VNV Nation on top of the world. Ronan Harris (standing), Mark Jackson (still).
Photo by: Dirk Eusterbrock/Raumgleiter
The story of VNV NATION
By: Johan Carlsson
Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson of VNV Nation have captured the hearts of many people in quite a short time. And they are now considered one of the brightest lights of the electronic scene. We have been planning to take a closer look at the band for years. When they visited Stockholm a while ago we finally sat down with Ronan Harris for a long talk. We soon discovered he had more to tell us than we could expect. VNV Nation is not your average band, that's for sure.
tell you a story
VNV Nation are sometimes considered some kind of newcomers. Then note, their first release, the a 12" "Body Pulse", was released twelve years ago, in 1990. And Ronan Harris started making music long before that.
Later 1990, another single named "Strength of Youth" followed, and the band relocated to Canada for a couple of years. Over there, they managed to get a supporting slot for Nitzer Ebb on the Canadian "Ebbhead Tour". After returning to Europe and settling down in London, they released the debut album "Advance + Follow" in 1995.
The second album, "Praise the Fallen", was delivered in 1998, and by that time, VNV Nation really started to get attention. They also toured together with Covenant. Their next effort "Empires" 1999 was almost universally hailed, and so was its companion EP "Burning Empires", where the band made its own alternate versions of the album tracks.
At the time of my interview, the band was on tour to support their new album "Futureperfect". I met with Ronan Harris, singer and main songwriter, in the afternoon of a beautiful day, just before Tinitus, a Swedish festival VNV Nation was headlining.
Photo by: Dirk Eusterbrock/Raumgleiter
upon a time...
We started off by going back in time, discussing Ronan's first memories of electronic music. Ronan is from Dublin, Ireland, which has influenced him in many ways. His musical journey began when he heard "Popcorn" by Hot Butter at the age of four. When he grew up, the Irish radio actually played music by bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. "Autobahn" was in the charts, and he liked the animated video that was made for it.
- I loved the sound; it was sounds out of imagination. I loved science fiction, and these were the sounds I associated with that, so synth music became my main thing, even though I didn't know what it was. I just identified with the sound, Ronan recalls
- In the late seventies I was into stuff like early Human League, and then in 1981 Depeche Mode came along and changed everything. I was also into DAF, and I was a huge Joy Division fan. They have a timeless cold emotional quality that nobody else has captured since, in songs like "Atmosphere" and "New Dawn Fades", and even "Transmission". It's just bleakness. They had that whole northern feel to them, and they broke the mould.
A largely unknown Scottish band called Blue Nile, also had a big influence on Ronan. According to him, they made soulful melancholic pop using a very limited amount of electronic equipment.
- It's pure soul with weird electronic sounds, and the guy almost cries when he does his vocals. He sings about being very miserable, but in a soulful way. It really sounds like he's had a shit day. I loved it. It contains almost pure emotion, and that element has crept into our music.
There is a song on the "Genesis" single called "Weltfunk" that Ronan says is a tribute to the era of electronic music pioneers. Some fans have said that they are brought back instantly to that time of electronic optimism, when hearing that song. In those days, some people thought the future would be fantastic, thanks to all the new technology. Since this has not quite happened yet according to Ronan, they gave their new album the ironic title "Futureperfect".
Photo by: Dirk Eusterbrock/Raumgleiter
means of production
Ronan Harris started making music in different bands around 1981, but did not get anywhere. He wanted to broaden his horizons, so his move to London in 1987 was an effort to change things. He also wanted a job to pay for his music equipment.
- In the beginning, I called the project Nation and wanted to make a kind of alternative soundtrack for the movie "1984" but ended up doing EBM versions of the tracks, with orchestral elements. This is something that shows up on the first album - and even now.
He moved to Toronto, Canada at the end of 1990.
- That was a big change, and I felt that the name Nation could give the wrong signals, especially in the EBM scene. So it became VNV Nation. Victory Not Vengeance is a motto; meaning you should always try to achieve your goals, don't hate other people for doing things, if you didn't.
By this time, second member, Mark Jackson joined in, also as live drummer. They made a few gigs together before playing their first venue in London in 1996. Ronan still writes most of the music today, but he does it with Mark in mind. Mark knows what it should sound like, and gives his opinions on Ronan's material. He is the person to bounce ideas on, to balance things out. Even if they nowadays live far apart, with Ronan in Hamburg and Mark currently residing in southern France, they still have tight contact during the production.
- I have a studio in a Hamburg office. The studio is actually very small. For "Futureperfect" we decided to use just the computer. This entire album has been done with software synthesizers and computer samplers. We send samples to each other, and it works that way.
Ronan feels that "Futureperfect" it is a more varied experience than the last album.
- We've gone into deeper, emotional stuff. There is a lot of diversity on the album in terms of emotion. "Empires" was kind of a sing-a-long album in a way. This album sees a big leap in the song writing and production skills. The depth and atmosphere on the album has grown massively. Some tracks are ballads, some tracks are heavy EBM songs, some are dance songs, but it still has that connecting feeling we always have in our music, and I'm very happy about that.
Photo by: Alex Veronac (Release)
The single "Genesis" shows elements of trance, and some people have expressed their disliking of VNV Nation's development in that direction. Ronan explains that there were always meant to be two versions of the track on the released single, the original version and the "C92" version, which shows a harder sound.
- We like a lot of trance, and we like EBM. So we're just putting those together, making a very modern sound. I don't see what's wrong with progressing and modernising EBM a bit, bringing in elements from other styles. There are a lot of purists who don't like what we're doing. And I don't really like purists, to be honest. I think music has changed since Vomito Negro and A Split Second from the late eighties. If we all just sounded like that, it would be a boring world. We're into making music and the whole point is to be new and different. We like bands like Underworld, Massive Attack and Leftfield as well, and we like Thomas P Heckmann. He is considered the hottest DJ in Germany and is doing raw EBM. His remix of "Genesis" is about 10% as good as his own material. His own stuff blows me away. He's done a mix of "Join in the Chant" by Nitzer Ebb. Douglas McCarthy sang vocals on it, because he's so amazed of what he's done. The EBM scene is still very traditional for many people here, but I'm sure many would really like what he does.
of the same coin
The EP "Burning Empires" was a great success, and doing alternate versions of songs is something that Ronan likes a lot. He is considering doing a similar thing with the new album.
- There's a lot of scope for remixes, and we came up with alternate melodies. When you write a song, you come up with different melodies and some of them fit, some of them don't. We end up with main sequences, but we have other ones as well. We have variations, which gives the track more strength and power, like "Kingdom" on "Burning Empires". I'd like to do that again.
- We're going to release a new single called "Beloved" and after that, we may put out a third one, depending on how well that one goes. We have to move upward.
With all the attention VNV Nation gets at the moment, the members are slowly becoming celebrities. Ronan has mixed feelings about being famous and successful. He excitedly tells a worrying story.
- I remember doing an interview with an American reporter, who had so much personal information about me, which I was really unhappy about. He proposed that everything I did in music, and everything I said, was a direct result of certain events in my life. It's scary when someone you don't know knows that much about you.
- I do enjoy it though, there's a great pleasure in making music, and getting on stage. When you enjoy what you do, that's the main thing. It's like being accepted every day. A kind of self-affirmation, if you will. Not an ego-trip though, because we're not like that. After "Empires", we can do what we want. We have many talks about in which direction we want to take the music, what kind of sound, which influences, what sort of band we should be. We just make music that we like.
Ronan is worried about being pushed down the commercial lane. He thinks that a lot of fans will leave if they get too big. He considers VNV Nation a people's band, and stresses that he is not in it just to sell records or make money.
- It's a question of how you want to be seen. I don't want to be in a major label band. We get offers from major labels all the time, and we've been offered huge amounts of money, ridiculous amounts of money, but we can succeed without all that, we've progressed in our own way. We like to stay on our level, and keep our die-hard fan group. It's an important thing for me. I'm happy with where it is now, because this is where it's meaningful. If I sold a million copies, I would have lost the meaning.
Photo by: Dirk Eusterbrock/Raumgleiter
At the time of the interview, the band was out on the European leg of their tour, and has come directly from Copenhagen. During the set, they play both hits from the previous three albums as well as new songs from the coming album. The tour has been immensely successful so far.
- Unbelievable. I never expected that it would happen like this. You know, playing, and all these people coming to see you. That's quite a feeling. Mark and I are very humble in a lot of ways, and get very embarrassed when we get flattered. I feel embarrassed sometimes, but also honoured.
The first town VNV Nation played on the tour was Bremen.
- It was a very reserved crowd. They're not very into going to gigs, and we thought we would get about 200-300 people. So when a bit over 850 people showed up, we were very surprised. The gig was awesome; everyone was into having a fun time. The next day we played in Magdeburg, over 900 people showed up, and we thought, what's going on? We love it when the crowd just gets going, and is really into having fun, and everybody has this good feeling of togetherness and sings along. We like our live show, and we have worked very hard on it.
Ronan has nothing but praise to give the Scandinavian scene. He says that in Germany, there are professionals that just book bands because they are on tour for the moment, but in Scandinavia, most people book bands out of love for the music.
- They bring the band, and they are the ones who are taking the risk. I really respect people that do that. I like the Scandinavian crowds too, they're cool. We have people from Iceland coming to our shows, which just amazes me. The whole scene here is totally different from Germany, totally different from anywhere else, and I guess Sweden is the centre of it.
to Heaven" of synth music
Ronan recalls the music scene in Toronto during the nineties, and compares it to that of today. I thought people here in Sweden were nostalgic, but according to him, it was even worse in Canada.
- They were only interested in the golden oldies, and I got tired of that. You know, there were Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly over and over again. And "Headhunter"! That song is the "Stairway to Heaven" of synth music. The scene has changed now though. It's less restricted.
It's a bit like that in America as well, and we got a lot of die-hard fans there, but also those who listen to a band just because everyone else does, and I really get tired of that.
After the European part of the tour, VNV Nation will continue to the States. However, Ronan is not worried, in spite of the current situation there.
- We won't cancel like many other bands have. We're only taking one international flight, with guards on it, so there won't be a big risk. The thing is, the mood in America is very very low, and we feel like we could actually do something. We get much e-mail from people saying that our songs meant something to them. I think this tour will let people have a chance to celebrate. They are looking for something to get together about, and I feel it would really be a shame if we couldn't do that. We are playing in New York on Thanksgiving, which is going to be a very important holiday this year in America, so we'll see if anyone shows up. I'm told the venue is sold out though.
Ronan was the one to coin the expression "future pop". He once mentioned it to Stephan Groth of Apoptygma Berzerk, and the term has been widely spread since then. This newly founded genre seems destined to get wider attention, with its catchy melodies on top of hard dance rhythms. There are even compilations labelled as future pop, which do not have that much in common with the original meaning, says Ronan. He elaborates:
- The "original" three future pop bands: us, Apoptygma Berzerk and Covenant have come very close to mainstream recognition. I suggested the term because I thought we needed to call this music something else than EBM. The media don't care one bit about you if you are from the EBM or goth genre. There's a lot of prejudice about our music. Anyway, we bring a lot of contemporary elements into our music, and do not sound like the stereotypical clichéd EBM band. It's pop, but in a futuristic way, hence future pop. But as with every term, there's always people who'll jump all over it.
The interview is close to its end, but we continue to chat about different topics like S.P.O.C.K and humour in music, moving on through why Danish people talk like they have porridge in their mouth, all the way to Irish vocabulary. All in all, it was a very nice meeting with one genuinely nice guy, who later that evening walks out in front of over a thousand tired fans and sets them on fire during one of the best concerts I've seen, with both Ronan and Mark getting really into it, and interacting with the audience. The next single "Beloved" was played last, and is a very soulful and emotional number, building up to a torrent with driving rhythms. Thus, VNV Nation does what they do better than most.
In spite of the recent success, Ronan confessed he was a bit worried about being the last to play at an occasion like this. Would people still have energy after partying for seven hours? He did not need to worry as they got the best response of the whole night.