Nation of Language on “A Way Forward” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 28th, 2024  

Nation of Language on “A Way Forward”

Bringing New Magic

Feb 28, 2022 Issue #69 - 20th Anniversary Issue Photography by Ray Lego (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

If there was one unifying pursuit of all consumers of music in the past two years, it was for profound catharsis. We dove deeper into the catalogs of favorite artists in search of it. We caught virtual concerts that stood in for visits to our favorite neighborhood venues for a sense of connection. The introduction of a new band with the It factor that makes you beam with emotion, however, did seem like a phenomenon on indefinite hold. Enter Brooklyn’s Nation of Language.

It’s quite something to discover a band whose music elicits singing and dancing, shouting and crying, and remembering and reflecting all at once. The tingles and shivers, and that very specific lump in your throat you get from listening to evocative music are priceless reactions, and you get them in waves when listening to a Nation of Language song.

The immediate power of the music created by this breakout trio from Brooklyn is that it’s transportive, a quality which ingratiated them to the masses of harbored listeners isolated in pockets when their music first emerged in 2020. This is just what gives the first two albums—2020’s Introduction, Presence and 2021’s A Way Forward—a significance beyond their core splendor. The music distills nostalgia. Rather than try to disguise their direct early ’80s New Wave/post-punk influences, Nation of Language gladly cites them. Their magnetism as a band has a lot to do with how adoringly they emulate their heroes, grabbing their favorite elements from cherished records and embracing them warmly.

The band’s recognition has surged recently, helped by the sparkling A Way Forward, and the electricity in the air when people have gathered to see them perform is palpable. With a presence charged by the same kind of vivacity his music inspires, frontman Ian Richard Devaney delivers songs of synthesizer, guitar, and programmed percussion with crisp, concise, and clever structure, sprinkled with fairy dust layers of texture. Then, his beautiful, soaring voice brings the whole thing home. Joined by his wife Aidan Noell, keyboard player and self-professed “hype man” for Devaney, and bassist Michael Sue-Poi, who rolls through lines and riffs with a savior faire that makes it seem like he’s barely trying, Devaney commits to his music and its performance with irresistible sincerity.

Sometimes it all boils down to this: if you can sock-slide around your living room alone, voice bursting, eyes closed, a tiny little part of you picturing yourself on stage with onlookers swooning, an attachment has formed to the source of that elation, and you’ll follow where it leads. Finding their way forward with an outstretched hand to the past, Nation of Language has become the new band to follow with open hearts.

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar): The first thing that comes to mind when I think about your album is it feels very timely. Maybe it’s because it’s this ebullient, emotionally charged music right when everyone needs it.

Ian Richard Devaney: The vibe I get from people is that our music can serve multiple purposes depending on your mood. If you were feeling stuck at home and you just wanted to get a bunch of energy out, you could dance to it. If you wanted to mope a little, you could. The idea that there was emotional utility in multiple aspects to the songs came through.

It feels like a great record for coming out of the holes that people were in for so long. It’s the perfect kind of music for going out again.

Ian: We felt that too. We were obviously so excited to be on tour after that long period of time. To feel that buzz in the rooms as they are filling up is so electrifying.

Aidan Noell: Before the pandemic, we never sold a show out. The rooms would feel full and we were all having fun but there was still a calmness about it. There is something very different about these post-pandemic shows. People are acting like it may never happen again…like it’s the last night on earth.

When I saw you guys in Seattle, what jumped out at me right away was Ian’s stage presence. You had this command of the room and your dancing animated the music in a visually arresting way. Has that always come naturally to you or is it something you’ve grown into?

Ian: It always came naturally to me. I first started playing in bands in middle school and high school. I saw old footage of those shows and I was wild on stage. I don’t know what I was channeling because I didn’t really have any references at that point. Then when I got into punk music, I did the whole stand and shout sort of thing. But with this music, I’ve found my way back to dancing. There’s no plan really. You know when you see people speaking in tongues? It feels like that.

Aidan: It’s like an out-of-body experience.

Ian: Whatever I’m feeling, I’m going to go with it on stage. If I’m so excited that I want to do a weird thing, I do it. I think that’s what makes me addicted to performing. It’s the freedom to shout and throw my body around and shed the inhibition you have in 90 percent of the rest of daily life. The nature of this music being more intentionally danceable also gives a little more structure to the movements [laughs] because there’s a solid beat to follow. I see a lot of people dancing at the front of the stage during these new shows and it’s a back and forth that I’ve missed so much over the past two years. To be able to feel like you’re dancing with people you don’t know in a new space is a very specific and magical feeling.

The KEXP performance was pretty big for you guys. It seemed like one of those it’s all coming together moments. Did it feel that way?

Aidan: Definitely. Honestly, I don’t think we’d be where we are without John Richards. To be able to meet him and do anything for him was [a big deal].

Ian: Yeah, because we had been chatting with John a lot over the internet since he had found our music and was playing it all the time. Really all of KEXP, but especially John, was especially enthusiastic. To be able to talk to someone who you know likes really cool stuff and he’s telling you your stuff is cool, it’s validation. You say to yourself, “Whoa, my stuff must be cool!” Especially when we weren’t able to go out to play shows and get that crowd validation, to have that kind of support from him was so important. Also to be the first band back in that studio in 18 months. I was thinking how sweet it would be to play in the studio that I had been watching videos in for years. To actually step into that space was the coolest thing.

When I’m particularly moved by something, I’ve developed this tendency to want to understand why it’s so affecting. Your music takes me back to very formative encounters with film when I was very impressionable. I think of movies like Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful when during those culminating scenes, there were New Wave synth-pop songs playing behind the dialogue. Are you mindful of that association?

Ian: I think it’s a matter of form and function working well together. Because so many of our influences are from a certain era, those things happen to come together nicely. I’ve always liked writing about yearning or nostalgia or things that have been lost that can’t be gotten back. I was talking to someone last week about a friend of ours having a bad break-up and he told her to indulge in the things that she loved in their younger years to separate from the pain she was feeling. Our influences manifesting the way they do seem to remove people from the struggles of their current situations and take them back to whatever they simply enjoyed when they were younger. I don’t think I was even born yet when Pretty in Pink came out but there is something so quintessentially coming of age about it that you didn’t need to have been in high school at that time to automatically make that connection.

Aidan: It’s kind of a universal connection. We weren’t alive then but it’s still nostalgic for us. It’s funny because at some point on the tour we got interviewed by someone who thought that because of our ’80s New Wave influences, we were teens back then. When she arrived at the interview she said, “You guys look a lot younger than I thought you’d be.” [Laughs].

It’s more than just hearing these past bands in your music though. On A Way Forward, it’s as if that style is channeling through you more majestically. I hear more of a vibrant, celestial space that these melodies of the past are leaping into. I’m curious to know how that’s achieved production-wise.

Ian: Part of it is that the producers and engineers we worked with are so amazing, but we were having discussions before and during the recording related to what it is about that era of synth music that is so distinct and magical. I was also exposed to new things I hadn’t heard much when we were recording, like Laurie Spiegel and other early electronic artists. Sometimes when people make ’80s inspired music, there can be a bit of kitsch involved, but the earlier you go, that kind of gets eliminated. There’s no kitsch with Laurie Spiegel. We’re treating it with sincerity as opposed to a wink and a nod.

Speaking of Laurie Spiegel, I noticed you use that sort of use of arpeggio synth on songs like “In Manhattan” and “Former Self.”

Ian: Yes, there’s a blending of arpeggios going on in those songs and it was about trying to live in that similar space of things flowing over each other and cascading. It was so much fun to try those things in the studio.

Aidan: It’s definitely a new and exciting pocket for the band to live in. Ian’s voice flows so well over that. We were listening to a test pressing of the record yesterday and I had just gotten my eyes dilated so I was letting it all flow into my ears with my eyes closed. I got this rush of tingles because I was hearing so many sounds layered up. But you don’t feel overwhelmed by it. It’s very textural.

Some of your lyrics come across to me like haiku. For instance: “Crawl my way/Anytime/Rapid, Indirect Feelings/I qualify.” These little passages that you’re left to figure out in your own way as a listener.

Ian: Something I definitely strove to do more of on this record was to spend more time with the lyrics and create little vignettes of my life and my past. It’s nice to hear people at shows come up and talk about what these little moments mean to them or how they’re interpreting them. It’s really gratifying to hear because I spend a lot of time listening back through the songs and thinking that something about a line doesn’t feel right. There’s a lot of editing and re-editing. “A Word and A Wave” is a good example. Originally it was just the first verse and it had established this little world so clearly for me that the second verse I added just flowed out immediately. I don’t usually write that fast. It was cool that the walls had been built around me with that first verse and I knew what that place was.

What’s it like for you guys as a married couple in an artistic endeavor? Are there strengths and weaknesses that the other one balances out?

Ian: More than balancing out strengths and weaknesses, it’s trying to keep each other inspired and creative.

Aidan: I have unfettered confidence in Ian and I’m his champion trying to push him towards everyone, which he won’t necessarily do on his own. I’m happy that I can help him present himself to the world but in an integral way and not just as his wife on the side going, “He’s great!” I force him to do things because I know what’s possible for him. I have big dreams for him.

Ian: No one would have ever heard of Nation of Language if Aidan wasn’t in the band. I might not have even told people I made music.

How aware are you of being a New York band? I’m from here and I haven’t been as excited about a New York band since the early 2000s. No disrespect to the bands that emerged here in the past few years but there hasn’t been that breakout group for a while. I feel like you guys are a big jolt to the scene here.

Aidan: I feel like that comes up a lot. People keep saying that there hasn’t really been a New York scene that’s known outside the city for a while.

Ian: All those bands really felt like New York bands, but from what I’ve gathered, history has written all of them as being closer than they actually were. So, if there’s a scene like that beginning again, I might not know about it. Growing up with my dad being into bands like Blondie and Talking Heads and the whole ’70s New York scene and me being in high school when The Strokes and Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were my favorite bands, it felt like we were getting our own little version of that. I definitely want to be known as a New York band.

I don’t want to boost you too high but it felt amazing to hear a voice like yours in this scene again. Tunde Adebimpe, and Karen O, and Paul Banks, and Hamilton Leithauser all had these distinct, powerful voices.

Ian: They really did. It was an era of incredible front people.

You have that kind of voice. My heart just soars when I hear it.

Aidan: I agree. There’s nothing like it now in my opinion.

[Note: This article originally appeared as a bonus article in the digital version Issue 69 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, our 20th Anniversary Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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