Nation of Language

QRO was fortunate when Nation of Language was kind enough to save us a lunch date whilst visiting Atlanta during their ongoing 'Strange Disciple' tour....
Nation of Language : Q&A
Nation of Language : Q&A

Slim & Husky’s is where you go for the best build-it-yourself pizza when you want the dopest dough in a Hip-Hopmotsphere to die for, a fact well known throughout the American southeast. Nation of Language is where you go when you want the ear-equivalent to that main-pie mainstay’s mutably great taste palette, a fact becoming more blissfully well-known every time they fire up their sequencers in a new city. QRO was fortunate to enjoy a deep-dish dose of both when Nation of Language was kind enough to save us a lunch date whilst visiting Atlanta during their ongoing Strange Disciple (QRO review) tour. Here’s your universal passport to getting ‘live, dangerous, and flawed’ with one of the most edibly ethereal bands of our past ten rotations around the sun.

QRO: As an unyielding word-nerd and a person who believes in some degree of nominative determinism, I have to first ask about the words that outwardly define your band. Tell me about “Nation of Language” as a name – because that combination of words is pretty visually and aesthetically fantastic.

Ian Devaney: Oh, thanks so much! Especially since I essentially stole it [laughs]! There is a D.C. punk band from the Eighties called Nation of Ulysses and I thought they had the coolest name. So, on a piece of paper, I wrote out ‘Nation of’ and then left it blank. I just started free associating and once I wrote out ‘Nation of Language,’ I just stopped, and said “There it is! That sounds like a band I could be in.”

QRO: Now here you are! I love this story because I do something similar in a document that is a good hundred miles long in my Google Drive called “Publishing Parlance.” It’s me doing exactly that – messing about with abstract word combinations, things I cull from magazines, and other Shakespearean page-reckonings for pure fun. I’m a riot at parties in case you can’t tell…

ID: [laughs] Oh, I can already tell! It is so easy to get bogged down in the search for a band name and as soon as I hit that and it just jumped off the page, I was grateful that the process was over and it was just “let’s go!”

QRO: It’s not just the verb vixen of me that loves that; it’s the fact I do think all living beings, and that includes bands, live up to their names in one fashion or another. Think about how that is the first gift any parent gives their child or any pet owner gives their pet. There have even been a few formal linguistic studies now with numerical evidence showing that what you are called all your life has a measurable impact on what you believe, how you think, and what you do with both. We can see that across the long history of negative social naming, certainly. Giving a name can be either a gifting or an attempt at a removal of power.

ID: No question. I was listening to a bit of an interview with Wilco and they were talking about how much wordplay factors into breaking themselves out of their creative ruts, just mashing words together that you wouldn’t have thought could go together. That can free up your mind from doing what you always do.

Sometimes the coolest stuff is actually what comes from when we don’t know how to operate the instruments.

QRO: It’s an excellent aleatory exercise – even The Rolling Stones borrowed the famous cut-up technique from William S. Burroughs when they were writing lyrics for Exile on Main Street, and to legendary effect. I think it has got extra nuance now because we are living in a time of ever-abbreviating language. We are starting to speak the way we text and shorten everything down to bite-size verbal ingestibles, which I’m not at all convinced is going to feed us much but communicative despair. However, one old-skool abbreviation bearing on you guys as a band that had a fantastic result is OMD, whom you’ve previously given credit as the match that lit the fuse for Nation of Language. Beyond their obvious genius, the OMG of OMD as it were, what appealed so strongly to you about the sonic world of one of your most fortissimo forebears?

ID: I think I have to give credit to growing up with a lot of that music being played in the house and my Dad making sure to introduce me to great stuff like OMD all the time, but I don’t think of us as nostalgic at all; I think that sort of emotion appeals to me. It finds its way into whatever I’m making and there is something about working within the medium of synthesizers that feels like a good channel for that.

Aidan Noell: I also think, listening to OMD and coming from a punkier musical background in your teens and twenties, it reminded you that you don’t have to be an expert at an instrument. You can just come at it from wherever you are and still make something beautiful and interesting. Sometimes the coolest stuff is actually what comes from when we don’t know how to operate the instruments. You’re not bound by any rules, right? When you listen to those old OMD songs, you can visualize each person with their instrument because it’s so in-your-face.

QRO: It reminds me to tell you that I hear a great deal more than OMD in your synthesizer sound world. I hear a lot of Howard Jones, and even the way he came to be associated with his instrument, the double keyboard, was an example of what you are talking about – it was a total accident, literally a van accident. I love the threat in the innocence of that, and it is also what I most love about your music. You are a brighter Joy Division put through a krautrock kaleidoscope! As you have come along at a time when music as a whole is heavily digitized in more than one way and thus ‘time periods’ as we would have known them before have been etherized, do you feel that the music you are making is going to be representative of a “time,” so to speak?

ID: I think probably yes, but I feel like we don’t know what that is yet. There are some things on a technical level that we will have a different way to work around in the future. For example, if everyone is using the same delay plug-in right now it’s going to seem like the new thing that sounds really great, but at some point, it will be the old thing. You already see that a lot with certain pieces of software that become ubiquitous and then no one wants to use them anymore because they are everywhere.

QRO: I do enjoy when evolution is pushed forward like that by the desire not to be mundane because the one thing every artist must sign to in their own blood is the vow to evolve, and that’s on every level from the exterior to the literal architecture of the songs in two separate spaces, the studio and the stage. Which song on Strange Disciple would you say enjoys the most different life between its recorded being and its live self?

AN: I think “A New Goodbye“ does that for me. All the songs have the core of the recorded version, and sometimes we use the same drum samples, but personally that one just goes somewhere different when we perform it because we come together in a way that feels transcendent of the song. It becomes its own community between the three of us, our sound engineer and light engineer, and because it’s that team element, it just elevates the experience and the feeling in such a nice way.

Alex MacKay: Yeah, there are a lot of parts that interlock with that one and when they all coalesce, it’s a little different every time, but it’s always exciting.

Sometimes it’s better to have these more live, dangerous, and flawed moments; they are what makes all of this special.

QRO: I can’t wait to hear it tonight! Last night I heard the celestial goddess that is Maggie Rogers describe her sense that her tour is “two hours of resonant therapy” every night and I thought that was both the most scientifically accurate definition of touring I’d ever encountered and also the most Romantic. What does touring this record feel like for you?

ID: Particularly with this record, we feel like we’ve been getting better all the time and when a show goes well, it really does feel like primal scream therapy. In the early days when we would mess up or something would go wrong, I would have this meltdown because I’ve tied my whole life up in this and little things not working out felt like pulling the scaffolding off the whole thing. A lot of my growing out of that has just been going to see other bands and when things go wrong for them, I never think, “oh, that was terrible.” Especially if you already liked the band and they are doing a headline tour, those “mistakes” end up being the things you remember; they become triumphant things. I’ve loved learning to lean into the notion that going to see live music means going to something where things might go wrong and I’m not so interested in a super “safe” show anymore in the sense of “safe” meaning I know how every little second will go on stage. It’s all got to be alive, and I think particularly with synthesizer music, you want to show people that you’re not doing nothing – because it’s so hard to tell what’s happening from the audience. Sometimes it’s better to have these more live, dangerous, and flawed moments; they are what makes all of this special.

QRO: Beautifully said, and I too am a dedicated acolyte to the idea that all mistakes are gifts, particularly where they come in a format that forces you to think on your feet. It’s miserable when it’s happening, but the expansion you get from the experience of being shoved like that is invaluable. What would each of you say has been your biggest growth moment on this tour, musical or otherwise?

AN: Every single night I think, “Wow, I can’t believe this is my job!” Early on in this tour, I had a night where I could not remember how to play “Weak In Your Light“, so we just had to stop and I had to practice in front of the whole audience! For me, that was humiliating, but then afterwards, people kept coming up to me and saying things like, “Thank you so much for not giving up and going through that in front of us, thank you for showing us that you are human.” Going from feeling totally humiliated to feeling like people loved that moment and that it was a turnaround for someone was amazing for me.

ID: A side note is that Aidan did not play an instrument before joining the band. I think sometimes when people don’t play music there is this “us against them” feeling between the band and the audience. Anything you can do to tear that down is valuable.

QRO: No doubt, and to reinforce that music, unlike almost any other art or pursuit, is something you can only get better at with age if you keep playing. That’s not true of anything else that you can get really good at. There’s a great benefit to showing people how open that potential stays and I’m sure those folks that you’ve done that for, through what felt like foibles at the time, are grateful in all sorts of ways. What about definitions of success – what is your collective idea of the pinnacle of what you are doing and how will you know when you have gotten there?

AM: Monaco. Yachts. Traveling facialist for my skin. Waited on hand and foot… [laughs]

QRO: Supermodel on each arm. Barry Keoghan in your video. I’m for it; these are my kind of expectations! But never forget that I didn’t think David Lee Roth was ever even remotely over the top because I feel that neon spandex and cartwheels in the sky should be any given Tuesday in all lives, so don’t mind me… [laughs]

AM: In all seriousness, this project has already gone so much further than what I hoped I would get. I was dreaming of something like one summer playing festivals, and maybe going to Europe. To be over two years in, feeling like we are improving all the time, I feel really grateful for that and excited about the future. If you don’t have a narrow definition of success, and you recognize that success comes in so many forms, you see that wonderful things happen every day. I’m proud that we have already passed my definition of success and are still going!

QRO: You will hear every single one of the true greats echo that exact sentiment, no matter how high you ever climb by any ladder’s measure. I think it’s the hallmark of the genuinely hallowed in every art, that sense of the sacred in every second. Which brings me to the last question in these last few seconds together today: If Strange Disciple was a book or took another form of a piece of art that you have loved, what would it be? To me, your record is The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, an authoress who is such a rockstar to me that I would unabashedly chase her down the road if I ever saw her, like the Tartt tart I absolutely will always be! [laughs]

ID: The book that pops immediately into my head is Just Kids by Patti Smith. What I hope to do with any record, aside from the expulsion of my inner self, is to make other people feel empowered and inspired to make things themselves. That book did that for me. It made me want to engage with a community and make something worthy of writing down.

QRO: I used to carry that book in my purse. For months, it was a traveling reference for daily life long after I’d finished reading it through, so I get that completely. I’m going to carry this sparkling conversation with you all the same way. Thanks a million for spending a moment of your busy afternoon with us and for showing QRO readers the inner landscape of Nation of Language. It’s an undeniably beautiful sonic country with some exceptionally gifted native citizens!

ID: Thank you so much for all of your kind words and taking the time to write about us. We’re really honored and thankful.

AM: This was a fantastic conversation and a real joy. We really do appreciate it.

AN: Thank you for all of this, your time and your interest,  and we’ll be looking for you tonight at Terminal West!

Nation of Language is currently ON TOUR promoting their third full-length record, entitled Strange Disciple.

-photo by Shervin