COVER STORY | Nation of Language Find a New Devotion

The Brooklyn band reflects on the complexities of obsession, the joys of cross-generational fandom and the construction of their latest opus, Strange Disciple

Music Features Nation of Language
COVER STORY | Nation of Language Find a New Devotion

The origins of Nation of Language are blurry. Their debut album, Introduction, Presence, arrived in May 2020—but Ian Devaney had been messing around with bass guitar and synth-driven songwriting for a half-decade by that point. He was singing lead in a Westfield band called The Static Jacks, but the quartet was aiming to call it quits around the mid-2010s. Devaney had no initial intentions of starting a new project, preferring to just investigate his own curiosities without any restrictions of expectations around him. After religiously composing on the guitar in a rock format, he began pounding on the guitar—stepping into an electronic and post-punk headspace that, pretty immediately, became the perfect vessel for his songwriting—and the people around him started taking a shine to what was pouring out of him. “The first three songs I wrote happened so fast, and there was this new thrill to songwriting that made me want to create and create and create all the time,” Devaney says. “The fact that other people were like, ‘Let’s go play these songs in front of people,’ was great, because I probably would have just kept sitting in my basement and building a folder of demos that never saw the light of day.”

If you’re at all familiar with Nation of Language and their catalog, then you likely can draw throughlines between them and acts like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Future Islands—these great, synth-driven bands with enigmatic, larger-than-life frontmen like George McCluskey and Samuel T. Herring. Devaney’s first foray into synth-pop came through hearing OMD’s “Electricity,” a truth that is so widely present in the Nation of Language biography that it’s basically a subheading of their existence by now. When Devaney came across that track, he’d been pretty immersed in the world of punk music—in a self-proclaimed phase of believing that everything should be stripped back and no-bullshit. His parents had always been the ones to introduce him to the songs that would become foundational for him. “In middle school, my dad would be like, ‘You should check out this band Interpol, I think you’re gonna like them.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, Dad.’ Usually, I feel like that goes the opposite way or it doesn’t go at all, but I was just very fortunate. They were going to see Devo and Talking Heads in the ‘80s, and I just got to inherit that,” Devaney adds.

What was especially pulling him into the orbit of “Electricity” was a combination of the arrangement’s downstroke tempo, how you could hear every instrument so clearly—including the drums and bass that aren’t quite lined up—and the lyrical construction of needing renewable resources for energy production in the 1980s. It was a merger of minimalism that would infiltrate Devaney’s post-Static Jacks oeuvre. “In the early days, there was a philosophy, when I would write a song, that it had to be simple,” he explains. “It had to be that anyone could walk up and join the band—because many things were repetitive and nothing was programmed.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Devaney’s spouse Aidan Noell joined Nation of Language—and, at that time, she didn’t play an instrument. It was an easy transition for her at first, because the setup was smaller and the band was using user-friendly synthesizers—like a MicroKORG and a Moog Sub Phatty Analog—and presets were dialed in for her. What brought her into the band was, truthfully, a mode of necessity. Most of the original members of the band when it formed had moved away for jobs and Devaney and Noell moved to Brooklyn from Jersey and found themselves not yet assimilated into any kind of network. “Ian was like, ‘Well, shit, I don’t know anyone. I guess this is it.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s right,’” Noell mentions. “I really liked the music a lot and I really believe in Ian and his dreams and his goals of making a career out of music. So I was like, ‘If you think you can teach me, I will do as much as it takes to keep this project in motion.’ So, he gave me a shot.” Devaney quickly mentions that that anecdote speaks to his and Noell’s personalities more broadly. “Me being so quick to despair; her being like, ‘No, just do it.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, fine,’” he adds, chuckling.

As the band continued to grow and Noell got more and more familiar with the broadness of her keyboards’ palettes, the way she was able to channel her own onstage energy began to erupt, too. “I’ve been able to be more live as I’m playing the songs and manipulate the sounds throughout to give the songs more depth when we’re playing,” she says. “At first, if you had seen me perform, it was very much like, ‘I have to remember what the melody is and that is all I’m thinking about, remembering how to play these songs—rote memorization. Now, I’m performing and I’m having fun and I can adapt to the vibe of Ian and the vibe of Alex [MacKay] and we can interact in a way that I was afraid to do at first.”

The dynamic of being married and also being in a band offers a layer of symbiosis and unflinching support between Devaney and Noell, one that bleeds into their own creative partnership together. It gives the Nation of Language catalog an expanded life, and Devaney has deeply adored watching Noell adapt to whatever is thrown her way. “She’s playing two different things on two synths at the same time, and I’m like, ‘That’s hard, I’m not good at that.’ And I’ve been playing piano since I was six years old—which, actually, I should probably be better at doing,” Devaney explains. “That, maybe, says more about me, but watching someone go from not playing an instrument to playing two separate keyboards at the same time, it’s so exciting and it makes you feel proud and inspired—in the sense that it takes a level of dedication that, I think, not everyone necessarily has. To feel that someone is so dedicated to the stupid songs you’re making is pretty unreal.”

I wouldn’t call the songs stupid, though. Earlier this summer, we crowned Nation of Language’s sophomore album—A Way Forwardthe 22nd greatest synth-pop album of all time. Some tracks from that project, like “Across That Fine Line,” “The Grey Commute” and “Wounds of Love,” are, perhaps, three of the best electronic constructions of this decade. Yesterday morning, I texted my friend about the band’s latest single, “Sightseer,” which had just hit streaming. “I don’t get how they manage to sound so ‘80s,” she replies. “It’s just so effortless, and yet they sound so new,” I say back. And that much is true: Nation of Language are one of the only bands that sound like they’re from 1982 in a way that’s not heavy-handed or retro for the sake of trying to trace over someone else’s work. The work they do is not nostalgic or coming from a copycat place. You might point a finger to Cabaret Voltaire or early New Order and make a comparison or two, but the work is so fresh and contemporary that it outmuscles any true intersection—and that is the work of a band that is as timeless as they are revolutionary.

Devaney and Noell have been married for a few years now. Rather than put traditional wares and appliances on their wedding registry, they requested money so they could fund Introduction, Presence. And, despite spending a majority of their days on the road in various cities across the world, they still haven’t gone on a honeymoon together. After A Way Forward came out and they toured it, they came home and went directly into writing and recording mode—only to have that snowball back into playing gigs. For them, Nation of Language is a cyclical storm that they are always in the eye of. “People are always giving us shit,” Noell says. “And they’re like, ‘You’ve traveled the world!’” “And I’m like, ‘It’s different,’” Devaney adds. “It is different, because we’re lugging our gear and are surrounded by our friends that are also our crew,” Noell replies.

Nation of Language made their network debut in January 2022 on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert—where they played “Across That Fine Line.” Initially, it was supposed to just be an exclusive clip on the program’s YouTube channel as a way of supporting and promoting bands after COVID restrictions made it impossible to get bands into the studio. Devaney and Noell got their friends together and recorded the track at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, cooking up a perfect rendition of their biggest track. “Apparently, after they watched the video, they really liked it and decided they would put it on live television,” Noell says. “It was really exciting for us. We had already seen the cut, because it had been sent in, but even still, as it was happening on live TV, I remember Ian was hiding behind his shirt.” “I was so nervous,” Devaney adds. “I was like, ‘I know what’s going to happen and, yet, I’m terrified.’ I had a blanket over my face and then, all of a sudden, it was over. It was amazing to watch Colbert hold up the album and say the band’s name.”

Devaney and Noell sit together on a couch in their Brooklyn home. Behind them is a Christian Little painting of a friar wearing a dollface mask. He holds his hands up, contorting them into a quasi-romantic pose—a pose based off of Devaney’s own hands. A mirror at his knees reflects his own upper body; he’s praying and aching over his own guise, a student of devotion whose affection has rendered him a fool. It’s the image that graces the cover of the newest Nation of Language album, Strange Disciple—a pairing of bizarre and clownish eccentricities with the sublime absurdity of dedication; a thesis statement of the record altogether.

Strange Disciple marks the band’s first release since putting out their first two records back to back in 2020 and 2021. What factored into them taking an extra year to make their third album was, to put it plainly, a large tour itinerary. They didn’t play many gigs in-between Introduction, Presence and A Way Forward, and making up for that gap consumed most of Devaney and Noell’s 2022. Just before 2023 hit, they finished Strange Disciple—unfurling the perennial release calendar they’d set for themselves a year prior. “We would go away, come back for a bit and record. Go away, come back for a bit and record,” Devaney notes. “When bands are able to do a record—or multiple records—per year and also tour, I don’t know how that’s possible. When you’re releasing a record, you want five or six months to have it done and get it ready and make sure the vinyl is getting pressed. I don’t know how they do it, maybe we just toured too much.”

But you can never tour too much. However, this latest string of shows Nation of Language has been playing has felt like, for the first time since before the pandemic, in Devaney’s own words, that they’re “auditioning new material for people and trying to win them over.” It’s an exciting feeling for him and Noell and MacKay, but it’s also a different ballgame—given that, freshly out of lockdown, fans knew the songs from the first two albums. What remains a standout, integral piece of Nation of Language’s live repertoire is Devaney’s performance style. When he’s on stage and I’m watching him perform, there’s this obvious truth that the music is running through him and not just pouring out of him. Devaney’s relationship with the theatrics and energies of how he interacts with the confines and limitations of a live space had a lot to do with the pandemic forcing him to sit still.

“It was the first time I was not able to perform things that I had written,” he says. “In my mind, it was always like, ‘Hey, you write songs, you play them, this is all one thing.’ I came to realize that they’re distinct art forms. I get different things out of the writing process, the recording process and the performance process.” “Without the live performance aspect [during COVID], we were feeling very restless,” Noell chimes in.

“It’s, basically, primal scream therapy,” Devaney adds. “We were watching some crazy Instagram reel where someone was speaking in tongues in a spiritual—but not religious—way. And I’m like, ‘That’s basically what I’m doing, in terms of my physicality. You just let it flow out of you and you don’t think about it. You let the moment carry you on. I mean, most people don’t get to do that—so I do feel very lucky that, now that we get to perform again, most people can’t yell in a room full of people. They clap, they’re like, ‘Sir, please leave. This is a Wendy’s.’ The live experience to me is just letting myself go and letting the music carry me and flow through me. And then, suddenly, it’s got some sort of mystic element to it—and that’s very rewarding.”

Last year, Nation of Language released two singles—“Androgynous” and “From the Hill”—but neither of them wound up on Strange Disciple, which was a deliberate choice by the band in an effort to stay true to their pre-LP days. “I really like not being confined to complete album cycles,” Devaney says. “There’s so much material that would just never get heard if I was like, ‘This has to be on a record.’ Thus far, I’ve preferred our albums to be fairly concise, where they’re each 10 songs. If you have some sort of vision for what the album is supposed to sound like but you also like the song, you don’t want it to go away and you don’t want to force it in. So, having the flexibility to just be like, ‘Well, here’s this one—we’ll put out a seven-inch, or something,’ it frees you up to write whatever you want—because you don’t have to have the pressure of fitting it in exactly with everything else.”

When spring rolled through this year, so did Nation of Language—as they put out “Sole Obsession” and ushered in a new era of their work, one that would take the political throughlines of consumerism from A Way Forward and fashion them into a recurring motif of devotion on Strange Disciple. It feels like a natural progression, the way in which Devaney’s songwriting has evolved into this bigger and more intimate discussion around the intricacies and dynamics around obsession—be it cultural, romantic or mental. He’s not certain what propelled him into that place, but he offers one possible reason: “Maybe I just like listening to too much Leonard Cohen,” he says. “I really like how he could take, what seemed like it was going to be a regular love song, and then twist the knife in this weird way and make you be like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of fucked up.’”

For a song like “Too Much, Enough,” Devaney was thinking a lot about media oversaturation—especially in the Fox News, rage-bait realm—and how it connects with society’s propensity to devour what’s in front of us, whether it’s true or not. And that bridges the gap with subscription services and outrage politics becoming advertising space—poking fun at the people who are very good at convincing you to buy into what they’re selling. When you factor in the romantic obsession angle, Strange Disciple becomes, at its core, a look inwards on how our collective humanities have become so susceptible to shedding itself for an emotional or physical product. “I wanted the record to be about when you are focused so much on something that everything else around starts to warp,” Devaney adds.

A Way Forward and Introduction, Presence were records that felt so indebted to New York City—especially on tracks like “On Division St” and “In Manhattan.” But the world shifts on Strange Disciple, as the visions emerge as landmarks of cathedrals and bedrooms and cinematic spaces where the details are blurred because the focus is on the emotions between the people populating the songs. Inspiration from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Ingrid Bergman’s The Seventh Seal can be found across the album’s decorations. But how often Devaney is gravitating towards relationships with physical places is not the type of consistent urge that his music might otherwise suggest.

“On our last album, on ‘A Word & a Wave,’ for some reason, as I was writing it, I was like, ‘Portland, Maine. This song is taking place in Portland, Maine,’” he says. “So, we drove up to Portland, Maine and shot the music video there. I was like, ‘I don’t know why, but I guess I’m gonna follow this instinct.’” But that instinct doesn’t return as greatly on Strange Disciple. Devaney was, instead, thinking a lot about being on tour and being in many different places—how, when you get to exciting destinations, you only have a few hours to walk around and explore. In turn, there’s an excited, urban walking pace floating across the songs that differentiates with the precise, geographical energy of A Way Forward. The lyrics became less specific because Devaney and Noell weren’t stuck in New York City with nothing to do but write and record.

For Strange Disciple, Nation of Language called upon Nick Millhiser to lend some of his creative visions to the record. Millhiser had produced half of A Way Forward and lent his studio of old gear to Devaney and Noell, who were able to take the quirks of those instruments and parts and use them to inject the music with uniqueness and spontaneity. “If you listen to the album, you’ll hear us sending synths through a tape delay but one part of the tape is messed up—so you get these weird little warble spins,” Devaney says. “There’s all of these imperfections that, to me, make everything feel a bit more alive and make things breathe more and feel natural—which I think is good, especially when you’re making synth music which, for so many people, feels unnatural in some way. To be able to provide as much character and imperfection as possible is always a good thing.”

The instrumentation on Strange Disciple is unlike anything the band has done before. On a track like “Sightseer,” you can find all of the familiar Nation of Language fixtures—the push and pull of minimalist arrangements that blossom into an explosive unraveling, all done beneath the gloss of woozy, beautiful electronica. The band making these denser, bolder and bigger songs was always a path that was visible—and Millhiser’s contributions were definitely a huge part in shouldering them into that place, as he was able to preserve what works in a Nation of Language song while also building out each track’s smallness. The result is an immensity that comes alive more and more with every passing chapter, a living room and nightclub album drunk on technicolor, dancing and candy-coated longing.

Strange Disciple evokes a stirring maximalism through vignettes and a cloud of splashy, arresting opulence. Album opener “Weak In Your Light” follows a pulsing metronome of erotic, low-octave key turns—which allow for Devaney to take his own vocals into these operatic, church-clearing ranges. “Stumbling Still” offers a tangible, muted pop tone bustles in conversation with a drum machine—only to tumble into a titanic, appetizing arrangement of malleable dance-floor brushstrokes. “Sole Obsession” is a strobe light wilting beneath the reign of delicacy, as synth blades swing outwards, MacKay’s bass-lines throb like dancing veins and Devaney adopts a bravado of low bellowing—punctuating the track’s attempt to untangle the knots of infatuation.

It’s there that the album arrives at a grand proclamation: “Walk me home and walk away, too far along to operate. Don’t offer me this measured attention, end the cycle,” Devaney sings. “I must stop limiting myself, you and your sensational soul, ornamentation and all—empty idol, strange disciple.” The most intimate spaces on Strange Disciple exist where yearning, overstimulation and foolishness greet one another—where the frustrations around the depraved potential of our desensitized culture and our volcanic crushes on beautiful people form a crossroads of interpersonal chaos.

“They’re Beckoning,” the closing track from A Way Forward, served as a catalyst for how Devaney wanted to approach the ethos of Strange Disciple. It was through the experience of releasing the demoitis around that track in the studio—forgoing the desire to recreate exactly what they tracked on the rough sketches and, instead, letting go and giving into the moment—that Nation of Language was able to embrace the imperfections and freewheeling casualness of their own creative process. Constriction was erased from their vocabulary, and Strange Disciple is a blown-up, successful imagining that erases the limiting confines of a rough draft. It’s, in no minced words, the band’s greatest document yet.

When Nation of Language first started, they were gaining a lot of fans who were kids in the 1980s and 1990s listening to OMD and the Human League and Talk Talk records. Devaney and Noell have created something that has grown immune to the generational gap that, sometimes, interferes with pop music’s momentum. And the age range at their shows only continues to widen. “There was a guy and his son, who were together at one of the festivals we played recently, and the kid walked over to me—he was, maybe, about my age—and he was like, ‘I don’t think my dad has danced like that since he was 18 years old.’ And his dad came over and was like, ‘He’s right.’ That’s incredible,” Devaney says. “What a gift to be able to give someone—to be able to let go like that and feel like that,” Noell adds. “Especially when it’s two generations, at the same time, talking to you about it.”

What’s most rewarding, however, about watching Nation of Language continue to outpace themselves on every record is getting such an intimate, meticulous view into a band building a body of work around their own name. Slowly and scattered across every album, what they are creating is a country of grandeur and electronic visage. The pandemic afforded them an opportunity to find an audience without the expectations of backing that interest up with immediate live gigs. Everyone got to live inside of the songs first. Now, the band is noticing how word-of-mouth and community is bringing more new faces into every crowd and offering the space for more new voices to sing every word right back at Devaney. It’s not just a matter of Nation of Language making music, releasing it and then playing gigs anymore. Folks have stories attached to these songs and these records—which aren’t smash hits but, instead, the truest presentations of what the band has to offer the world—and it’s something that Devaney gets noticeably choked up about.

“We had this one group of people come up to us after a show, and they were like, ‘We’re all here because our friend—who just passed away—introduced us to your band and we all would just listen to your album together. And now he’s gone, but we still have this record,’” he says. “And I just started crying. I’m about to start crying now. Again, these are just my stupid songs—I can’t believe people care that much. That’s just the biggest reward. We did a record, it worked out. We did a second record, it worked out. We did a third record, we’ll see.”

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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