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“A Way Forward feels a bit more like a journey”, says Nation of Language’s singer Ian Richard Devaney when comparing their forthcoming new album with 2020’s breakthrough debut Introduction, Presence. “A lot of people seemed to appreciate the first album as a whole record, so it felt appropriate to lean into that a little bit more and allow for a more space.”
The fast rising Brooklyn three-piece retain the expansive, synth-driven sound of their first LP, which featured the hypnotically beautiful On Division St and hazy, neon-tinged The Motorist, but crank up the confidence, turning to the likes of Kraftwerk and Cluster for inspiration for a cohesive, sonically diverse trip.
Its creation resulted in one of the year’s best singles in the BBC Radio 6 Music A-listed This Fractured Mind and the equally genius The Grey Commute – a cascading track that’s buoyed along with an LCD Soundsystem-esque bassline and Devaney’s soaring vocals before blossoming into a enthralling, otherworldly crescendo. It’s truly a “journey” of its own.
But if you think those efforts are good, and rightfully so, wait until you hear what the rest of the record has in store.
“I’m really excited for people to hear the opening track, called In Manhattan, as well as a song called Whatever You Want”, Devaney reveals to Daily Star. “They’ve both been dear to me for a long time so finally being able to give them over to everyone is really exciting.”
And while the Covid-enforced global lockdowns may have felt like a huge punch in the collective guts of bands, artists, and the music industry as a whole, Nation of Language, who also includes Devaney’s wife Aidan Noell and Michael Sui-Poi, saw their stock soar as a growing fanbase latched onto, and connected with, Introduction, Presence – relating to “melancholy aspects of the music” but also providing a release of pent up energy through dance, Devaney explains.
Now the focus turns to A Way Forward, out on November 5 via PIAS.
Daily Star caught up with Devaney to find out more about A Way Forward’s creation, Nation of Language’s influences, how they spent lockdown, and their scheduled return to the UK next year.
The band first formed, according to internet lore, when Ian heard Electricity by OMD for the first time. How did that initial process of moving from predominantly writing on guitar in previous acts to synths feel to begin with? Exciting? Daunting? Could the guitar become more prominent in NOL in future?
“It wasn’t actually the first time – I heard it a lot as a kid and loved it but it had just fallen out of rotation for a long time. Hearing it again after all those years transported me to my childhood in a profound way while also providing this kind of revelation that synth music could have a kind of simple punky energy to it.
“A lot of the synth music I was listening to at the time erred more on the side of being very lush, which I love, but the simplicity of Electricity and its instrumentation made it feel like something I could achieve. It was definitely an exciting time – there wasn’t the thought of forming a real band at first – it was more of a fun writing exercise for myself – but once I finished the first song I instantly started in on another, and then another, and just never stopped.
“I’d say the guitar is already starting to come back into play a bit. There are three or four songs on A Way Forward that bring the guitar into the light a bit more, and a handful of demos for LP3 have some fairly prominent guitar. It’s nice to not be so completely reliant on it the way I used to be though. It’s just another tool at my disposal now to keep things exciting for myself.”
As well as those early OMD songs, did you discover any further gems from that era that have remained a strong influence?
“The Human League albums Reproduction and Dare! were really important and I still love those, as well as the album Cold War Night Life by Rational Youth. I was starting to get into Kraftwerk back then but hadn’t yet immersed myself in it like I would end up doing.”
During the extended lockdown, when a lot of groups’ momentum stalled, Nation Of Language’s fanbase only grew. What do you put that down to? As a group how frustrating was it to be stuck at home at a time where it was clear there was demand for your music and demand to see the group playing in person? Now that you’re back playing shows again, how has it been for you so far?
“Now that we get to be out at shows and talk to people, we’ve been hearing from a lot of people that the record had this kind of dual usefulness to them during lockdown – they could sit with it and live in the more melancholy aspects of the music, but they could also blast it and dance around the house and try to let out all the energy that was getting pent up.
“It was really hard to be stuck at home. On one hand we were just amazed that people were finding and connecting with our music, but the inability to go out and meet those people and interact was a very strange phenomenon. It’s like someone reassuring you that your dreams are coming true without providing any physical evidence.
“We felt a bit of pressure to set up some kind of live stream situation, but we decided against it because we didn’t want that to be anyone’s first impression of what kind of live band we are. We rely so much on the exchange of energy you get from truly being there in the room with one another.
“Finally being able to get back to it has been such a cathartic experience. It feels like there are so many emotions trying to fight their way to the front that by the end we’re all just completely spent, but still somehow buzzing.
During that downtime, what other art inspired you? Any books, films or TV that really hooked you in?
“I really loved reading How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. It looks at the history of scientific research around psychedelics and how it was cut off for decades by our cultural panic around drugs of any kind. There seems to be such promise in finding ways to incorporate psychedelics into the mental health field – it was a nice dose of optimism and wonder for such a dark and confined time.
“I watched the Werner Herzog movie Fitzcarraldo, and then its making-of documentary, Burden of Dreams. That was a bizarre and heavy phase. I like watching movies about other people’s ambition and the strange things it can do to them, and that pairing of fiction and non-fiction was really interesting.”
Brooklyn is a prolific, storied place when it comes to music, do you find the scene there supportive or is there more a sense of individual cliques? Are there other acts that you are close to?
“It’s always felt very supportive to me. Having seen glimpses of the scenes in other cities, there does seem to be a more competitive nature to Brooklyn, but it’s never felt unhealthy. I think it’s mostly a product of it being a very expensive place to live – everyone’s got jobs and side gigs and is also trying to make music, so there’s a kind of vivacious urgency to things.
“We’ve been able to get closer to Public Practice and The Wants being on tour together which has been amazing, but we’re friends with Holy Ghost!, Gustaf, Kolezanka, Fair Visions… the list grows longer all the time. All of us want success for each other.”
Nation Of Language have rightly seen all manner of plaudits and over here in the UK you’ve also seen This Fractured Mind A-listed on 6 Music. Has there been one clear moment in the band’s life so far where you realised: this is really starting to happen?
“It has been more like a string of humbling surprises. Any thoughtful review of the music, any time a song gets played on the radio, the main emotion is grateful disbelief.
“When lockdowns first started we really thought that it was all over for us. We had built our entire life around the band – Aidan and I told our wedding guests we’d rather they gave us money instead of regular gifts, which we then used to actually go into the studio and make the record instead of going on a honeymoon.
“All of the years of writing and playing shows felt like they were building to this moment, and then we suddenly felt so helpless. Anything happening for us at all after all that is really beyond comprehension.”
Your excellent new album A Way Forward is coming early November. How do you feel it differs from your debut? Are there any songs on there, outside of the singles that we’ve heard, that you’re especially proud of and excited to share?
“I think A Way Forward feels a bit more like a journey – a lot of people seemed to appreciate the first album as a whole record, so it felt appropriate to lean into that a little bit more and allow for a more space.
“We tried to trace back to the influences of our early influences – there’s a little more early electronic and krautrock in the mix this time around. I’m really excited for people to hear the opening track, called In Manhattan, as well as a song called Whatever You Want. They’ve both been dear to me for a long time so finally being able to give them over to everyone is really exciting.”
You also sing with Machinegum – a project featuring The Strokes’ Fab Moretti. How did that come about? How did you come to know The Strokes to begin with? Do you anticipate further music to come from that project in future?
“When Aidan was at grad school, a friend from class came out to a Nation of Language show, where she was one of probably 10 people, and took a video on her phone to show her boyfriend. It turned out her boyfriend at the time was Fab, who had been working on songs for a while and wanted a singer to collaborate with.
“We started hanging out and he’d play me some demos and ask what I thought but it never occurred to me he’d want me involved in any way so all his hints about collaboration were just flying right over my head.
“The Strokes and Little Joy were both so important to me that to get to work with Fab was really fulfilling. We’ve started working on more material but we’ve both gotten so busy post-quarantine that there isn’t as much time for us to get together and work on those songs. There will definitely be more music, though.”
If you could collaborate with any artist past and present, who would you choose?
“These kinds of questions are usually hypothetical, but working with Fab has been a realisation of a dream collaboration for me. He’s really an inspiring artist, both musically and visually, and I have such respect for his attention to detail and meaning in everything he does.
“Not only have we worked on Machinegum together, but we were able to assist him on a huge art project he developed for Sotheby’s gallery in New York. He’s also come on tour as Nation of Language’s bass player when Mike couldn’t make it. I asked him mostly as a joke, not thinking he would agree to playing basement shows in Chicago and Nashville, but he was all in. He’s supported my art genuinely and it means a lot to call him a collaborator.”
Ahead of your return to the UK next year, is there anything culturally you’re looking forward to seeing when you’re over here at all? Have you visited the UK much before?
“We’d love to be able to get to as many museums as possible, but unfortunately on most tours the schedule is so tight that there’s very little time to explore beyond the immediate neighbourhood we’re playing. Getting to know those neighbourhoods is always cool, but you always get a sense there’s a lot you’re missing out on.
“Nation of Language played a small self-booked UK/European tour in 2017, which was an exception to this rule – we intentionally left ourselves time to explore each city. I also proposed to Aidan on that tour in London. Lots of great memories made then, so we’re really looking forward to getting back over there.”
As well as playing together in the band, you’re a married couple. Does that closeness bring anything extra to the dynamic of the group, do you think?
“There’s definitely a helpful nonverbal communication that we’re capable of, but I also have that in my own way with Mike, as we’ve played music together for over a decade now. We are definitely a family of sorts, and I think that bond comes across on stage.”
The world can seem a particularly challenging place at the moment, as people is there a way you’ve found to stay positive and look after your mental health these last couple of years?
“Staying focused on writing and recording has always been the best way to stay positive for me – looking ahead and trying to challenge myself keeps me engaged with the creative part of my brain and helps stave off the existential dread.”
The new album is out very soon but during the downtime pre-touring did you find yourself writing further material? Do you think we will be waiting a long time on album three or do you have material ready already?
“There is material that I’ve been working on since we finished recording A Way Forward, but most of my mental energy has been going towards this album release.
“We design the artwork, the posters, the merch, and put together many of the music videos ourselves, which takes up a ton of time. It’s incredibly rewarding to do this kind of complete world-building with the music and the visual elements of the band, but it does take up a lot of the energy I would typically reserve for writing.
“Until very recently we’ve done all aspects of this without a label or anything, so even the logistics of invoicing and hand-delivering records to shops have been aspects of being in a band that people don’t typically think about but require attention. I’m hoping to find some time in between tours where I can get back into the swing of writing.”
A Nation of Language’s A Way Forward is out on November 5 via PIAS
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