VNV Nation is no stranger to the underground scene, having dominated it entirely with classic albums such as Empires and Futureperfect. Their self-coined genre futurepop completely revolutionized goth clubs and spawned a whole new generation of clubgoers and inspiration for dark dance music, incorporating the sounds of huge, swelling, euphoric trance with the aggressive dirge of industrial music and the sickly sweet spells of 80s synthpop. Several albums later, the band has become internationally renowned and popular across more spectrums of the alternative than ever before.
2013 and 2014 have seen the tour in support of their latest album Transnational, an album that VNV mastermind Ronan Harris sees as a counterpart to 2011’s Automatic, as well as a very personal journey. The show stopped by Phoenix just a week ago at the Crescent Ballroom, with a horde of fans singing along, dancing, screaming, and yelling for encore after encore. Classic songs like “Legion” and “Solitary” were welcomed with cheers, and newer songs “Retaliate” and “Primary” proved to be equally engrossing for the fans.
With two synth players, a drum kit, and an ensemble of background visuals and lights that stretched the entire venue, the electronic music act was expanded to an escapade far beyond that of any other bands in the scene. Opening act Whiteqube forgot to take his equipment on stage, Synth player Gabriel was the butt of many jokes, and Ronan auctioned Gabe off for a whopping two dollars. If there was any doubt left as to whether it was a successful show, Ronan remarked at the end that every single show in Phoenix has been fantastic.
Ronan was kind enough to take some time out of his day to answer some of our questions over the phone. Read on for the full interview.
– Zander Buel
1. How is the tour going?
We’re in San Francisco at the moment. It’s very warm. We just did 3 incredible sold-out shows, including Phoenix. Last night was very emotional. It was a rarity show in a small club outside of LA. We played songs we haven’t played in years. We were all very nervous. It was a weird club to be playing in. It’s a club we would have played in 1999 or 2000– Complex run by Das Bunker. The place was absolutely jammed with 250 people in this small club. We had a blast, but we were exhausted. It was incredible to hear people singing songs we haven’t played in years. They could only buy it if they bought a VIP for regular LA show, so they got an extra show. This was really the die-hards and people singing songs. I couldn’t believe it. It was very emotional. When you get that sense, “Don’t screw up,” You will screw up, haha. “What’s the next line? I have no idea.” They know every lyric. If I screw up, They will know.
It was incredibly intimate. We did the mingle thing afterwards. I signed autographs until 3 a.m. We all whispered stories. It was fantastic! Quite a few artists on the guest list. I met the singer of Fear Factory. That blew me away! I almost killed someone on the dance floor before to them. We just hang out. We have fun. We like people. I never put barriers up unless I feel like people are being intrusive. We aren’t special. I cant stress that enough. We do our own thing and they love us, and that’s why I think it’s funny interacting at shows where you don’t know anybody. But something connects you. You’re all laughing and joking. That’s how I like the vibe of a VNV show to be.
The Phoenix show theme was revolved around joking with Gabriel. “I love you, Gabe!” He rushed up to the stage for the encore and we left him standing there by himself for awhile. We were roaring laughing. I will always remember that.
We always have witty banter going on on the bus. Some of the guys are very, very sharp. It can be some of the most educational experiences, just with some of the things people say to each other.
Last night everybody was doing a waltz. It got really out of hand and weird. It was like a David Cronenberg film.
2. How did the decision to release your music under your own label come about?
The reason we left the record label in 2002 is that there was a very serious schism. We were being forced to do things we didn’t want to do. Most bands have one person writing the music. When you’re not a solo artist, you write things different.
I felt like I was standing on a mountain and screaming in ultimate defiance. I felt so incredibly vindicated. I had to go through a lot of things I wasn’t ready for.
I gave up smoking. I haven’t smoked in a year! It changed my perspective on so many things. I had a very painful June. I developed pleurisy. It felt like cotton wool. I was on stage doing a show and it caused me to have cramping in the lungs. I do this long note in “Homeward”–I love singing it. It feels natural. I’m not just showing off. It makes me feel good. That’s why I do music–and I collapsed on stage! I felt a massive pain in my chest. Most people were about the drama, coming over to check if I had a heart attack. And I’m lying on the side going, get the fuck away from me, it’s just a lung cramp. I just wanted to get on with the show with chest pains. I did not want this to stop me. I went out and completed the show.
3. Your newest album, Transnational, seems like a far cry from the themes on albums like Praise the Fallen and Empires. How do you view this album in the grand scheme of VNV’s progression over the years?
I see it in the same vein as Automatic. I wanted to do a follow-up. I didn’t want to do anything unrelated. It was similar to how Futureperfect was a follow-up to Empires. I was having fun and wanted to continue it. Automatic was special to me, and Transnational became even more special. I see the future as quoted by Shakespeare and then somehow paraphrased by Star Trek. When I came up with the title of the album, I thought there was an opportunity to interpret things in another way. There are a ton of references to past albums–sounds, motifs, sequences alluding to the sequences on other albums. It was really amusing for myself. There are tons of details no one would ever notice.
It was music for myself. I’m not a pizza service. I don’t deliver albums per order. I wanted to write an album to tip the hat to people who came from the early days but make it fresh and new.
It’s inspired by contemporary electronic music, from the first track, “Generator,” to the last track, “Teleconnect Part 2.” It falls into my personal flavor of organic music. I threw in my personal tastes, as I always do. I had a beautiful experience making it. Staying the same is not my thing. I was always doing my own brand of electronic music and creating what I react to and respond to.
People were getting annoyed and being vocal about the change, but it was a small number of people in the end. There were overwhelming comments from people of all ages, feeling it was incredibly relevant to their times.
I am my own worst critic of my music. I can’t see it from their perspectives. I write my experience, life, living, and philosophies on being human. There’s a heavy spiritual side to me. When it resonates with other people, there is no greater compliment. The album was more successful than Automatic.
Everything we do, we do ourselves. I record my own music. I write it. I produce. I do the management and label. I do the website. I’ve been doing this since day 1. I felt this album was an incredible amount of progress and a lot of adventure.
I’ve never been able to do an 8 1/2-minute ambient epic (“Teleconnect Pt. 2”). It was the most emotional song I’ve ever done since “Forsaken.” I’ve never felt like that.
4. Do you see Transnational‘s lyrical concepts as looking inward or outward? What was the thought process when writing the record?
I am using this as as communication. I am not singing to myself. I am communicating a feeling, pictures, emotions, the human experience. The person receiving it could have entirely different circumstances. And it’s worked. I never anticipated people would understand. I never thought it would work as well as it does. I am not self-absorbed. But if I weren’t a musician, I’d be expressing it somehow. I’m sharing my human experience, no lyric that was purely written for myself.
On this tour I’ve heard a lot of stories from fans how this music has helped them. I’ve heard heavy situations–horrific stories, more so than I’ve ever heard. One guy I was talking to at the Dallas show mentioned “Teleconnect Pt. 2,” so I told him, “Go home, put on some headphones, and listen to that track. Let it take you.” That’s how it should take you. When I recorded it it, I belt it out. I sung it and surprised myself. I was standing up on a mountain screaming a storm. It changed my perspective on so many things.
I had all these weird people coming out saying, “Automatic was so successful. Do you feel any pressure.” I told them the phone calls are the pressure! Automatic had anthems on it. I wanted this album to be more personal and less bombastic and demonstrative. It is more introspective in many ways. It deals with personal things I would not share with my friends or anybody else. “Teleconnect Pt. 1” was my homage to the futurist era. I was inspired by so many albums from the birth of electronic music. On that song I was singing about imagining escaping my humdrum, boring, horrible world around me when I was 12 or 13. I imagined all these cool neon-lit futures that were being fed to me through music from these bands. I started to, I guess, go through a sort of psychological self-analysis. That just happened. So much of what I do isn’t planned, which is the best part of it.
5. What are some of your favorite current acts? Is there anyone recently who has particularly inspired you?
I would say it’s more tracks now, not bands. An album isn’t what it used to be. People have become used to the fact that the world is made of tracks on playlists. They don’t care too much about an album anymore. As for people who inspire me, I’m obsessed with post-classical, post-rock, post-ambient. It takes me to a place I don’t have words for. It’s music that makes me miss places I’ve never visited. I like a number of Icelandic artists such Olafur Arnalds and Johan Johannsson from 4AD.
My absolute favorite artist is The Tumbled Sea, who released albums on this label in California called Future Recordings. It’s this very organic ambient music. It’s beautiful. I listen to it before I go to sleep every night. It makes me dream while I am awake. It gives me the ability to regenerate.
If you want a band that will overwhelm you, that’s Legend. I brought Legend with me on tour in Europe and I was absolutely overwhelmed. I was actually talking to the band, explaining how their song “Violence” reminds me of Mozart’s Requiem. It starts off with a motif, but it never stops. It keeps evolving and elevating. When you reach the pinnacle, it gets more and more intense. It overwhelms me in emotional ways. That’s how I felt because the chorus just keeps evolving like emotional waves. The hair on my arms stood up Krummi sing live for the first time. He sounded exactly like on the record.
I’d put my own money into having them come on the road with us. I want everybody to hear them. I would have liked to have had them on this tour, but it would have been a really cramped bus. The worst thing about it is you get on people’s nerves when you share a tour bus for more than 4 weeks. People start to get in each others’ faces about different things like luggage. The first thing on my mind is, we have to remain comfortable on tour.
6. You kickstarted a whole new generation of club goers with your own definition of your music, futurepop. From a pioneering and performing sort of view, how have you observed the goth and underground scene change over the years?
I would say certain elements got stuck in that period. They wouldn’t welcome new things. In other aspects, it introduced Covenant and Icon of Coil, who had a big influence on us. It was music based on electronic rhythm. We found that when introducing that, it spawned a whole new era of the scene. The goth scene had danceable music, but nothing influenced by real dance music.
I am very tired of the “guy with a laptop” band. I am really irritated by it sometimes. There are a ton of bands who sound like each other. There is an incredible amount of repetition and very little diversity. There is an incredible amount of diverse artists not getting recognition because of this. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the IQ of people celebrating these songs with samples of swear words over and over, who spill blood all over themselves. Is that cool? Maybe if you were 10 years old, but we’re adults. Musically it sounds like a repetition of cookie monster vocals. I went to a club where a DJ wasn’t playing anything other than that. I couldn’t tell the bands apart. There is no difference. There is no variation in this. They all sound the bloody same. I get tired of the monotony and mediocrity. There are too many amazing artists writing very innovative music.
People invented the term “oontz” for anything that sounded like bad techno. It’s horrible. That’s unfortunate for me. Put a show on! Standing on stage with a laptop, you can do that at an airport. It doesn’t have to be all swears words and songs about serial killers. Give me some visuals. Give me something else. It’s been done 15,000 times. Next!
7. Is it an epidemic for electronic music at large?
It’s not even electronic music. It’s every genre. It’s an easy to listen to formula, like the loudness wars that have been going on for quite some time. Everyone’s trying to outdo each other and people are becoming drones. But if you study history, it shows that after periods of time it burns itself out. Things become boring, and then there’s a huge reaction against it, which inspires creativity. This huge music scene of Swedish House Mafia and the like is just frat boy twerking music.
I like dance music, but this formula is dumbing down music so much. It becomes a formula repeated over and over. Deadmau5 put sounds together like nobody ever has, and if people don’t get that, that’s fine. I’ve never heard anybody mix music and create interesting dance music as perfectly as him. My friend said, this is so bloody brilliant, what do you follow this up with? How do you outdo this? Everybody wants to do the same thing everybody else is doing. It’s not limited to our genre. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. Every record company wants to make money. It’s dog-eat-dog and cutthroat, and they have to keep selling. They want to talk about how amazing they are, going off on ego trips. Jumping on a formula means they are going to crash when nobody can take anymore. It’s what happened to disco: Someone came up with a nice idea, and there was a revolution. It was incredible until the big record companies jumped on it. It got really bad and continued on into the early 80s. It’s the same thing that’s happening now. It’s scary watching it repeat.
8. Are there any trends you personally would like to see?
There is just a lack of originality and someone gave that a platform. I strongly believe there are people who are trying to write interesting music. I’ve seen artists going in different directions to gain fans, but you can’t compete in the same arena. People are going out in search of new music. That only means that something new will evolve from this. It will force us to become innovative.
Gothic music wasn’t the same thing back in the 80s. They were writing beautiful soundscapes and also writing something interesting and saying something interesting. None of these bands fit under goth, per se, but they were disparate bands with different sounds somehow connected by the fact that they were dark and alternative. Bauhaus and B52s would be played at the same party, and then Misfits. There was just this weird appreciation for noncommercial music. I do see that returning and cross-pollinating to create new ideas.
It’s doing away with those epic, slow-motion scenes in talent shows, like oh my God, people going to the next level, so incredible, so wonderful. It’s orchestrating your emotions for you. Just in case you’re at home and you’re a sociopath, this is how you feel, by the way. It’s generic garbage. Some people are avoiding these epic scenes and writing really great music instead. The more pop music becomes mind-numbing, the more people in the underground write innovative music.
9. What does the future of VNV Nation look like?
We are going to be wearing clown outfits on our next album. Haha. No! The next thing I’m working on is another classical album. That’s in progress at the moment because I did this classical concert and the recording didn’t work out because of the incompetent company that was hired. But that forced me to pursue getting new arrangements, which I had to fight for. Then I added additional arrangements that I wrote for myself. I hope to have the orchestra in Poland, where they are from, and take it from there.
I have a lot of music I want to write for VNV. I just moved into a new studio. I had to move out of my old one that I was in for five years due to structural problems in the building. I’ve got an incredible new studio with new inspiration and two pro studios in the place. It’s a very accomplished place with a very wonderful vibe. It’s going to lead to good things.
I was on cloud nine when playing with the orchestra. It was overwhelming. The worst was when it was over. I felt that anything less than this orchestra wouldn’t be as good. I found my love for making music again with that orchestra. I really want to continue doing that. I have more VNV stuff, too. Don’t worry, there’s plenty.