By Carly Bush
Ian Devaney’s childhood sounded like ‘80s new wave: Kraftwerk, New Order, and Talking Heads. Today, in his band Nation of Language, he synthesizes his origin story into nostalgic songs that clamor frantically for the past while leading the revolution of the future.
Against the backbeat of modern Brooklyn, Devaney began crafting music inspired by the artists of his youth. Initially, Nation of Language was nothing more than a pet project.
“I had been working on songs in a very casual way,” Devaney explains, but ultimately he landed on his current lineup. “After getting help from several friends who were unbelievably generous with their time, things settled with Mike on bass and Aidan learning synth.”
Devaney prides himself on being anti-commercialism, and Nation of Language has DIYed itself to the front lines of the post-punk scene without ever dreaming of selling out in the traditional sense.
The ironic thing is that the world, nonetheless, is taking notice: Nation of Language has been reviewed favorably by mainstream publications and appears on Aritzia’s in-store playlist, alongside similar trailblazers of the post-punk revival of the mid-aughts, The Wombats, Arctic Monkeys, and The Vaccines.
Is it such a surprise? Everything old is new again. The sounds and styles of the ‘80s now saturate much of our media. Perhaps millennials, the oldest of which were born in the 1980s, are disillusioned with the current state of things—or maybe the new wave movement, which first shook up the music scene thirty-plus years ago, is experiencing an exciting revival.
Whatever the case may be, the torch has been passed, and Devaney is successfully keeping the spirit of the ‘80s alive. Far from making a parody of the genre, he treats it with loving care and sincerity. Interestingly, he blends the vocal and recording techniques of the new wave era with a distinctly modern existentialism to write innovative songs that speak to a new generation of rebels.
The name Nation of Language isn’t suggestive of any particular musical genre, which Devaney appreciates. It stands on its own, confident and self-assured. On the other hand, the name is subversively defiant; language, historically, is the first weapon fascists use to disorient and confuse the people, making their message more palatable.
What’s more, Devaney has had a long-standing fascination with the far-left political punk rock band Nation of Ulysses, who formed in 1988 and developed a controversial reputation as radicals before disbanding in the autumn of 1992.
“Something about their name pulled me in, so when this project needed a name I chopped off Ulysses and searched for a concept that I found compelling. When ‘Nation of Language’ popped into my head it just seemed to make sense.”
Devaney is quick to acknowledge his love of contemporary music, those treading the same uncertain path as his own. He’s just a bit selective about which careers he chooses to follow. The common thread that links his favorite artists is a shared willingness to disrupt the status quo. One of his favorite artists is Alex Cameron, “who makes really excellent music that is just relentless social commentary.”
Devaney clearly does not subscribe to the belief that modern musicians should be apolitical. Though it has worked for some, certainly, he is solidly art-over-commerce. Those looking for commentary in Nation of Language songs will surely find it.
If millennials were willing to resist as strongly as artists did during the post-punk heyday, in the years when the line between art collectives and fringe political movements was very thin, perhaps more bands like Nation of Language could exist. As it stands now, the industry opposes controversy. That’s why Devaney’s earnest approach to art is so profoundly meaningful.
As a young artist striving to create unapologetic art imbued with sociopolitical meaning, it is likely Devaney has encountered obstacles, both personally and professionally. Indeed, his music is rife with discomfort and frustration; in the lyrics of “What Does the Normal Man Feel?” he positions himself as an outlier and accepts that role with bittersweet resignation. But when asked what he feels is lacking in the independent music scene at present, he is reluctant to call anything—or anyone—out in particular.
“I’m not sure I know enough about what is going on broadly in indie music to diagnose any serious problems. I will say I think it’s valuable for popular indie musicians to act as a gateway to other interesting music that hasn’t broken through int he same way. So much of the music I listen to was exposed to me through reading interviews where bands talked about their influences or other bands in their scene that people might not know.”
It has been said that all great art comes out of struggle, and financial difficulties have further enhanced Devaney’s opposition to commercialism. Devaney and his bandmates pay out of pocket for recording and touring, leaving little money for visual art, design, and editing, all of which they do themselves.
As a result, Devaney has been forced to lean into his limitations. In doing so, he has found a sort of freedom: “We do these things ourselves just because it’s satisfying to learn new things and to be creative in different fields.”
Devaney composes all of his music in solitude. In the studio, collaboration heightens his susceptibility to the muse. “The recording process is the primary place where I look for everyone’s input. The process almost always starts with the instrumentation; then, it’s just a matter of throwing as many vocal melodies at it as I possibly can until I’ve found something that strikes me.”
When he gets stuck, he changes gears. “I’ll try writing vocal melodies on another instrument—how I approach something on guitar or synth will be so different from how I sing that it can break me out of a rut.”
Possibly the most influential collaborator Devaney has had in recent years is producer Abe Seiferth, who helped bring many of his “fragments of ideas” to life. A good producer, Devaney says, is someone “who can really manipulate the equipment to realize the sounds we’re looking for.”
A prolific producer with a “wealth of knowledge,” Seiferth has played a crucial role in the development of many Nation of Language songs since 2016. Devaney lets him take the technical reigns. Seiferth himself has built a reputation amongst independent New York musicians for his willingness to blend organic and synthetic sounds. His work is characterized by its analog texture with electronic elements, and some of his high-profile clientele include experimental psychedelic band Yeasayer.
Devaney does not try to write for a specific group, and as such, a typical Nation of Language show is a cross-generational affair; their sound is appealing to millennials who were not yet conceived when the new wave movement was at its peak, and to their parents as well. Devaney, for his part, is thrilled.
“There’s a big range of people who seem to be into it, which is very cool. There are people who got to experience post-punk and new wave as they were happening, alongside younger kids. It’s validating having everyone enjoy it together like that.”
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