Dec 2018 12

Ronan Harris took his audience on a psychological journey of the self on VNV Nation’s tenth studio album, NOIRE. Here, he speaks with ReGen Magazine about that journey, and where it has taken him on his own path of reflection and evolution.
 

 

An InterView with Ronan Harris of VNV Nation

By Chazz Gold (Chazzarazzi), courtesy of Chazzarazzi Nightlife

One of the most popular and polarizing entities in electronic music, VNV Nation continues to persevere with words of wisdom and warning for a humanity racing towards its own decline. For more than 23 years, Ronan Harris has led his band through the shifting trends of the underground EBM/electro scene, always infusing heartfelt melodies into a punchy style that continues to influence and inspire new artists; through it all are his poignant lyrics addressing everything from the spiritual to the material, touching on man’s propensity toward self-destruction and demands for positive change and hope for a brighter future. This year’s NOIRE marks VNV Nation’s tenth studio album, and one of its most diverse as Harris speaks with Chazz Gold to provide some insights into the evolution of not only his creative process but also his own self over the years. He speaks about his visits to Japan to shoot his very first music video for the album single “When Is the Future?,” moving into a new studio and the development of NOIRE‘s lyrical themes, their connections to his past body of work, as well as meeting the demands of his ever changing audience, and reflecting on positive changes he’s made for himself over the years.

 

Let’s begin by talking about the new video for ‘When Is the Future?’ and where the idea for it came from. Was there any particular reason for it to be in black-and-white?

Harris: Well, we basically planned it a week in advance – literally, I think we’d said we were going to Japan next Monday or Tuesday. We went there for three-and-a-half days, and the whole idea of exploring a culture that I’ve never been in that is, say, something that we all idolize over here in a way. So, here I am in my first visit ever to Japan, walking through everything from Shinjuku in the pouring rain at night, which is the closest that you will ever get to being in the first Blade Runner film; I promise you. You don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to imagine it. You are literally in it. We’re walking around in the dark, and I think it’s nighttime, and there’s this line in the beginning of a William Gibson book where he says, ‘The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.’ And the reflection of the city lights on the sky, like on the clouds on this rainy day was exactly that. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m in a William Gibson novel.’ Everything makes a sound. Every crosswalk, every store, everything plays a little melody or has a little voice, everything! Every moving sidewalk, escalator, the works – everything’s got a little anime voice or something going on; little bells ringing, little melodies playing everywhere. Everything is tech! And then the contrast of that to spending the next day walking around the Shinto temple, the largest Shinto temple in Tokyo… I just loved the contrast! I loved the idea, going through this with the director, of visiting a culture that is as different from ours as it gets, and yet is so highly technological. I’d say every thirteenth person on the train was not buried in a phone. It was the scariest thing. Every single person walking around had a transparent umbrella in the rain… some of the umbrellas, by the way, were illuminated like they are in the first Blade Runner film. And everyone’s buried in a phone, and I thought, ‘Wow. We have all these wonderful billboards on the sides of buildings stretching up into the clouds showing, like, the animatics for new games or new products or whatever else…’ I think the only thing that was missing was someone asking me to consider a new life in the off-world colonies; oh, that and the flying cars. So, yeah. (Laughter)
 

 
It really could not have been more apt doing the video there, but doing it in black-and-white was kind of more of an aesthetic choice. I do a lot of photography privately, and the thing about black-and-white is that it provides a kind of purity to the photo that lets you to concentrate on the elements of the shadow and the texture of things, but not being distracted by the colors and the saturation. It sort of turns off an awful lot of detail that you don’t necessarily want to consider. It was actually based on a Wim Wenders documentary where someone is walking around in the documentary and exploring, and we took that as a lead… you’re following someone. You don’t know where it’s leading or where it’s going, but it’s really their experience of perpetually walking through searching for the future in a foreign place.

What sort of lyrical themes are you addressing on this album, and in what ways do they diverge or perhaps offer a different perspective on those of your previous output?

Harris: It’s strange, I’ve been explaining that a lot recently to people. The album, for me, was rather than a collection of individual parts, it was something I saw as a whole where everything was somehow related or somehow coming from the same source, the same time, rather than being written over a long period of time. The aspect of it being called NOIRE is about this idea that it’s a journey – it’s a journey through the self, facing up to one’s self, one’s faults or demons, and growing from it. I did that in many different ways, and I’ll give you an example. ‘God of All’ is based on a Mesopotamian legend about a man who’s granted immortality and is doomed to watch humanity struggle over time and never be able to find permanence in the world, but he’ll just have to watch it. The thing is this is a god’s joke in that the god says to this man, ‘Well, now you see what I have to watch. I have to watch my children, so to speak, growing up and the struggles they go through and how they evolve, and it’s going to be a very, very long process, but they’ll eventually get there.’ ‘A Million,’ which is a very psychological track about descending the depths of one’s self, and it’s purely a metaphorical song. I can’t say I’ve written too many songs based on Mesopotamian legends before. (Laughter) ‘Lights Go Out’ is a track that I think is a J.G. Ballard style kind of dystopian image of an alternate present, and it’s very much paying homage to my tastes in science fiction. ‘When Is the Future?’ I think it could thematically kind of relate in category to a few songs on other albums, but in itself, I think every song deals with… I say category in a very different way.
I’m known for the fact that I will talk about how I just do not understand why humans are obsessed with such pettiness and yet, miss the big picture. I think ‘All Our Sins’ was me saying that… you know, onstage I’ll be singing songs from Judgement, which was written back in 2007, and the lyrics for some of the songs… it was a very political album, or at least a social commentary. And here I was, like 10 years later, thinking that absolutely fucking nothing has changed! In fact, everything I said in interviews back then was going to happen has happened, and worse in some cases. It was funny actually, I went back to read an interview with a magazine that I did around that time, and it was eerie. It was just more about how people squabble and fight over resources, and how this struggle will get much worse, that it will lead us to some form of semi-global war or global conflict. And we seem to be rapidly approaching that path.
‘All Our Sins’ is more about a treatise on a lot of current issues, which are much bigger than… I’m not saying they’re irrelevant, and there are certain political situations going on in the world – we all know that, and I don’t need to harp on about that. ‘All Our Sins’ is taking on the much larger view of our indifference towards one another, and yet at the same time, we are facing the slow decline of our species. This is something that scientists have been sitting back, beating their heads on tables, talking about for the last 10… well actually, many more years than that. We’re facing something where the future of our species is at stake! We can’t sustain ourselves! We just can’t. We can’t keep going on this path; it’s utter madness to even think that we can somehow keep up this pace. We’ve been accelerating our rate of consumption massively over the last 20 years, and it’s just getting worse! It’s leading to conflict. It’s leading to huge amounts of tension around the world and on a bigger scale, and either we’re going to own up and grow up very quickly and deal with our problems, or we’re going to see a long, slow slide. It won’t be from one day to the next, not something where we say, ‘Hey, if we don’t do this today, tomorrow we’re all going to be dead.’ It’ll be more like the decline. I think that, obviously, that relates to subjects I’ve covered in the past, but I think I’ve dealt with it in a very pure, very direct way – something that I felt that everything I’ve ever done before was a practice run. Lyrically or thematically, I’ve said that this album is very diverse because it’s not centered around one theme. It is an album that is related to, I suppose, the abstract sort of darkness, and this going to sound a bit intellectual, that is what late 1800s creatives – like writers and painters and composers – would refer to as NOIRE, which was the inspiration they would get from this journey into the self. I think everyone knows what it’s like to sit alone at night and go through a lot of thoughts running through your head, whether you want them to or not – frantic thoughts, or you can go through sentimental musings over your past, but there are things that keep people awake. NOIRE for me is a sleepless night of going from one side through to the other. It’s the whole journey through the underworld, so to speak, in one’s mind. It’s a very psychological affair.

You just answered my next three questions all in one go.

Harris: Oh, I’m sorry about that. (Laughter)

No, no, it’s fine because I was going to ask what you are hoping listeners will take away from it, and you basically answered all of that. That’s cool though.

Harris: You what’s really weird? I had people commenting on ‘A Million’… I read one guy who wrote a review about it and somehow, he said the song was about war. I’m like, ‘What?! How did you get that from it? Did you read the lyrics? The song has absolutely nothing to do with that at all.’ It’s a song about the onset of your mental demons, and facing up to them and having to deal with them, and having to persevere to get through. I kind of hoped that it was obvious, but this guy just missed it; he must have listened to the vibe of the song and kind of garnered something from it.

NOIRE is also the first time VNV Nation is being released/distributed by Metropolis Records in a decade, since 2007’s Judgement. After a decade, what motivated his return to Metropolis?

Harris: It was weird, because they reached out to me. I thought about it for a while. We parted ways a long time ago, and I went off on my own path, and I guess I kind of needed quite a bit of time to think about it. But after some discussion… there was actually a third party between myself and the label who was trying to encourage it, and after some time, we thought about it and we came to what I think is a good idea about how to proceed. So, I said, ‘All right, yeah. Let’s do it!’ Obviously, they’re a great label; they have great experience and great success, and it’s actually been a very interesting experience working with them again. There are a lot of old friends I haven’t talked to for years, and there are some people there I never lost touch with. But yeah, it’s interesting. We’ll see where it goes.

This year was the 20th anniversary of Praise the Fallen, which was the album that really established VNV and remains a beloved record because of songs like ‘Solitary,’ ‘Honour,’ ‘Forsaken,’ and ‘Joy.’ In what ways do the themes you approached on that album still relate to your mindset today?

Harris: Praise the Fallen was written by me at the time based upon a lot of my personal musical tastes, which were quite diverse. I think the sound that it created in the end was the culmination of a lot of different styles, but that album was written and recorded by me never to be released. I never intended it to be released because I didn’t think there was anything like a career for me. It was something I needed to say to myself, which is why I’ve kind of got very mixed feelings about how other people judge that album, because I know what I meant by it. I know what symbolically it meant for me. It was something unique and something self-contained; it wasn’t something to be compared to other albums or other styles of music or anything like that. It wasn’t meant to be seen in that light at all, that’s not how I wrote it. It’s interesting to go back and play these songs again because it feels like another me from another life. It was very much how I felt at the time. There were a lot of changes going in me and a lot of changes going on in my world, and it was a lot of frustrations being vented. I needed to encapsulate myself lyrically in ways that I would understand.
The way I described it at the time, and a lot of the descriptions that I said in interviews back then have kind of gotten lost over the years because nobody has a whole compendium of all the interviews I’ve done, but I talked about it as a battle for control of the soul, and that’s what Praise the Fallen meant to me at the time. The oddest thing was that out of that came Empires or the era of my life that inspired that album, which was this transition period. It was like the before and after. It’s very strange for me as a person, who’s lived through this, who has embodied his life – all my faults, all the things I was interested in, all the books I’ve read, all the films I’ve ever seen, all of the music styles I liked… Praise the Fallen was very classically inspired, very orchestrally inspired. I remember somebody describing it back then as ‘anthemic industrial,’ which I thought was an interesting term.
The weird thing is industrial was this word that I associated with – and still over here because that’s what people call it – you know, like metal bashing and experimental music and noise and what have you. Industrial/electronic was this sort of thing that bands like DAF or Front 242 might have done, but I kind of think that was the era that the music was relevant, whereas Praise the Fallen was more of me listening to, say, goa and underground hard techno and symphonic music and obviously bands that were somehow related to the genre. It all kind of culminated together just at the time, but it was a reflection of me at the time. You know, one day you’re in the mood for one thing, and the next day you’re in the mood for something else. Every album has been a reflection of me through my life and where I’ve gone. So, from my point of view, I see it very differently from other people. It’s like looking back through a photo album or like reading your diary; very much for me, it’s like reading a musical diary that… if I hear, for example, ‘Solitary’ from the Solitary EP, there is a point in the song where I know that something happened in the studio – a complete accident – that changed everything for me. This one simple little thing of a cable coming out changed everything for me and how I make music since then. There are things like if I hear a song, I know how the studio smelt, I know how I was standing, or how I was dressed. It was an incredibly intense time in my life and I remember details vividly. I remember all the music I was listening to, and there was a lot of very wild and very interesting electronic styles going on in London at the time. It was this kind of urban culture of music. It’s quite actually interesting because Praise the Fallen, for me, was kind of a concept album, and yet, here I am making another concept album in NOIRE. So, yeah, it’s an interesting cycle. Thanks for pointing that out, because I hadn’t actually quite considered that.

In what ways have you moved on from them to pursue different ideals, and how do you think it reflects on you – as an artist and as a person – since that album?

Harris: The thing I can’t… that I don’t want to do necessarily musically is do the same album again. One experience, I’ll be like, ‘Okay, I’ve done that, and I want it better!’ I want to improve it and I want to do something new with that sound. Praise the Fallen sounds the way that it does, and Empires sounds the way it does because of the technology involved and the quality of the recording that was available to me on a very limited budget at the time. I kind of think that in some ways it has a bit of charm because it sounds like it was recorded down a mineshaft. It was on a very limited budget and recorded in a very, very short space of time, but it brought about a lot of interesting ideas.
The thing is I didn’t know how to write a lot of things that I wanted to write back then. I didn’t know how to structure them. So, with every album, I learned more about how to do the things that inside I really wanted to do. Some tracks on some of those albums were compromises for me, sort of me just testing the depths and learning things as I went because I really didn’t have a lot of experience as a producer and I didn’t know how to get certain things to sound the way they did. It’s always been an evolution – a reflection of the evolution in me and the growth in me.
One thing that I’m happy with is that the orchestral side has always persisted. It’s something that I’ve never lost and something that I still get a great deal of pleasure out of, so that ending up being able to do an orchestral album with a real orchestra was possibly the greatest dream for me. But to switch up on, say, the electronic side, something I want to do next year, which I’ve been talking about for the last couple of years is actually performing a lot of VNV songs live using only analog synths in a planetarium.
There are a lot of dreams I have; I don’t have any shortage of ambitions. With every album, I’ve grown. I don’t know. It’s almost like an automatic thing with me to just start writing something new and different, and it’s always affected by my mood and who I am as a person at the time. If I look back on who I was then 20 years ago… Praise the Fallen was actually written between ’96 and ’97. It was recorded in ’97, and it took me about a good nine months to a year to find a label who would be interested in releasing it, believe it or not. I remember reading some interestingly horrible reviews of it. I always find it funny that there are those people who kind of hold certain VNV albums as almost sacred, and yet, what they don’t realize is that at the time, you know, in context… there were people making comments like, ‘I hate this. This is a load of shit!’ And then there were people who loved it, and the people who loved it seemed to be more people who thought like me. That hasn’t changed. (Laughter)

I hear that a lot, where people will end up not liking an album, but they’ll say that it grew on them and that they started liking it more over time. I hear that a lot.

Harris: It’s really weird. The album Transnational came out, and I had a very specific idea behind what I was trying to do with that album. I’d done Automatic; I’d done all of the nice catchy songs, and there’s a danger with that. That was not my intention. There were some people who thought that we were just going through the motions, or that the next album would be just, ‘Oh yeah, they’ve done it all. The next album is going to be just repeating themselves and going into their decline,’ and whatever.
The thing is it’s always only been me in the studio. There’s never really been anyone else. The only person who’s ever been involved with the music has been my assistant producer André (Winter), who is a very accomplished artist in his own right. We work very, very well together. We’ve worked together since about 2005. We met at the studio where I was recording Matter+Form. He and I have grown a keen idea about how each other thinks; we know each other’s skill set, we know what each other’s forte is. He’s a very accomplished underground dance artist, and he produces a lot of albums for a lot of very big artists in that realm. He’s brilliant in his own way, but the thing is the style of music that he does is alien to me. I could never do it, but then, he could never do mine.
When Automatic came out, it actually surprised a lot of people. Because I kind of thought, ‘I’m just doing this for me. I’m having fun and I don’t really care what anyone thinks. I make music that makes me happy, and then I release it and hope that other people will like it.’ Then I got past Automatic and it was a fantastic, liberating, and cathartic album for me. I had an amazing experience with it – one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done! But then, when I went on to Transnational… as I was saying, they get used to the sound of an album and they expect the follow-up to be the same. It’s like, ‘I just got ice cream. I want another ice cream.’ That’s not what I’m about, and that’s never been what I’m about. That might not be what everybody wants, but I’m not really in the business of just doing what everyone wants, because that’s not why I do what I do. So, the thing was the album was weird in that it alienated people who wanted to hear music that fit certain criteria, and I don’t have that list of criteria, so… I said at the time that I’m not a delivery service – you don’t just order an album and I make it as you wish.
But the weirdest thing was that people between the ages of 15 and 25 were writing to me in droves about the album, which is the weirdest thing because I never expected people of that age group to be listening to VNV, and they were going absolutely nuts about it! There were videos going around of kids singing the songs, kids about 18, and in one case, rapping along with ‘Retaliate.’ It was bizarre! It was the most incredible thing, and I just thought, ‘Well, this is great! With every album, I seem to reach a different group of people.’ There is no specific demographic to VNV’s music. The best way I can describe it is I’ve got fans in their 90’s and I’ve got fans in their teens, and they all have a different perspective on it, and I absolutely adore that. I adore the fact that I meet people who don’t listen to any music that I listen to, who really like what I do, and I feel really weird. If you meet someone who’s heavily into metal who likes a VNV album, I kind of wonder, ‘Why? How?’ I feel like I should almost apologize to them for the fact that there’s no big solo in the middle or some massive drum fill or something like that. (Laughter)

NOIRE is the first new VNV album in five years, since 2013’s Transnational (not counting the orchestral Resonance release), which is the longest gap between albums in VNV’s history. What was it about the creation of this album, either musically or lyrically, that it took this long?

Harris: What happened was during Transnational, I was in a building that almost killed me. I was getting increasingly ill and didn’t know why. Eventually, I found out that there was some invisible mold forming on walls around the building that I was heavily reacting to. My micro-toxin level reached extremely dangerous levels, and I was told to get out of the building. This was really in the space of about, I think it was like from one hour to the next. I had people going into the studio and taking the equipment out for me. The only time I could go in was with a mask. A lot of people in the building were getting sick and didn’t know why.
I then moved, and it took me quite some time to find another studio because Hamburg is the hot point for everyone living in Germany at the moment and has been for I’d say the last 15 years. This is where all the big jobs are, all the new creative jobs.

Sounds like Portland.

Harris: Exactly, and it has a very kind of hip vibe, a very working class hip vibe. But you have a ritzy side to Hamburg; like, all the richest people in Germany also have to live in Hamburg, but everybody else felt like they were all the same level – doesn’t matter what culture or what background. It’s got an incredible vibe, and yet, despite being the second biggest city in Germany, it still has the kind of feeling of being a village or a small town. It’s a port, and that culture resonates through it.
The thing was I went to a studio where a fitness studio moved in underneath me, and they started running Zumba classes right under my studio, and it was deafening! It was like standing outside a nightclub; if you could imagine standing outside a nightclub where they’re playing Zumba or whatever, that sound that you hear when you’re outside the club… this big echoing room! You could hear the reverb of the room, and I was hearing it from 9:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night – it was only originally supposed to be for an hour, and I thought, ‘Okay, I can deal with that.’ But then, they decided to change their plans. So, I went somewhere else.
It took me a long time to find somewhere where I could finally settle. I took my time with it, to be honest, because Resonance came along, and a number of projects happened just before Resonance that I got heavily involved in because I don’t just work on VNV. I finally found a place, I built it up slowly, built myself a wonderful studio and an office there, and I’m incredibly happy with it. Rather than rushing, I just let it happen. I’m very busy over here. I don’t always have the time to settle down and then stop and say I’ve got to write an album. I’d already pre-planned in 2016 that I would start in 2017, or that I should at least get around to thinking about this album, and it was slowly forming. It was really based on the fact that I was sitting there late at night working away in the office, and I had this little keyboard on my desk and synthesizers on my computer, so if I was in the middle of working on something else, and that’s usually when the best ideas come, then I was just noting down whatever was coming out and it all starts to suddenly gel.
The weird this is I entered into a creative vibe that I haven’t had for a long time. I wrote 17 other songs for this album that were in the same state as every song that ended up finished for NOIRE – they’re still there; they haven’t been developed. You kind of get into a mode slowly when you’re working on an album. You get into the vibe of it, and it starts rolling like a ball, and it just gathers pace. A lot of really cool things happened. I changed my life over the last year, dramatically, and that was another thing is that I had a lot of things in my personal life that I needed to change and deal with. I made a lot of changes on the personal level that made me a better person, and made me a happier person, or a more content person. I think happiness is a fleeting thing, so I’d rather aim for contentment. But it put me in a much clearer place, and I think I spent the last couple of years really working on me and influences around me. Everyone’s got negative influences around them, and I think there’s a time when you have to make a decision, like, ‘Why do I put up with this shit? Is there a need for me to deal with this? Do I need it in my life? Can I just be rid of it?’ I made a lot of tough choices, but at the end of the day, it’s your life! You have the decision over how you want your life to be, and you have a great deal of influence on that. Fuck the drama!

Now that you’ve been touring with NOIRE, is there any particular song that you really love to perform?

Harris: I think, actually, what’s bizarre is I had a problem trying to pick which songs from NOIRE to play live, because… you know, you have a limit. Can’t play them all, but we picked seven, and it’s a very long set. But it works out absolutely brilliantly. Every song is different, and every song has a very unique vibe, and you know how diverse it is. I really can’t remember the last time I felt so chilled about being able to enjoy every single song. We’d start the shows out with “A Million,” the very first song on the album, and we’d play songs off the album like ‘Lights Go Out’ and ‘All Our Sins,’ and ‘When Is the Future?,’ obviously, and a couple of others. Every song garnered a different reaction, but I just get lost in them. There isn’t any one song I like over another. Everything is like a reflection of different facets of me, so every song I enjoy in their own right for their own reasons – the theory toward them is all the same, but every song feels very, very different.

 

 

If you could have dinner with any two people, dead or alive, in present or past history, who would they be?

Harris: I always used to say Nikola Tesla, and he’s become in the last 20 years really well known. Carl Jung, the psychologist, would definitely have to be one of them. I’m just trying to think… who would the other person be? Somebody who is basically hilarious. (Laughter) Someone in the room just said Bill Burr! Could you imagine Carl Jung and Bill Burr having dinner with me? That’s chaotic. I’d love to meet Bill Burr; I really want to know if he’s the same on and off the stage. (Laughter) But I would have to say William Powell, my favorite actor of all time. He was very active in the 1930s, and he was the American David Niven, the American gent. I’ve got about 5,000 questions I’d want to ask him, but Carl Jung is just someone I’d love to sit down and talk with for days.

 

 

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