charlie Parr, The Roe Family Singers and more. It will also be, sadly, one of your final chances to see the beloved Roma Di Luna, who have announced a handful of final shows before the bad calls it quits.

We’ll hopefully be catching up with some of the local acts at the show, but we’ve already chatted with one of the headliners about the festival. DeVotchKa’s lead singer Nick Urata was happy to get on the phone with us and discuss the festival, music in the Midwest and more.

Let’s start with the traditional question of how the band got started.

It’s a long sordid tale. Well, I guess that all of us started playing music when we were in school and grade school, and I kind of bounced around as a sideman for years and years, and tried writing songs for years, and finally when they started sounding like they, you know, might be acceptable, I decided to form my own group. That was back in the very late 90s. I started writing songs as DevotchKa, and one by one I met the lineup that I have now, and the rest, as they say, is history. Pretty boring origin story, huh?

I’ve heard worse. You sound really hot on those early songs. You’re really talking them up.

Well, I heard some very wise songwriters say that you have to write a hundred bad songs before you write a good one. I think I wrote about 500.

But it’s the first album that’s the culmination of lifelong experience, right? That’s why they say the sophomore slump hits so many artists.

That’s so true. You’ll be honing in on these songs for years. You’re right, you’ll have your whole lifetime to sort of work on this thing, and all of the sudden you have to start from a clean slate. It is very true.

So there’s a lot of editing that goes into turning that life experience into something good.

Yeah, I think you’re right. And one thing that I never though would happen is that it has gotten a little easier to write songs.

Speaking of that, there’s a lot of talk that it’s been a long chunk of time between this album and the last.

Yeah, I know. We’re kinda bad that way. We were writing a lot. We do write on the road. That’s where some of our best stuff comes from, while we’re screwing around on the road. There’s something about being away from familiar surrounds that I feel opens you up to more creative process. But we just wanted to take our time, and also we got distracted a lot. We were touring a lot and playing live show and doing film scores and we decided we were gonna try not to rush it and we didn’t. Every other album we did in like five days and no money, so this time we wanted to take our time.

We worked on it for about a year. A year and change. We did a lot of different versions and we threw out a lot of stuff and revamped a lot of stuff.

The reviews have been very positive.

I only see the bad ones. But I guess you’ll have that. But from our perspective, it was a rewarding piece of work. You probably know this from being a writer, that as soon as you press go on any project, compromise after compromise has to be reached. On this one, I felt like we got everything that we wanted to do. I don’t know if we’ll do it again like this, but it was a refreshing experience for us.

Writing is never done, it’s just abandoned.

That’s really true. I feel that way. We keep tinkering with stuff until the very day that they rip it out of our hands. I think deadlines are good too.

What’s it like to see the band grow in popularity over the last few years?

We find it very inspiring. We’ve done it for some many years with no audience. We’ve played for audiences as small as three people. But that motivates us to get back in there and practice and keep our chops us.

And now you’re known for your stage shows, which have a lot of theatrical elements.

We’ve been doing this since about 2003 I think is when we really started hitting the road. We’ve been honing it in for a while. Hopefully that shows, I don’t know. That was always a fantasy to have this sort of thing, back when I was daydreaming of having a band back in the day. On through the years, we’ve teamed up with other forms of artistry like dance and film. To bring those together is always a great thing. To have a captive audience like that is a great opportunity to bring in those other art forms. 

Do you have to change anything about your stage show when playing an outdoor festival? 

We sort of got thrust into the festival thing a few years back. There is sort of a big swing there. We definitely had to adjust our live set around a big open space like that. We use so many acoustic instruments and we use so many big dynamics. We’ve kind of honed it in we’ve done a lot of festivals now, we know what works and what doesn’t work. Hopefully the sun will be down a little bit when we come on. We’re not really a daylight kind of band. But we make it work. It gets hot in those monkey suits we wear.

How do you feel about helping to launch a new festival?

It’s exciting. We’ve always been huge fans of The Flaming Lips. I’ve been following them for years, so to play on the same festival as them is awesome for us. We’ve played the same festival once before, but it wasn’t the same kind of thing. We weren’t on the same stage. We got to say hi and that was about it. This will be great to be able to do our set and kick back and watch The Flaming Lips.

You’ve played here in Minneapolis several times before. What have your experiences been like?

We started off opening at the 7th St. Entry like everybody does, and you peek into that big room where Purple Rain took place and say ‘someday I’m gonna play there.’ There’s something about that room, the audience and the staff, they always make it a great show. That is honestly one of our favorite places to play. 

What’s your perception of the music scene here?

As an outsider, I have to say that I am extremely impressed. We’ve gotten to know some friends who live there and play in bands and stuff. It always seems like great stuff is coming out of there, maybe because it’s so cold in the winter. There’s nothing else to do but rock out in your basements, I don’t know. But it really seems like the audiences and the press are all really into it. It just seems like a great music town. I’m not even kissing ass, you don’t even need to print this, but as an outsider who’s lived in different cities, it seems like a really great place to be in a band.

The NPR station [The Current] there has been really, really good to us and I’ve been turned onto many great bands from them. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve gotten to play at classy joints like First Ave. They really keep their ear to the ground for new bands. They played us before we had any sort of recognition.

Both Minneapolis and your hometown are in what the mainstream music industry have long considered “flyover country.” And yet, you’re about to headline a major music festival here. Is that a sign that things have changed?

I think that those stereotypes have gone out the window. Especially if you look at a sampling of all the great bands today, they’re coming out of everywhere. Everywhere there’s basements and some kids you’re gonna have a great band. I get that a lot, being that the band is based in Denver. People want to lump you into those old stereotypes, because there were cowboys here like 100 years ago or whatever. It just doesn’t work anymore. The world has gotten too small. Every city in the country has become a magnet for immigrants from all over the world. The borders are changing, you know? It doesn’t matter where you are, there’s going to be great music coming out of that place, and people from all over the world. 

The world is getting smaller every day. So I don’t’ think that the thousands of miles of open farmland really matter anymore. Except when we have to drive through it to play!

Gates for the SoundTown Festival Open tonight. Music begins tomorrow. Tickets are still available. For more information, visit the official site