Lil’ Miss Sunshine (updated to 2020 lingo), Everything Is Illuminated and the Emmy award winning TV show Weeds. What do these have in common? They all feature inspiring, yet heart wrenching tunes from the genre bending quartet, DeVotchKa. From dark cabaret to indie folk to gypsy punk, you’d think the band’s origins would be somewhere in Eastern Europe as they wander from village to village entertaining the locals who lurk in the dark and seedy yet lively burlesque shows in an effort to escape their poor farming life of the past, much to their parent’s dismay. But nah brah, they middle class residents of Denver, yo!
Mr. Tom Hagerman is a huge factor of their unique take on music and being the multi-instrumentalist that he is (a strict requirement to join DeVotchKa), it’s lent him quite a diverse range of sounds in his other project Post Truth Serum. You can still hear the influences he brings to DeVotchKa in his new project, namely the soaring violins, but he also mixes in some new ingredients in the pot: gothic new wave synths, distorted, heavy bass and more.
In his newest video “WORMS”, he follows four of his daughters in a dreamy, colored pencil animation complete with animal masks, flying donuts and other fun bits all to the tune of this epic, symphony of sounds. Tom takes a few moments to chat with us about his take of balancing music and family, life and death and everything in between.
What’s your musical background? Why were you not satisfied to just play guitar and sing like everyone else? It’s because you want to make us all jealous, innit?
I started off on piano probably around age 6 or 7 then switched to violin in the 4th grade when the public schools offered a string program. You could start a stringed instrument in 4th grade and a band instrument (trumpet, sax maybe percussion?) In the 5th grade. My friend’s brother had an electric bass and an instructional sort of “how to play bass” video with Flea and River Phoenix. I suppose that was my first introduction with rock instruments. I went on to major in violin performance in college and played bass in a goth band more or less. Actually the guy that mixed the Post Truth Serum record was the singer. I became pretty fascinated with the music of Astor Piazolla and I wanted to play bandoneon, but those instruments are hard to find and expensive, not to mention really difficult to play. I found an accordion in New York when I lived there and kind of taught myself. I’m not the original accordion player for Devotchka. John Ellison who used to play bass in the band doubled on accordion. I kind of took over accordion duties after he left the band.
Like all musicians, your work during COVID-19 has taken a dramatic turn. Tell us something positive from being stuck at home.
It’s great to be home with my family. I’m trying to be productive musically, but it’s been hard to get it together for some reason. It’s been a good time to reflect a bit on the future of things I suppose, but it’s also a truly alarming time for our country. It’s great to see folks standing in solidarity for racial justice and police reform, but it’s alarming to see the confusion and disinformation surrounding all of the current events. I’m grateful to be alive I suppose. Things could be worse.
A couple of years ago, you were diagnosed with a form of cancer. How has that played into your role as a father, husband and your work as a musician?
Cancer sucks. I’m lucky in some regards, I have a type of non Hodgkin’s lymphoma that is easily treated, but as of now, not curable. Statistically, it’s supposed to come back at some point in which case they beat it down again and again until they can’t. I should be around for a while at least. You get 100 years—more or less right? Some people get a lot less I suppose. I just need to make sure my family’s in a good enough spot in life. As a musician, I’m starting to feel like time is moving a lot faster. Maybe the things I thought were important aren’t so important, but there is a lot I still want to do. I can tell you that I don’t want to die. That would truly be a bummer.
Tom, from organizing orchestras for touring bands such as The Flaming Lips to working with the Colorado Symphony, you’ve got your hands in pretty much everything music-wise in Denver. How and when did this monopoly develop and how long until you delve into the fast-food business?
The fast food business might be right around the corner if the pandemic keeps up! I’m not sure what the future of making a living playing music is really going to look like. Are those unrealistic expectations these days? I’m not sure. I certainly don’t have any sort of monopoly on the Denver music scene. There are a couple of other arrangers in town, definitely a lot of musicians of all sorts. Some great songwriters. I suppose I’ve been a bit of a Swiss Army knife in music. I’m useful for a lot of situations, but I certainly know better fiddle players, better songwriters, arrangers that are way faster and so on and so forth. I‘m not trying to be humble or anything. I don’t want to sell myself short either, I know I’m more or less good at what I do and whatever it is I’ve got to offer is you know… what I’ve got to offer. I suppose I was just not able really to focus-in on one thing in music specifically, or better yet, I just tried to fill the vessel for which I was needed. You’ve gotta just keep going until you can’t on whatever path you are on and there is no shame in flipping some burgers along the way.
How do your daughters feel about their dad being a rock star? Does everyone in their schools know about DeVotchKa, Post Truth Serum and your work as a composer?
People use the term “rock star” all the time these days. Rock Star nanny, rock star office administrator etc… I’m not sure if the term really means anything anymore. I have a friend in the music biz that once said he felt more like a rock asteroid than a star or something. I always felt more like a comet. My orbit around rock stars is highly elliptical. Rock stars have all sorts of people in their orbit that help prop them up and in turn prop up the “satellites” In their orbit. I feel like I’m racing around in a highly elliptical orbit. Sometimes around stars and sometimes around dwarf planets, maybe eventually to be cast out into the nether regions of intergalactic space. Or burn up in the process?
What do you foresee in the future regarding your musicianship and family life?
I’m going to do the best I can and keep going until I can’t.
https://youtu.be/gk43Tb5zINk (Worms MV)