NATION OF LANGUAGE SPIN NOSTALGIA INTO SYNTHPOP GOLD

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photo / Fabrizio Moretti

 

To listen to Nation of Language in-depth is to allow oneself to be seduced by a very specific kind of nostalgia. The Brooklyn trio—composed of Ian Devaney, Aidan Noell and Michael Sue-Poi—work out longing with sleek synth-driven melodies reminiscent of New Order and Pet Shop Boys with a distinctive flair all their own, conjuring all the dive bars we’re no longer allowed to dance at. 

Their excellent debut Introduction, Presence draws from these memories and crafts a story of a world well-lost. Devaney’s lilting snarl of a voice has unmistakable range, veering into elegant belts full of yearning (“On Division St”) and forceful beckonings (“Indignities”), always bolstered by Noell’s ever-present synthesizer and Sue-Poi’s bass. The record also features a small cameo from longtime supporter of the band and Strokes drummer Fab Moretti, who founded the music & art collective machinegum alongside Devaney.

Today, the band releases a bold cover of Pixies cut “Gouge Away”, warping the original track, based off the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah, into an aggressive and industrial banger without taking away it’s chugging, beating rock-driven heart. With their well-received debut now off the ground and the band very much again in the throes of creation, it’s only a matter of how far they can go.

LADYGUNN caught up with the post-punk heroes to talk about working with a Stroke, coming up in the Brooklyn indie underground, loving the Pixies, and their lush debut record.

Your debut is very appropriately-named, wondering how you came upon the title/ what it means to you all?

Aidan Noell: The band had essentially existed as a live show with a few singles and a largely local fanbase up until this album’s release, so to these people, our friends and family, this collection of songs is an expression of our presence, as well as an affirmation of (and for) ourselves.

Ian Devaney: There is also a kind of self-talk going on with the title, that even though these songs have had a place in my life and the lives of our small group of initial fans for a while, there were still people we felt we could connect with.

I’d love to know more about your influences and how guys got your start—Pitchfork talked a lot about Depeche Mode as an influence, but I’ve also always heard Pet Shop Boys, Joy Division, New Order…what were you listening to making this? How inspired are you by the synth heroes of yore?

Ian: The icons of early new wave definitely played a big role in shaping the sound – Human League, New Order, etc. When we were recording, there were a lot of contemporary music going on for me—Future Islands, Destroyer, The War on Drugs, Beach House.

Aidan: I just went back in time in my Spotify playlists to remind myself what I was listening to when we were in the studio for this. It’s amazing that even our listening habits are archived; it’s so easy to retrace the data of our lives! Among those on repeat were U.S. Girls and Gregor. I was also listening to the song “Sappy” by Nirvana a lot and “Golden Hours” by Brian Eno, who also happens to be one of our synth heroes of yore. 

photo / Katherine Abbot

 

Tell me a bit about the beautiful video for “On Division St.” That’s my favorite song by you guys when you’ve played it live—it’s so full of yearning, and the video really reflects that.

Aidan: We met James [Thomson, the director and cinematographer] and Wisha [Kungsanant, the non-band member featured in the video] at a show of ours, I think at Baby’s All Right. James expressed ideas that clicked with our vision of the band’s aesthetic right away, so we were excited to put something together with him. It just so happened the eerie solitude of the current pandemic provided the perfect backdrop for the video he had proposed long before we were living this new reality.

I’d love to hear about your work with Fab Moretti, who I know has been involved in your process and in your live shows for a while now and who you work with in machinegum—when I spoke with him a few months ago, he said he played bass for you on a tour and I saw he played on “Indignities.”

Aidan: Fab coming on tour with us when we were in a bind was such a pure act of supportive love. He wanted those shows to be as good as they could be, so knowing we had booked them and would have to go with Ian playing bass while singing, he stepped in. Like, “That’s just not right. Ian has to be able to perform. I’ll come.” So he learned all the songs in what felt like days, hopped in the borrowed SUV with us, and we set off for a tour through the basements, bars, and college campuses of the Midwest. We ate a lot of Cracker Barrel and played a lot of Gin (I lost). Ian and Fab worked on early machinegum demos in motel rooms. I’ll never forget that tour. He is a true friend.

Ian:  He’s super important in the life of the band because he really believes in us. Not only making himself available to help out (on the album he plays drums on Indignities and Sacred Tongue), but also pushing us to work hard and pay attention to every aspect of the project. He was instrumental in the process of the album art (which I made in collaboration with our friend and former band member Spencer Kimmins), making me think critically about my choices. I do all of the visual design for the band but I have no background in visual art or advanced technical knowledge, so it was an honest and satisfying challenge to expand the visual dynamic of the band and justify my decisions from an artistic perspective.

Michael Sue-Poi: Fab added a bass line for “On Division St.” that’s not on the recorded version but I heard it and adopted it and I love playing it live.

photo / Katherine Abbot

 

How did the Pixies covers come about? What spoke to you guys about those songs?

Aidan: I’ve always loved “Gouge Away.” It’s my favorite Pixies song, and somehow I knew Ian would sing it perfectly. When he did a little demo of it and showed me I fell in love. I knew we had to perform it, so we did, at a show at Elsewhere Zone One. It was so much fun. I’m really thrilled that we get to share Ian’s vision of the song with more than just the few friends who I’ve emailed the wav. file to.

Ian: As soon as Aidan suggested it, my brain immediately filled out how it could be done in our style and it really excited me in a way that covering songs rarely does. I could see the big guitar bends in the original song converted to synth pitch wheel bends and it all just seemed to make so much sense to me. Performing it was great too because on stage was the first time I was able to actually sing those choruses at full volume…we practice really quietly in our apartment, so I didn’t know exactly how it would go. It proved to be deeply satisfying.

Are you particularly attached to any song on Introduction, Presence and why?

Ian: “Friend Machine” stands out to me—it came together at the very last minute before going into the studio after I found an old demo fragment of just a bit of the synth bass and lead that you hear in the song’s opening. It was from a few years before and I didn’t remember doing it, as though it was just jotted down and moved on from, but when I heard that small bit, the rest of the song wrote itself. It just kind of serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving small artistic ideas even if you don’t know what to do with them in the moment, whatever your artistic medium is. Maybe nothing will come of it, but there’s always a chance that time will give you a new perspective on things. 

Sue-Poi: When Ian first shared the demo for “September Again,” I knew that Nation of Language was a real thing. That song brought me out of retirement.

Aidan: “Tournament” is a song I will love forever. I remember listening to that song with Ian in our living room one night when we were going through the final mixes. There came a moment, in the part where he sings “I can build a world around me underneath the light,” when we threw our arms up and danced and it just felt like magic. Maybe I was stoned. Maybe I just felt stoned. Either way, every time I listen to it I remember that moment together and I feel warm all over again.

photo / Fabrizio Moretti

 

Having come up in the local indie scene in Brooklyn, what do you miss most about the venues and performing?

Aidan: I miss playing music for people! I miss being the reason people commune together in a happy dancing drunken stupor! I even miss unwrapping and re-wrapping my 50-some cables. I think I would wrap cables for 72 straight hours if it meant we could safely play shows like we used to again. 

Ian: I’ve been sprinting down my block shouting about my feelings which helps. I just have to get all my neighbors to clap for me instead of shooing their children inside.

Have you been working on new music since the quarantine started? I imagine y’all are trapped in your home studio.

Ian: I think there was an initial period where quarantine was so jarring that there wasn’t much getting done, but that all changed pretty quickly. We’ve started the initial steps of recording the next album, and writing for the third album. It’s been a busy time.

What would you say is the most prominent emotion your music holds? I always relate your songs with feelings of yearning and nostalgia, for some reason…

Aidan: For me it’s a feeling of release. Listening to, and especially playing, our songs, there’s this sense of expelling pent up aggression or heartache, culminating in a serenity of sorts. Transcending the discontent.

Ian: I think yearning and nostalgia are important elements of the music—not only nostalgia for what has happened, but also a kind of nostalgia for the present moment you’re in. When making the record I was thinking a lot about how we so often romanticize our pasts, both the positive and negative aspects, and trying to see whether I could remove myself from my present and try to view it through that future lens. To appreciate all that I have and also be grateful for the strength that will come from whatever pain or struggle I might be going through at any given moment.

Introduction, Presence has so far been very well-received. What do you want the legacy of this record to be?

Aidan: One response we’ve received over and over is that people needed this album in this moment, or that it has been the “one good thing” about 2020. This year fucking sucks in a lot of ways. We are all experiencing isolation, and at the same time we are all extremely online and relentlessly awash with the news of daily injustices and tragedies and accumulating problems of our world. There is genuinely little escape, without the distraction of work for many, without the distraction of socializing for most. If this album can be a respite for anyone at all right now, that is something we can point to and say, we did something worthwhile. Sometimes just making the art has to be enough, but when it can be shared, and when it becomes a home for someone else, that is extra special. All of this is to say, I hope that the legacy of the album is as a calming harbor in these shitty times.

photo / Katherine Abbot

 

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photos / courtesy of artist

story / E.R. Pulgar

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