Band To Watch: Nation Of Language

Michael Devaney

Band To Watch: Nation Of Language

Michael Devaney

It was all this close to really happening. Ian Devaney’s high-school band, the punk-leaning alt-rock group Static Jacks, had already achieved some form of the dream thousands of other high school bands have to leave behind at some point or another. They’d signed a record deal, released an album, toured the country and a bit of the world, started to see things percolate. As they prepared to release their sophomore album in the fall of 2013, internal expectations were high.

“Everyone working with us was like ‘Everything you had last time? Forget it, this is going to be the big time,” Devaney remembers. “And it just wasn’t.” Like thousands of bands before them, the Static Jacks had seemed to be right there, right before their moment. And instead, things just sort of … fizzled.

Devaney, then in his early 20s, found himself on the other side of a stillborn album with an inactive band, and decamped to his New Jersey hometown to regroup, to figure out what was next. He was driving around with his father, who put on a song Devaney remembered from childhood: OMD’s “Electricity.” It was the first time Devaney had heard the song in, he figures, about a decade, and something woke up. “It sparked my mind,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘I’m going to write a song that sounds just like this.’”

Back then, it was just an exercise. There was no vision for a band. Not even a full-fledged project. It was just Devaney fooling around on a keyboard, before he acquired some proper synthesizers. But he did write that OMD tribute. It was a song called “Laudanum” that, instrumentally at least, does harken back to the classic synth-pop duo’s earlier days. It would become the first track on Nation Of Language’s self-titled Bandcamp EP, the beginning of a process in which Devaney started over again and found a completely different artistic voice.

Last spring, I caught Nation Of Language live for the first time. It was at a Manhattan venue called Berlin, a small room in the basement of a Lower East Side bar called 2A, where the Strokes used to hang out back when, people say, the Lower East Side was still something resembling the Lower East Side. I’d only heard their two recent singles at that point. (One of which, “I’ve Thought About Chicago,” would steadily burrow so deeply into my being that it’d become my favorite song of 2017.) Lack of familiarity didn’t matter: They were immediately addicting. Each song triggered more of an endorphin rush than the last, a succession of infectious new wave synth lines and melodies that left me with half a dozen songs I’d never heard before stuck in my head.

From that moment, I was hooked, and I saw every Nation Of Language gig I was able to over the course of the year. I saw them in small bars around Brooklyn and Manhattan; I saw them at a backyard party in the East Village; I saw them underneath a disco ball at a Greenpoint club; I saw them at a Bushwick apartment party in a cramped, misshapen basement; I saw them get the production values they deserve when they played in front of Baby’s All Right’s distinctive light setup. Each time was as evocative as the last. Each time imprinted a reminder, that this was one of the best new bands I’d come across in some time.

Over the course of the last eight or so months, I caught up with Devaney at various points — at shows, over a drink, while he was working in the studio — and got a sense of how and why Nation Of Language began and where he sees it going. Along the way, I heard a series of currently unreleased songs that only further convinced me this is a band to be excited about. (Incidentally, another fan you might catch at any given Nation Of Language show is Strokes drummer Fab Moretti, who also wound up playing on Nation Of Language’s recent single “Indignities.”)

Devaney’s epiphanic moment with “Electricity” was partially a return to childhood after the failed rock ‘n’ roll of Static Jacks, partially a conversion moment. The way he speaks about it, the headlong dive into synthpop was just as much about trying out a different instrument, changing up the limitations of his songwriting, as it was a shift in genre loyalty. From those initial experiments, however — which are collected along with “Laudanum” on the Bandcamp EP, and all of which are subtle earworms in their own right — Devaney fleshed the project out as it cohered into Nation Of Language. Its sonic signature might be clear, but the band is not limited to rehashing the past. There’s an out-of-time quality about them.

Of course, ‘80s nostalgia seems ever-present these days, and cyclical. But while Devaney might be making use of instruments and approaches that defined early ‘80s new wave, that doesn’t exactly pigeonhole Nation Of Language. They don’t sound like the sort of indie bands that got called “’80s-indebted” simply because they introduced some lush synths. They don’t sound like anything happening in a now-diffuse Brooklyn scene — they are tied to their surroundings more through musicians in their social circles than through bands they happen to play with — or the DIY scenes in other American cities. That out-of-time quality comes from all of that, and it comes from the fact that Nation Of Language bear that obvious ‘80s influence while also not being exactly traceable there, either.

Sure, you can hear certain landmarks in their sound. OMD, Human League, early Simple Minds, A Flock Of Seagulls, Tears For Fears, New Order — there are bits and pieces of them, and others, in various facets of Nation Of Language. But the intriguing quality about Devaney’s songwriting is his way of colliding these influences, so that you might hear a bassline reminiscent of New Order but it’s surrounded by competing elements. The end result is that, unlike other moments of ‘80s revivalism, you can’t point to any one source for a particular Nation Of Language song; “What Does The Normal Man Feel?” plausibly could’ve come out in 1982, but you can’t pinpoint an artist you could imagine having recorded it then. Again, out of time.

Devaney is practical enough about wearing his influences on his sleeve. For him, discovering synths took him back to the original texts, the point in pop history when everyone else was really discovering synths for the first time. “That’s when synthesizers came into the mainstream,” he says. “A lot of the bands that I am influenced by are from that period, because it’s interesting to me how the first people using them in popular music were using them. It’s like painting with a certain brush. I get in that mindset and start going.”

There’s also something more abstract, something that perhaps connects back to that flashpoint moment with “Electricity” and the explorations that followed: When Devaney begins songs, he often finds himself chasing something ineffable, some “early ‘80s feeling that I don’t get from bands that are happening right now, or at least [the ones] I’m being exposed to.”

But Devaney’s also far from a retro-fetishist. Among all the more contemporary bands he talks up, he cites, surprisingly enough, Beirut and the National as major influences that perhaps even he wasn’t aware of at a certain point in time, alluding to the idea that he simply spent so much time with the National’s music that it must’ve seeped in somehow. At first, it doesn’t make much sense. But once it’s pointed out, you can start to hear the National’s melodic sensibility in several of Devaney’s hooks; it isn’t a stretch to imagine Matt Berninger singing “I’ve Thought About Chicago,” or to hear the Michael Stipe-esque cadences of “Captain” and “Indignities” as filtered through bands like the National, coming between R.E.M. and Nation Of Language. These are the subtle twists, the ways in which Nation Of Language’s music feels more unique than straight-up throwback.

As a band, Nation Of Language’s lineup is fluid, though Devaney writes all the material solo. Onstage, the only constants are he and his fiancée Aidan Noell on synths, accompanied (or not) by a rotating cast of friends on bass or drums over the years, most often and most recently including other former Static Jacks members Michael Sui-Poi and Andrew Santora. Noell was an unexpected addition; before Nation Of Language, she had never played music. Another unexpected addition to Nation Of Language’s orbit was Moretti, who was such a fan that he opted to abandon his drumkit and fill in on bass for a DIY Nation Of Language tour last Fall.

Across all those Nation Of Language shows I attended since last Spring, I’ve seen plenty of those potential configurations. One thing that’s always there, the thing that anchors each set, is the interplay between Noell and Devaney onstage, the looks they throw each other vs. the way they dance in their own little worlds. And Devaney — his angular frame dressed the new wave part in roomy trousers and a shirt that shimmers under the lights — already comes across like a man with ambitions too big for the room. He arcs and slides across the stage in unpredictable motions, a performer steadily growing more possessed by the music as it bubbles up around him. Given the resources, it’s easy to picture how total an atmosphere they’d be able to construct at their shows in the future.

That first one I saw, back at Berlin, they were bathed under red lights, framed by curtains on a tiny circular stage. It’s one that, save the Baby’s All Right show, is most severely burned into my memory because of how visually striking it was despite such basic surroundings — in that moment, they looked like the house band in a club in our cultural imagination of what a John Hughes movie was.

Devaney is well-aware of the dangers of that kind of nostalgia, of people taking moments like that and simply dismissing Nation Of Language. “One of my biggest fears is being written off, for people to not give me a try,” he admits. “‘Oh, he’s obsessed with the ‘80s? I’m not into it.’ That’s something that occurs to me, but I’m still making the music that I like.”

“A song so sweet/From back when I was born,” Devaney sings on the pulsating new Nation Of Language song “On Division St.” The project began, of course, with a song he remembered from childhood. There are layers of nostalgia to Nation Of Language, from its retro-leaning aesthetic, to the fact that we constantly characterize the ‘80s with nostalgia, to the fact that it’s a topic that specifically inspires Devaney.

“I realized a lot of my favorite songs are very nostalgic or about something in life ending,” he says. “Sometimes I think every song I’ve ever written is trying for ‘All My Friends’ by LCD Soundsystem. I want the sentiment of that song. It just takes me back to all these different places in my past at the same time. It’s so effective at stirring up an emotion in me that’s so specific that I want to try to do that myself.”

The Nation Of Language songs that exist so far are about different things — “What Does The Normal Man Feel?” is a depressive disassociation from other people, “Indignities” is a scathing social commentary inspired by our current national atmosphere — but when the band is at their most moving, they’re consciously trafficking in and navigating that nostalgia that’s baked into their DNA. That feeling “All My Friends” conjures up for Devaney, the return to all these different places at once? That’s what their most potent song, “I’ve Thought About Chicago,” does in a different way.

A meditation on the other lives the narrator could yet choose — its title originated from a conversational answer to “Where else would you want to live?” — the song’s rapid-fire litany of city names underlines the passage of time, the passage through places, the passage in and out of people’s lives. It’s a kind of meta, performative nostalgia perfect for our times: Using the tools and tones of the past to parse a person’s moment in the present, to capture the turning point and tension of where you came from to get here and where exactly you’re going next.

That’s what’s striking about Nation Of Language, the essence of what makes them unique and exciting. Some projects are about music itself, they are exercises in aesthetic ideas. In a way, Devaney’s began that way, but it taps into something deeper, of this moment. He goes back to the music that immediately preceded his life, the stuff that would’ve been in the atmosphere when he was a small child, the stuff that came back into vogue during his life as a musician. It is not nostalgia in the sense of looking back and wishing Nation Of Language could’ve been peers with OMD and New Order. It’s using nostalgia to illustrate life now, in real time, in an era where everything collapses together and the real and digital and imagined all blur into one. It goes back to the original texts, using decades-old building blocks to translate and reframe a contemporary experience.

There is no long-form project yet, no one concrete album in the works. For now, it’s the loose assemblage of Nation Of Language songs online and the other material they play live. It all comes together well. (On my phone, I have a playlist with the EP, the singles, and a few unreleased tracks that, despite the different production styles, flows perfectly as an album.) This small amount of music that’s floating around so far, in all its melancholy and beauty and catchiness, already finds Devaney at a far more accomplished place as a writer than what we’d heard from him before. He’s giving us the kind of songs that have the intimacy necessary to situate themselves in your life, in your thoughts, but the power that demands more people hear them. This small amount of music that’s floating around so far is a convincing argument that, had Nation Of Language existed back in the era they’re drawing upon, they could’ve been one of the greats. And, if everything goes better this time around, that same small amount of music also makes the convincing argument that they could be on their way to being one of the greats now, too.

CREDIT: Marina Labarthe del Solar

Nation Of Language is currently on tour supporting the Wombats:

01/10 — Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
01/13 — Boston, MA @ Paradise
01/15 — Chapel Hill, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
01/16 — Atlanta, GA @ Centerstage
01/18 — St. Louis, MO @ The Pageant
01/19 — Kansas City, MO @ The Truman
01/22 — Denver, CO @ The Gothic Theatre
01/23 — Salt Lake City, UT @ Rockwell Room
01/25 — Los Angeles, CA @ The Fonda
01/26 — Santa Ana, CA @ Observatory
01/27 — San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
01/29 — Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
01/30 — Vancouver, BC @ Venue Nightclub
01/31 — Seattle, WA @ Showbox Market

The “On Division St.” single is out 1/11.

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