Nation of Language on How Kraftwerk, Werner Herzog, Music Documentaries, and More Inspired Their New Album ‘A Way Forward’

    Nation of Language was born from a moment of inspiration. A chance encounter with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s ‘Electricity’, the 1979 synth-pop classic that often played in frontman Ian Richard Devaney’s household when he was growing up, prompted him to start a new project after the dissolution of his previous band Static Jacks, enlisting his partner Aidan Noell on synths and Michael Sue-Poi on bass. Struggling financially, the Brooklyn band released a sporadic stream of singles before finally committing to making their first full-length album. When Devaney and Noell decided to get married, they asked their guests to fund their album as a wedding present instead of going on a honeymoon. Though the pandemic upended their plans to properly promote and tour the album, Introduction, Presence, which was released in the middle of May last year, their brand of ‘80s-indebted new wave struck a chord with fans, who were eager to hear what the band would deliver next. Faced with the choice of using the proceeds from the record to pay back their wedding savings or get back in the studio, they went with the latter.

    Nation of Language’s sophomore effort, A Way Forward, is out today, and it finds them expanding their scope in every way. While Introduction, Presence looked to the sounds of New Order, OMD, and Depeche Mode, the new LP goes further back to the very beginnings of electronic music, exploring how those acts were influenced by their progenitors, and in turn, how Nation of Language can carve out their own space within the genre – which they’ve achieved by pushing their sound in exhilarating new directions while retaining the lush musicality of their debut. Early singles like ‘This Fractured Mind’ and ‘The Grey Commute’ proved the band is capable of reaching soaring heights, but it’s even more thrilling to hear how those tracks fit alongside more ethereal, haunting cuts like ‘Miranda’ and ‘Former Self’.  If Introduction, Presence managed to present a cohesive whole out of a collection of seemingly disparate tracks, it’s clear A Way Forward was constructed more like a journey from the start. “Strung along by a fiction/ From a movie screen,” Devaney sings on the opening track, “In Manhattan/ You cannot have it all.”

    We caught up with Nation of Language’s Ian Devaney to talk about the inspirations behind their new album, A Way Forward. Though press materials already mention some of the influences that come up in the list, such as Kraftwerk and Laurie Spiegel, the singer discusses them in a way that goes beyond sonic identifiers, drawing a line between different stories of ambition – the ones artists tell, and the ones they live – without explicitly pointing to how those same themes run through the album. Read our conversation and listen to the full album below.

    Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine (1978) and Trans Europe Express (1977)

    The first Kraftwerk songs I got into were from The Man Machine. It sort of feels like their most accessible album, which, having spent a lot of years being exposed to it but not really understanding it, the idea that now I think of that record as like a string of hits is very funny to me. Especially a song like ‘Neon Lights’, there’s a movement that happens three quarters of the way through it that is a perfect distillation of so much of what I’ve tried to make. I can remember coming to that song once I was ready to understand Kraftwerk and the way my brain perked up at the sounds that they created and the simplicity and danciness of it, which is something very moving and intriguing.

    In terms of Trans Europe Express, that’s one where it’s like: there are some albums that just really feel like albums, and Trans Europe Express feels like a vision that was completely executed in album form. That sort of large scale, ambitious thinking is always something that makes me want to strive to make something better and to challenge myself to go a little further than I went before.

    Cluster & Brian Eno’s Cluster & Eno (1977)

    That was an album I was listening to a lot during the pandemic whenever I would need find a bit of peace. I would maybe link this record and the Laurie Spiegel record [The Expanding Universe] in my mind, because that was another one that we listened to a lot, particularly in the recording process. To experience electronic music that was not always as rhythm-driven and lives a bit more in the ambient, exploratory space, was something that was really exciting and calming at the same time. It only really shows up in certain moments on the record in terms of the influence it had sonically while we were making it, but they are both definitely records that, again, when I listen to them, it makes me want to get back to the instruments and see what kind of exploring I can do and break from my own mode of writing a little bit.

    There’s a sense of warmth and humanity to those records that comes into contrast with the perception of a group like Kraftwerk, but another quality that made Cluster stand out was their dynamic as a duo. Was that sort of dynamic something you considered more going into this album?

    It was definitely something that I liked. I don’t know if it’s something I considered in that sort of way, in terms of a source of inspiration, but I’ve definitely spent tons of time just searching out pictures of Cluster performing, because it’s such a cool visual, them with all of their gear and the different ways they’re manipulating it. It’s very inspirational.

    Laurie Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe (1980)

    That record was introduced to me while I was with Nick Millhiser, who’s one of the producers who’s also in the band Holy Ghost!, and he had introduced that record to me. We would reference it a lot while working on the song ‘A Word & A Wave’, because originally, that song was very short. It was only the first verse, and then it just sort of ended very quickly, because the idea was, it would just be a quick vignette between other songs. And he was like, “I think we can a) expand this lyrically, but b) there’s so many cool synth parts going on within the song, what an opportunity to really mess with these synths and all these delays that are running through and have a really good time blowing it out into this bigger thing.” And so, that was one that we would listen to a lot while we were trying to work through what that song would be.

    My Bloody Valentine

    My Bloody Valentine, in terms of inspiration, it is so much just what it is. Especially between Loveless and mbv, there’s just so much ambition and such a completed vision going on, and I love all the songs so much. It’s funny, because they’ve definitely always been an inspiration for me, but it’s never come through super prominently in the music. But it is always something that is driving me to make music. Exploring into the more shoegazy space is definitely a place that I can see us going at some point on some record – in terms of when that’ll be, I don’t know, but they are a band that is always a baseline of one of my favourite things to listen to when I want to be feeling inspired.

    In what ways does it drive you creatively?

    Wanting to explore new sonic space in a way that, like, everything feels very My Bloody Valentine when you’re listening to My Bloody Valentine. And I feel like that can take a long time as an artist to develop. I love the idea of working as much as possible to try and get down that the road of that artistic journey as fast as possible, and experience whatever revelations may come the further you get down it. It kind of spins off into things that are difficult to put into words, but yeah, the ambition and uniqueness of it is something drives me.

    Yo La Tengo

    I feel like they have been one of my favourite bands for longer than – you know, other favourite bands have sort of come up and gone away, but Yo La Tengo is just kind of always there. And it’s funny because there’s so many albums, there’s so much Yo La Tengo that I don’t know, because the Yo La Tengo that I do know I spend so much time with and focus so hard on. But what I love about them is their ability to just sound like so many different things: even if you listen to their record I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, so many of those songs sound so different from one another, and yet the record feels so good together. In some ways, this is almost like a flip of the My Bloody Valentine thing, where it’s like, you know exactly what My Bloody Valentine sounds like. You never really know what Yo La Tengo is going to sound like, because they could sound like anything: they could have a bossa nova song, they could have a super shoegazy, noisy song, a folk song. Whatever they want to do, they just do it, and that sort of liberation is very inspiring in its own way.

    A funny thing that we would hear from people in regards to the first album, people would be like, “Every song sounds so different, but it all feels like Nation of Language.” I was like, “I guess I didn’t even realise every song sounded so different.” [laughs] So I’m like, maybe that allows me some space to kind of follow that Yo La Tengo line of thinking and just make whatever I want and kind of curate albums from material that just makes sense to me. And to other people that might sound like very different things, but you have to imagine when they were making I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, they knew that even though these two songs sounds nothing like each other, you put them next to each other on a record, and something very special happens.

    So it became more of a conscious choice to have those different sounds on A Way Forward?

    Yeah, there’s definitely – particularly on the second record of ours, a song like ‘Miranda’, I recognise that it sounded a bit different than the other songs, but it felt like it fit with them and complimented them in an interesting way. There’s definitely like a permission going on in terms of being able to look at a band like Yo La Tengo – I mean, it’s not even that different compared to some of the songs that they put together.

    Werner Herzog

    Over the past few years, I’ve been watching a lot of his documentaries, and then I got started watching more of his fictional movies, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. And then I watched the documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams. I guess it’s sort of it’s another thing in terms of ambition; it kind of unites the My Bloody Valentine in the Yo La Tengo in some sense, because when you’re watching a Werner Hertzog documentary, you very much know that you’re watching a Werner Hertzog documentary, just the tone and the way the camera work is done. And obviously, his narration is so unique and the way that he’s able deep dive into the most – you know, he’ll take a documentary about Antarctica, and there’s a bit about, I think at the time there were a lot of fun movies coming out about penguins, and there’s one scene about a penguin that has broken away from its pack and is walking in a different direction from all the other penguins. And he talks about, like, wondering whether this penguin has gone insane because the direction it’s headed, there’s nothing for it to find and it will certainly die and starve. He will take a documentary about anything and make you think about existence and death and all of these things.

    At the same time, the reason why I kind of say to him instead of just specific movies, is he’ll show up in like, The Mandalorian or a movie like Jack Reacher, and there’s sort of this idea that like, “I can do whatever I want.” Like, “I can make these very intense documentaries, I can make these strange, epic, fictional movies. And then I can also be in these very pop culture, big name endeavours as well.” I remember Jack Reacher was on in the background someday and I was like, “Is that Werner Herzog? What’s he doing here?” [laughs] But it’s like, “Well, yeah, I guess he’s Werner Hertzog, he can do whatever the hell he wants.” And that sort of ability to contain multitudes and to find some satisfaction in doing all of those things is something that’s very cool to me.

    Music documentaries: Quincy (2018), George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

    It’s very interesting to me to see how different people manage success. They’re both sort of always chasing something, and in the case of these two documentaries, it feels they spent a lot of years chasing it in very different ways, where George Harrison was looking for some kind of spiritual satisfaction, and for Quincy Jones, it felt like in a lot of ways he was trying to run from his youth. No matter how many amazing things he did – which, in that documentary, it’s basically a string of like, “Oh my god, he did that too? And he did that?” So much of music and popular culture belongs to things that he has had a hand in. But there’s a bit of a destructive element to some of the ways that he would work, in that he would be so obsessed with achieving the next thing that it feels like he neglected a lot of other parts of his life in ways that made things very difficult for other people around him. And the same is true in some sense for the way George Harrison lived at times, but both of them – it’s about ambition again, really, but seeing what decades of that ambition can do to people and how it manifests in different ways.

    Do you tend to see those stories in relation to your own life, in that it makes you think about life as a musician?

    I mean, watching them makes me want to find a way to have a healthy relationship to being an artist. And it’s funny, because watching the Quincy one, my first focus was all that he achieved, basically. And a friend of mine who’s a really great musician and just had started having a family not too many years ago, he had also just watched it, and his big takeaway was – you know, I was like, “Wow, can you believe all this stuff he did? Wouldn’t it be amazing to do all that?” And he was like, “At that cost? No! He, like, barely knew his children. I want to have a nice life and know my family and enjoy that sort of regular, less career-oriented mindset.”

    Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind

    It’s actually one of the books that I’ve read the fastest in recent years. It’s a history of the science of psychedelics and how they were starting to be studied in relation to mental health, and then there was this moral panic within American culture and the government was like, “This is not something worth researching. This is just an evil drug just like everything else.” And only more recently have scientists been able to look into these things more. At first, instead of this book, I was just going to put psychedelics broadly, but I feel like this book – it’s the sort of thing that makes you optimistic about the future, which was particularly helpful during the pandemic. Like, culturally, we made a bad decision to close ourselves off from even researching these things, but through decades of work, people have been able to actually start to change the public and the government’s mind about what’s possible with them.

    Also, within the book, he does these trip reports, where he takes a few psychedelics and tries to report on his experience on them. And I think that sense of expansiveness and wonder – particularly when listening to bands like Kraftwerk and Laurie Spiegel, it’s very psychedelic music to me. Oftentimes when people say psychedelic music, they think of, like, British psychedelic rock, and this, in a whole different way, is about the expansiveness and the wonder of what’s possible, making sounds with these machines. It’s in one sense very organic, and in another sense very cold and inhuman. Reading that book kind of opened me up to thinking about all these things.

    Did it make you think about the relationship between psychedelics and creativity?

    Yeah, I think so. So much about trying to expand what kind of music you’re making is just trying to change your perspective in certain ways. And psychedelics do nothing if not change your perspective on the reality that you’re taking in.

    Early period artist memoirs: Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

    I haven’t read A Moveable Feast or Down and Out in Paris and London, but I’m actually in the middle of reading Just Kids, so I’m interested to hear how these books inspired the album, especially compared to the music documentaries.

    It’s a little different than the music documentary in the sense that the music documentary is a zoomed-out look at a very extended period, whereas the early period memoirs, I really liked the way that they focus on when people were at their hungriest – in some of these artistically, and, like, physically hungry. I’m in the middle of reading the George Orwell one now, but he really seems to have spent a lot of time in a very bad way. And it’s funny because I actually never finished Just Kids. I’ve always left myself a little bit more of it to read, so that there’s always that new discovery of inspiration. I’ve sort of let that one be crawling in the background at all times while I do other things. I feel like in all the cases, the people writing them are very focused on the art of what they’re doing, and they’re willing to go through all of these things for the sake of continually chasing that. Thankfully, I don’t have it nearly as bad as any of them, but I like the idea that the music kind of comes first, and you can endure all kinds of discomforts if you have something noble that you’re chasing.

    Even just reading about your story as a band, I think there’s a sense that you’re willing to make sacrifices for the sake of art. I feel like that was especially the case with making and releasing the first album, but do you feel like you had a similar kind of experience with this one?

    It was a little different. In a sense, it felt like there was a sacrifice because we couldn’t really go out on the road and experience the first album with people, but that was a sacrifice that was shared globally. I guess for for this record, it didn’t feel as much like there was that kind of sacrifice. And it felt a little bit more relaxed in the studio. Because we had no idea when the world would open up again, it felt like we had time, even though we actually made it in a much smaller time frame than the first album was made. There was this sort of like, “Well, we can’t go anywhere else.” In that sense, there was kind of a weight lifted as we were making it.

    Book stores/ Record stores

    The main reason this was on the list is because earlier in the day, we had been just sort of cruising through a bookstore, and seeing, especially when there’s a writer, or in the case of a record store an artist, that has a body of work where you can really follow the lines through the years and really shows you – I was gonna say it shows you how much work they put in over the years in order to make these things, although really, when you see a finalised book or finalised record, you’re seeing almost none of the work that went into it. But knowing how much work can go into these things, when I see a writer that’s put out like eight books or something, you’re like, the hours and hours and days and years they must have spent, searching for inspiration and then the act of doing it and editing it and all of the steps that come in terms of promoting these things, and then all of the books that didn’t get made or never got finished or just haven’t been made yet, all happening at the same time. It definitely makes me want to focus more on these things that take time and take introspection and ambition.

    The idea of having a body of work as Nation of Language, part of the reason I’m so excited to put out at a second record is to be a band where there’s more than just one record, because it’s just a step on the line towards having however many we end up having. But it’s so exciting to to be around that amount of creativity packed into a small space when you’re in a bookstore or record store.

    Would you want people to have more consideration for the effort that goes into making an album or the story behind it? Because we’ve also been talking about documentaries and artist memoirs, these things that offer people insight into the life of these artists rather than just their work.

    It’s always nice for people to know that you worked very hard on things. But at the same time, the thing about music is everybody kind of comes to it in their own way. Not everyone’s going to zoom in all the way, and as a musician you have to be okay with that. Some people will just casually listen to your song every once in a while, and they don’t know why they like it or anything like that. Other people will really deep dive read interviews and try and get to the bottom of everything. Being cool with all of that is I think an important part of staying sane, and it helps remind yourself that you want to satisfy yourself first, because not everyone is going to totally get it or invest in it. I think the most frustrating thing would be to make something that you weren’t really into and then no one wanted to deep dive on it.

    Being in the studio

    We worked in two different studios for this record. So much of the music was written at home, at the same desk, that to be around different synthesisers and guitars and percussion instruments – even just being in a different space and having a different perspective can unlock so many things. So many seeds of songs that end up getting written are started in the studio, because you’re trying to tune a snare drum and you find some sound that is not right for the song you’re looking for, but you’re like, “Oh my god, I could structure a whole beat around how weird this drum is sounding right now.” So you take it a little phone recording of it, and you pray that the next time you open that phone recording it means anything to you. [laughs] There’s just so much discovery that happens in the studio.

    There’s also a bit of a monastic sort of sense, like you come into this space that is purpose-built to do exactly what you’re doing, and it feels like anything you could need to explore your creativity is right there in front of you. And at that point, it almost becomes a bit about self-control. One thing that we’ve always tried to do when making the records is trying to limit the number of synthesisers we use, because when you’re in a studio there’s so much at your disposal, and being able to say, “Okay, these four are going to be the real workhorse ones. And maybe if we need a strange sound or some extra layer we can pull from all the other ones lying around in the room, but the foundation should be pretty solidly within a few synthesisers.”

    To what extent did the final product take shape in the studio?

    It varies a lot from song to song. Songs like ‘A Word & A Wave’ and the last song on the record, ‘They’re Beckoning’, they’re songs that really felt very transformed by the studio. ‘They’re Beckoning’ was a song I wasn’t even sure was going to be on the record. It was another one that was very short when it was first conceived, and then once we were in there, just sort of letting it run and letting ourselves not being afraid of how strange the structure is, and playing with time signatures and the number of measures after which a phrase repeats – being in that space made us feel very liberated to do whatever we wanted and really use the studio kind of as an instrument.

    I love that we talked about some of these as more general inspirations rather than direct influences for A Way Forward, but I can also see how many of these ideas, like ambition and exploration, specifically informed the album.

    For a lot of them, they are things that are constantly inspiring me. But whether it’s as I get older or the other things that come in at different times, my relation to these inspirations can change in subtle ways that allows them to feel specifically inspirational to this album. Because maybe for the next album, I’ll still be rewatching those documentaries, but I’ll be taking something different out of them based on what I’ve learned now.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Nation of Language’s A Way Forward is out now via [PIAS].

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