Alternative Electronic giants VNV Nation hit the stage at the Regency Ballroom October 9th, 2016 to celebrate the band’s 20 year anniversary. At this show, this Hamburg, Germany-based duo will play for three straight hours, with no opener, and a meet and greet for fans who have helped them achieve twenty years of success. SF Sonic sat down with the creative force behind VNV Nation, Ronan Harris, ahead of the show, to ask him about the upcoming tour, future plans for the band and some other fun stuff. Harris is known for giving great interviews, and he did not disappoint.
Sonic: How special is it for you to bring these compendium shows to the US?
Ronan Harris: It’s more than special. it is an honor, in fact. When I think about our long history and connection with North America, how it’s been such a large part of where people listened to and became so passionate about our music, and how supportive of us people here have been in championing VNV Nation and sharing it with people they know, I feel more than a little excited knowing that we have the chance to put on these wonderful shows for our fans here. Our music is very personal and that experience isn’t lessened by a concert with a large number of people. It’s a union of all of us. It’s cathartic, invigorating, uplifting and affirming. We’ve been playing in the US since ’99 and the experience gets better for us each time. The US fans form an integral part of how VNV has evolved as a live act so they should share in the celebration of these 20 years since our first album was released.
SF Sonic: The music industry seems to be in a period of long decline, in terms of sales, financial returns, etc. How have you adapted over time to this new reality?
Harris: It is true that things are in a steady decline but every case is different, as far as artists and scenes are concerned. Popular music isn’t going to stop existing but the structure of the industry that existed to create and sell popular music, that independent artists got to ride along with and benefit from, is in rapid change and being dismantled. For us, we’ve built up a very personal connection with the people who love our music. I even manage our Facebook page, despite it having over a quarter of a million likes. I take the time and I make the effort to engage with people who engage with us and appreciate what VNV is as having a deeper significance than “nice tunes,” This connection is a bond of sorts and people feel somewhat closer to us. It’s not an impersonal connection and it’s not manufactured. I never wanted to lose that connection, one I’ve enjoyed since the early days. We’re family in a way. We’re lucky in that the fans are very loyal and true to VNV. These are people who know the meaning of buying an artist’s products as continued support and investment in that artist. It keeps VNV going and creating. I manage our label, manage the band and there isn’t anyone in the middle. It enables us to handle the current situation in the right way and be able to embark on much more adventurous and creative projects, like the Resonance album, without a money man telling me no because they can’t see an immediate $ sign next to it.
SF Sonic: How did the plan come together to have Stephan Groth (of Apoptygma Berzerk) join you on these US dates?
Harris: I wanted the show to include one of the remixes I’d done in those twenty years of work that’s being covered. Stephan is a good friend of mine and it seemed like a no brainer to ask him to be a part. He’s a wonderful guy and the song we performed together in Europe made a huge impact every night. It seemed wrong not to try to continue that here. I think it’s going to be a high point for so many people. We’re not afraid to say that there’s a joking kind of bromance going on. It’s brilliant, after all these years, to know that someone who was making great music back then is still doing that, and still having fun, just like me.
SF Sonic: Speaking of Stephan Groth — legend has it that the two of you coined the term “futurepop” to describe your music. Is this true? What’s the story? This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask, as you can’t always believe what you read on the internet.
Harris: It is a legend. It might even include tell of an old tower on a distant plain that is guarded by dragons, but it doesn’t. The truth is, I felt that the music I was making was very different from other sounds I was hearing in the world of so-called dark electronic. I thought so much of it sounded so uninspired, dated and plagiaristic. I was living in London and the rich music culture around me was having a huge impact on what i was writing. It drew on so many influences. We were signed in Germany where radio wouldn’t have played our songs had we been associated with millstone-necked genre names that we didn’t feel we were connected with either. I felt Stephan and I had somehow headed in a similar direction but there wasn’t a name for our sound and maybe we could come up with one, and trick radio into playing our bands if they thought it was some cool new trend. We discussed it. I suggested Futurepop, he liked it and radio played us both. It was our 80s underground influences, with alternative and indie from the ’80s and ’90s mixed with contemporary underground electronica and new styles of underground dance culture in the late ’90s. The next month, bands who hadn’t changed a thing in their sound were using the term to describe their music, thinking it meant anything that sounded remotely like one of the songs on either a VNV or APB album and with that the term was already redundant. We’ve been saying “Alternative Electronic” since then. It’s better this way.
SF Sonic: The compendium shows are meant to celebrate 20 years of VNV Nation. Did you ever think the band would make it this far?
Harris: I didn’t expect to make an album past Praise the Fallen, in 1997. That was made as a personal project, for my own reasons, and was never meant for release. Friends convinced me to release it and a few years later I started to write Empires. I recorded that thinking no one would like it. I’m like that with most albums. I make them for myself mainly, and share them with others, hoping some will like them. Maybe that’s my secret.
SF Sonic: You’re not touring with any bands this time, but who have been your favorite bands to tour with in the past?
Harris: Difficult question to answer. The last tour with Whiteqube was awesome. We loved the sounds and the vibe. Plus he’s mostly a one-man project so the bus was nice and empty, *laugh*, System Syn and Ayria were great too. Lovely people. A joy to be on tour with. For me, the merit of a band we tour with is twofold – we want it to be added value for the audience and we want it to be a fun happy Partridge Family type band of minstrels on the road. When you’re sticking fireworks into a four foot tall raggedy doll in a parking lot in Cheyenne, Wyoming on Independence Day, while someone is making cocktails and blasting swing music, and said doll is tied to the bus and blowing up, everyone’s laughing and no one is curled up in a ball in the back of the bus crying, you know you’re on the right tour and you’re with the right band. You think I’m kidding…
SF Sonic: What is the songwriting process like for VNV Nation?
Harris: I write most of the songs in my head. They pop in there while I m doing something other than music. It’s like a flash of a complete song. This isn’t a joke. It’s like an ear worm a lot of the time. Some songs plague me and are repeating over and over in my head. I write down notes or record me humming and describing the song on my phone and then go into the studio to make a melody demo which I flesh out later. Sometimes I’ll write song when jamming in the studio alone on the piano, and sometimes I’ll be experimenting with sounds on a synthesizer and something clicks that inspires a song. Nova was like that. The main part of the process is that it feels a certain way to me. It’s not just notes and words. There’s a reaction going on inside me. It’s hard to describe. I just know it’s right.
SF Sonic: The last few years have brought a fantastic album (Transnational) as well as a beautiful experiment in orchestral arrangements of VNV Nation songs (Resonance: Music For Orchestra Vol. 1) After this current tour is finished, what’s next for VNV Nation?
Harris: I have to start by saying that I’m really honored and flattered by your comments about the last two albums. I honestly loved both. New albums aren’t easy for those who want a band to always be the band they were 10-15 years ago. Transnational won a lot of new fans but took time for some of the older fans to embrace. That wasn’t a bad thing because their appreciation for it took time to earn and the meaning of the album, which wasn’t so instantly apparent, dawned on them gradually. I’ve met people who expressed instant dislike for it, when it came out, who regret it entirely, having realised the depth of what it was saying. It wasnt meant to be “sunshine day I like puppies” pop. Making Teleconnect Pt. 2 and then making Resonance were two of the high points of my music making career and I will be forever thankful for being able to do both. What follows now is that I am writing a lot of new VNV material. Some of it is some of the strongest songwriting I’ve done and I’m taking my time before I decide which direction to take the sound for each. It’s hard to describe that part of the process but, like I said earlier, when it feels right, I’ll know. I have some side projects to work on as well, and some orchestral work is still on the cards.
SF Sonic:My sincere thanks for the interview.
Photo of VNV Nation by Raymond Ahner.