Ahead of the release of Nation Of Language’s third album ‘Strange Disciple’ (out now via PIAS) Clash spoke to Ian Richard Devaney (lead vocals, guitar, synthesiser, percussion) and Aidan Noell (synthesiser, backing vocals) from their home in New York. The band are currently in the middle of an epic tour cycle which began in April and doesn’t finish until the end of the year.
In a broad-ranging conversation we discussed (amongst other things) the origins of the band, the themes of the new album, escaping the grasp of the pandemic, and how one particular song had such a huge impact on Ian.
Nation Of Language is completed by third member Alex MacKay (bass guitar) and together they have produced an album full of emotion and passion. It was a joy to learn a little more about its creation.
Congratulations on the new Nation of Language album ‘Strange Disciple’. This is your third album but was still impacted by the pandemic as I believe it was written during that time but I believe recorded afterwards. Is that correct?
Ian: Some of it. The span of time from which the songs are pulled is pretty large. The first song ‘Weak Is Your Light’ was written right before we went into the studio whereas others like ‘Stumbling Still’ are quite a bit older.
When it came to recording the album, did you make changes? Was it recorded differently from the first two?
Ian: I think the mindset we were in was quite different. One person recorded our first album and half of our second album. The person that produced this album ‘Strange Disciple’ Nick Millhiser produced the other half of our second album. So we had worked with him before but it was so different. At that point there were still lockdowns and it was the only way that we could feel creative and that we were doing anything.
With this one it felt so different because we recorded it whenever we had a break from being on tour, or when our producer, who also tours with LCD Soundsystem), wasn’t on the road. It felt a little less open ended. When we recorded in lockdown we’re like “well who knows when this is going to end we can take as much time as we need” whereas with this one what you kept in front of you was is the song achieving what it needs to achieve and not getting precious about tiny details and just going with the flow and trying to keep that vision in the front of your mind.
Recording ‘Strange Disciple’ presented a different set of challenges to the first two albums.
Ian: For us at least the album in its final sequenced form is the ultimate goal. To have something that fits well together and feels like the songs relate to one another but also feels like there is enough variation that you can stay engaged when you are listening to it. So we would go on the road and be listening to the mixes of the songs and trying to keep the whole picture in mind knowing it was going to be as broken up as it was.
Really for each album the recording process has been so different. It sort of felt like a blessing. We never feel like, we’re just going back to the studio, to get back to work. It’s always felt like a unique set of circumstances that keeps everything very fresh and alive.
I wonder if you can tell me a little of how Nation of Language came together as a band?
Ian: It started as a personal writing project, to try and step away from the guitar, because I had been in a guitar band before and try to reset how I approached writing music. Then some friends who were around me at the time said we should play these songs out, maybe at a bar or a club. So it started to become more like a real band. For a number of years it was a shifting line-up. When Aidan joined the band, most of the people that I knew who were playing in Nation Of Language, they all suddenly and randomly got jobs in California and moved away. So I was like, well I can’t play these songs anymore. And she had never played any instrument at all and she was like “what if you could teach me how to play, then I can join the band”. It’s worked out fabulously.
Aidan: He’s a very good teacher! I’m exceptionally motivated by trying to meet someone else’s expectations. If it was just me on my own then I would never have tried to learn the keys because I wouldn’t have had any motivation.
I understand you were inspired by ‘Electricity’ by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Could you share what it was about that track that grabbed you.
Ian: I had been in a guitar band and at the time I was very sceptical of synthesiser music, I think because so much of it felt tame or safe or perfectly mapped out. When I heard that song it had an urgency to it and a real roughness to it. It’s electronic drums that fall off the beat, its like he’s trying to keep up but he can’t keep up. The sparseness of the instrumentation. This feels like a song I can dance to but it also seems to have a punk mentality to it with this driving bass line and this super simply organ chords. And its about renewable energy but its from the 80’s. So I wondered if I could be more stripped back, and use the bass guitar as the main instrument that drives where the song goes.
I had a bass guitar and a monophonic synthesiser so you can only play one note at a time. There are very few Nation of Language songs that have full chords in them because everything is written on instruments that can only play one note at a time. There’s a sparseness that inspired me and links the music we make towards that early music when people were using monophonic synthesisers. There’s a little bit more space at times than I’m used to hearing from a lot of synth music.
But of course you are taking that inspiration and giving it your own twist to create Nation of Language songs.
Ian: Yes, I read an article by I think, Malcom Gladwell that said the music you are into between 14 and 19 really frames how you see music from then on in your life. So I think there is a lot of influence from the late 70’s and early 80’s synthesiser music but I feel like it’s gone through the prism of Belle and Sebastian, the Strokes and Arcade Fire and all these things I loved when I was at high school and early in college. So I think that has a large effect on how things come together as well.
I checked your tour dates and realised you are currently in the middle of a huge tour. Nation Of Language started out on the road in April. You have a break for a month or so but are then back out on tour until the end of the year! How is touring for you? Is it fantastic to be out and playing live particularly after lockdown?
Aidan: It’s definitely fantastic to be out and playing. We didn’t even realise what an emotional and psychological release it is to be able to play music for people on stage. Especially for Ian who has primal scream therapy on stage every night! It’s a different kind of serotonin boost from what you can get from anything else in your life. We’ll be tour for weeks at a time and then it’ll end and you think, oh thank goodness, I’d love to sleep but then you get home and you’ll really missing it and you get this bluesy feeling. You want to get back out there because there is something you’re missing. I think that gets us back out on the road with an much enthusiasm as last time.
Also there is a really nice group that we have. Us and Alex get along super well. Our sound engineer and roadie are Alex’s friends from before we even knew him. One of them is his brother. We all have someone too lean on and it never feels like there’s tensions between us and we can all take as much personal time as we need. We just put on our headphones, or take a nap or whatever. But at the end of the day we still all like going out to dinner together and sightseeing together. There’s a lot of comradery. We don’t get tired of touring.
Ian: People often wonder if there is a third wheel aspect to two married people and another person being in the band but that extended crew came to us through Alex and it makes everything run really smoothly. We are very grateful for that.
I wonder if you could just talk briefly about the main themes of ‘Strange Disciple’.
Ian: The primary theme in my mind is obsession and infatuation and how the agony and ecstasy of finding yourself being infatuated with someone or something. The song ‘Too Much, Enough’ is about when people watch too much news and it starts to colour how they see the world. And there’s another election season coming up here in the States and whenever there is an election season I have this tendency to over consume political news. And it really warps how you see the world and puts me in these lows that are hard to break out of, but I am going to be better about it this time.
The album opens with ‘Weak In Your Light’ the purest love song I think we’ve ever written. I wanted to start the album in this very pure place and then you go into ‘Sole Obsession’ and it all gets kind of twisted, like is this worth it? But I’m enjoying it so much but I also feel like I’m going crazy. And the album ends on ‘I Will Never Learn’ as you surrender to it and then you can loop the album from the beginning and start all over again. Musically it feels like an exhalation, like an acceptance, that’s why it didn’t feel as dark an ending to me as some people might read it as.
I noticed that three of your songs have been remixed. ‘Across That Fine Line’ was remixed by Working Men’s Club. How did that come about?
Ian: I’m pretty sure we contacted them. We thought what they’re doing is similar to us but also quite a bit different dancier and clubbier in nature in many ways so it was very cool to hear things framed through their eyes. And it was really cool because after that we were playing the same festival in California and that the first time we actually met. We got to watch them from the side of the stage. I think they’re great.