The decline of guitar-based rock & roll is so far behind us as to be almost not worth bringing up—although we raise a glass to The Strokes for their recent attempt at keeping the flame flickering (honorable mention to Jack White, naturally). The six-stringer has been replaced, of course, by electronic apparatuses that are so much easier to master, making for a decade of bedroom wannabes churning out repetitive electronic beats in staggering quantities. It’s simplistic to describe this type of music as “’80s sounding.”
Of course that was the decade that inaugurated keyboard heavy bands’ dominance of the charts and airwaves; but the likes of Human League, Gary Numan, New Order, and others who helped define the ‘New Wave’ during that time, came to their electronics not just for ease of use, but through a need for newness and rebellion, just as visceral as had the Clash with their guitar-bass-drums-politics in the late ’70s. They, also, meant it man. 40 years later, while the majority of electronic pop is just heartless bleeps and bloops strung together for maximum marketability, thankfully some synth bands also still mean it; to wit, Brooklyn’s Nation of Language.
The artful trio may have only recently released their debut album Introduction, Presence; but they are being genuinely heralded as masters of their electronic domain, as if they had been at it forever. It appears they might just be savants. So to further investigate, BlackBook caught up with songwriter/vocalist Ian Devaney from our mutual quarantine positions. We learned much.
Hey there, where are you and what are you up to today?
I’m in my Brooklyn apartment. Just finished a bike ride and then later I’ll be going to some protests.
The protests are continuing in Brooklyn?
Oh, yeah. There’s, like, a whole slew of them. I have to choose which ones to go to, because there’s one every couple of hours.
Do you think it has made its point? How does the timeline of protesting go?
I think for me, it’s something that you kind of keep doing until you’ve seen that you have shown the people who make decisions that minor signifiers won’t cut it. I remember last week, the governor was like, “Okay, you guys have made your point. You don’t have to come out anymore.” And everyone was like, “We haven’t really changed anything.” So I was looking back at and comparing the time these protests went on versus protests in the…
Yes. And some of them went on—particularly the bus boycotts—went on for so long that it’s kind of like, “Let’s keep the pressure up until more things happen.”
We have an apartment in Greenpoint, but we’ve been hiding out in Connecticut, and I feel a little…I don’t know…that I’m not doing my civic duty.
I think it’s—I, for a long time, wasn’t going to the protests because I just had a lot of corona-induced anxiety about being in crowds. And so, I totally sympathize with the desire to not be surrounded by thousands of people.
I’m looking at other countries and just feeling very cut off and abandoned, I guess in a way, by American society.
I bounce back and forth between being so crushed, and then so hopeful. It’s just this very extreme thing going on that can be pretty exhausting.
But oh, your band…we got no high-pressure pitch, we just loved what you’re doing.
That makes me very happy because that’s always sort of been my—I’ve traditionally been super bad at telling people about the band. I’ve always kind of hoped that we would sort of have developed in such a way that we could be like, “Hey, check it out,” and people would actually check it out.
My facetious answer to bands who ask “How do we get attention?”…sometimes is, “Well, you just have to be awesome, and then people will like you.” Who’s in the band and how did it get going?
We’re a tight three-piece. It’s my wife who plays synths. I guess it was like a songwriting exercise sort of idea that I was kicking around, and our bass player is just…he has more technical knowledge than I do, and is just the sort of person to be like, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
So, if it evolved kind of naturally like that, obviously your sound is very much…I don’t know if influenced is the right word…but references a definite period. One would guess that you set out to do that?
Yeah, it was definitely a conscious thing. I have listened to this kind of alternate version of the OMD song “Electricity,” and it was…you know, synth music, but very stripped back and focused on the bass a lot, and was kind of rough and not everything is totally synced up and in time. It just kind of really struck a chord with me because I always associate synth music with being something that’s so tight and lush and maximized. So, I was like, I wonder if I can with just, like, my dinky keyboard that I have, I wonder if I can write a song that captures that vibe. I did, and then was like, well, let’s try another one. And then after a while, we had five songs.
NME described you as “new wave revivalists.” Is that an apt description?
Uh…I mean, I think it’s in kind of an easy shorthand. I wouldn’t push back on it too hard, certainly.
You’re obviously fans of Joy Division and New Order. I don’t know if you have posters hanging up in your room…
No, no posters. But it’s certainly just…new wave and post-punk sounds are like a palate that I really like—that resonate with me a lot.
What’s it like being in a band and kind of having your wings clipped a bit with this coronavirus lockdown situation? Is the August show (8/21, The Sultan Room, Brooklyn) potentially happening, and would that be your first gig back?
Yeah. The August show seems—it’s sort of touch-and-go, but it seems like we’re leaning toward it happening. We’ve been kind of discussing how to do it with a socially distanced concept in mind. So, we’re thinking maybe we’ll do two nights, two shows a night.
That’s an idea.
So, we can do a half and half thing. But yeah, we’ve been a band that’s always relied a lot on the live show as what felt like the primary hook that drew people in. We were three shows into a tour when all of this happened, and we completely canceled and came home.
Where were you supposed to be going?
We had just finished playing Montreal and we were supposed to be going to…Cleveland maybe, or Columbus. I can’t remember now. So, when it became clear that live shows were not something that were going to be happening for quite a long time…there was definitely a period of total hopelessness. And then, shockingly, it’s gone far better than I ever expected. Radio stations have been very welcoming for us. All across, not just America, but everywhere, it seems.
It seems like radio…
Is having another moment.
And has been slightly revitalized by this.
Yeah, between radio and a lot of publications writing very generous reviews, things have really taken off in a much more amazing way than we expected.
That’s great. Not everyone gets an NME review.
Right. And it feels particularly special because we’re an unsigned band; and so just being sort of reminded of that when we’ll look at radio charts or lists of reviews…you look at the other people on these lists and are like, I can’t believe we’re being mentioned alongside any of them.
Figuring that bands can maybe play out a bit in the fall, what’s the plan?
We just signed on with some booking agents, and so we’re obviously…it’s very much wait and see, but we’re a band that loves touring, and so we’d love to hit the road as fast and as hard as possible.
For now, what else are you spending your time doing other than protesting?
I mean, there’s a lot of writing, I would say. It’s definitely gone back into writing mode. I don’t know that I ever really leave writing mode, but now that I have all this time, it’s what I spend so much more of my time doing.
Are you the main songwriter? Do you come up with the basic melodies and words?
Actually, I put everything together. We’re talking about once restrictions lift a little bit, getting back into the studio and working on some songs that would be for the next record, and just kind of getting everything set so on the word “Go,” we can move forward and keep it going.
You’re weathering the storm of this pandemic okay as a band. A lot of bands don’t do so well on the road anyway.
It’s true. I’ve always been thankful that we are a band where everyone likes to tour, because even if there’s one member in the band who doesn’t, it can make life very difficult.
You obviously have gotten some good word of mouth. Do you show up in Boston and Cleveland and Berkeley and people just come out?
I mean, it’s been a little while, because we had to sort of invest our money into making our first record,; which is why we were so excited about this tour we were on when it got called off. But yeah, we’ve done a number of tours both here and in Europe and we’ve been very fortunate. I don’t know the degree to which the people there knew who we were, but we’d play shows and people would just be showing up.
If you wanted to get signed, was there a particular label you have in mind? Too bad Factory’s not around anymore.
I don’t think there’s any one sort of dream label in my mind. We’ve been in talks with a couple at this point. But we’ve been able to do so much on our own that it’s still something that I’m sort of cautious about. I’m not opposed to the idea, it’s just really nice to have the sort of freedom to do what you want to do whenever you want to do it.