VNV Nation continues to earn international album success, live performance acclaim, and an exponentially growing fanbase. Throughout the project’s numerous permutations, which include both full-band and solo efforts, its principle proprietor has always been singer-songwriter and producer Ronan Harris, an Irishman based in Germany for nearly two decades. In its formative period of the 1990s, VNV Nation’s sound captured nuances of largely localized alternative electronic scenes, such as those of EBM, industrial, and synthpop. However, the latter part of the decade saw Harris creating his own genre, futurepop, in which those elements had been rocked up, scaled up, and ultimately transformed to resonate with the diverse audience he maintains today.
Harris has completed Eurotour in support of his 11th album, Noire, which saw digital release last month. At present, VNV Nation is touring the world as a four-piece. The band will soon begin the North American leg of the tour with a stop at New York’s Irving Plaza, featuring special guests, Berlin synthpop artist De/Vision and Cologne new wave collective Holygram.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ronan about the essence of live shows, his formative and current musical undertakings, as well as the meaning behind the video for Noire’s lead single, “When is the Future.”
ME: You’d just wrapped up Eurotour recently. How was that for you?
Ronan: It was absolutely incredible. A couple of things had happened which we really didn’t expect. Whether it be the booker, light engineer, or the band themselves, everyone was able to work as a team. The new album went to number 4 in the German charts. There was almost a hysteria building up over this thing (laughs)! Everything just fell into place — every element. It was the most incredible show. I came up with these videos for the show, and we all had basically worked together on something bigger than anything we’ve ever done before. The audiences were bigger, and the energy at the shows was just bigger than better! From the first day until the end, it was constant — it was incredible!
We finished up the last show in Copenhagen, and as soon as we stopped, it was kind of like when you’re working on a project non-stop and think, “Yeah, I’m fine; I’ll do well with this,” and then suddenly, you stop, and the whole thing hits you. We were all exhausted, but it was all good!
ME: Yeah, I saw photos on Facebook and you’re obviously having a great time!
Ronan: Oh yeah! Crowd interaction is a really important thing for me. I’ve lived here in Germany for the past 17 years, and I speak German. Every city has its own culture. Some cities are more reserved, while some cities may be more lively, but between them is a genuine shared experience. That’s what VNV shows were always supposed to be about. Whether we were playing the biggest or the smallest shows didn’t make a difference. There was always this incredible rapport and we were always very interactive. We were all looking at the comments from people saying that they’ve never seen this before — this level of…euphoria! And it wasn’t just like, “Yeah, awesome show.” They acknowledged that it was an experience, and that it was something we have endeavored to do. There’s depth to the music, the lyrics, and what have you. And it’s incredible to see, even in a non-English-speaking country, how profoundly this affects people.
ME: You have an upcoming show in Irving Plaza in New York. What do you enjoy most about New York’s atmosphere?
Ronan: It depends on the venue, really, but the shows have always been incredible. I think the very first show we played in New York was a club, back when we were a small band. We were told, “Oh yeah, just look out for New York. Everyone’s gonna stand there and watch you with their arms folded, because that’s just how New Yorkers are.” But once we actually played, it was the complete opposite experience. The shows since then had always been incredible. I know I keep saying that; I don’t mean to overuse that word. There has just been an incredibly loud resonance. Always. Consistently. We’ve made so many great friends from the shows, and I love it — absolutely adore it.
Irving is a place we’ve played before, and it’s a great venue to put on a show in. I think the venue affects how the crowd feels. In a giant, impersonal venue, they feel a little less cozy. When you’re in a place like Irving, though, there’s something that’s conducive to putting on a great show. The first time I was there, I was invited by AFI to come see their show. It was just electric, and I was worried whether that was going to be the same for us, but we had the exact same experience. I’m really excited for this show coming up!
ME: Since you mention your early days, that had me wondering. VNV Nation came together in the early 90s. Was it a full band originally?
Ronan: As far as the writing and recording process, it’s always been me. I had worked with a live drummer in the late 90s, which was an okay thing to do back in those days, but now the lineup has changed. Now we’re a four-piece band as far as live performance goes. The way I was doing it back then was representing in photos what people would see at shows, but that wasn’t really what VNV was. It had always been me, whether it started out as music I’d make in my bedroom, up until now. I work full time with VNV, and I work as a producer, and have all these other projects. It’s an incredible experience. Nothing has really changed, just the location where I do the music.
ME: If you could remember, which kinds of music had a big influence on you growing up?
Ronan: I have a weird memory of being three years old, and I remember that timing, because there was this song in the charts that my mom always used to sing when she was in the kitchen. I think I had always been acutely audio-oriented. I was born at the end of the 60s, and grew up all the way through the 70s. By that time, in Europe, there was a ton of electronic music that had made its way to radio — all this kind of pioneering stuff, because it was a whole new genre back then. There was also a lot of symphonic rock too. A lot of that had a really big influence on me because I just love the way people shape sounds, and I also have always loved orchestral and classical music. Through the 80s, I was mainly an alternative kid.
Generally, my range of music has always been vast. I don’t necessarily like to stick to one particular genre of music, or be pigeonholed. I’d equally listen to Otis Redding as I would Kraftwerk, or even experimental noise. I just like music that gives me a feeling. I think in the early days of VNV, it was heavily influenced by late 70s electronic music, and some industrial bands of the 80s. I guess that was proto-techno at the time. I mean the 80s was the dance era for us. House music took off over here, even though that’s a Chicago creation, but techno had been a direct result of what bands here were doing.
The thing is, though, it was never disconnected, like what you see in other countries. Over here, that was all part of rock culture. With the cross pollination between different types of music, whether it’s recording instrumentation or making beats, it would be immersive and expansive. Everything from pure, solid dance music to, let’s say, bands like Massive Attack, who utilize a lot of different instruments in their sound. I’d say that in Europe, there’s not really such a thing as pure electronic music; it’s all a unified working process. I’ve been influenced by all of that through the 90s, and seeing how the alternative rock and dance culture seem to be heavily influenced by each other. Then, I moved to Germany in 2001, and continued from there.
ME: When you were transitioning from Advance and Follow to Praise the Fallen, how did Americans respond to your output initially?
Ronan: Well, Advance and Follow was me putting together a bunch of demos that I’ve updated over the years, and Praise the Fallen was when I started from scratch. By the way, I’m surprised that we’re talking about the stuff from — how long ago was that — 20, 24-some years ago (laughs).
At the time, there was a fledgling club scene in North America that I think a lot of people had locked onto. They would hear a bunch of releases from Europe, and would buy anything and everything, but it wasn’t as widespread as it was right around 2000.
When Praise the Fallen came out in 1998, the scene was still underground, but it resonated with people because it represented the sound they were in at the time. The weird thing about the album was that it was originally something I’d made only for myself, and I’d never intended for it to be released. I regard Praise the Fallen as my first true album. Sound-wise, it was based upon how I felt about myself at the time. Every album since has been reflection of my observation of things going on in my life, or my present observations of the world.
ME: Now that Noire has been out, does it surprise you that, even though your sound has considerably evolved, much of your core fan base had stuck with you to this day?
Ronan: It does. Every musician and band knows this. There will be people who are happy with the sound of one particular album and will expect that same experience forever. Then, there are others who are interested in the music you put out next and will evolve with it. I’ve always been surprised by, despite the evolution of what I do, there being so many familiar faces at the shows. They’re still there, still listening, and still loving everything I do. I didn’t really expect that, because I make music for myself that makes me happy. I don’t intend to make music custom for other people. I think it’s a mistake for anyone to do that because more often than not, it’s hit or miss.
I just hope that my music coincides with their listening tastes at the time. It’s very surprising to see that the fans from the very early days have been happy with a great deal of Noire. Our audience has grown massively ever since Matter Form came out in 2005. So many people from different regions and backgrounds were coming to our shows. The fact that so many people find something great in Noire is something I really didn’t expect. I’m probably my biggest critic. I can’t say I have a magic formula that dictates what people like or don’t. But if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, well, there you go (laughs).
ME: Going into Noire, your last album was Resonance, back in 2015, which seemed like a pretty tough act to follow.
Ronan: With Resonance, I’ve always been a fan of different types of classical music, I think since about 5 years old, and just making the album was a lifelong dream. To be honest, I feel that it was an interesting experience for me in knowing that, regardless of the medium — in this case, an orchestra — my songs can be conveyed effectively. I’ve always believed that songs can be played with something as big an orchestra, or with just an acoustic guitar; a good song is a good song. It was incredible to see how far I could push things, working with the arranger to see how much I could get out of that medium. It felt as natural to me as anything I’ve pursued in music, the difference being that I no longer solely had my hand on the keyboard to input the melodies. I’d also worked with the arranger and with demo libraries to construct what I think would be the final version, and then would hear it performed. In a number of interviews, a lot of people have asked what kind of influence Resonance had on me, without realizing that every single album I’ve done has had a massive classical influence — whether it be in the melodic structures or the way I play melodies, the polychords, or in using orchestral libraries. That’s always been there since the beginning. So, Resonance was the culmination of my wishes – to be able to take a song like “Solitary” from Praise the Fallen, or, say, something from Judgement, and make an orchestral version of it. Myself and the arranger did one of “The Farthest Star,” which I regard as absolutely exquisite. I think neither of us believed that we could create something that sounded quite like that. There were two tracks that were ostensibly orchestral in their creation, so they transferred to the medium perfectly, and worked beautifully, while still being able to be reinterpreted. But the thing that it freed me from was perceiving any borders around me.
I think with Noire, I was just going to do anything to make an album that’s somehow related to the night, and this seductive mystery of darkness, rather than something brooding and threatening. A song like “Nocturne No. 7” just had to be on there. The strange thing is, coming from Resonance, it was a massive project; it really was a huge undertaking. I think what it really taught me was how to scale things up into a much bigger presentation. I also think it’s done me a great deal of psychological help just knowing of the possibilities that are out there. What seems to happen with a lot of musicians is they don’t have access to a broader palate, other musicians, or maybe they just don’t have the confidence. I’ve worked with other musicians, but I’ve kind of had an idea of how I wanted VNV to sound on the electronic side of things. There were 65 formally trained, incredible performers, and an arranger, who I’ve become best friends with, without any hindrance from the work goal. I’m on Skype sitting there with my keyboard and webcam, and he’s on the other end, so it’s like we’re looking through a window at each other. We’re playing each other arrangement ideas, chordal structures, and progressions, while having a ton of fun with it. It was very different working on Resonance than something like Noire, that’s made with an electronic sensibility. Sending that back to the orchestra, and playing them the diary of my life, was also one of the most overwhelming experiences to this day. I can’t even describe how else I felt; I can’t find the words.
ME: I’ve listened to Noire, after listening to Resonance, and this is from a fresh perspective, as I’m a young fan. It seems like you were able to apply all that you’ve learned and successfully transfer that into the album. Even with its complex nuances, Noire is very accessible to me. But it’s also uplifting. It does represent some aspects of darkness, but from a positive perspective.
Ronan: Yes, that’s true! There are metaphors within the album that are hard to explain to people, and I’ve had to expound on why I’d given the album the feminine version of the French word for black. Noire is a word that can also mean many things. In the late 1800s, it represented an abstract notion of a luring, seductive darkness that someone journeys through. It’s a state of mind, and of travel — a journey within the self, and of self-knowledge. I structured the album so that it should be listened to from beginning to end. I was pointing out to people that it’s actually staged in acts. You start off with “A Million,” and then end with “All Our Sins.” Each of the songs on the album are like mirrors of one another. There’s all of these metaphors and motifs going on throughout it. I’ve had more fun than I ever have in layering ideas upon ideas, and hiding details which maybe I’m the only person who could notice. But I wanted Noire to be a journey that people could recognize elements of, and for it to be their staging point in being able to hear other types of music on it. It’s a concept album, but I don’t want that aspect to alienate people. I’m glad that I was in a good state of mind that’s reflected in the music, so that it ends up being accessible to people. At least music listeners — not just your average person looking for a quick fix.
ME: What made me delve more into the album’s presentation was the video for the song “When is the Future.” How was that experience?
Ronan: Originally, I hadn’t thought of doing a video before. To be honest, I’d asked a lot video companies for treatments — giving them briefs of songs and telling them, “This is what I’m like, and this is what the song’s about.” They would come back with results that were laughable. I’m sorry to say that, but I’ve never wanted a video to just be any kind of video; I’d want it to somehow relate to the song.
I’d met this couple who make videos, and they have a great vibe about them and the right idea. I brought up that everyone would expect Tokyo to be in full color. But I wanted the perspective to be that I was walking through a strange land, as a voyeur of sorts — someone on a search. We’d walked around Tokyo for about 20 miles (laughs)! So, the footage is just 20 miles of walking through every street and alleyway we could find. We went all over.
It was incredible. Their idea was just so brilliantly simple that it worked! It adds another dimension to the lyrics of the song, and it doesn’t distract you from them, which is something I really don’t like about the video medium. A lot of people do videos just as a staple, and I don’t necessarily like that idea.
We filmed over two and a half days. The first day, we were in the POURING rain. If you ever want to know what it feels like to be in the first Blade Runner movie, it’s walking around Shinjuku late at night, in the pouring rain, while everyone’s leaving work and going home. It is, quite literally, like being in a dark future city in a sci-fi movie.
ME: What I thought the video to be about was envisioning Tokyo as representing the future. From where we’re at, we may picture Tokyo, like the future, to be something way out of our grasp and difficult to comprehend. But in some way or another, that future becomes reality, because we’re constantly moving forward.
Ronan: Yes, it is that. It’s also based on the idea that we had been promised this wonderful future in 1967, which is the year I was born. Since then, technology has impacted us a great deal and has been both a blessing and a curse, from a very tactile side — a side you and I see every day. Technology is a liberator, in that it’s allowing you and I to talk to each other freely and easily, and to write and publish without any hindrance whatsoever — as people once had with typewriters, scribble pads or print presses.
When I was in Tokyo, I counted people, and I’d say one in 12 were not staring at a phone the whole time. It’s a double-edged sword. There’s a kind of cynicism as well in that we’re asking, “When are we going to take all our great ideas, and reshape our world to be a better place for all?” I see us all being so alienated, and we look to another country as if that’s our teacher. I’m not exactly sure if that’s what I want, but it’s already here.
I think people are addicted to their phones every day. Not just because I’m an older person, but because our phones have ways of both attracting and manipulating us. It gives us an adrenaline rush when we get a like on our posts or something like that. But then there are people who are born into it, who don’t even know how to live without it. It’s tougher for older people to talk with those who are, let’s say, 16, who have no idea what it’s like to live without a smartphone, or the internet, or just the things we take for granted — which, in our eyes, were things that have evolved in the past 20 years. But I’m a hopeful person, and I do truly wish for a better world for everybody.
ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
Ronan: I can’t wait to go on tour; we’re all very excited! Please listen to the new album — put headphones on and take the time to listen to it from beginning to end. It’s meant to be a journey. I’m also looking forward to seeing people at the shows!
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