Jul 2014 21

Ronan Harris shares his thoughts on VNV Nation and the world around it.
 
VNV Nation Live in Atlanta by Zak Vaudo

 

An InterView with Ronan Harris of VNV Nation

By Zak Vaudo (Chaostar)

For 19 years, VNV Nation has created electronic music for the masses, spreading its words of inspiration, melodic vocals, and pounding beats to all who will listen. The pioneers of futurepop have released nine studio albums, two compilations, four EPs, and dozens of artist remixes, as well embarked on a slew of international tours. With its most recent release of Transnational, which reached #9 on the German Album Charts and #1 on the German Alternative Charts, VNV recently completed its accompanying tour of the United States, ending in Atlanta on May 16. With one final show to perform, VNV founder Ronan Harris sat down to decompress with ReGen Magazine, offering an InterView full of introspection, education, passion, venting, and thanks.

 

How has the tour treated you?

Harris: Phenomenal. We had a bit of a clusterfuck in that every band and its mother decided to tour in the last three weeks. So when we got to the Midwest and the Northeast, we were playing a week or a week-and-a-half from every other band. I guess everyone waited until the end of winter to get out on the road. But it’s been phenomenally successful; crowds have been incredible, reactions and the response to the tour have been that we have taken it up to a serious big level. So, I can’t complain.

Did you have a favorite city?

Harris: A couple of shows come to mind. Denver is the one that stuck with us, always for some reason. The place was rammed and the crowd was incredible from the word ‘go’ to the end, and we don’t know why. They were just ON, and we perform so much better when the crowd does that. When they give us that energy, it takes us up a notch. We just couldn’t handle it – we didn’t know what to say, they were just going absolutely nuts. We did two shows in a row in New York, and the second night was… everyone said it was really emotional, really sentimental, but not in a sad way; in a happy, seeing-an-old-friend way, like they’d gone back and seen a show from 2002, which is quite a compliment because that’s sort of a golden era for people over 40. I’m very famous for making jokes about ‘Oh, why can’t you go back and sound like the golden age?’ Because nothing sounds like the golden age; nobody can do that, nobody can be those people again, and that’s not why I’m doing music. And there is no golden age; ask someone who’s 25 or 30 or 35 or 40 what their favorite album is, and it’s either Matter + Form or Judgement or Automatic.

Everybody came in at a different point.

Harris: Right! Automatic became the killer album for a lot of people, so that’s the first generation for people who loved that album when they were 18.

That’s the golden age of the new fandom.

Harris: Yeah! So, it’s bizarre how many people have come into the show and the diversity of the crowd; we’re seeing a ton of young people come into the shows, a lot of punkers come to the shows – it’s amazing – people of diverse backgrounds; people into classical, alternative, indie, whatever, or just rave-electronic fans.

And touring with WhiteQube, you’re pulling in the EDM/EBM crowd here.

Harris: Yeah, even still, I don’t think Whitequie is that well known out of our genre. To EDM music, yeah… I don’t call it EDM, though, because I think that’s something the radio picked up on that was easy to say.

Electro/house, if you prefer.

Harris: Sure. That’s much, much better. So he’s pattering to the Porter Robinson kind of crowd, and I think that’s awesome. I asked Jason to come out on the road with us because I love the combo – our shows are energetic together. But some… you know, you could say that ‘proof of the existence of God is supporting VNV Nation,’ or that someone’s going to come out onstage and do some death-defying stunt, and somebody will still go ‘Hurrr, techno.’ You just want to slap these people. I don’t give a shit; this is what I do. The internet isn’t so someone can go ‘Ughh, cheese again?’ The world isn’t catering to you, and groaning online is not what Facebook is about. We try to combine bands and give a performance tuned to what we want the audience to feel, and we’d never had an opportunity with an artist like WhiteQube before. He’s been mind-blowing; people have been going crazy. We played the second show of the tour in Tampa. We were backstage, and we just heard all these people screaming and we were like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ We looked out into the venue, and they’re all going mental about WhiteQube’s show. They’re here to have a good time and sing songs. They’re not superficial or vapid. They’re having an amazing time and that’s what we want. That’s contagious, and it gets people really riled up. So he’s been awesome – I think one of the best openers we’ve ever had. And it’s great being on the bus with him; that’s the other half of a tour.

Let’s talk about Automatic and Transnational and the themes that combine them. In your last interview with ReGen, you talked about your love for the ’30s – the golden age of the United States.

Harris: ’30s and ’40s, that’s right.

I notice there are parallel themes going from Automatic to Transnational.

Harris: Well, in the same way that Empires went into Futureperfect, they’re continuations of each other, sound-wise and in related concepts. Automatic put me in a very, very happy space; I never felt so happy making music. I primarily make music for myself. I’m not a product. As we say in Germany, we’re not a delivery service; you don’t place an order and we make an album to your specifications. Trust me, the vibe will be there, the sentiments will be there. With Automatic, I felt I had reached a happy point where everything I had done in electronic music, I’d compressed into this one album. With Transnational, I did a tip-of-the-hat to every VNV release so far. Every song contained a reference to sounds, vocal patches, or effects from different VNV albums. I did so many hidden references that I don’t think people will ever get, but I wanted to layer them up. When I came up with the title, I wanted to encompass this era that I’m alluding to in the late ’40s. The world had been a dark and mysterious place except to those with money or with an adventurous spirit who can get on a steamship and go off to Rio de Janeiro or wherever. Backpacking wasn’t around in those days, nor the budget flight. Suddenly, there are these posters all over encouraging people to get out and see the world. World War II had opened up the world, they’d all seen it.

But they wanted to look at the better parts, not battlefields.

Harris: Right. It had this very romanticized view of a ship sitting in a bay in Tahiti or somewhere, all beautifully painted. I allude to that with the poster art – the colossus holding up the globe, the 20th century train. The world was this great undiscovered adventure, and they were romanticizing about the world we had not seen. Now, in making the album – I always have weird coincidences that happen when making albums – I happened upon a documentary made by a British wildlife reporter or… what would you call it, a movie-maker…

Documentarist?

Harris: Documentarist, yeah – called David Attenborough. We grew up with him; I was raised by him, and he went back and visited the places where he pioneered wildlife filmmaking. The documentaries he made in the ’50s were being showed on TV studying his life… and this relates to Transnational because I saw the term as having several different meanings that were all alluded into the album. I try to do that with all albums. A lot of bands just have a title and that’s it, but to me, it’s a treatise. Judgement has eight different meanings all relating to the songs on the album. Anyway, Attenborough was visiting a river that he had traveled down in Papa New Guinea, and he said, ‘When I came down here, it was complete wilderness. It still is, as wild as it was the day I went down this river in 1952…’ And there’s a drone camera that floats up, and he says, ‘Except a lot of things have changed. On either side of these trees, there are Pan Oil farms as far as the eye can see.’ And it made me see that this was the breaking point, that we had gone out to explore the world, and in so doing, we exploited its resources and we put ourselves at the brink in some horrible ways.

We saw what the world had to offer and we wanted it.

Harris: I don’t think people realize how bad the situation is in some ways. Suddenly, it broke borders, but we painted a romantic notion on top of it. Transnational to me also applies to the human race, that the human race was a great big exploiting corporation. The title has all these different meanings for me. Transnational could be the history of VNV Nation, the way travel was advertised in the late ’40s with romantic notions and great catchy names, or our exploitation of the world and its resources and everybody on the planet in the space of 50 or 60 years. I couldn’t believe the documentary I was watching, and I had to go ask someone, ‘Is this true?’ And they told me ‘Oh yeah! You know lemurs?’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ Everyone knows lemurs; they’re on Madagascar. When you see wildlife documentaries on lemurs (sorry, I’m getting into the whole hippie thing), when you see these lemurs in their forest habitat, the cameramen are trying to use these very clever angles, because this French guy bought the whole plot of land in the 1920s and set up a wildlife reserve for them. The rest of the country is treeless – the entire country. They have ripped up everything in the last 30 years so we can have various products. The lemurs live in basically a house compound where this guy’s got a bunch of trees – it’s not even a third of a mile square. It’s ridiculous. It’s a fucking house and grounds, and that’s all that’s left. So that’s what I found out making this album. I made an album that was musically all my favorite cardinal points of electronic music. I was using the processes and the mindset of Automatic and trying to captivate the sense of the 1940s unexplored world… but there’s a sense of sarcasm to it and a sense that we strive to such great ideals, but we stoop so low and scrape the bottom of the barrel at the same time, we wonderful species.

Through making the album, all these weird coincidences happened where people were showing me all these things that had happened since the late ’40s. I didn’t ask for any of these things. The same thing happened during Automatic; weird coincidences happened that had to do with the subject. I’m an open-minded skeptic; I don’t believe in all kinds of crazy shit, but when you start to see a pattern and people are throwing films or music at you that have to do with the subject that you haven’t told them about… someone gave me a present when I had conceptualized Automatic, an autographed copy of a book called Horizons by Norman Bel Geddes. I recommend to every creative person that they read this book. He was a theatre designer who dropped what he was doing and wrote a book on industrial design, how we could streamline the world, how everything could be made better, the value of creative input, and the ownership of the creative spirit. It’s a tome for anyone in a creative world. Everyone could read this and understand, ‘This is why I do what I do.’ I thought it was so weird that I got this book when conceptualizing Automatic. With all the VNV albums, there are weird coincidences. Through Transnational, I discovered that there was a hollow side to everything. ‘Teleconnect Part 1’ deals with three cardinal albums from the ’70s and ’80s that summed up electronic music. ‘Teleconnect Part 2’ is my post-rock electronica – I have a whole side-project devoted to this with 20-minute long pieces that have never been released, and I want to work on that and release it this year if I have time. The ‘Teleconnect’ songs were related to these future worlds, this new romantic world imagining neon-adorned cities.

Cyberpunk heaven?

Harris: Long before cyberpunk, long before William Gibson even put pen to paper. There was an idea in the 1920s, futurism painting an abstract vision of the perfect future.

Metropolis-style?

Harris: More architecturally advanced, more aesthetically pleasing and beautiful. Metropolis was very brutalist in its depiction. This was everything covered in neon and the great new inventions, a world made for us. It was funny; this was what Futureperfect reflected. At the beginning of the 20th century, people in their late teens were responsible for writing these great manifestos for how the future should be. Here we are 100 years later, and people are sticking their heads in the sand and wondering what kind of Nike and PVC they’re wearing. So here I was, commenting on the advent of Art Deco with Automatic and how futurism was given its explosive ability to express itself. With Transnational, it was more of the hangover follow-up to World War II. I created the cover to look like the ephemera from that period, and then I found that it reflected the ‘Everything is wonderful, we have so many products today, we have everything we’ve ever wanted’ feeling, but there was a hangover flipside to everything, and that’s what started to come toward me.

So, in making the album, I was reflecting on the cardinal points of electronic music in my life – mid ’80s electro, post-rock, or late ’80s techno in the opening track ‘Generator’ – and I wasn’t aware that people had gotten so hooked on Automatic that they were demanding greatness and new wonder in a new album. Some people jumped the gun before they’d even heard it and got very critical of it, and I don’t think they’ve ever understood VNV, yet they felt the right to speak for us. They’ve never understood what the music is about. It’s not a product, it’s not an accessory; it’s a mindset. I meet this through fans who say they feel emboldened by the fact that this is inspirational music that describes and reflects a world we live in through the eyes of a certain type of person. We all, to some extent, feel that, but it’s whether we want to embrace that or not. Through the problems we face, we can actually overcome and learn from everything and become better people. Whatever we do with that knowledge is up to us. But it’s not a dictatorial thing; it’s an engaging conversation. I do not like people who feel, ‘Yes yes, Ronan, whatever you say!’ Thankfully, I encounter that very rarely. I’m very happy to say that I have incredible debates and conversations with some people I’ve met through this music who come to our shows and connect with it.

I’m all over the place, sorry. With Transnational, I felt all those self-appointed spokespeople show themselves. I met some on the tour, and they went, ‘Oh, there’s no ‘Control’ on there, there’s no ‘Nova’ on there,’ and I say, ‘Well, I read your previous reviews on previous albums, and you’re ALWAYS the hypercritical doomsayers, saying our careers are over.’ I don’t see that. One guy wrote a review for Automatic BEFORE it came out. And then he heard it and ate humble pie. We’re always going to go on with new stuff. While Transnational may come from the stable, it incorporates underground electronic music, and I love doing that. Somebody asked me why ‘Primary’ sounds like some band from today, and I said, ‘No, it sounds like mid ’80s American electro,’ and I gave them a couple of examples – I’m not going to tell you who, sorry; I’m a bastard like that. Even on the bus, I told everyone, ‘Here’s the music that was the inspiration,’ and played a couple of songs. It’s all stuff I listened to in the mid ’80s. There were some American bands doing some awesome stuff that were never heard of, and these were the points where electronic music evolved for me, getting better and better. And then it evolves to EBM, but then EBM becomes better and better, and now you have artists like Millimetric and Hacker in France doing incredible things with the EBM repeating bass line, doing so much more with it. It comes full circle for me on Transnational in the last track; this is what people were making in the ’70s, experimenting with synthesizers and making nice, trippy, happy music. And here we are back again. Transnational was a trip around the globe in so many ways. That would sum it up: a circumnavigation of the Earth in time, examining the last 60 years, and seeing what’s happened to the planet, electronic music, and my life.

As you mentioned earlier, you have a lot of people that cite you as an inspiration point, the lyrics or songs that touch them or inspire them. Is there a song that makes you feel that way – your own or someone else’s?

Harris: There are too many songs from my past that have done that. There are songs that comforted me or hugged me… but inspired me? There would be hundreds of songs combined. My OWN music was my way of saying, ‘I’m not crazy. I really AM experiencing all these things.’ I was documenting my life for myself so I could externalize it, deal with it, and make sense of it. Praise the Fallen was an album I made never to release, because I thought nobody cared what I made. Friends urged me to release it. ‘Solitary’ was my rallying call that said, ‘I am about to embark on a horrible journey that I do not want to face.’ I allude to a Viking burial in the song and other coded references and phrases people in my life used to use. ‘Rains bring winds of change’ is part of a proverb that a relation of mine used to use, translated into English. ‘Let it rain on us forever,’ I want the change to constantly come to me. I could go on for days explaining the song. When I said, ‘I never wanted more,’ I really just wanted the simplest thing. ‘Solitary’ is the split moment in my life where my past and future collided in a horrible way. Everything that built up from my past had built up to a point and pushed me to the edge. All the decisions I’ve ever made weren’t just going to sit there; they were conspiring to push me into this horrible place and I had to deal with it, and I had to make a big decision that would change my life. I imagined a very simple situation of myself in the future, six to nine months from that point, where I had to burn everything in my world and walk away with only my beliefs and my understanding of the universe to guide me. When someone asked where I pictured myself, I said, ‘I’m sitting in a chair in a room.’ They asked why, and I said, ‘It’s not about the chair or the room; it’s how I feel sitting there. I don’t picture myself driving a fast car or hanging out with awesome people. I just picture myself content and happy and relieved and feeling I’ve accomplished everything I’d ever wanted.’

The weirdest thing was nine months later, I had that very moment. I knew at the time, when I had that moment, that I was going to be alright and I shouldn’t be afraid of what I had to face. It’s the fear of it rather than the event itself that people are most afraid of. They don’t want to feel feelings they can’t anticipate. I felt exactly the same thing when I gave up smoking. I’d been a heavy smoker for many years. There’s a voice inside that fears giving up – ‘Oh no, you can’t give up smoking, you can’t do that, oh my god.’ And then you do it and you realize that voice is full of shit. It’s a sad little demon on your shoulder. So that’s the song that inspires me. Whenever I hear ‘Solitary,’ I know where I was, I know what the room smelled like when I sang it, I am in the studio where I recorded it, I know what was on my mind. It’s a picture postcard in my mind. That was a very intense period of my mind where I was distraught beyond belief, and that album gave me an incredible amount of focus.

You’ve released roughly an album every two years from Matter + Form to now, managing a tour in between. How do you balance your daily life with your music life? Or are they one and the same now?

Harris: One and the same since 2000. I run a LOT of creative projects, I have to keep busy. I love being busy. I can’t stop. I probably take a little break after a tour, because you need to decompress and come down and say goodbye to friends you only see on tour and won’t see any other time and hope you’ll stay in touch – I have the best crew with me on this tour that I’ve ever had my whole life. So I do a lot of things: graphics, production work for other people, tons of bits and pieces. I always have to remain creative. I will be very busy for the next number of months working on things, and I’m very happy for it. I don’t have a problem balancing. I think it’s really that touring can take so much out of you. You can keep splitting up the tour, but in the end, you’ve used up so much time, you never had the time to get the energy back to start writing new music. And that’s really where the two-year thing comes from. It doesn’t mean that I have a timed rhythm; that’s just the way it is. I have a year of touring and then I stop. I can’t write during a tour, I can’t let my hair down, ironically. [Laughs] If we don’t laugh on tour, there’s no point in doing what we do. My sense of humor is the most paramount thing of me. I’m a mischievous pixie kind of guy when I get drunk. I don’t really drink that much anymore. I lost my taste for alcohol a long time ago. I’m not a wrecker or anything; I’m the giggling guy who puts a bucket of water on top of a door. I’m a prankster, but I’m very serious about what I do, and I can’t really stop and let my hair down when I’m working on the tour because this is everything to me and I want it to go well.

We’ve had our bad experiences; we’ve been ripped off. Every band has had that happen to them. They may not be aware of it, but it’s happened. But I love what I do. I do the graphics, the merch, the merch production, the stage design. The light guy will do his own light show, the sound guy will do his own mix, but they’re people I’ve picked because I’ve worked with them brilliantly and they know what they’re doing. I’m not a control freak. I want people who have the passion and know what they’re doing to do in their own respective jobs. People think I’m a control freak because I deal with idiots sometimes. When I work with people like this crew, I will never stand over their shoulders, never second-guess them or question a thing they’re doing because every one of them knows what he’s doing. Wait until you see our light show tonight – this guy is unbelievable!

So there really isn’t a ‘day in the life’ of your work, then, because it’s always that.

Harris: Well, there are days when I’m normal old Ronan. I’m a guy people meet on the street and I talk away to people and I don’t see myself as something special or a celeb. I can’t. I grew up feeling self-doubt as a major part of myself. I believed in me and that I wouldn’t change, but in terms of other people, I didn’t think there was anything special about me. I’m more honored than anything when people say that the music has saved their life… I’ve heard a lot of it over this tour. People have said the most emotional things to me. Mike Wimer, our keyboarder, walks around with me when I do autographs; you can ask Mike what I get to hear. He won’t tell you details, but he’ll tell you he doesn’t know how I handle it. Some of the stuff I’ve heard… [Pauses to compose self] This is all just coming out now because I’m just now getting a chance to process it… just last night, for example, someone said that they were lying in a bath with their wrists cut, and they were playing their death music. And a song came on, and suddenly they had the moment of perspective they needed to process the song the right way, the way they needed, and they got up and called for help. You hear that from someone and you know it is true; they’re not just saying it to pander to your attention… it’s quite an incredible thing to hear. It happens a lot. We don’t have all sad stories. Some people just feel inspired enough to go to college or be something better or prove to themselves they can do what they want. That’s what it’s all about.

Let’s change directions a bit. I understand you have an affinity for old cars.

Harris: Ah, how did you hear that? [Laughs] I used to have three – one that had to go away because something was severely wrong with it. I have a 1938 Nash Ambassador two-door sedan, which is my favorite car. That’s my baby; I call her Electron. I have a special logo for her on the trunk and everything. She’s stock except for cosmetic custom bits. I wanted her to have the look of a car featured in a late ’30s Flash Gordon film. She’s liquid silver; not metallic, but a cream-silver, a special industrial paint I got for her. I did redesign the whole interior to look like stock interior. I also have a 1937 Buick, which is beautifully stock and has nothing custom about it. It’s been taken apart by me and my friends – we’re very enthusiastic about it. Everything was sandblasted and stripped and zinced and painted, and I’d say that car is in better shape than when it came out of the factory garage. The engine is in such unbelievable condition right now that the car will drive for 60 years without anyone doing a thing. There’s not a single ounce of metal fatigue in it; every bolt that had to be changed was changed. And this is not some majorly expensive hobby. If you have enthusiastic friends, you can do all the work yourselves and buy all the parts and research what you need. The 38 Nash is my VNV car; when you see the photos of that later this year… I’ve already had her out and around Hamburg, and it even made the news. That’s my thing. I’m absolutely obsessed with late ’30s cars. The only thing I find sad in this world is that these things are survivors. When suburban kids buy rare cars and chop ’em, channel ’em, and drop ’em, and they think, ‘Yeah, that’s awesome’ and grab their crotch and go, ‘I got a new hot rod’ with another fucking 350 small-block engine in it – ooh, how exciting, another one of those. They’ve just destroyed another car because in a year, no one’s going to give a shit about their custom. But in 40 years, had they left it original and restored it for the same money they used for this absolute shit, that car would be worth a fortune. And they’re idiots as far as I’m concerned. Everyone will look at an original car driving by, everyone will want to know what it is, but no one really gives a damn about customs.

Getting back to the music, next year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of VNV’s debut album, Advance and Follow.

Harris: [Shocked]… does it really?

Yes it does – 1995.

Harris: Fucking hell. Wow.

So no plans, then?

Harris: Nope! Not until right now. 2016 will be Mark and mine’s 20th anniversary of playing together. We were kids; we had no idea on what we were doing. I hadn’t planned anything for Advance and Follow, but I will; I think it’s actually something worth celebrating. Wow.

Do you still believe in futurepop?

Harris: You know, I used the name to get us played on the radio. [Laughs] And a lot of people don’t realize that. I call us alternative/electronic. We didn’t have a name for what we did – this mixing of trance elements with EBM and giving it a darker, more sentimental and melancholic feel. It’s important for people to have a name when describing that genre, but a lot of people jumped the bandwagon when myself, Apoptygma Berzerk, and Covenant all used that term. It was myself and Stephan Groth from Apoptygma who discussed it, and I suggested the name to him and he said, ‘OK, yeah, cool,’ and it got us played on the radio because the radio wouldn’t play anything with the words EBM or goth attached to it. We were making a new hybrid music; we were something different. We were in a genre, but there was so much diversity in the genre that we thought, ‘Our albums are kind of alike, maybe… let’s just give it a name.’ And I said, ‘Well, we come from a futurist state, listening to futurist music in the early ’80s. This is kind of pop; it’s catchy like it or not.’ Empires was so catchy that even though a lot of people think it wasn’t commercial in those days, it had more major labels chasing me than any other album. I love to answer the over 40s critics who go back to the 1990s golden age thing. In the era of internet downloads, Automatic was successful, I run my own label, nobody tells me how my album sounds or looks. Anyone who calls that a sellout is a moron, because when a band sells their own records, managing every aspect of their own band, and does everything themselves – which is more self-control than bands have ever had in the past – I’d say that’s the opposite. This sellout myth has grown. Empires was so slated by the scene when it came out, so when people talk about futurepop, I don’t think they remember how slated we were for doing these catchy happy melodies; same thing with Futureperfect. People thought it was garbage.

And yet Empires is considered one of your breakout albums.

Harris: Yeah, that’s the thing; it was the breakout album. It was the bit where everyone suddenly discovered the new band. It was the summer they were having where they were going out with the cute girl and they didn’t have a job or any worries. It’s their association with that period in their lives, and it’s wonderful. But that’s not the album; that’s your life. If we made another album that sounded like that, your life isn’t going to feel the same. There’s a song on the latest album that uses ALL the sounds from a song from Empires, just mixed differently. It doesn’t sound the same to anyone know, it doesn’t feel the same way to anyone now.

 

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