Continuing to forge a path of stimulating electronic music and insightful lyrics, VNV Nation speaks with ReGen on the road toward a better future.
An Interview with Ronan Harris of VNV Nation
By: Lüke Haughwout
From humble beginnings recording on antiquated equipment in a garage in London to becoming the purveyors of a new electro movement, VNV Nation’s star has risen fast and furious over the course of nearly two decades. Ronan Harris is a man who needs no introduction as the creator of futurepop and one of the most thought provoking lyricists in the electronic music underground, observing and lamenting the squandered potential of an increasingly technological world and the loss of the human capacity for social and emotional enlightenment. Yet amid themes of failing ideologies, empires ripped apart by warfare, and broken promises of brave new futures, Harris and cohort Mark Jackson have captivated audiences around the world as their message is infused with a sense of hope that we are only approaching the brink, with a chance to make for a better world still remaining. All the while, the band’s music has been a shining example of the power of electronic music to reach beyond the confines of technology and danceable rhythms and actually touch people’s spirits. First gaining notoriety in the club circuit with such hard-hitting industrial/EBM anthems like “Joy” and “Honour” to dominating the underground with Empires and Futureperfect, VNV Nation’s music progressed further into pop territory with later albums like Judgement and Of Faith, Power and Glory, continuing to polarize longtime fans while gaining new audiences that have taken them far out from the underground. Yet since the 1995 release of Advance & Follow all the way to their most release, Automatic, the band has never lost sight of the source of its appeal: insightful and intelligent lyrics driven by pulsating electronic music. While on tour with Straftanz in late 2011, ReGen Magazine caught up with Ronan Harris to discuss the band’s musical and thematic progression, touching on the pitfalls of popularity, extensive touring, and even adding a bit of history of technological design.
It’s been a busy year for you. Your newest release, Automatic, has been generating a lot of positive buzz, and you have been touring all over with Straftanz. How’s it been going?
Harris: We’re having a brilliant time. Everyone in our crew we’ve been friends through different groups of friends for years, so we’re just having the most amazing time, hanging out like buddies and doing this tour. Yeah, unfortunately, only four shows left. I wish it could go on for another couple of other months, but then we’ll be back in February and March for more.
So are you using the same group of people…the same backup musicians as you had on other tours?
Harris: In Europe, we have different keyboarders and sometimes here we exchange them. We’ve got Mike [Wimer] and Gabe [Shaw] who were the keyboardists on the last tour, and I think the tour prior to that, so ostensibly, it’s mostly the same crew. We’ve got Krischan [Wesenberg] from Rotersand who does our sound, our friend Chris who’s doing lights…he’s new, he’s only been with us on this tour. And Dink, our tour manager, who’s a new addition.
A lot of people have been comparing Automatic to an earlier album like Empires. Was that a conscious decision? Why do you think it’s done so well in the German charts?
Harris: I’m not sure about this. I think the comparison…I try to understand it, because it’s very hard for me as the writer and the producer to understand how other people are hearing it. I’ve heard this comment and I’ve asked people about it, like what they are comparing it to. Empires was a very melodic and very catchy and very emotional album. It struck people at a particular time. I don’t have a problem or ever any fear of doing that. I love writing songs; I like writing songs that just do something to me. I write this music first and foremost for myself. But Automatic was never consciously…there was never, ‘I’m going to make an album like that again.’ Empires was a combination of a lot of different things that happened in my life at the time that brought me to a certain place and brought the album to sound as it did, and Automatic likewise. I was just beyond…I don’t think pleasantly surprised would be the right term…floored when I switched from the mode of writing the album to actually [when] it’s been delivered to the mastering company. I can now sit back and listen to the album from beginning to end.
As to why it did so well in Germany, I mean, it’s done phenomenally well in America, judging by the fact that every single night when we play the shows, everyone’s singing along to the songs. So something is going right. I don’t know what we did differently or what I did differently that actually made people sit up and look at this one. But one thing that a lot of people did point out to me was that they said it’s how you…like if you buy a book, your first thing you’re going to look at is the cover of the book, and it gives you about it. Empires had that effect at the time, and Automatic, it seems that people are talking about the artwork a lot. I don’t really know, maybe the poster being this kind of retro-futurist thing. And it really got people intrigued. And then as ‘Control’ got released as a kind of a free track, people were going nuts about it. And it sort of builds; it wasn’t an intentional hype. We’re not sort of like media masters. If we were, than every album would really been heavily successful, and we’d kind of build upon that. It’s all very hit or miss, and it’s very much chance. But I’m very proud that it’s been very successful. We were completely taken by surprise by the album being as successful as it was in Europe.
Can you talk a bit about the ‘1930’s manufacturing’ and retro-futurism’ themes on the album?
Harris: ‘30s industrial era. The ‘30s is a pet passion of mine. I’m absolutely mental about the American ‘30s. I have to stress that because I did a lot of interviews in Germany where I have to say ‘American ‘30s’ because you can’t say, you know… Anyway, I’m obsessed with this era, and the whole era of what it did as far as the advancements people made in the period of 10 years. And also what originally got me interested was the styling, the design of it, the architecture, the ethos. But as I started to read more about this era, I found that an awful lot of concepts that we inherited today, like a lot of social issues were suddenly being addressed for the first time ever. People suddenly said, ‘We’ve got lots, we can make the world a better place.’ All the manifestos for building the world into a better place were all talking about how we as humans can benefit from the things that we’re creating. So there was this great deal of optimism, this great deal of…despite economic hardship, which was very prevalent at the time, that the world could be made better, fixed, and what have you.
So futurism is obviously a big kind of part of electronic music. I mean, that’s kind of where its origins sort of came from is this idea that it’s scientific equipment that gets used for making music. Futureperfect was for me based on the turn of the century, the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, and the concepts around the time. And this is my album of what happened 30 years later. There was somebody who tried to tie the two together and made a complete mess of that, so I kind of went at them; sort of had kind of an argument with me online about how he thought this was a repetition of Futureperfect just because what stylistically the graphic art belonged in the first, say, third of the twentieth century. And because this is kind of my forte era, I went at it.
There’s a book written by…do you remember the program Dallas? The mom in Dallas is a woman called Barbara Bel Geddes. Her father, Norman Bel Geddes, wrote a book called Horizons where he basically designed the streamline movement, of streamlining everything and designing cars and boats and everything that could be. It was almost like without the idea of why a plane or a car should look that way, it was that everything should be, could be, racing, fast-forwarding to the future. And that’s actually the look that’s actually been adopted by an awful lot of retro-futurism. This is one of my favorite books of all time; I always carry a copy with me. I have an original copy, and I absolutely love this. And you think, this is the mom off Dallas, her father wrote this book which was one the most influential books in styling and design ever in United States history. So I took all that ethos, I took the spirit of that age, and the sort of naïve optimism as well. Like in the song ‘Streamline’ on the album, its very much part of that. And I married it with a lot of ‘70s electronic kind of pioneering stuff. I listen to tons of weird experimental stuff even though I’m writing nice, catchy songs. I was doing things like for the intro of the album, I made this radio call sign, which all radio stations used to have at one time on shortwave and longwave. It’s kind of what I grew up with. I sent that to a guy in the north of England who transmitted it across shortwave. It was recorded by a guy in Holland, who then recorded it in five different ways, and then sent that off to me. And I went to that kind of level to give this album this atmosphere, and this touch that I wanted it to have. I used a lot of techniques and a lot of even ancient technology, by our standards, to give this album this kind of vibe. So it’s a self-indulgent fun project. So in the end, it all kind of adds together and it gives it something nice; it gives it this nice texture. But behind it all, I’m still writing songs, and that’s what I’ve always done. It’s nothing different in that sense.
So you talked about ‘Streamline.’ That’s my favorite song on the new album because of the Giorgio Moroder bass line kind of thing.
Harris: Yeah, I used the exact the exact same synthesizer he used.
Can you talk about that briefly and also about what your favorite songs are to play live? Which one people have responded to?
Harris: ‘Streamline’ was, as I was saying, taking this bit of sort of ‘70s electronic pioneering aspect and marrying it to this ‘30s thing. The song thematically, lyrically, is based on this whole sort of naïve concept of streamlining the world and then sort of building a better place. And I kind of think its sort of a throwback to how people would have expressed things in a very, very naïve and almost juvenile way; fixing problems. It’s not a way we would look at the world today. And I like that kind of contrast. Electronically, Giorgio Moroder is the father for me of taking electronics and putting them in a format that then lead on to a ton of other music – like all the dance music styles, techno, whatever else. He just took bits of Kraftwerk, and took every influence and put it together and created this really nice package. I always found his sound really solid. I guess I was seven years old when ‘I Feel Love’ came out, and it just floored me, just the electronics. I didn’t want to hear her voice, just the electronics. I have a lot of vintage synthesizers, and one of them is a thing called a Roland System 700. It’s a very, very rare modular system that I got for nothing through a friend of mine who knows that I’ve been wanting one since I was 10 years old when I saw Giorgio Moroder on TV playing with this scientific laboratory. That was my first moment when I said, ‘That’s what makes these sounds that I love.’ And I finally saw a device that did this, and it looked like an electronics laboratory. So I wanted that vibe. It’s a tip of the hat. Every element of that album that might be alluding to those kinds of sounds is my tip of that to the people who’ve pioneered the sound of electronic music all through the years.
Now to the second part of your question, ‘Space and Time’ just gets people right away. I love singing that live. I love singing the song live, and everybody reacts to it. Its like, wherever we’ve played, doesn’t matter where, whether they’ve heard it as a Spotify track or whatever it is that they’ve been listening to, on YouTube or whatever. They’re going nuts about it, and they sing along. It’s been like this for us in Europe; it’s been like this for everywhere. Even from the day the album came out, people were already listening to the song over and over in order to practice the lyrics. So that was quite a surprise, a very nice one. Songs I love doing live: ‘Resolution,’ I like playing ‘Gratitude’ live. We haven’t done ‘Streamline’ yet, but I’m planning that for the very last show, because that’s going to be my little tip of the hat; sort of ‘Say goodbye,’ you know, ‘for the moment, North America.’ ‘Gratitude’ is going down very well. ‘Nova’ absolutely floors people. Even if they’ve never heard the song before, they’re just taken back by it because they’re not expecting it. They think it’s going to be another one of these kind of…you know, moody ‘intro ballads,’ and then the song really kicks in, and it’s really affected people on a very profound level. So we’re playing a decent selection, but we’re playing a selection of tracks off of every album, so when you add it all up together, people are seeing there’s a thread to our music over the years. Because in way, this is a compendium of every album we’ve done. You get that vibe through it, rather than being just a string of hits, that there was this similar kind of tone or a sort of vibe to the music, rather than melodically or the instruments used. There is this vibe to the music. And then when you add that all up in context, no album sounds like it was disparate from one another. But they are still, when seen individually, they do have very, very individual aspects to them and very individual sounds.
So 2012 is here. In the song ‘Honour,’ you made some predictions alluding to the end of the world. How do you feel about the end of the world now? Do you think it is still going to happen this year?
Harris: Well just to counter that, I wasn’t. I never imagined VNV Nation being around this long. I wrote that album never to be released. It was just through my friends begging me to release it, who got a copy on cassette, that I ended up finding a record label for it. I set somebody in a far enough forward moment into the future to basically present a scenario of imagining a veteran standing at a ceremony, a remembrance ceremony of some kind after some great war (I do love sci-fi) and questioning the notion of this word ‘honor’ in war, because it’s this word that we throw around as though it makes it all better, it makes how we fight one another easy and OK. I grew up in a country torn apart by war, so it was my way of dealing with this, how we throw ceremonies on top of it and flags and wreath-laying ceremonies and all kinds of things to basically deodorize the worst aspects of humanity. And that is what the concept of that song was; it was just something that I could possibly understand on my own level. But I think from a surface level, a lot of people just thought it was rallying words, and it was meant to be cynical in a slightly little way.
As far as the end of the world is concerned, I don’t think humanity has quite reached that level yet. I just hope that when we do come to a crux, and it’s been my concept all along; people will never change their nature unless they face a disaster, or they face a situation that threatens their existence, or their well-being or their life. Humanity will face one, I know. It’s been historically proven, and it’s happened again and again and it’s the only way we’re ever going to solve our ills. Because I think we’ve kind of gone into a period of way too much excess, and now we’re just bored. Nobody’s looking. There’s no great vision for the future, there’s no great leap forward, that we’re looking for. We just don’t know where we’re going; we seem to be an identity-less 21st century. We don’t have a vibe to it yet. We don’t have any kind of great movement or great social change other than, say, what’s happening in the Middle East, or what’s happening in Russia. Or what you could say in some part is happening here. People are getting sick and tired of greed and corruption, and on a basic level, we’re starting to find that in strength in numbers, they can change things. That will lead onto another change, and another social change, and another social change. But as far as the end of the world, I think we’ve actually come close a few times, which a lot of people don’t even know about. We came to the brink of nuclear war a couple of times. And not even in the ‘80s, not even in the ‘70s, or in the ‘60s. I mean, even in more recent times than that. I think humanity will only ever solve its ills or even try to avert itself when it reaches the absolute crux of disaster.
How do you stay focused and energized when you’re on tour? Do you have any rituals?
Harris: Ah, the daily regimen. First things first: vitamins. I have a little focus. First thing I do is checking my e-mail, and basically have my coffee and have my first cigarette of the day, and I get on with it. But basically, there’s a little pattern to everything in the day which keeps me going. However, I don’t have a problem being on tour; I don’t have any major issues with it. I don’t get tired or severely homesick. I miss people. That’s obvious, it would only be natural. But I love the aspect of being on tour. As soon as I get on stage, and even if I feel tired before it, my energy kicks in right away. I feel very, very inspired by seeing people being entertained, and I want them to have the show that they’ve come for. So that keeps me going; I can do this for months and months, and I have done. 2007 I think was the longest tour we ever did. I think it was seven months pretty much nonstop. And I got out of the bus at the end of it and I thought, ‘All right, that’s it. I just never want to go on tour for another two years.’ Well, while you’re on that tour you don’t mind. You got through it every day and it becomes a blur. Cities blur into cities, but you always remember the faces of the people you’ve met. And I’ve found that on this tour, I keep going up to people and going, ‘I remember you, I met you here, and we talked about this and this.’ And people can’t believe that you can actually remember who they are among all these…you know…nameless faces that you encounter during the tour. But I’ve met some of the most profoundly interesting and inspirational people.
Do you ever think you’re not getting enough mainstream attention? That maybe if you changed your sound slightly, you could have more mass appeal? Or are you happy with your role as giants in the underground?
Harris: Well, I think it’s amazing actually how many people have heard of VNV Nation, far and wide, way outside of the underground scene. We’ve become a word of mouth band; that’s all I ever wanted. If I wanted to be a mainstream band, we would’ve accepted the deals we were offered over the years. We’ve been offered vast amounts of money by large major labels, and I’ve always said no, because we would lose that one thing that makes us special: our own choice in what we do. We decide everything, and we have a lot of fun doing it. And if that’s as far as it can go, that’s great. But it has reached people you would not believe. In areas or circles or backgrounds or musical sort of circles that this music would never penetrate, it just seems to become a band that’s synonymous with people just giving an album to someone and saying, ‘You’ve got to hear this.’ Whether it be the song ‘Illusion’ or something else, you know, something that’s quite easy to listen to. I don’t want my music to be watered down and simplistic, I don’t want to be sold as a product. It’s not something for a stockbroker company, which is what I view major labels as, who are there to generate hits to create money for shareholders. That’s not the reason I do what I do. If I wanted to drive a nice sports car and be a nice sort of flash dude, I’d be writing silly pop songs for people. I’m not in the business of doing that.