September 15, 2017 Interview – Ronan Harris of VNV Nation
Call them Alternative Electronic, EBM, Synthpop, Trance… hell, call them whatever you like. VNV Nation – the musical guise of the multi-talented Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson – are a name that stand far above many of the rest in the electronic-themed genres for their resilience, diversity, and longevity. With twenty-seven years under their belts, VNV Nation have produced ten studio albums – from 1995’s Advance and Follow to 2015’s Resonance: Music for Orchestra Vol. 1 – and spent the bulk of their time exploring all horizons while touring, touring, and touring.
In a world with a split-second attention-span, it is a continuous fight to stay relevant. Nobody knows this fact better than Singer-Songwriter Ronan Harris, a cordial and highly intelligent soul. Excited for the Automatic Empire North American Tour, Harris was quick to discuss the run of Resonance, his love of Classical music and 1986’s Blade Runner, as well as some handy advice for the next generation of musicians.
CrypticRock.com – VNV Nation are a group that have been around for well-over twenty years now. You are superbly diverse and continually push the bar higher and higher for yourselves while keeping fans on their toes. What is that like for you, as the artist, and what inspires you to continually delve deeper?
Ronan Harris – Musically, I grow: my tastes grow, what I want to make grows; I don’t like repetition. I mean, things that stay within the same framework, sure; but I don’t want to make the same style and repeat albums over. I make music for myself first and foremost! I always attempt to try and bring in new ideas and new influences, and my songwriting, I’d like to think, improves. I always try to take things higher, get better and bigger. I don’t realize just how much it’s changed until I hear; after an album is finished I start comparing it to other work.
With the live-show, it’s always very energetic. Fans grow with us; they grow not just with age but also the lyrical content and how it applies to them and their lives. There’s this very personal relationship! Even with newer fans, people are coming in thinking, ‘Wow, I love this; this speaks to me as well as where I am now in my life.’ Then they go back through the catalogue and…we’ve had quite a lot of that on this tour! Quite a few fans coming in and saying they love the message and it really applies to the world as it is right now.
CrypticRock.com – As far your inspirations – both lyrically and personally –
Ronan Harris – Oh god, you’re not going to ask what they are, that’s so…every book I’ve ever read; every poem I’ve read; every movie I’ve seen. I listen to so many styles of music: I don’t listen to Pop but I listen to everything from Blues and Swing to Classical, to Noise, to Experimental, to Metal, to everything. I love having so many different styles of music at my disposal and playing something every day. I love learning about music from other people I work with. So as far as influences or inspirations, it can be anything! You know, I did an album a couple years back called Judgement and German fans are a little bit tetchy about Electronic bands bringing guitars in, which I think is a bit narrow-minded.
I’ve always emulated orchestras, strings, and there’s never any problems with that. I kind of added a Rock-ier dimension to things. I started doing that about 2005, because that was another style of music I wanted to embrace. I’ve brought guitar in because I was inspired by other guitar music I was listening to at the time; I just wanted to have that element, that vibe, the way that song felt in my music. I take sources from anything and everything: it could be the most minimal track I’ll get an idea from; it could be a big symphony I’ll get an idea from. In the end, when I’m in the studio writing, it’s a solo process. I do all the songwriting, I do all the production, and I do all the singing, though, at the moment (coughs), I sound a little bit (laughs) worse for wear.
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) That is perfectly okay!
Ronan Harris – Someone left the air-conditioning on here: I think they set it on freezer mode! So everybody woke up with the sniffles and I ended up waking up with a sore throat. But anyway! I play for my amusement! I’m sitting there working on so many different ideas – and some of those then get developed and turned into albums – but I always end up with libraries or directories full of little ideas; any little snip-it that I can think of, combinations of sounds, all kinds of stuff. The thing about when I work in my studio, I don’t consider myself a synthesizer musician, as in, I play a keyboard to control the sound, but I create a whole soundscape.
CrypticRock.com – To keep everything fresh, is it a somewhat organic development as far as influences or do you intentionally search out constant new muses?
Ronan Harris – Sometimes. I mean, I listen to a lot of underground dance music. A lot of people hear that term and they think EDM, which is wrong because in Europe, dance culture is a very different thing; it can be anything from Massive Attack to Underworld, to underground Hip Hop, it can be everything. I listen to a lot of new music anyway. Things that get me on a personal level, then it becomes organic. That’s the organic influence, but I’m always listening to new sounds and hearing what people are doing and getting ideas from that. It inspires me! It may not be the idea that they’ve done, but it inspires me to do something else. That’s the thing that’s never-ending: I am always listening to new music! Whenever somebody’s playing something, I want to hear what they’re playing; I want to hear it, listen to it, even if I like it or don’t like it. It gives me other ideas!
CrypticRock.com – That is good! Sadly, a lot of people are not that way: they do not want to hear other things and risk being influenced.
Ronan Harris – Ugh! I can’t deal with purists! Like somebody who only reads one book, only reads Romance novels or something… I’ve never been like that and I’m not going to change! This is how I am!
CrypticRock.com – Your most recent release is 2015’s phenomenal Resonance: Music For Orchestra Vol. 1. Are there plans for a Volume 2, and what inspired you to want to craft your music into orchestral pieces?
Ronan Harris – Yes! I’ve wanted to play with an orchestra since I was a kid. I heard Classical music, I was introduced to Classical music when I was five by a family member who gave me a great education in it; played it and said, ‘What do you think of this melody?’ I was a very curious child, wanted to know everything. [They] taught me how there’s a big disconnect between orchestral music then and the way that we write music now. So they brokered music almost like a book – it tells a story, it’s a musical language – and that’s why we find a big disconnect in understanding why there’s no repetition in things, or why it’s always evolved all over the place. I’m overwhelmed! There’s a lot of orchestral music I love and I’m overwhelmed by it.
When I was offered the opportunity, in Germany, to be a part of a festival where they take bands and they team up – they do a whole festival – where the orchestra plays five or six songs by that band. They have an arranger who creates a Classical version of it, or at least an orchestral version of it. I don’t think they’d finished the sentence asking me before I’d said yes! I was so happy and I jumped at it. I worked with the arranger, he and I became very good friends and I was able to communicate my language. At least understanding Classical music or knowing a lot of pieces, I could say, ‘This piece must have this kind of mood;’ describing things using correct terminology and researching a lot to be able to use correct terminology so that we would both understand one another. When that concert was finished – we tried to record it… for all the bands, all the bands were supposed to be recorded and it was a disaster.
That was actually a blessing because that made me go out of my way to use those arrangements and make them bigger; and actually hire an orchestra and record it properly, and adding pieces that weren’t performed at that one concert. This grew into something huge! This was a lifelong dream! I kind of expected that… I plowed all of my money into it; it was a real expensive affair but it was something that I had to do. It wasn’t a commercial project! I wasn’t expecting people to understand it, not everybody, but a lot of people did. What was beautiful was… how do I put this? I always felt that the songs could be presented in a multitude of styles and still convey the same message, maybe even strengthen it in some cases. Doing the orchestral versions, in some cases, re-framed the songs and actually put them in a much stronger light. The song called “Sentinel,” which is, you know, a boppy kind of dance track with a message about our world and how we are in the present day; you hear the Classical version of it and it really is a reflection of the song, and you sit back and think about it. It plays at a certain speed that presents the lyrics in such a way that, the lyrics came to the fore on that album for every song; it strengthened them in many ways and it actually made people focus more on what was being said.
It was a huge undertaking doing that album, but I do not want to stop. We have written, created, I’d say six more arrangements ,and there will be more. At the end of this year there’s going to be a couple of concerts which I’ll be recording live, which will have all these new arrangements and that’ll start working towards Volume 2. I don’t want to rush it; it’s not something you just drop-out every year because, believe me, to rent an orchestra, you could buy a car. In the end, yeah, it was a project for me and people say things like… you get bound to, so used to how a commercial system of how making records and songs works and think this is somehow a commercial concept. I keep saying: nothing I do is a commercial concept! I run my own label: no one tells me what to do, how to do it; I avoid commercial exploitation. I love doing what I do and I try to do it better. If I can do this on my own, anyone can! So there you go!
CrypticRock.com – The sincerity absolutely shines through in what you do!
Ronan Harris – Thank you. I am very happy to hear that, thank you very much for saying that… It’s really weird because I had fans asking me to give them a top-ten of my favorite Classical pieces. I would say, ‘Okay, listen to this: maybe this will be your gateway.’ People have even written and said, ‘It got me so much in the mood, I started to put on the Classical station.’ I said, ‘Well, not everything you’re going to hear is going to be appealing.’ There are a lot of things that are technical but those that they did, they loved. So I’m happy: it broadened some people’s minds. In the end, the concerts in Germany, you could drop a pen at them! Nobody spoke, it was spectacular! Everybody dressed up for it, as well, which was unprompted.
CrypticRock.com – Audiences in Europe definitely have much more respect for the craft of music than some do here in the United States.
Ronan Harris – You have a Rock culture in the US, you don’t have an arts culture. The arts culture is the elite: that’s the people with money, the old families and stuff like that. That’s very, doing a disservice: there are a lot of people who do support, are heavily involved in the arts who are not from that background. It being intermingled with general culture, that’s not something that has really happened here; it’s either one or the other.
CrypticRock.com – On Resonance, the arrangements really serve to highlight your vocals, which are superb. With your heavy schedule of touring and traveling, how do you keep your voice in-shape?
Ronan Harris – Well, turning off the air-conditioner on the bus would be great! (Laughs) I mean, I’ll sing perfectly tonight: I’ll have a little spray and everything will sound wonderful – even if I sound husky now, it won’t affect the performance. Umm, I don’t… I sing a lot when I’m in the shower! I sing a lot when I’m workin’! That’s it! I do vocal exercises before I go off on tour, strengthen the vocal cords, all that stuff. I’m always singing! I don’t really do anything bizarre; I don’t have any crazy ritual where I run for twenty miles and gargle water, while I try to do “Do Re Me” while I’m gargling water. Nothing like that! I’ve seen other people do it, but I just… the knack for me with singing is when you feel it and it comes from a special place inside, it’s really strange: you sing perfectly. When you don’t have that, when I don’t have that, it just never really sounds right; it never comes out right. As long as I feel it, it’s all good. Live concerts are a perfect example: people are enjoying it, you’re connected to them, they’re right there. It really brings a whole other side of me out. It really inspires me so I sing better at a show.
CrypticRock.com – That segues beautifully into the next question, which is that you are on tour right now as we speak. For the Automatic Empire Tour here in the U.S., you are playing Automatic and Empires in their entirety, no?
Ronan Harris – Yeah!
CrypticRock.com – Excellent, and you have played many sold out shows thus far. From your perspective, how are these shows going so far, and how is the fan reaction?
Ronan Harris – It’s been intimate, it’s been overwhelming. We started off with Minneapolis, which was sold-out. People just stood there quietly – they were less demonstrative than previous concerts – and I asked why afterwards. A lot of people said it was an intense, emotional experience. A lot of these shows are under-plays; we’re playing in small venues specifically because that was the concept of this from the start. I really didn’t want to change that: I wanted this to be somehow different and to signify that and be more intimate and special by doing smaller clubs. The concerts have gone nothing but – not trying to blow my own trumpet here – but people have expressed a very different emotion about these concerts than they have in the past where it was like, ‘Oh! Amazing concert!’ On these, it’s almost like people are going through their lives. Songs that have meant the most to them, they seem to react that way. It’s much more about fans than a bigger concert where people go because they hear it’s a concert. So there’s a kind of concentration of this attention on the music, than people who are there for their own individual reasons.
Portland, for example – which sold out on the night – was a filler-concert, didn’t think it would do that well. Some people might think this sounds a bit lame, but it was like pure love! We have some other crew – people who haven’t worked with us before – that had never experienced this before; there’s just absolute, pure love. People are dancing, they’re singing, they’re totally into it, and they’re willing to be a part of the show. It’s not just stop, watch a band, stand there and stare at them: we don’t just do that! We’re not in a cage performing or something like that, or behind a glass door. It’s very much an interactive experience, it’s very infectious! We haven’t had one show yet where we said, ‘Eh, it was okay!’ Not one! So it’s been phenomenal and we’re only just getting started, really.
CrypticRock.com – Intimate shows are always so much better!
Ronan Harris – Oh, I’m loving it! I mean, I do shows in Germany where I play to 25,000 people, or a regular tour we play to 2,000 whatever people. These shows, we play to 250 people just for fun! Totally different dynamics, totally different chemistry, but just as enjoyable! You get more of a chance to interact and joke with the crowd at the small show.
CrypticRock.com – The energy is much different.
Ronan Harris – People brought their kids to the shows! Front row in Portland, there were three kids with their parents. I walk out, it’s like, ‘Okay! You guys are the centerpiece of my show tonight! I’m doing this show for you three! Everyone else will have fun, but you guys are the most important.’ There was one little girl there who really wants to be a singer. I said a lot of things to her – I didn’t know that – but I said a lot of things like you want to say to a younger person: like ‘You can do all of this, you just have to want to. That’s it! You can do every bit of it, whatever you set your mind to you can achieve it!’ I don’t mean all that kind of… giving everyone a medal just for showing up.
If you really want something, you’re doing it for yourself, you will put all of your effort into it. So, whatever your dreams are, they’re achievable. We’ve got people… tons of people age twenty, people age fifty at the show; we’ve got a whole gamut of age groups. It’s really interesting to see how they all respond. So yeah, it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
CrypticRock.com – That is wonderful and something that will hopefully continue. Now, with such an extensive and eclectic catalogue of material, is there any particular song that you are including on this tour that you especially love to perform?
Ronan Harris – Hmm. Oh boy! “Gratitude.” It’s going to be one of the songs off Automatic: that album has an incredibly special place in my heart. I would say, I love doing “Control” because I just go nuts onstage. Actually, no, the two would be “Resolution” or “Gratitude.” I’ll stick to those two!
CrypticRock.com – Do you have any funny tour stories so far?
Ronan Harris – (Laughs) Too many! I’m trying to think! My mind goes blank whenever somebody asks me that question. I’m trying to think funny tour stories. Oh god! I can’t think of one right now. I know my mind always goes blank when people ask that, yet we’ve been saying this the last couple of days… our crew is the best crew we’ve ever worked with: we’ve all known each other for years and it’s like a family.
We’re all so tightly knit that we all want to hang-out together, we all want to have barbeques on our days off, hang out and listen to music. It is like family! We got a delivery of merch at one of the shows, a ton of boxes showed up. I said, ‘Can anyone give me a hand?’ I had barely said that and everyone was like, ‘Okay, I’m in! What do I need to do?’ Everybody! Nobody stood back, nobody even waited to see, ‘Oh, I better do it because everyone else is doing it!’ No. There wasn’t any of that! Everyone’s helping out and everyone’s looking out for each other, and it really is like a family. This is the most stress-free tour I’ve ever had in my life.
CrypticRock.com – That’s great! That makes the tour so much more enjoyable.
Ronan Harris – I’m still trying to think funny tour stories… good god! Just lots of funny moments at shows, but nothing I can tell you that… I think we need to go down the road with the tour before I can start giving you some stories!
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) Hopefully nothing too bad is going to happen!
Ronan Harris – No, no! (Laughs) We just have a general good mood rather than having something completely crazy happen to us. Which is good! (Laughs) So, fingers crossed!
CrypticRock.com – After this tour, what is next for VNV Nation?
Ronan Harris – Let me see, I’m back… I’ve got a break between two legs of the tour, so I’m on holidays, which is great! I haven’t had a holiday in a long time. Then, let me see, after this I’m going back to the studio to continue working on the next album which is coming out next year. I’ve got some Classical stuff at the end of the year, some Spanish shows, Portuguese shows; not a huge schedule. So, a lot of studio work: I’ll be working through until summer next year on the album.
CrypticRock.com – Do you want to say anything about the next album or is it early days yet?
Ronan Harris – If I say it, it won’t make any sense. It’s weird, things change while you work on an album. I already have a lot of songs written for it. I think they’re incredibly strong but what I want to do is give them arrangements or give them productions that emphasize that or don’t negate that in any way. It’s definitely going to be very upbeat! I’m planning on adding a lot of percussive elements to the album but still very melodic and very intense.
I find myself writing songs alone in the studio when I was working on taxes! You know, the usual kind of thing, you’re shaving or you’re having a shower, making coffee, whatever, and these songs start popping into your head and you start singing. That’s how I write songs! They come at the moments where I least expect it: it’s like a part of my brain that’s switched off is going, ‘Hey! Song!’ So I write all these down and then I flesh them out. Some of them are haunting me, where the song lyrics are playing in my head over and over and I can’t do anything about it. That’s really all that’s planned: it’s just really motor on until we’ve got the album, I’ve got the album, done, put it out, ad wait for people to complain it doesn’t sound like something else. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) There will absolutely be people who will!
Ronan Harris – (Laughing) You know every single band, as soon as you have a new album, there’s always one person! (Laughs) I’ve had this with every album and I’ve been proving this to people since the start! There’s always, ‘This doesn’t sound like the last album!’ (Laughs) Well, I’m sorry! I’m sorry I didn’t deliver it to your door! Why don’t you open your mind, just listen to it, give it a chance. Then they usually come back a couple years later…I had one person come up to me and say… they wrote a really scathing comment where I actually believe that they didn’t even listen to the album because they made some comments that meant to me that they hadn’t actually heard the tracks properly. They came up and they gave me this whole, ‘Yep, I like it now!’
The way they presented this, I thought I’m supposed to thank them or something? (Laughs) I don’t know! Thank you, thank you for liking it! Now I can go to sleep! Seriously, you get it or you don’t! If you don’t, don’t cry about it, there’s a lot of bands who are making other music. It’s funny, people just close their minds because – I’m saying this in general because I don’t want to focus on this. The vast majority of our fans grow with us, they evolve. You know, some of them dive out for an album, then they come back and they’ve got two albums to catch-up on. They’re like, ‘Wow, okay!’ It’s incredible! It really seems to evolve with their life.
CrypticRock.com – That’s the way it should be! Unfortunately, nowadays, everyone wants to hate on something so badly that they have to have a bad opinion about something, anything.
Ronan Harris – Then you get recognition online! It’s all about being seen! Ugh! We’ve become such a culture of nihilism. Yet, it doesn’t exist in other countries. I think Amazon and Facebook comments, as soon as you ask for comments.
CrypticRock.com – The worst sometimes is on YouTube!
Ronan Harris – Oh god, there is not a single YouTube video I have found where there wasn’t somebody just writing complete shit just to troll.
CrypticRock.com – The best is when there are 2-million “likes” on a video, and then there’s that one person that had to hit “dislike.” Just to be the obnoxious one!
Ronan Harris – Yeah! Because they had to! A lot of their reasons for disliking it was because so many people liked it. Yes, psychology plays a very strong role in YouTube and a lot of people don’t recognize that – why people are motivated to say some of the things they do; why people are motivated to make up shit. They’re just writing something that they never felt, something is triggered inside them.
CrypticRock.com – They simply want attention.
Ronan Harris – Yeah, of course! Little babies! (Laughs) Smack ‘em and send ‘em to bed! (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – Last question. At CrypticRock.com, along with music we also cover films – especially Horror and Sci-Fi movies. Are you a fan of either of these genres?
Ronan Harris – I am! My girlfriend got me into Horror a lot more. I do not like splatter porn or basically gore movies. I just think it’s senseless and stupid. To me, it’s a form of pornography; it’s there to satisfy a need to see someone chopped up or whatever. I love Psychological Horror films! For some reason, I love Sinister (2012); absolutely adore the movie Sinister. I think the soundtrack was perfect! It was just a movie that got me, not everyone is gonna like it.
When it comes to Sci-Fi, oh well, pfft! (Laughs) Seriously, that’s my baby since I was a child. I’m a bit worried about the new, I’m not going to be cynical and I’ll reserve judgment, but I’m waiting to see what they’re going to do with the new Blade Runner 2049 movie. Blade Runner was an instrumental movie for me when it came out. That’s the movie I’m most interested in!
Going back to Horror, I love psychological films. I love The Stranger (2014), the fact that it was psychological and the pure terror. I love that it was so matter of fact and that soundtrack; and a lot of the accoutrements which kind of destroy a movie and make it seem like a movie. I love the way Horror movies were made in the ‘70s, they almost seem… you’re just witnessing people talk and go about their lives and then bad things are going to happen to them. I wish we did that more today! I think we’ve missed out on a lot of real psychology of Horror. There are those who do it, but then, of course, everything has to be a blockbuster and everything has to make money.
I guess, as far as the Classic Horror in the early 1930’s, I always go to The Black Cat (1934) with Boris Karloff. That’s, for me, one of the greatest Horror movies ever made. It’s the least attended of the Universal movies, it’s the one that gets the least attention. I think its genius has been copied so many times, but it’s not Frankenstein (1931) or Dracula (1931), which is the obvious, popular ones. Have you ever watched The Wolf Man? It’s really funny because, they’re standing by a tree – and it’s obviously a small studio and they’re discovering something – and then one of them goes, ‘Hey, over here in the tree, there’s a dead body!’ It’s like literally two feet from them! You kind of look at them and they’re naïve and humorous, but when I see Boris Karloff in The Black Cat, it’s an incredible film. He is the spookiest character! Wonderful, wonderful crafts person in his art.
For Sci-Fi, yeah, to this day, Blade Runner will always be it! I’m really curious what they do with the new film. If anything, I’m going to get two hours more of that universe. At the worst, I’ll get bored with Jared Leto and I’ll think, ‘Oh god, you did the Joker really bad! You had to do this? Okay, thanks!’ (Laughs) He’s like the albatross of movies; it’s like as soon as he appears, half the crowd goes, ‘Oh no!’ It’s like Nicholas Cage in a film!