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
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?
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?
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.
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.