VNV Nation, the alternative electronic project led by Ronan Harris, is wowing crowds and critics alike with the latest album NOIRE. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Harris now lives in Hamburg, Germany where he has his own studio and releases albums via his own label, Anachron Sounds. Harris blends though provoking lyrics with a range of sounds that include melodic dance beats, electronic anthems, ballads and classically influenced songs achieved through both digital and analog means. VNV Nation is known for their energetic and awe-inspiring live shows, which often include a projected video behind the stage that coordinates with a brilliant light show. Harris formed the group in 1990 and although he released the first two albums in 1995 and 1998, it was the 1999 release of Empires that was a breakthrough moment for the band, resulting in widespread commercial success and chart-topping hits. Always evolving and growing his sound, Harris is constantly thinking about music, whether it be writing, recording or planning his next album or live appearance. With the release of NOIRE, the 10th studio album, on October 12th, along with his first official music video for “When Is The Future?”, VNV Nation is still going strong and is bigger then ever! Staff writer Emily May spoke recently by phone with Harris and discussed the new album, his first music video and what’s next for the band. You can stay up-to-date with VNV Nation and all upcoming tour dates and new music, as well as stream and purchase their music via the following links. You can check out the video for “When Is The Future?” below!
You recently released your 10th studio album, NOIRE. You have mentioned that many artists get to this point in their career and wither go mellow, try to please the fans or lose their spark but that for you making this album was as intense and energetic a process as ever before. You also went bigger with this album then with previous ones. What led you to go bigger with album?
It wasn’t a conscious choice! It was more that…I don’t know. I felt freer and better. In this past year I have seen a lot of changes in me and my life and I love making music and can’t stop making music. I think I’d explode if I couldn’t. I have my own studio. I finally settled into a new place between the last few albums and this one. Over the last year, I just started writing pieces and it just started to kind of gel. It didn’t really have a conscious theme or anything. One night I was sitting alone in the studio, and I had a little keyboard on my table and was working away doing different stuff. I just wanted to play some music for a second and I have a synthesizer on my computer that I was using just for ideas or melodies or whatever else. I hit on a melody which ended up being used for the opening track and from that point on everything just exploded and I can’t really explain it. I felt almost like I was channeling something and I just started writing and writing and writing for the album. As I was making the beats, I was never satisfied with something that was just ok. I just wanted to make it bigger and bigger and wanted this to be the most varied album yet, an album that’s in and of itself an album rather then just a collection of tracks..something you could listen to from beginning to end. It’s a story…it’s a journey. In this one moment I had this complete vision of what I wanted the album to be.
All of your albums tend to be concept albums that are to be listened to from beginning to end. Was the idea for that album structure something you always had planned?
Yes. I think about it in terms of moods and stories. The album starts out with a sort-of sinister vibe and takes people through something slightly familiar and then takes a complete left turn, going up and down and backward and forward. That is very conscious in that I think about the mood and the tracks start to formulate themselves and fill in the pieces I need. In the end, when I’ve done all the tracks, I have a very good wireframe structure for the album. I know how it’s going to be structured and that influences a lot how I produce those tracks. They become influenced by the order in which I want them to be played…how they start, how they finish, how they blend into one another and the volumes of the tracks. I have one song that should be very quiet to precede something that is to be very loud. That sounds very basic but there are thousands of considerations that go into how I …obviously that’s a bit of an exaggeration (laughs)…into how I order the tracks. I know how I want it to start and I know how I want it to end. I have a feeling, like with an individual song. I know how I want it to feel and I know what the message should be and what the tone should be. That definitely has a huge effect on every aspect of it.
You recently released a music video for “When Is The Future?” and it was your first official music video! You have said that you are not a fan of having “just a video”. Why did you decide to one for this particular song and is a music video something you wanted to do in the past or did you just feel particularly inspired with this song?
I have wanted to do one in the past and have contacted the video companies and sent them a description of the song and sent them a whole brief about what the song is about and that I wanted the video to reflect that. I got treatments back from these video companies that were laughable. In some cases it was enough to make me laugh and in some cases it made me want to slam my head on a table because it had zero to do with what I had asked. I didn’t want to just fill a video company’s coffers by doing something arbitrary, which I surmise that is what most people end up with and why all the bands end up with themselves playing live in a room. I met this company that did my video online. I got a list of ten recommendations and went through all of them and I connected really well with Iconographic. They are a duo from Cologne and are very exciting people and really, really energetic. They’re spiritual and interesting and like to explore the world, flying off to every corner of the world to make videos every week and never seem to stop. I just remember sending them the song and telling them we can come up with a studio idea where we build a set and do something like a storyboard chorus. I have very visual inclinations so I had a lot of input and a lot of ideas, but the duo at the video company, the guy and his girlfrind, said “Nope, we have it!”. Based on the lyrics they said it should be an exploration video with somebody who is basically in search of something, and if you want to talk about “When is the future?” then we are filming this is Tokyo. There is no other place to do this. We went through a lot of the idea of it. All the ideas…everything gelled. We talked a lot during the video shoot about what sort of areas we should go to. I covered Tokyo! We literally took the Subway every half hour, went to another area and filmed. We wandered every part of the city and went from the most ultra-modern, futuristic areas of the city in the pouring rain, where it was like being in the Bladerunner film, because literally you didn’t have to imagine that you were in some science fiction film depicting the future, you were in it. You didn’t have to even try. We also went to the most spiritual parts of the city, too, and went to a Shinto temple, one of the oldest. It was not just even a tourist visit because we walked around to really enjoy it. Growing up as a teenager, I wanted to know what everyone’s faith was about, so I read quite a lot about Shintoism and I found it absolutely fascinating, to see the rituals that I had read about being performed by people in person. I mean, Japan is an alien culture to people in the West. You can look at it from the outside and think you know what it’s about, but their culture is very, very different from ours. I really was a stranger in a strange land. Funny enough, when I was writing the song I imagined …there was an experience I once had at my old job. I used to fly around the world and I ended up one time in a city in Southeast Asia and rather then going to the tourist areas, something I loathe doing, I went to where all of the locals go on a Friday and Saturday night. It was an electric, pounding experience walking through these streets full of everyone talking in their language, running around and going to bars and clubs, with music playing from every door and neon signs all over the place. It was just a mass of energy and people. That was very much an idea that I had in my mind when I was writing parts of this song. Oddly enough, that was the experience I had in Tokyo so it all came full circle. You could say it was fortuitous.
With regards to the Compendium 20th Anniversary box set you released, you mentioned having learned some valuable lessons through what you’ve done over the course of your career. What do you think some of those lessons are that you have learned?
Well, I learned a lot about people! That’s for sure (laughs)! I learned a lot about the music business the hard way. I had a very, I guess you could call it a baptism of fire, with an initial label experience and I’ve gone on from there. After the release of Future Perfect in 2001, I founded my own label and was encouraged by friends who worked with me, publicists, distributors and everybody…they all joined together and helped be do this. I found the best after having seen the worst. Since then, I’ve had to learn the business as I go. I’ve kept very true to myself and true to my principles. I don’t compromise in that I don’t wanna sell out and just make an easy one. If I wanted to make loads of money I would write commercial hits for other artists but I don’t do that. I love what I do and I love that it is what it is and that I control every aspect of it. Nobody gets to tell me what to do. And it’s not about being a control freak, it’s just that the biggest complaint for artists is that they write wonderful music that feels very much an expression of their souls and yet they end up having to treat it like it’s a product to be packaged and re-packaged, changed and adjusted and twisted one way or another and being sold to people. Really, it’s all about shares and maximizing the potential to make money. Money is a consequence, it’s not a goal. I’ve learned…I’ve been very good with some people who didn’t quite return the favor. I’ve learned to be a little more selective with my kindness. I have great people around me and I have learned that one aspect of the music business is that it will attract people who are “Peter Pan”, people who wanna stay in their 20’s forever. There are a lot of great people in this business on all levels and aspects, and avoiding the people who are toxic and bitter and who are essentially shit-stirrers, and building a core around you that supports you and work great together allows you to surround yourself with a bunch of friends rather then people who are unknown to each other and treat it like it’s a boring job with no fun or no wonder in it. A lot of the changes in this last year have really been about solidifying that. I’ve done a lot in the past 20 years to maintain the aspect of keeping myself…that it’s not killing me or dragging out my energy. I have great people around me and I’m focused on that. In this past year I have really lucked out and come across some across some incredible people that I work with. We are friends both on tour and off and connect creatively and have a wonderful time. Everybody feeds off of each other and those are the most important things to learn. The people around you are everything.
You place a lot of emphasis on your live shows. What goes into planning a tour for you and what you want your stage production to look like? How different is the planning for large venues versus smaller, more intimate venues?
It’s interesting. I have a context. I look around at everything from theatre to opera to god knows what, even though I’ll never be able to recreate these incredibly well-budgeted productions. I come up with something I think is flexible that will work on large and small stages that’s scaleable. For the European Tour, for example, we have this huge video production which wasn’t so imposing that it would take over the show. It was more a part of the show. The lighting designer came up with his ideas that we worked together on with a common context, where I tell him the elements of the show I want to focus on and everything else around that has a general overall theme that everything should build towards. With the set, I decide the setlist and want it to be structured in such a way that there’s enough that keeps people going throughout the show. I always put that amount of thought into a show. The base production is scaleable. The base production in North America is a version of the European production. To give you a great example-yesterday we played Salt Lake City and were delayed getting there. We got there 2 hours before doors opened because we were traveling westbound on I-80 and were driving through Wyoming and a huge section of the highway was closed for about 7 hours. We were re-routed and when we got to the venue, it was 2 hours before doors. We got a minimum set up done, we got all the backline set up and all the keyboards and drums and everything like that. The lighting guy got most of the light rig up and we got the video…everything to put on an incredible show. That was really the test of it, showing that we could do this on all stages large and small. We showed that it could convey the gravitas of certain songs and that it could still entertain. I actually, inadvertently, came up with the video for the show. I’ve always done the videos that we have used in the past and center it on the back wall whenever we use video. There was a video company that was supposed to produce the videos for this tour and they were late. Two days before the European tour they said they didn’t have it ready and wouldn’t have it ready for another month. I said “Ok, great. Brilliant”. This is the one thing I didn’t want to do. This was the job I wanted to give away. But you take it as it is. You don’t grumble and moan. You just get on with trying to fix it and see what kinds of solutions you can come up with. I pulled together…I have terabytes of video material that I have compiled from loads of sources, from different video graphic artists over the years. I basically compiled together a video that blended well with the light show. That was the whole thing that I wanted, for the video to have a certain look and a certain content that really reflects and blends with the light show. Then the show becomes very consistent and it worked beautifully. People in Europe were just watching with their mouths open in some places and it was really, really beautiful. The good thing was that it gave me some room because I know that next year we have some very big festival appearances and it’s given me a lot of ideas of how to take it to a huge level. A lot of thought goes into the shows and consultations, but it’s all coming from one vision. I know how the music feels and I know how I want it presented and how I want people to feel about it and tried to convey that to the lighting guy. It’s like telling someone who is painting something for you how you want it to feel. Our Lighting Director in Europe, Martin, is an incredible guy and our guy on the US tour, Wez, has done a brilliant job. I videoed all of the European shows for him and he came up with an approximation but then he added his own flare and his own touches to it. The object of a show is not to just put on something that’s pretty and attractive. You’re there to entertain people and give them the show they are hoping to see and I think that we achieved that very much so. The reactions to the show have been across the board absolutely astonishing. It makes us feel better as well about the show. We perform better and feel more energized and active. My god…I get very, very active on stage!
You are continuously listening to new music and becoming inspired by other artists. Who are you listening to currently and are there any particular artists that you are especially excited about right now?
That’s a hard question to answer! I don’t listen to anything that’s necessarily current. I tend to find that music is like a goldmine and a treasure hunt and you find pieces through friends or yourself, sometimes by accident that you’ve missed, artists from the last 20…30…60 years. I can’t think of any specific artists at the moment. My mind always goes blank (laughs)!
I’m the same way! I always have a hard time thinking of things on the spot (laughs)!
It’s bizarre…it’s really strange that it works like that. I listen to so many different either tracks or albums or artists doing very interesting things. I listen to so many different styles of music that it makes it hard to put my finger on anything.
You are a lover of classical music and your albums have a classical influence. What do you feel it is about classical music that works and blends so well with so many other genres? I feel like that there are a lot of genres that incorporate that influence into their music?
Classical music is something I was introduced to when I was very young. I was about 5 years old and someone played me some classical pieces and educated on what they mean and I started to develop an appreciation for the genre. It has always stayed with me and I have heard elements of it in modern music. It’s not something you can escape from. It’s just something that moves and inspires me and there are certain components that do really powerful things for me on a personal level. I love the feeling that it gives me and I want to try to convey some of that in the music that I like. It’s become a very important influence.
You’ve mentioned that in looking back on the era of the creation of technology for the future, you have wondered about the frontiers that people were breaking and have asked where are our frontiers? What legacy do you feel we will be leaving for the future as far as technology is concerned?
This is the question where there is a tragic side to it. Humans have the ability to solve all of their problems now-every single one of them. We have vast problems that we’ve had for hundreds of years like world hunger and problems within the last 40 years like pollution. We’re looking at a period of time where we have all of the capability to solve every single one of our problems…like just the sheer pragmatism of humanity which always comes out in times of trouble. It would take massive changes and we would be better for it but we don’t. We just mull along hoping that it’s all going to work out. The legacy of this time is that we have left future generations the greatest clean up operation. This is not some hippie idea. If you keep throwing garbage in a river, you won’t be able to use the river anymore. All the fish are going to die and everything that feeds off of that is going to die. It’s as simple as that. I think a lot of humans just can’t see beyond a very small context of things and can’t grasp the scale of the problems the world is facing. Those who do see the scale of it are frightened by it. I often wonder, if people on a regular, everyday level get to see reports about how bad things are getting. It’s very unapparent to most people just how severe it is until they actually go out an look. If we’re able to see those reports, what are our politicians and governments seeing and why are they not acting upon it? That’s actually the question that gives me the biggest chills because if they’re not acting on it, perhaps they know something we don’t. I’m not a fatalist or a nihilist that just thinks there’s nothing we can do so let’s just see where it goes. We can do something. We can achieve greatness and make things at least, if it’s not going to be perfect, better. We’re stewards of this garden is what we are.
You are a fan of using both digital and analog technology. What is it you like about using both?
I have the benefit of having been born in an era where if I wanted to use synthesizers, I have to use the old analog kind which are frought with problems and limitations and now you have the best of both worlds. There is something beautifully vibey about playing through a piece of analog equipment. There’s something beautiful and organic that comes out of it and I have that experience with analog gear quite a lot. It resonates with me. Having the hybrid is everything to me. On this last album I used technology from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I didn’t go beyond that. I also had all of the modern tools to compile it all, like if I wanted to work with orchestral sounds, or what have you, I used all of the digital tools for that. I have all of the effects on the computer, like all of the studio dynamics and I still have a lot that I used in the studio when it comes to instrumentation. I still like to work with…I mean, I have a ribbon microphone from 1934 that I use and use pre-amps from the 1940s. I use lots of crazy little things that all add something to the process. When you play on older equipment, it has its own character and old world sound. You can play a melody in a certain way. It’s the kind-of thing that inspires the sounds that I use and the melodies I use and the things I choose to make music with. Using certain equipment is actually what results in the way things sound and the sample I’ve chosen and the way I put things together. It’s a very organic process and of course digital makes the processes of compiling everything together and mixing and making everything sound great so much easier. So it’s the best of both worlds!
You mentioned having some festivals coming up next year! What else do you have coming up for 2019?
I’ve got a very big project that I’m not going to talk about for fear that I’ll jinx it. It’s huge! In the meantime, I’ve also been invited to play at a planetarium next year. I will have to put together a 1-1 ½ hour medley of VNV Nation’s music and I want to perform that live with a lot of vintage synthesizers and just me. That will be something really spectacular!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!
Emily, thank you so so much! Have a lovely day!