Ian Devaney and Aidan Noell join Document to share a behind-the-scenes look at their latest tour, their songwriting process, and an homage to their musical influences
Nation of Language can be described in many ways. Nostalgic, yet timeless. “Working-class synth-pop,” in their own words. A modern take on ’80s new wave. And, for many of their loyal listeners, a time capsule transporting them to another era, “when muscles and bones never hurt, and every day was a dance day,” as one YouTube commenter put it.
Other comments echo this sentiment, comparing the band, which formed in 2016, to the new wave mainstays of their youth—songs that make you want to dance and cry at the same time, that bring a sense of catharsis that so many are craving after the ebb and flow of pandemic isolation. “We’re all looking for beautiful things, and you brought that to us on many levels,” writes another fan, describing how the band set up their own instruments at a sold-out show in a community center with a “garbage sound system,” even appearing behind the merch table at times to sell their own t-shirts. That night, he felt something he hadn’t in a long time, bonding with his partner over songs they’d shared throughout the pandemic, and watching others do the same. “This night will likely just be one of a big blurry rollercoaster in your story,” he writes, “But for us, it’s a significant ring in our lives’ tree.”
For the Brooklyn-based three-piece, this kind of response means more than fans know. “When you’re making and performing music, all you can hope for is for people to feel like they had a legitimate emotional experience in connection with something you’ve made,” says Ian Devaney, describing the joy of discussing fans’ personal experiences with their songs. “On tour, you feel very close to a lot of people,” echoes “synth princess” Aidan Noell—who, having never played an instrument before joining the band, soon found herself longing for the intimate exchange of performance, which she describes as both addictive and magical: something you can’t give up once you’ve experienced it. Joined by their new bassist Alex MacKay, Devaney and Aidan Noell—who are husband and wife, in addition to musical collaborators—recently emerged from their biggest international tour to date, which they documented with behind-the-scenes photos for Document.
Since putting out studio albums Introduction, Presence (2020) and A Way Forward (2021), Nation of Language has swiftly garnered recognition for their nostalgic, synth-driven sound, which draws inspiration from the likes of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and Human League, alongside musical pioneers like John Cale and and Brian Eno. Noell cites Eno as a formative influence, describing his diary A Year with Swollen Appendices as a book that never fails to inspire her—particularly the essays in which he challenges the popular notion that music needs to follow certain structures, or appeal to short attention spans, to mean something to people. “I try to internalize that rejection,” she says. Noell finds her match in Devaney: a fellow musical dissident, Eno aficionado, and chief songwriter for Nation of Language. “I love watching people hear this song for the first time, and seeing how it takes over and makes them start to dance,” he writes of “Strange Overtones,” a collaboration between Eno and David Byrne. “To be able to write a song with that power has always been a dream of mine.”
If the band’s fans are to be believed, he already has.
Camille Sojit Pejcha: I’ve been watching your music video on YouTube and seeing the sweetest, most heartfelt comments from people who saw you live right after the pandemic and are very emotional about it. What was it like connecting with so many new fans on your recent tour?
Aidan Noell: I felt like we and the audiences were both ready to just make those connections again, and it was really amazing.
Ian Devaney: When you’re making and performing music, all you can hope for is for people to feel like they had a legitimate emotional experience in connection with something you’ve made.
Sometimes, it’s really difficult for me to wrap my head around the positive response, because it almost feels like you’re tricking people. The imposter syndrome never really goes away, so I’m just like, Okay. I’ll just keep making stuff that I like and I hope they keep liking it.
I remember reading this interview with The National, and they were like, ‘Honestly, I keep expecting my old boss to call me and tell me I have to come in next week.’ That’s how I feel.
Camille: I’m curious to hear how the world around you colored your recent records, and if the recent shift toward touring and the world opening up is influencing the direction of the next one.
Ian: Our second record was recorded during that first summer of lockdown, and no one knew when the world was going to open up, so there was no deadline. It just felt very free.
Aidan: I feel like you were able to allow people to give you more feedback, and to try to experiment in new ways.
Ian: And even though there is a deadline for this next record, I’m still trying to carry that spirit forward. As nice as it is to feel like you have a handle on things, it’s also really nice to let things happen that you weren’t planning on—things that kind of make you nervous or scared about what you’re doing.
Camille: Do you feel like that’s something that occurs spontaneously, or do you need to actively seek that tension by challenging yourself?
Ian: I think it’s the former, where it just happens naturally; sometimes, you see it coming at you and figure out how you’re gonna contend with it. That’s something that we also want to build into the live experience more. After doing a whole year of touring, we’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve played this song a million times, how can we make it a little bit different?’
Camille: What was your experience with music like growing up, and then getting into it?
Ian: There was a piano in my house, and from a fairly young age—basically, once I knew how to form a chord—I started making up silly songs, and just never stopped. Whatever instrument was around, I pretty much wanted to try to use it in some way.
Aidan: I never thought I would become a musician. I sang in musicals in high school, but I was more interested in performing; as a child, I would stand on the fireplace and do shows for my family—just, like, me singing and dancing and twirling a baton. But then, when I started dating Ian and he was forming this band, I offered myself up, and from the first show I got to play in the band, it was like an addictive thing. Being in front of everybody, and creating a song together, and receiving positive feedback from the audience—the whole experience was just magical, and you can’t give that up once you have experienced it.
Ian: She was really buzzing for hours after that first show.
Aidan: It was great. When COVID hit, I really yearned for that exchange with an audience. I can’t imagine going back to not being able to do it after the year that we’ve had.
Ian: In my mind, you write the songs, you play the songs, and it’s all one thing—but I think not being able to perform made me appreciate the degree to which it feels like a distinct art form. I felt its absence in a very powerful way.
Aidan: We also didn’t do any at-home performances or streaming; it just didn’t feel right, because our live shows are such an athletic event. It’s almost like a call and response with the audience, and wasn’t something that we feel like we could do without having the energy coming back at us.
“Whether it’s a museum or a bookstore, being with any kind of collection of someone’s work that lets you see where they started and how they evolved over time immediately just makes me wanna go home and make the next thing.”
Camille: What are some of your non-musical writing influences, or things that inspire you creatively?
Aidan: I read a lot of theory and philosophy, and we both try to read a lot of literature and books in general.
Ian: Whether it’s a museum or a bookstore, being with any kind of collection of someone’s work that lets you see where they started and how they evolved over time immediately just makes me wanna go home and make the next thing. I love the idea of having a body of work, and you only get that by making the next iteration. You can only really see the subconscious changes in retrospect. I feel like I’m working to make my future self be like, Oh, interesting. What happened in this part? I didn’t really think I was doing that.
Aidan: I’ve also written a couple songs, and when I’m sitting down to write lyrics, often what I am thinking about is taking bits and phrases from something else—philosophy or theory—and reinterpreting them. Being able to take those concepts and imbue your own ideas onto them in a nonlinear, non-academic way has always been really interesting to me. There’s this book Non Lectures that totally excited me, because there’s this part about how you don’t need to fully understand a topic to be interested in it, and to engage with the train of thought that comes from that. I like being able to take a concept and dwell on it, and then write something.
Ian: Kind of like the intellectualization of ‘fake it till you make it.’
Camille: I love the idea that you don’t need to be an expert on a concept to engage with it creatively.
Going back to what Ian was saying about interpreting a work’s themes in retrospect, have you noticed yourself doing that with the music you’ve put out over the last couple years?
Ian: I think I’m a bit too close to it, but there are subtle ways in which I notice the changes—like how I assemble bass parts, when I used to write them one way. Or with the new music we’ve been working on recently, I can tell as I’m playing the songs that this is different from how I used to do it. And I think that’s all about letting different influences permeate you at different times.
Aidan: I feel like, because we’re in the stage of actively making these changes, it’s more intentional rather than something you can observe about yourself.
Camille: Do you often talk to your fans about their relationships with individual songs? What has that been like?
Ian: After we get off stage at almost every show, we’ll end up going out and just talking to people. That’s been one of the best parts of playing live, especially lately, since so many people found us either during or since the pandemic. So to get everyone’s personal story of how they interacted with it and discovered it is illuminating and very special.
Aidan: After a set, someone will be like, ‘I’m so glad you played this song, because I was listening to that non-stop when my mom was sick,’ or whatever the story may be. And it’s always very touching that they feel like they can—and want to—share their insights and personal experiences with us. You feel very close to a lot of people when you’re on tour.
Camille: I imagine it also makes it feel a little more reciprocal, since so much personal experience goes into songwriting.
Any funny stories or anecdotes from this tour?
Ian: We had our first stage crasher [laughs].
Aidan: Oh god, yeah. I think he actually warned us in an email that he was gonna do it, but it was very vague and oblique.
Ian: And of course, I never checked the email!
Aidan: He was like, ‘Just a warning, I can’t control myself during ‘Automobile.’’ And I just thought he’d be screaming in the crowd or something—but no, this older man jumps onto the stage and takes Ian’s microphone!
Ian: Often, when I’m performing, my eyes are closed—so then all of a sudden there’s someone with their arm around me, and I’m like, is that Alex [MacKay]?
We were in the Netherlands, and it was cute because you could tell he wasn’t sure exactly what some of the words were, outside of the chorus. It was just pure vibes and a lot of nonsense, but he was having a great time.
Aidan: Honestly, a lot of our fans are a generation or two older than us. They go absolutely hog wild at our shows. The young people will be enjoying themselves or embracing their loved ones and singing along, but the older guys—they go nuts.
Camille: These must be the people commenting on your music videos, about how they rediscovered dancing through your music.
Ian: I was talking to this one guy after the show and he was being very genuine. I remember him saying, ‘You don’t understand—I haven’t felt this way in years. You’re making music that makes me feel like I am 18 again, and I didn’t think anything could give me that.’
The very prominent existential part of my brain was like, Wow. I wonder if, when I’m in my 50s, some band is gonna come out that reminds me of The Strokes or Interpol or Arcade Fire, and is gonna transport me in a similar way. I can’t wait to find out.