VNV Nation – Ronan Harris

Interview by Mark Bayross

PRAISE THE FALLEN by VNV Nation was one of my albums of 1998, with its exciting blend of beats, lush orchestral dynamics and poetic, almost hymnal lyrics. The sheer variety and quality of the music is stunning and I have not stopped playing it since I bought it. After a triumphant performance in support of Mesh at the Camden Underworld (see my concert review elsewhere on PHASE9), I was lucky enough to talk to mainman Ronan Harris backstage:

First let me start by congratulating you on a great show…

Thanks. It outlines to me that the scene here is growing but the facilities are very inferior. If bands are going to play here, if you are going to attract bands here, then you have got to have bands going back to other countries and saying “It’s great” because you’ll get what you ask for, you’ll get paid…I mean, I got paid, ok fine…but the facilities are lacking. Bands have to feel comfortable on stage and have got to get used to playing Germany, Belgium and Holland and places like that.

Do you live in Germany?

No, I live in London. Actually, I live half in Germany and half here. I live half of my time near Hanover.

Is that right?

Yes, According to Lufthansa I do.

Do you ever get depressed at the state of the music scene in this country?

I used to. If I want to go to a place that plays music I find that there’s enough going on in Germany when I’m there. I don’t really want to go to clubs playing this kind of music, to be honest, I mean Slimelight’s great because they play a nice cross-section of music, but I like to listen to a lot of different types of music. It depresses me that there isn’t the confidence among people here who run clubs. My experience with the guy who ran Pure Industrial is that he would always get the same thing written down on request lists, he was always getting people asking for records from pre-’92. And that’s my problem – people here don’t want to hear something new, they don’t have the culture for it, they don’t have the magazines for it. They don’t have radio for it really in Germany, Belgium or Holland, but they have the magazines. They have the culture where people know about it, they have the distribution – they can buy our CD in any record shop in Germany. You can buy it here in Virgin and HMV. It seems that in the last year it has changed so much – the goth and industrial scenes were very polarised before and now more goths listen to darkwave. A lot of the goth bands have stopped expressing how they feel and they’re turning to synth-pop and to more darkwave bands, bands like :Wumpscut: and Suicide Commando – they have brought the two together so you’ve got this nice regeneration. Goths at least want to hear something odd or something new. It’s nice that at Slimelight they play like…the latest Wolfsheim track which I love. They are actually playing something new, so it’s changing…at least I’m optimistic.

You seem to know Rudy from :Wumpscut: pretty well – what’s he like

He’s a very, very sweet guy, very down-to-earth. He’s got very strong opinions and he expresses his own philosophy, just like I do, really, about the world. But he is a lovely, very hospitable guy. He doesn’t make many public appearances at all and most people when they meet him are like, “you’re Rudy?” He’s quite a large guy, not that that makes any difference. He wants to kind of shy away from people and I like that because he can maintain who he is and I think that after Bunkertor [seminal :Wumpscut: album] he had this plethora of people jumping on him and he hated it, so now he has realised how to handle it. He’s a very clever guy, a very clever businessman as well, which is a nice way to survive.

What’s your business acumen like? I understand you have started up a new record label, Dependent.

No, not quite. There’s four bands and it’s a co-operative with Stefan Herwig who was the A&R guy at Off-Beat. It’s an approach to the market, rather than a total new business idea. You have lots of labels with about 40 bands and they’re pumping out releases every month. At Off-Beat you had like a month to promote a new release – it’s not effective and you get a saturation of the market and it happens in all spheres of the business. So this is like a way for us to concentrate our promotion on four bands, spend three months or whatever promoting a new release, involve things like graphic design properly, and cater for the specific needs of ostensibly the four best-selling artists. We’ve heard some things in the press in the States and in Britain about being similar and I think they’ve made the association because we’ve played with them. I think our music is very different, we appeal to very different crowds. They see our stuff as kind of serious and [puts on hammy spooky voice] “verily I say unto thee”, that kind of thing. It was a business idea that we feel will work in the market in that it will allow us to take our talents and our resources and our money and channel them in the right direction. And we run it like a proper business, so we look at however much is spent on overhead, what percentage of income is spent on overhead, investment capital, that we are leasing things, our outsourcing is done properly. We are actually applying a lot of good business rules.

Why did Off-Beat collapse?

I’m not going to go into this in too much detail as it’s not really any of my business, but there’s a guy who operates NovaTekk, Euromedia and Off-Beat. He was basically not really paying on time, devoting his resources to the three one at a time, and for example, Front 242 weren’t paid for a remix for something like two months and it’s not the fault of the label, they were like “we’d give you the money if we had it”. There was an inability to make decisions and Stefan just got pissed off with it…and Stefan made the label. If he had not been there the label would not exist, so when he left, the label kind of left with him – nobody else could really pick up where he left off. He wasn’t just A&R, he was running the label.

They had so much quality output…

Don’t be too sure that Off-Beat’s days are over. The guy who owns Westcom has plans to resurrect it, and the back catalogue will be available, so everything that’s not available now will come back on the shelves. And there is a lot of good product, I agree, there were a lot of very good artists. But Off-Beat also in some ways operated in a business way…what I said to you about having one month to promote something – they’d release a CD, and if it didn’t do well, they’d say that they wouldn’t really devote too many resources to the next one. I mean, there’s a band called Genital A-Tech and I really like the release, I thought it was good but nobody really bought it, so….

I wanted to ask you about your lyrics. Did you have a religious upbringing?

I was born in Ireland, so yes. I also have very strong non-conventional religious convictions, I have always been interested in spiritual things as well. Religion is a universal thing, everyone has beliefs, even if they are not ‘conventional’ beliefs, people have some sort of law that they form. I don’t think that religion in Ireland has a history of being “oh wow, that’s a really nice way of thinking…”. Eamonn, our photographer, is from Northern Ireland and is most definitely one of my best friends, so we talk about it a lot. Religion kind of polarised our country in that people have sort of hung onto it because it’s part of their heritage. I kind of grew up not really caring about that, and that is the theme of “Joy” – I love the samurai philosophy in that they control their destiny, they have the control of their own soul, they own their soul. I grew up with people being really direct and saying “this is the religion you will obey and this is the religion you must believe in” and I’m saying “no, I don’t subscribe to that, but if I die, I wouldn’t let Heaven or Hell have me”, so that’s a personal philosophy – it’s a metaphor for destiny within one’s own life, taking control of your own soul: you can’t let someone else have it, you can’t let someone else own it, take it and do what they will with it. It’s very metaphysical.

One of the things I like about your music is just that. It is so much deeper, if I can use a word like “deeper”…

That’s quite alright, I think there are many levels of depth to what I write, but I understand the meaning behind it very personally – there’s lots of references, there’s reasons why I say certain things in songs, why I use certain phrases. Like, I use some pieces of Shakespeare and they actually tie to what the theme was within that scene, act, or whatever was the theme behind the play at the time. For instance in Macbeth or Hamlet there are a lot of underlying themes of futility in life, fragility and mortality, and they are sometimes how I felt. I only have this limited time span and I want to do something with it, not immaterial, but important to me. I get people writing to me and saying that my lyrics are about self-betterment…what a lovely way to put it!

Maybe that comes back to the “Victory Not Vengeance” idea in your band’s name…

Yes , the “Victory Not Vengeance” motto meaning “strive to achieve, not sit in regret”. I don’t like people who moan about themselves – that’s a very Irish thing – I don’t want to hear that. In a strange way, when I was a teenager I wanted to be in a band and I wanted to tell people how I feel. I’ve done it, and I’ll keep doing it, why not? I’ve got a lot to say.

What is the sample at the end of FORSAKEN?

It’s from JACOB’S LADDER. It’s Danny Aiello, who plays the chiropractor, and I think it’s the most beautiful scene because he’s got this light behind him. I adore that film, it was one of the biggest influences on the album in its themes. It influenced me in that I identified with it and it gave me a focal point. It’s like the film WINGS OF DESIRE, the Wim Wenders film. I want to show that before the release party for the next single DARK ANGEL, but I won’t be allowed to – they don’t like it at gigs when you play a film that’s two and a half hours long beforehand.

I also wanted to ask you about ADVANCE AND FOLLOW [the band’s first album, released in 1995]. I have tried to find it everywhere, but it’s been deleted.

The label that released it, Discordia, gave us a very limited budget and two and a half days to record it, which is unheard of for an album. I am very unhappy with the quality, some of the songs I love still, some of them I dislike. I used the same equipment on that album as I used on PRAISE THE FALLEN, it’s just that in the studio I wasn’t given the time to develop it freely. I have learned a lot since. I mean, HONOUR and ASCENSION on PRAISE THE FALLEN were recorded right after ADVANCE AND FOLLOW – if you hear the album, you can compare the two. I get really into sounds I like or the way a band does something and I like to adapt that in my work. There’s bits of A-ha in SOLITARY – why not? They were a brilliant band, I think they were class. I want to re-record it and re-release it after the next album, so I will do that.

Am I right in saying that Europe as a concept is important to you?

Yeah, can I explain why? I was exposed at school to reading things like Dostoyevsky, Guy de Maupassant and Jean-Paul Sartre. People read. They would sit in coffee shops and they would read. We have got this great literary history and I always admired people like that. There’s this collective sociological, philosophical, artistic heritage and history within this continent that is unique, and it’s never celebrated. We keep the feeling that we are within it, expressing it because it has influenced everything around us, where we came from, what we say, our phrases…everything. I find it fascinating, as much as I find any other part of the world fascinating. I am European and I express it. We have a voice, and there are so many people that don’t think we do…bollocks to that…oops, excuse me – sorry.

How will EMPIRES follow PRAISE THE FALLEN?

PRAISE THE FALLEN was supposed to be a story and I was actually going to write it in the liner notes, but the track-listing changed and the story got messed up. EMPIRES is kind of like a metaphorical title. If you can imagine your state of well-being in your life may change, your confidence, your happiness with things – that is, in my mind, comparative with an empire: empires rise and empires fall, people have great periods in their life and they have shit periods in their life, but they always come and go. At the same time, there’s also the political view of that: we have old empires that have fallen, and all they do is get replaced by new ones. People say “empires…ooh bad”, what do we have now? What is the European Union? It is nothing more than an economic empire, just in the 90s. So I think that peoples’ view that we have got rid of the Napoleons, who wrote most of the laws we now obey, is bollocks: we will not get rid of them – it’s in our mind, our heritage, it’s how we express tribalism. I don’t think it’s a good thing: I don’t like empires because they are usually “we’re part of the new and you’re crap”. I will examine it on an emotional, philosophical, political and sociological way…I want to examine the meanings of “empires”.

Who has been the most fun person you have ever worked or played with?

Mark, my drummer, without a doubt. Er, other bands? Covenant. There’s a connection between us that started the minute we met. We are not just two bands touring, we are kind having holidays and we always felt like that. It’s not a chore, we connect, our personalities connect and they are like best friends; I wouldn’t call them anything less. I was really happy when they were in Belgium playing a gig, and they went up to the DJ and they were demanding our music and I was really chuffed when I heard that – they were saying to the DJ “do you have VNV Nation, they are very, very good…” We don’t see each other as rival bands or anything, we talk to each other about how we make music and our approach to music. The way Eskil from Covenant goes about making music is totally alien to mine – he’s amazed at how I do things, and I’m amazed at how he does things… we share a lot. They are the most fun, without any doubt…lots of nice stories which I won’t tell you…strange, embarrassing stories about both bands

You said when Septic [compilation of Dependent bands’ tracks – the label’s first release] came out that you weren’t happy with the quality of your track RUBICON…

The original of RUBICON compared with the version on SEPTIC is like black compared with white. It’s almost like something is missing in the feel of the song. I get people telling me the production on SOLITARY is crap – no it’s not, it’s the feel of the song. It’s not whether the drums sound right or the synths sound right, it’s “does it have the feel I want? – yes, it does”. You can’t apply a production formula to it and RUBICON has that too, and that’s what I felt was wrong – I can’t explain it to anyone. It’s like when you look at a painting and people go “yeah, so?” – “no, but the red’s not right” – “but it looks fine” – “well, it looks fine to you, but….” You have to accept that there are things that happen and fate worked against me: the DAT arrived at the mastering studio an hour before the CD had to be read, and so the guy just hit a button…but that happens…I’m talking very, very carefully because my manager and label boss are standing right next me and we have talked about this at length…the quality will be better on the album – I’ll re-record it.

I enjoyed the cover of CIRCLING OVERLAND by Front 242 that you played tonight…

Oh, right. We’ve done two: we also did DSM02 from the GRIPPED BY FEAR EP, which we never released. They were done for a Cyber-Tec compilation of Front 242 which was prevented from being released. I really like the cover of CIRCLING OVERLAND and I do want it to be released. There’s a guy who’s doing the video editing for our future shows – we are going to have synchronised, special video, very retro-futurist, like really kind of ‘60s cold war, “Joe 90” TV screen type things – which I think fits in a lot with what we do, as well as having a very emotional theme with the contrast of the nice image of the ‘60s, when it was like “hey, the future’s going to be great”, with the fact that there’s also the reality as well. I want to tell Daniel Bressanutti that we’re doing the graphics to go with this, and we’d really like to release it, but I’d like his say. The version of DSM02, by the way, I played it in a club and people walked up and they were saying “this remix is incredible”. I expect it to be released.

Any other influences?

My electronic background goes back to the ‘60s. When I was growing up in Ireland there wasn’t any scene, I just liked electronic sounds. The first record I owned was “Autobahn”, my Dad bought it for me, and I just loved the cartoons – they would show the cartoons on Irish TV and they always played Kraftwerk on the radio in Ireland and I just lunged into it. I think it was the spirit of the electronics’ depth that got me, Tangarine Dream as well. I didn’t really go crazy about the music, or anything. I loved Giorgio Moroder doing “I Feel Love”: I loved the beat of the music, and it was also music you could escape with – I’ve kind of grown up like that. And with songwriting, I didn’t realise how much Peter Gabriel had had an influence on me, I really like his vocals. I love his vocals on songs like “Red Rain” and “In Your Eyes”, I love the huskiness, they do something to me, so when I sang “Forsaken” and I listened back to it, I wondered “was that what I was thinking?”. I have listened to so much music, but with electronics, yeah, some of the EBM scene, but I have taken a lot of influences and synthesised them into what I do…that’s what makes them nice and unique, they’re not stuck in their clique. There’s a lot of bands on the scene like Funker Vogt, I’m not going to slag them off, but I think they are very limited in what they express, and I just like it when bands do something different and say something else. I mean, I think Apoptygma [Bezerk] are great, and we talk about this a lot – we see ourselves as niche, we are not ‘like’ bands, we’re ‘niche’. People compare us, we’re all the same age group, all of us like the same music, we are just expressing it in different ways, be it as a Norwegian, an Irishman and a Swede.

And with that, I left Ronan to his post-gig festivities. If you have a sense of adventure and enjoy hearing something really different, as well as moving, I urge you to go out and buy “Praise the Fallen”. It’s even available online, at HMV and Virgin now, so there’s no excuse not to. You’ll thank me.

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