Always the visionary, VNV Nation’s Ronan Harris speaks with Brian McLelland on the release of Resonance – the realization of a lifelong dream – and his thoughts on humanity’s ability to create change for a more positive future.
An InterView with Ronan Harris of VNV Nation
By Brian McLelland (BMcLelland)
Over the past 20 years, VNV Nation has risen to a very special place in the hearts and minds of audiences. The group’s songs have dominated music charts, thundered through clubs, and comforted many in times of need and provided the soundtrack for tens of thousands of people all over the world. VNV Nation enjoyed moderate success with 1995’s Advance and Follow and 1998’s Praise the Fallen, but 1999’s Empires remained on the German DAC charts for seven weeks and garnered a tremendous amount of attention, still heralded as one of the band’s biggest successes. Further releases snowballed ever larger as small club tours became festival headlining events and album releases became the hallmarks people marked their calendars for. What began as a passion project for Ronan Harris that was pledged to blend the classical with the modern, this decree was brought to a spectacular culmination in 2015 when Resonance, a classical reimagining of some of VNV Nation’s best known songs, was released and reached #7 on the German album charts and, incredibly, #4 on the U.S. Billboard Classical Music charts. The group most recently spread light across the United States across 12 dates on the Compendium tour, celebrating the band’s entire catalog across two decades. ReGen caught up with Ronan Harris to ask about Resonance, the tour, and the future of VNV Nation.
So, first off I wanted to say congratulations on 20 years, that’s really stupendous.
Harris: It’s even more than 20 years, when you think about it. I mean, Advance and Follow was released in ’95, and it was just because of that at the beginning of the year, I said, ‘Hey, 20 years,’ and because of that, I thought maybe we should do something. I didn’t think about it until then, so yeah, it’s a bizarre thing, but there have been a couple of years since then and heading into 2017 there will be more!
Well, still… congratulations!
Harris: Thank you!
And thank you from all the fans.
Harris: Oh my god, I think I… we have to thank the fans because without them, without their support, without their appreciation, it would never have gone anywhere. We would just be some local, little band with a couple of people listening to maybe a track or two, which is kind of what I always expected. I mean, Mark (Jackson) wasn’t really in VNV at the time. It was a loose arrangement that he would play live drums and it became permanent around about ’99 and that’s how he came in. But you know, for me, a normal career, I thought as a hobby, some people might like my songs and that’s it.
This is first time you’ve toured without being in support of a new album in some time. Is there anything that you want to tell us?
: The shows are really long. (Laughter) We actually prefer that it’s not in support of an album because there are a lot of people… there are a lot of bands that when they go out on tour supporting an album, they primarily play songs from those albums, which I’ve never quite understood. We’ve never done that. We always play a mix; you know, it’s our thing. That’s what people come to the show for. We can’t play everything, but we try to play as long as possible. So having given people the indication that that’s what this is about, it seems much clearer. People are coming out of the woodwork who haven’t seen us in years, and just saying like, ‘I really want to see the band.’ Like, there was no reason for them to have stayed home before; people who’ve liked the music for years, but never bothered to go to a gig, or were afraid. I mean, Seattle sold out, and it was huge for us, because we’d always had a certain limit, like a glass ceiling of people we would reach in the city, and we just blew that out of the water, and I don’t know why. Have we become part of history? I like to feel that we’re continuously moving.
Do you feel that Resonance might have been a big part of that; of drawing in a broader audience, perhaps?
Harris: No. Strangely enough, a lot of people couldn’t get the box set here. There was a whole disaster with the production, which I won’t go into that at the moment, but there was a disaster with getting the CD and the album assembled and it damaged a lot of people’s trust, like the distributors, in the product. So they didn’t want to order it and then… uh, long story, but I actually think it’s frightening-ish in terms of 20 years. We saw this in Germany – people came out to the shows and thought, ‘Oh, this sounds like a special show,’ and a chance to see everything being played; well, not the song, but all the songs being played, and it’s purely about a celebration of going through the entire music and it was really surprising with the amount of people in Seattle who came up and said, ‘I have never heard any of your music since Judgement on,’ and bought every album at the show and were just absolutely floored. There was another e-mail I got from a woman who got the Resonance box set. She bought the CD, went home, listened to it in the car, and said she had to stop the car because she was so moved and just found it to be an incredibly emotional experience. I just thought, you know, it’s really strange. It’s like making friends with a lot of people again. It’s been a tremendous bonding experience for us with people out there who’ve known our music for so long, but never really… maybe they listened to it in their club days or people who only listened to the more recent albums and don’t know any of the early albums and it’s an incredible kind of schism and vice versa thing. So to bridge those bonds and bring people together is a wonderful experience. It’s a sense of togetherness and a real sort of family feeling. It’s a bizarre thing. We’re all one kind.
Have you been recording any of the shows or have plans for a live CD or DVD?
: We did in Germany. You know, to be honest, there were so many recordings made of the shows in Germany and they were put online, some people were afraid to put them online thinking that they’re going to get sued and I keep encouraging them, going ‘just upload it,’ but recording it with really high quality consumer cameras. One guy recorded the Munich show on a Sony X1 and he had a friend up in the balcony, and then another guy on one side, filming it, so they would have had a three camera show; and the sound… well, we had all the shows recorded. I’m on the fence about whether I want to, if I wanted to record it for a DVD. I think we’re under a lot of stress and a lot of pressure as it is with the tour that to be under additional pressure that we have to film it… we’re doing more Compendium
shows, so I would rather us get through this tour and then find a show where we know, ‘Okay, this is one where we really can. We’re good and comfortable with everything, all the kinks have been ironed out, and we really put on a show.’ I have a feeling if we were to do this in Germany, it might not be such a bad idea to do this in a city where we say, just pay a small amount at the door and everybody can come in and we just knock it out and have the best night and really prep for it because I don’t want to have the additional stress of having to prep for a recording because I’m in my own world when I’m singing and sometimes I don’t realize half of what’s going on. To have to do that on top of the concert is too much.
Switching gears for a moment, I did want to ask about Resonance a little bit. The VNV Nation standard has always been the blending of the classical with the modern and your music has always had an orchestral feel to it. But, since the Resonance album, has that affected your songwriting at all? Do you keep that in the back of your mind?
: Actually, it’s funny that you say that. What I realized with Resonance
is that the original pieces that had been converted were A-to-B or A-to-A arrangements. When they were structurally and melodically transposed from electronic format to an orchestral format, I was told they were actually very conducive to it. I felt restricted. I thought we could go so much further, that we would reinterpret, which is actually what I’d wanted to do once given the opportunity. I thought that happened with ‘Nova (Largo),’ and ‘Sentinel,’ for me, was the key piece. That’s where I sat down and I wrote an entirely new story, so to speak, on piano in front of Skype and the arranger was on the other end and he’s listening and recording. We had this little studio going over the internet – I’d play stuff, it would trigger things on his end, we had a little MIDI thing going across, and he was able to record the notes or we would just drop MIDI files to each other, but he would hear all the phrasing. Then we’d try ideas out and I’d come down and spend some time with him and I wrote it, thinking I wanted to reinterpret the song completely and call it a ‘classical mix,’ so it’s much more in the style of how classical music is played and not just played with traditional acoustic instruments. He affected me in the sense that when I write a song, I already have an idea in my head of how I could interpret that for classical; that element in the back of my head is there. I know some songs will never work, but then, it’s really funny because I then start writing melodies in my head for new songs, which is how I write songs, and I’m writing them as I can hear a cello arpeggio – very complicated – and knowing that that’s just as easy to do electronically. So in a way, this notion of how far I can go with an orchestra, I’ve gotten a good grounding in that.
And I loved
working with them! I mean, to hear the beginning of ‘Beloved,’ (pauses) the beginning being played, I can’t even begin to explain. You hear it in your head when you write the melody… sorry, I’m actually there when I pause for a second. You play a melody on a synth and it’s giving the sense of it, giving the feeling or the implication of a string intro, but nothing matches hearing it being played really by an orchestra. It’s given me whole new notions of how to create feelings. I regard the songs like postcards of emotion that I write for myself and I always have to say we’re not a delivery service. We don’t make songs to order or whatever; it’s done as it feels and how it feels right. I found that with the classical, for example, Resonance
incorporated a lot of 20th century American composers’ ideas into it. I’d say there’s a little bit of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde
, there’s a little bit of Mozart’s Don Giovanni
, and a piece by Fauré, which all kind of played an element in how I wrote ‘Sentinel,’ and it’s strange how when you heard the lyrics being played like that, it really brought a whole new negative, bittersweet – but more bitter – version of what the lyrics might mean. That there is no great positivity and it’s like looking at the end of the world and saying, ‘We’re all going to be okay,’ or ‘It’s going to be alright,’ you know? Some cold comfort, I guess they would call it. And I found that really interesting for me because that was a new interpretation of the song. It gives me a chance to play out the multi-dimensionality of the songs and that will have an influence and already has had a big influence on songwriting for the next album.
Do you feel that you’re ready or that you would like to do another volume of Resonance, or have you considered experimenting with other instruments?
Harris: Yes, definitely! Other instruments? For sure! I’ve already used samples of or patches of strange instruments because I want them to have a place in the vibe of the song. I don’t see that changing at all. I would actually see that going a lot further. All I’ve already written for future albums, whatever that may be and whenever that may be, is quite a mishmash of textures and atmospheres, but using a lot of electronics and almost quasi-organic sounds. It’s got a bit of a soundtrack-y feel already, so yeah. I am ready to do another Resonance; I would say next year. It’s a lot of work. I read one artist making a very short-sighted critique, writing to someone he knew online, who panned it off as being unoriginal and I kind of sat there and said, ‘Do they have any idea how much this has been important to me since I was a child?’ But not only that, how much work and how much dedication and focus is required to even get to the point that you’re taking your songs and bringing it to a new format.
Especially in the genre that you work in.
: And with no guarantee that anyone was even going to like it. I mean, investing pretty much everything in it – the cost of producing Resonance
was astronomical. An orchestra does not cost nothing. It’s not about, ‘Oh, I want to be like all the big artists who’ve got the money to do that.’ I just wanted to do purely this and I had the opportunity. I had great people helping me to find the orchestra, to do the recording side of things. I designed the box sets and designed all the graphics and everything like that, so I had that covered, I don’t have to pay money for that so I could devote resources to other things and I wanted a beautiful box set that was like a gramophone set. I wanted to have the best quality vinyl and a lot of people didn’t understand that. The 10 inches in the box set are there because that’s the maximum playing time – the maximum playing time you could have on there at the best sound quality was just about 30 seconds longer than the longest song on Resonance
, so my whole essence with this was that I want it to sound spectacular. When the version came out online, it was 24-bit 88 khz and the depth was just mind-blowing. We heard the song on a Macintosh stereo and this was just epic, just absolutely fucking epic! It’s your reward when you hear it back in the end; you have no idea how it’s going to be, and then you hear people – some people – they’re just not listening to the music; they’re listening to the concept and it’s like a tiny minority of silly, cynical people. And my opinion was how sad and shallow that you have become so burned out that you would pound music purely because of the approach without listening to the result and then you don’t even allow yourself to listen to it. You’ve got your critique written and unfortunately, there are a great many people in this so-called industrial scene who are very cynical about a lot of things. I’ve never really seen myself as part of it because I come from another genre… not another scene, but I listened to industrial in the ’80s, grew up listening to it even in the late ’70s with proto-industrial, and it evolved into other styles of music that I listen to. I wanted a very positive bend on things.
I have a different way of doing things, like part This Mortal Coil, part Front 242 if you want to take ’80s references. It’s like Dead Can Dance can go off and experiment with textures and soundscapes and Front 242 went off and did crazy things with electronics or some of the techno artists like KLF or whatever. And for me, it’s that best of both worlds. I like so many different styles of music that I want to incorporate them all in one, so what blew me away with Resonance
was the response from people was mind-blowing. I mention the critics because they’re always going to be there; and I urge some people that instead of wasting your time on being a critic… everybody can be a bloody critic. I think most critics are failed artists or people who have a sense of failure in themselves, but I could not believe how emotionally powerful it was for so many people. For me, it left me in tears. It was the realization of a dream, for one, the power and the strength that it was performed with. I couldn’t have asked more of the musicians and everyone who was there said they played exquisitely and the concerts as well. I was taking a trip through my diary, through my whole life at the concerts. I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t even perform. I felt I was hearing it for the first time the way other people have heard it for the first time and been blown away, like hearing ‘Beloved’ for the first time, I had someone try to explain to me what it was like and I can’t share that experience because I wrote it. I know what it sounds like and I constructed all the bits and pieces until it was finished; you heard the finished thing and you’d never heard it before and suddenly you were overwhelmed by it. I had that experience during the classical concert. I did not know how to handle it.
Switching gears a little, it’s been quite some time since you’ve done anything with Modcom.
Harris: (Laughter) Yeah, there’s a reason for that. It was actually situational more than anything else. The whole world’s on a modular kick right now and everyone’s bloody modular experts. It’s the Eurocrack format; everyone calls it Eurocrack because it’s addictive. I couldn’t do anything with it because the last couple of studios, it was just impossible to set the whole thing up.
It’s a lot of big equipment.
Harris: Yeah, it’s a wall. I’ve had to move studios twice and I’ve only been in the new place properly for about six months after everything was installed and it’s been really, really difficult to get everything set up. I’ve been in the process of setting everything up. I wanted to do it at a previous studio, but for a year-and-a-half, I was waiting for a situation to happen whereby I could build and develop room for it and it never happened. It was really only situational, so now I have an amazing location. I have a lovely studio and office, I’ve got my own studio cabin and it’s like a cockpit, and behind me, one wall is all the beautiful modulars. That’s something I can’t wait to get stuck into again – just patching and cross-patching and having fun with it, because that’s really all it’s about.
The last thing I want to touch on before we’re out of time, is that before coming in, here you mentioned the presidential debates, and a lot of people are watching the state of the world right now and there’s a lot of despondency to be felt. How do you stay positive writing a new record and what comes next from here?
: I take a very long view of things. I was explaining to someone the other day who was being very irate and belligerent that his little episode was less than a blip in the scheme of things and that it may have been important to him, but in five years, it would will not be relevant to the people he said it to and in 100 years, nothing out of his little anger episode mattered a jot to the universe. And as far as my staying positive, I see a longer and a bigger view. Currently, I think there are much more insidious games being played, but I think as long as there is a light shining in this world, even if people will – and they will – keep it alive. There have been dark ages in history. There have been periods of history which were tumultuous. You think about the 1800s in Europe; it was horrific! I mean, armies just marching into other countries without so much as a by-your-leave. The 20th century even, we attempt stability. We are a childish race. We are at the beginning of our steps and there are some people who are completely unaware – most people actually – of how insignificant and small we still are and we’re kind of at a step where we do have the ability to step up. I made a very important point to a friend of mine the other day. I said, ‘Isn’t it amazing that everyone thinks the world is getting more and more stupid,’ and I’m an obsessive when it comes to the American ’30s and ’40s, and if you read the crime books and the newspaper reports, people haven’t gotten more stupid… they’ve just been allowed to do it louder. The internet put a magnifying glass up to them, but what it has done is it’s made a lot of people more aware and more progressive. They’re more – I won’t say spiritual in the hippie sense – but they are expanding our world view and realizing there’s more we can accomplish. We can focus on the bad, we can look at war, we can look at all the conflicts in terms of dictatorships; there’s nothing new in those, but it’s like cogs in a machine and when that cog turns, it brings another mechanism into play and things will go on. We have to weather it. We’ll need resources, we will fight over horrific resources, but we seem to have a plan that we want to change the world and there are little signs that when you add those up, they amount to the notion of a movement that we want to do things environmentally better of ourselves. You know, it’s not about people who get stuck in these conspiracy arguments and think that global warming is some great big conspiracy. I just ask them like this: You can visit a river or a nice little brook, a place you maybe went to with your parents when you were a kid, and you can empty garbage bags into it and you can throw toxins into it, and that’s what people have been doing because they don’t give a shit.
They just brush it under the carpet and there are humans who really don’t have the capacity to understand the damage that they’re doing. They laugh it off because they feel self-righteous, but they physically lack the capacity to understand what it is they are doing and that we are, as a species, interdependent. A lot of people are aware that things are changing, people are progressing, people are evolving, but being able to see that we can’t keep throwing garbage into things without expecting that it’s all going to look like shit and we won’t be able to feed ourselves… huge changes are already happening. The momentum has grown. I asked somebody 15 years ago, ‘Could you even have imagined half the things being talked about?’ And they said, ‘No.’ I mean, imagine someone like Bernie Sanders getting to where he did, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago. Does that not seem to you like progress that so many people support that idea? I’m not saying he’s the be-all and end-all, because there are a lot of things that he said that I don’t think everyone would agree with; least of all me. The German government just signed into law that by 2030, the combustion engine will be illegal; not phased out, illegal in Germany. When people ask me how I stay positive, I just know that humans have managed to stay clung to the rock for hundreds of thousands of years. We have always managed to overcome things and we will continue to overcome things. What’s important is that we keep passing the light of knowledge down between generations. Not opinion. Not partisanship. This is bullshit. This is a distraction. This is an absolute abstraction. It means nothing. Realistically, it comes down to allowing ourselves to see past all this stupidity. This fucking game show that’s been created by the media and a lot of other people who want to give you a mix between Big Brother, Jerry Springer… you know, the worst of television and the worst of people. They’ll throw it to you like you’re the mob in the coliseum. People are getting passionate and arguing about Coke and Diet Pepsi, but it means nothing
! We’re all being distracted. While you’re watching this bullshit and getting caught up on it, there are bigger things happening. And it amazes me that some people can’t see that and continue to argue as if the things they’re arguing about matter; it doesn’t
! There are bigger things happening and there are much more important things in this world and as long as we keep our eye on that, we don’t have to be worried and panicky; just stay the course. (Laughter) A phrase used by George Bush. We will
get there. We are changing this world a little bit at a time. People are becoming more and more aware, so keep at that. Don’t yell, don’t shout, don’t try to force opinions on people by screaming at them so they just don’t want to hear. Show them. Lead by example. We’ve come so far in the last 20 years as a species and understanding more about our interdependency and how… I’m not talking about hippie greenness or any shit like that, how people want to see it; I’m talking about how we have to have a solution for our planet in the next 30 years or we’re all going to be fighting for resources or a lot of us are going to be in really serious trouble.
You think we have problems now? We are now living in an era that looks like a scary cyberpunk novel written in the ’80s. Ask anyone to go back and read Count Zero
and tell me, ‘Does that not look like where you are now?’ This is stuff we read in the ’80s and said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be so exciting?’ It was the inspiration for a lot of industrial bands, the chemical infested post-apocalyptic future… then, we get there and it’s not so nice now, huh? Everything’s overpopulated, it’s crazy. We are living in a fucking cyberpunk novel! I do believe that on an individual level, people have the ability to change; they do have the ability to do great things. They can become aware that you don’t have to work a corporate job or something in order to survive. There are alternatives and all the alternatives are out there presented to us and it’s not some hipster fantasy Instagram photograph of perfection. There’s an actual lifestyle for everybody available. That’s what’s changing in this world. If people can’t see that that’s positive… there is so much to be positive about. There’s plenty to be wary of and apprehensive of, but there’s more to be positive about.
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Photography by Brian McLelland (BMcLelland)