There was a slight air of apprehension as hundreds of masked fans packed into the Lodge Room, a gorgeous 1920s Italian Renaissance Revival-style venue in a former Masonic Lodge in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. It’s a warm, inviting space, complete with cherry wood paneling, hand-painted murals featuring scenes of ancient Egypt, and a huge golden pentagram on the ceiling. But, it was clear that at least a few folks in the crowd were still getting used to being out at shows again. A long-haired man at the bar slathered his hands with sanitizer before double fisting Jack and Cokes. A hipster couple had a muffled argument about where to safely stand and still see the stage. A fashionable woman with fogged glasses stumbled into the VIP area. They’d all come to see Nation of Language, a three-piece Brooklyn-based retro-synth act, playing two sold out nights. It was their first headlining tour and expectations were high. But, as the band took the stage and a searing synth lead cut through the air, all of the late pandemic stress melted away and the room exploded in a jubilant frenzy of dance.
This was a night that almost didn’t happen. In early 2020, Nation of Language was on the cusp of self-releasing their debut full-length, Introduction, Presence. Then COVID-19 shutdown the world. This should have spelled ruin for the fledgling band. But, even though they had no chance of touring to promote it, they decided to go ahead and just push the album out into the world to see what would happen. Gradually, based on the strength of the music, with a little help from some smart videos and promotion, people started talking. And, by the time things started to open back up earlier this year, the band was playing to large crowds in increasingly larger venues.
“We definitely feel like we skipped a step in the live show growth experience,” singer/songwriter Ian Devaney told SPIN over the phone. “To have all these people there who know the words and are dancing, really kind of giving themselves to the music as I am giving myself to the music, is just an unreal and really amazing experience.”
Devaney should know. He spent the late 2000s/early 2010s hammering it out with scrappy New Jersey indie rockers Static Jacks. Then, just over a decade ago, while on tour opening for The Wombats in Kansas City, Missouri, he met Aidan Noell. She’d come to see the headliner. They kept in touch and, when she moved to NYC for an internship, they fell in love. In 2017, after listening to OMD’s “Electricity” in his father’s car, Devaney was inspired to begin writing and self-releasing singles that referenced New Order, Soft Cell, and other early ‘80s synthpop pioneers. He started playing shows with Noell on keys and Static Jacks bandmate Michael Sue-Poi on bass. The foundation of their sound is the Moog Minimoog Model D analog synthesizer, which, ironically, Devaney doesn’t even own. When Devaney and Noell decided to get married, in lieu of wedding gifts, they asked for contributions to fund the completion of their first album.
As Introduction, Presence started to gain attention, the band began to build a community around their music. All the while, Nation of Language continued to release new singles, including an outstanding cover of Pixies “Gouge Away.” It’s another song Daveney discovered through his dad and it’s become a fan favorite. Devaney also collaborated with The Strokes’ drummer Fabrizio Moretti in another synthpop project called Machinegum, which is still active and has plans for more music soon. And, Noell has released two tracks of her own.
“That was really cool,” Devaney chuckles. “I was really jealous that her first two songs were as good as they were.”
Their second album, A Way Forward, digs even deeper into the past. It references earlier electronic influences like Kraftwerk, Laurie Spiegel, and Cluster. Production duties were split evenly between Abe Seiferth, who worked on their debut, and Nick Milhiser of Brooklyn synthpop duo Holy Ghost!. The two producers had studio spaces in the same building, just down the hall from each other. The resulting recordings are looser, more confident, and showcase the “creativity that comes from running around the studio, flipping switches, and letting things feel a little bit more like a living document of that moment.”
A Way Forward is also very much a New York City album, reflecting the mood and rhythms of the Big Apple during the pandemic. Songs like “In Manhattan,” “A Word & A Wave,” and “This Fractured Mind,” which references the Garden State Parkway, point to the complex, sometimes troubled, relationship many New Yorkers have had with the city over the past two years.
“I’ve always been very taken with records that feel like they have a place, like Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City,” Devaney said. “That record, it felt so New York to me. Living here and listening to it, just walking around, it felt so right…having that ability to imagine all your surroundings when you close your eyes and listen to the record is something that I always kinda wanted for us.”
Judging by the show at the Lodge Room, fans are responding very strongly to A Way Forward. And, thankfully, the whole world will get a chance to see these songs in person soon. Nation of Language is set to tour the EU and UK in January 2022 then all over North America and beyond later next year. Devaney is elated.
“I’m super grateful that there are people that want to come to the shows and are interested in the second record and were interested in the first record,” Devaney said. “This is all kind of an exciting and humbling moment. We just feel super fortunate.”