As Aidan Noell, the keyboardist for New York-based synth-pop band Nation of Language, elaborates on her love of Death Cab for Cutie, her husband (and band frontman) Ian Devaney stealthily removes one of his boots and begins whacking at a spotted lanternfly that has landed near them in the backyard garden of a Brooklyn coffee shop.
“I think he’s dead, Ian,” Noell deadpans as Devaney turns the invasive pest into paste with legs. “Ian is the No. 1 killer of lanternflies,” she says.
Devaney may want to talk to the Orkin people about a side hustle, but at the moment, he and Noell are a bit busy. On Sept. 7 they begin a nearly 50-date tour that will see them headline Rough Trade’s iNDIEPLAZA festival at Rockefeller Center in their hometown (Sept. 9) and perform in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America before the end of the year. The live run will coincide with the Sept. 15 release of the band’s third album, Strange Disciple on the PIAS label.
Nation of Language caught fire near the beginning of the pandemic when their first album, Introduction, Presence, was released in May 2020. At a time when music fans under lockdown were looking for comfort, their debut was an irresistible confection of familiar and new sounds. Devaney, who hails from Westfield, NJ and is the band’s principal songwriter, nimbly builds nostalgic hooks and loops from such synth-pop and post-punk masters as Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Human League, Flock of Seagulls and Talking Heads — into brand new songs that are as irresistible as their predecessors. In concert, he channels his musical forebears as well, stalking the stage with jagged, jerky moves, an asymmmetric haircut and (more recently) the beginnings of a Midge Ure mustache.
Devaney and Noell, who recently celebrated their fifth year of marriage (and often finish each other’s sentences), have been on the road almost nonstop since touring resumed in 2021, playing to larger and larger audiences such as the Primavera festival in Barcelona. They say they are looking forward to this next leg of shows because, Devaney explains, the band’s second album, A Way Forward, was released just as lockdowns were ending. “So we were essentially touring the first and second albums at the same time.” Their fall itinerary will be “the first time in quite a while where we are performing songs that people haven’t heard before.”
Below, they talk with Billboard about life on the road as a married couple, artists who have influenced them and much more.
How did you two meet?
Noell: Ian was on tour with his previous band, Static Jacks, who were opening for The Wombats in Kansas City. I was there with my mom because we love going to shows together, and I was enamored with him and his performance. My mom was like, “You should go talk to him.” So I did, and that’s how we met.
Devaney: I was terrified because this was a girl that came to the show with her mom. I was like, “Very nice to meet you.” Handshake.
Aidan, you didn’t know how to play an instrument when you joined the band. How did you learn so quickly.
Noell: Determination. All of Ian’s friends who had played in his bands had moved away, and I felt like it was my duty to do whatever I could to keep his project going. I thought, I can do this if I just try hard enough. Please just try teaching me. And he did.
Ian, as Nation of Language has graduated to progressively larger stages, you seem to have no trouble expanding your performance to fit the space. Have you worked with anyone on accomplishing that?
Devaney: I guess it’s instinctual. It’s very much just doing whatever feels natural. There are definitely moments where, because the stages we play can vary so greatly in size, I’m like, “Is what I’m doing right for this environment?”
But the goal is to let the moment take over as much of my decisions as possible. I try not to overthink what I’m doing in each moment. When I was in high school, my performance style was very showy and all over the place. There were more elements of Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison — classic rock frontman things — going on. Then I rejected that and wanted to stand still. Eventually, I found my way back into movement. Ultimately, it’s my form of dancing. The best way I can describe it is it’s like having a hairbrush in your bedroom when you’re playing your favorite songs.
Obsession seems to be one of themes of Strange Disciple. You seem to be a happy couple. Where does the obsession come from?
Devaney: There’s our relationship to each other, but there are past relationships. There’s putting oneself in friends’ shoes and witnessing their relationships. Not all the obsessions that inspire the music are inherently romantic. Whether it’s obsession with…
Noell: An idealized version of yourself.
Devaney: Or with social media and your relationship to it. It’s anything that captures your attention so much that it warps everything else around you.
Would your fans’ idealization of you have anything to do with that?
Devaney: I don’t think so. I never saw myself as an — I definitely don’t want it to seem adversarial towards our audience.
Nation of Language doesn’t sound anything like The War on Drugs, but I feel like you’ve got something in common in that I’m able to hear your musical influences very clearly. Adam Granduciel’s love of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen is evident in his songs; Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Human League, in yours. Did you ever worry that people would consider your music pastiche?
Devaney: Not really. Those sounds are just the palette that captivates me. It’s not me wanting to write a song that sounds like a Human League song. It’s just using some of the same tools.
What are the essential albums in your collection?
Devaney: When it comes to the albums that I would say are in the pantheon of what drives this band, The Man-Machine by Kraftwerk; Remain in Light by Talking Heads, Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. To me, they exist in that kind of rarefied area where the artists were striving to make something that can stand apart. They’re not going to mean everything to everyone but to me they have this mystique, and you can feel the ambition in each of them. I am always striving to be as ambitious as possible, especially now that we are in this third album phase where you start to feel like there’s some things that might be expected of you. I don’t want to find myself curbing my ambition in order to—
Noell: Hit those marks.
Devaney: But you don’t even know what the marks are because you can’t really know what people want from you. If you start trying to hit imaginary marks you could just end up screwing yourself — and feeling really uninspired and bad about it. In terms of what I’ve been listening recently: the New Alvvays album — actually all three because I missed the boat with them until very recently. Weyes Blood is another artist that I listen to a lot. Aldous Harding. Cola.
Noell: I had a very midwestern emo youth, but my first concert was Death Cab for Cutie and that was my very favorite band in high school. I really love their most recent album, and we get to go see them this fall with The Postal Service so I’m very excited about that.
What have been the band’s biggest challenges?
Devaney: The first thing that comes to mind is health. We do a lot of touring, and I get sick on basically every tour. That makes everything so much harder.
Noell: Since the last tour, where we all got sick, we’re like, all right, we’re going to try every possible cure for bad immune systems. We’re all on crazy vitamins and Ian is drinking herbal remedies every day.
Devaney: Thinking larger than that, I struggle a lot with the idea of disappointing people, especially if they’ve invested emotionally in us the way that fans have started to [be]. And the health plays into that when you get onstage, you haven’t been feeling great and you feel like you haven’t given everything. It’s trying to find a balance where not everything feels like the highest stakes in the world every single day.
Noell: It takes a huge toll on Ian’s mental health. Before our show in London, which was going to be our biggest yet, Ian basically lost his voice and was really afraid of disappointing people on stage. That was one of the lowest mental health points that I’ve seen him in.
Ian, how did you deal with that?
Devaney: I was able to do that show fine — and the show the next night in Glasgow, I gave them the last shred of what I had.
Noell: And of course everyone was like, “That was the greatest show I’ve ever seen.” Meanwhile, Ian is dying on stage.
Devaney: I think what people want is to feel that you are present, and that what they are witnessing is not just the same exact thing you did yesterday. Trying to figure that out helps with fighting the perfectionism that can infiltrate your brain. If you can just roll with punches and erode the barrier between you and the people that are there to share in the moment, that makes everything so much easier and so much more fun. The pressure dials back then.
We’ve reported that indie bands have had a hard time touring because of inflation, expenses and other factors. Nation of Language seems to have avoided this. Can you offer some perspective how to tour successfully?
Devaney: We certainly feel what everyone else has been feeling. Our first several European tours were done with the understanding that we would definitely lose money even if we sold every ticket and everyone bought merch. We had to view those tours as investments for the future.
Still, last year was an especially perfect storm, in that our expenses all went up significantly, but our income went the other direction. We were getting paid the fees we had agreed to months before inflation took off. Add to that a very strong U.S. dollar versus weaker overseas currencies, and it was ugly to look at the budgets. We had a conversation about canceling last fall, but that felt like it’d be letting so many people down who wanted to attend these shows. It felt really special to us that there was a vocal audience in other parts of the world, and that it was growing with each trip we took. So, we just took the hit.
How did you make it work?
Devaney: We were able to use funds we were making from comparatively stable North American touring to offset the losses incurred overseas, and we hoped that doing so would eventually lead to sustainable touring in larger rooms. In June, we finally had a string of European dates where we came out ahead. So, for now we’re telling ourselves it worked out. Even so, our situation isn’t entirely duplicable for other artists. We don’t have to bring drums or amps, so we’re able to travel in much smaller vehicles and we can fly with all of our gear without incurring much in baggage fees. Pro-tip for young bands that we wish we’d been told sooner: Pick an airline and stick with it. As soon as you have status you’re saving significantly on every trip thereafter.
At the end of the day, the live show is just such a big part of this band’s identity. We can’t imagine not making it work so we’ve built everything around the idea that we need to be able to tour effectively and efficiently.
You use a company called Music Glue to sell your concert tickets and merch. Do you use it to avoid the fees and markups that more established companies such as Ticketmaster would charge?
Devaney: Fees are certainly a huge problem right now. It seems like you get punished for trying to keep your ticket prices low. Often, we agree to a ticket price and then somehow there’s 30%-40% arbitrarily added on. From top to bottom, no one is willing to have a real conversation about where that money goes or why this is the system we’re all going along with. On top of that, the ticketing companies then scoop up all the data on those fans who buy tickets and use it as they see fit. Music Glue allows us, in a small way, to step outside of that doom spiral. We can keep the fees low for tickets sold directly through our site, and it seems to net us a ton of signups to our mailing list by fans who want to have a direct relationship with us.
Alex MacKay is your new bassist. Why did Michael Sue-Poi leave?
Devaney: The lineup of the band has changed at least four or five times, and ultimately, as we were starting to tour more and more, the road does not always agree with everyone. It’s the sort of thing that many people idealize, and then once you’re actually there, you realize, oh, most of my time is not my own. I have pretty much no personal space, especially at that point, it was four of us in a hotel room every night. And especially touring in America, where so many of the drives are six to eight hours, you all stay in the same room; you wake up; you all go to breakfast together; you start the drive and you get to sound check and you’re always in the same exact space.
Noell: It’s not that making or playing music isn’t for them. It’s that the road life isn’t for everyone. Luckily, we have found someone, Alex MacKay, who absolutely loves the road life.
Does it help to be married when you are touring so much?
Noell: Oh yeah. We are spoiled, I would say. Getting to work with each other and see each other every day all the time is amazing and we’re super lucky. And we always have each other to fall back on when our mental health does really —
Devaney: Ultimately being able to effectively communicate is such a crucial part of any touring party whether they’re members who are married or not. So, having that with each other foundationally, and then also with the other people we travel with it just makes life so much easier.
I guess have you started writing the next album? What’s next for you?
Devaney: In these little downtimes we have this summer between festival trips. I’ve been trying to spend as much time as possible creating but in a very…
Noell: No-pressure way.
Devaney: There are some songs that have been around since the second album that, as each album has come up, I’ve been like, “It’s not right for that, but it could be a place we go.” I’m always trying to write without expectations so that I can potentially plant the seeds for future directions. There are a bundle of demos floating around where I’m like, I could lean into this vibe a little more or take things over here.
Noell: It’s hardest for me, who gets to hear all these demos. I become obsessed with these songs. I’m like, “They should be on this album. Come on, let’s put it out.” And he’s like, “No, it’s not right yet.”
Devaney: It is weird that some of my favorite songs I’ve written are not on any album — because I’m like, “No, now is not the time.” Making each record turns into more of a curatorial mindset, where you’re like, [figuring out] which things fit together and complete this puzzle that would be the record. Things get put off to the future, because they don’t seem exactly right, for a reason that you can’t even explain to yourself.
You put out the first single for this album in March and have since released three more. What’s the strategy behind putting out singles so far in advance of the album release?
Noell: It’s half-strategy, half-…. once again, the record printing is so slow. For the last two albums it was difficult to get records printed and pressed and shipped to people who preordered them on the date that the record came out.
Devaney: This time we wanted to make sure that those dates are fully aligned. With the first album we ended up releasing more singles than we anticipated because the release date was pushed back by a month. And we found that with each single, more people were finding the band and more [media] were covering each single. We tried that again for the second album, and it worked really well. So, this time we’re doing it again, with a fifth single dropping on the album release date.
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