VNV Nation: "We wanted to offer people an alternative of substance over pure style"
VNV Nation (due tomorrow night at the Black Sheep in Colorado Springs) started as a kind of bedroom project for the band's singer and co-programmer, Ronan Harris. By 1995, he had developed his music to the point that it was becoming part of the next wave of underground electronic pop. Some may dismiss the music as being part of the late-wave EBM that seemed to water down music that would have fit under the umbrella term "goth" at some point. But, in fact, Harris and his bandmate, Mark Jackson, had been inspired by the full range of electronic pop music and experimental and indie music from the '70s forward. The duo plugged this knowledge directly into making what they called "futurepop."
"Futurepop" was perhaps a clever marketing term, but it's also as good a genre stamp as anything else that could fit a band whose influences come from multiple directions. VNV Nation's latest album, 2011's Automatic, is a clear nod to some of the pioneers of electronic pop, and also establishes the group as one of the most popular and influential acts that emerged from the creative ferment of the late '80s and the '90s, when industrial music was merging with the dance music coming out of underground clubs and raves.
We spoke with Ronan Harris recently about his evolution as an electronic musician; rumors of his having heard Whitehouse as a child; the origin of the term "futurepop"; and his obsession with American culture of the 1930s.
Westword: What got you started making electronic music? You've been at it for quite a while now.
Ronan Harris: A lot longer than people would think. I guess the way I would describe it is that when I was a kid, I would hear music on the radio -- as far back as I can remember, when I was three. There was a song on the charts that was all made with synthesizers back in the '70s. I just zeroed in on it; I just loved the sound of it. Every time I ever heard these kinds of sounds on a record, I went nuts for it. So I guess I was kind of born for it. A lot of TV shows I gravitated toward used a lot of electronics in them. When I finally saw what was making these sounds, I was hooked. I'd always wanted to make electronic music.
When I was thirteen, a friend of mine managed to get a baby synthesizer, and we spent three weeks making music in his house. We had Commodore computers, and we were making all kinds of electronic sounds -- just trying everything we could to sort of make music. We had no idea how to make it and whatever. But those were my first experiments, and I've been developing it up to now.
It seems improbable, but is it true that your mom hummed Whitehouse songs while she was baking when you were a kid, or is that some crazy thing that happens to be on your Wikipedia page?
How can you hum a Whitehouse song?! This is a joke between me and a couple of friends of mine, and I added it into the bio, just so those people would get the in-joke. I mean, Whitehouse is extreme, violent noise. No, my mother didn't hum Whitehouse in the kitchen.
Yeah, it's hard to imagine someone humming "The Birthdeath Experience."
Exactly. Or "You Don't Have to Say Please." That was the whole joke about it. We were having a conversation about our childhoods, and looking back, we just came up with a fucked-up, obscure, surreal version of our childhoods. That's the best explanation I can give you.
You've been doing some version of VNV Nation since 1990?
I say that. I kind of put it in the bio way back in the beginning, but I never changed it. I guess in those days it was making music in my bedroom with a sampler or a synth or whatever I had. In '94 or '95, I developed a whole bunch of tracks. I had an Ensoniq sampler that became the mainstay of everything I was doing. It wasn't until around '95 that it became more coherent. I was just making it for personal amusement. I never imagined that what I would do would ever be on a CD.
Advance and Follow I regard as my demos and not really our first album. I started formulating what VNV Nation is with Praise the Fallen. I say 1990, but officially, I can't say the band and the modus operandi I've used since happened until 1995. But I'd been playing electronic music and samplers; I think I got my first sampler in 1988. I had a job and sort of got it on a pay-as-you-go sort of plan.
At the time, as with a lot of musicians, it was making music that sounds like your idols rather than coming up with your own style. That's the whole point -- you try out different things. I guess I was heavily influenced by what was big in the day, which was Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 and a host of other music I loved, not just the industrial stuff.
I knew synthesizers already, but samplers were the kings of the '80s. Sampling movies and doing all that kind of stuff that sounds really lame right now, and you look back and think, "Oh, God, what were they thinking?" It's in retrospect that everything sounds out of date. But if I ever come across any of those experiments, I have to laugh or cringe or both.
In the late '90s, especially with the release of Empires, the band took on a kind of different sound that you called "futurepop." Why do you think that term fit your music then, and would you say you've continued with and evolved that aesthetic with the music you make today?
What happened was that Praise the Fallen was what it was. It's an album that was very much a reflection of my life. What happened after that? I listened to a lot of underground electronic music and a lot of dance music. Underground dance music at the time was still bubbling under, and it wasn't really commercial. I got hooked on it, and so did Mark [Jackson] and all my friends.
It was a chance encounter with Stephan [Groth] from Apoptygma Berzerk, who was staying at my place, and he played me some tracks from his new album, which was then to be Welcome to Earth. And I sat there and looked at him and said, "That's kind of funny, because that's kind of what I'm doing for my next one."
We were all listening to the same kind of music at the same time, and it was mixing in with what we had already done. We just loved it, we just wanted to do our own version of it. This kind of anthemic trance and mixing those elements into what we do. It was still a very underground sound at the time.
It sort of exploded in 2000 and became the form of music on the commercial side of things, the trance side of things, that was inane, horrible pop. In 1998, it was still the next step, I think, for everybody. The whole thing with "futurepop" was that there was an existing scene in Europe and bands had a certain sound. Ours was very different. We didn't really feel like we came from that German scene. All the German bands had their own particular scene and vibe, and they were all influencing each other. There was a lot of cross-pollination between bands.
Our tastes were very broad. We found that in talking to other musicians, they didn't have very broad tastes at all. They just listened to music from the industrial music scene and very specific bands. We were listening to Chemical Brothers and Underworld and all that kind of stuff at the time. This influenced us for greater or less, and all the other music that came from the '90s underground -- really cool electronic dance music, whether it be ambient, breakbeat or whatever.
So radio would not play us in Germany, and the music industry was really uptight in those days. And we wanted to get played on the radio. The main thing for us was that we felt like we could make the music that we were making without trying to write hits, without trying to write pop. We were just making music that we loved and had so much fun with. We asked the question, "Well, why can't it be?" We liked writing songs with very nice melodies. We grew up with this. This is what New Romantic and Futurist music was for us.
Even Kraftwerk were writing catchy tunes, and there's nothing wrong with that. We had our years of doing tracks with no form or structure, and they were tracks rather than songs. And we'd written albums of songs. The invention of the term was my idea to distance ourselves from this kind of genre. There wasn't a term to describe what we were doing. We wanted, somehow, to inaugurate it as something new.
And I talked to Stephan Groth on the phone one night and said, "Don't you think if we have any of the terms 'EBM' or 'goth' associated with us, which is going to come from outside via the radio or the commercial world, we have no chance of anyone ever hearing us beyond our own scene?" We would like our music to be heard by a lot more people. We would like to be one of those '80s bands, like New Order or the Psychedelic Furs. They were alternative bands, and they were listened to by the masses, but they still made music that they wanted to make. No record company is telling them how to make their music. And that's what we wanted to be. So these were our inspirations.
We came up with the term in one respect to inaugurate the sound. But secondly, because it was based on our futurist histories or whatever, having this futurist music. One of the radio stations thought this was some crazy new trend and got the idea that this was somehow fresh and hip and happening, and they'd play it because they wouldn't play us otherwise. And it worked! Basically the term was used to trick the radio stations into playing us. They actually got the impression we were this crazy, new kind of underground style coming out of England, coming out of Norway. "Yeah, man, we're going to play this."
We just wanted to continue making what we did, but we wanted to have some impact upon, or have some access, we hoped, to the commercial world. We could be played alongside all this other drudge and crap because we felt that music most people got to listen to was mindless, insipid and had nothing to say. And our musics were very personal, very powerful and very emotional. We wanted to offer people an alternative of substance over pure style.
In the '90s, there was a lot of horrific dance music in the charts. It was a lot of Eurodisco in the charts and a lot of crap. My '90s was just like my '80s -- a lot of new, alternative, electronic music and all different styles of indie music. Even in the industrial world, bands were thinking of ideas no one had ever done before. There was so much progress going on between the '80s and all through the '90s. I loved it, so I immersed myself in all of that. I never really listened to the radio unless it was playing where I am and I get to hear a song. I don't really go after pop music, because it doesn't interest me.
At the Infest festival in 2007, you dedicated the song "Illusion" to Sophie Lancaster. Why that song in particular?
Because I think everybody from any alternative vein can tell what that song's about. Plus I don't think there's anybody in the room no matter where we are that doesn't understand what that feels like. For greater or less, it sums up the feelings one can have as a teenager. But for the alternative person, which is who I think I sing to, people who feel different, people who think different, who are different and don't really understand necessarily why, but the rest of the world finds them as such and treats them as such.
I'd read in the paper on the flight over the day before the show about how she'd been beaten in the park. And that she'd died from her injuries and her boyfriend was in the hospital in a coma. The goth community in the U.K....the U.K. is a very special place, and I've lived there more years than anywhere else. I moved there in the late '80s and lived there twelve years. I felt very connected to a lot of people.
Everybody knows everybody. When you play Infest, you know a great deal of people in the crowd, whether socially or they're just acquaintances. This is a sad aspect of the culture, because the British culture and Irish culture are sort of identical, and everyone tries to look after each other and is very concerned when something happens to one another.
Nothing can happen in a vacuum. When something happens to one person, every person in the U.K. feels as if they knew this person. It's a very unique culture. It's not sort of vicarious sympathy and vicarious tragedy and people looking for drama. When they have festivals in the U.K., everybody shows up, and it's always the same faces and everybody knows one another. So in one way or another, someone must have met her. Someone had seen her. The fact that she'd been beaten up by thugs purely because of how she dressed, because of how she looked, because it had become a culture of...they have various terms for it in the U.K.
But people of incredibly low intelligence, who just love to mob others and ridicule and victimize other people just for being different, that "ha ha" kind of mentality and thinking they're smarter, but they're not -- they're knuckle-dragging dolts. They caught them after. But it's just a loser culture that has spawned this, and they love to attack everyone else who seems to stand out and looks different. It's sad, but it's not different from us in the early '80s if we dressed differently.
Some people in the United States would say that if you have a problem with the jocks. If you dress differently, you're going to get beaten up at school by people because they couldn't understand it. And because they couldn't understand it, they developed a hatred toward it. You know the mentality.
The thing is that the song is about the troubles and the turmoils one feels as a teenager and how you become the person you are through it. There are a lot of people that want to fit in, blend in and not make a noise and live their homogenous lifestyle and purely become breeders, and there's the rest of us who can't and just don't want to be that, because it's not our nature, and it's not who we are. Whether that be a very extreme version or a very mild version, we are what we are.
The song was based on conversations I had with a friend's daughter because she never saw me as an adult of his age, but more as a friend or a peer. She had reached that point in her life that a lot of people do in our world of going in a direction of self-abuse, whether that be through drugs or whatever -- just lack of esteem and whatever comes with it, mixing with the wrong crowd.
I make it sound really cheesy, but that's exactly what she was facing. And just finding it all really cool, but you suffer for it and destroy an important part of yourself. The other path was to see through this, rise above it, understand what's actually going on and seeing how special she is as a person and how rare she is. She was confused and needed some guidance, and that's where the conversation came from.
We all know what this is like, and if we had had the opportunity to speak to our fifteen- or sixteen-year-old-selves, what would we say to them? That was the idea, really, behind the song. I felt that everyone in the room would understand what it's like to be different, and that there's nothing we can do necessarily about it, because it's not a problem. There's no such thing as being different; it's a relative term.
I suppose I dedicated it because of what had happened. I was very moved by it, very upset by it. I met her family and talked with them. I think we're all connected enough to feel that if something happens to somebody in another city, even if we never knew that person, we feel as though we did.
Some people thought I wrote the song for her. The whole thing turned into some good because the Sophie Lancaster Foundation started. I think some people mixed up the story and the symbolism of dedicating that. I never dedicated songs, almost never. To actually get to say something like that was important, because our music means so much to so many people who watch us and listen to us, and I feel it describes their lives and "Illusion" describes how it was to be a teenager far more succinctly than they'd felt was possible. We heard that coming from people left, right and center and for this to have happened, it kind of galvanized the spirit of the weekend.
The cover for Automatic has that kind of modernist aesthetic to it. What about that style of late-'30s American industrial imagery appealed to you as appropriate for the new album?
Purely American '30s graphic design. It's my obsession. I'm absolutely mental about the American '30s and partly the '40s. I find it to be a fascinating decade, leading out of the '20s, which looked and felt very Victorian or late-1800s. There was this sudden explosion of creativity and forward momentum despite the country going through the worst economic disaster it has ever faced.
It still managed to find its identity, whether that be through the products it made or the way it expressed itself and designed things. The culture it created was just phenomenal. It was literally taking a country from the 1800s and throwing it right into the twentieth century in the space of ten years. It's a phenomenal achievement.
I love the spirit of the age. Very much about the individual effort and forging ahead. It expressed not an imperialistic sense, but a very power stretching up and looking mighty and great, and it would last forever. America was very anti-imperialist at the time. Very isolationist. But I love the era, and I do a lot of graphic design on the side. I do a lot of retro-graphics from that era under a different name.
I don't want these things connected with VNV. But this has been my passion and love for so long, I thought instead of dabbling every now and again with a bit of retro-futurism and taking a styling of something from the past and slapping it on something futuristic, I thought I'd just go the whole hog, and the whole styling of the album is based on fonts of the day. They mixed and matched fonts like no graphic artist would necessarily do today. There was a certain sense of drama. They really expressed things like a theater poster, like you really wanted someone's attention.
I immersed myself in movie posters and books of the era, which I'd been collecting for years anyway. So I started re-reading them just because of a weird series of events. You know when you start to notice a trend in society -- for example, everybody gets into rockabilly things. Whether they like music or not, they all started looking like it or copping the style. Well, a friend of mine started doing swing dancing, and I love the music of the era, and in my gamut of listening to music, I listen to music from the '30s and '40s. I find it to be charming and fascinating in many ways. But it's very soothing and timeless -- like an old tube radio or something cracked away in the corner.
There's a timeless charm to it. It isn't hi-fi, and yet it conveys something beautiful and reassuring, almost like a fireplace. I don't know how to explain it. It's like how I grew up listening to the tube radio my parents got when they got married. It was in the kitchen, and I used to tune up and down the short-wave and long-wave bandwidth and pick up stations from all over Europe or wherever they were coming from. It just felt so charming and romantic, I guess.
So I wanted all that romance to be expressed on this album, because that was the era of the radio. It had suddenly become affordable and people would gather around together because not everyone could afford one. It was the sense community and the sense of reassurance. I listen to the radio shows of the time, and we may regard them as incredibly naive, because we live in an age that has destroyed its innocence.
And I think we would like to put the genie back in the bottle in many ways, just to be happy again. I think that's why we all feel burned out and cynical. In our age, we've destroyed all our innocence, and our sense of magic and naivete has been burned away in the name of our need to pick at a scab or something. I don't know what.
I guess that was my complete inspiration for making that album. Not swing-dance music or something like that. But I wanted even the intro to have a meandering in and out radio station playing that kind of music, but nobody could give me straight answer on copyright. I tried to get music that I love from the '30s recorded from radio shows onto these discs. It turns out, I could have used it throughout the album, and it would have been great.
The music is what it is, and it has a lot of vibe and tone, using very old techniques. A lot of sort of old tube techniques. Distortion and tube saturation. I wanted the vibe you get from old recordings. There's sort of '70s Pioneer electronics in there. I think "Streamline" is the most obvious example. It's my total tip of the hat to a guy called Giorgio Moroder, who kind of gave electronic dance music its face.
He didn't have any idea what he was doing when he recorded "I Feel Love" [by Donna Summer] -- which is silly, because Kraftwerk had been making hit-or-miss electronic bits and pieces and sounded like they were coming from a computer laboratory. Then this guy comes out with this track, which is the essential first use of synthesizer all on its own doing everything. Doing the drums. Doing the most incredible, repetitive, trance-like sequence. I remember the first time I heard the track, I was absolutely rooted in place. I could not move. I was so stunned by it. I was very aware of music when it came out.
But it was an experiment. He actually made an album and wanted it to go through different eras and he wanted to create this symbolic future track. "This is what the future of the music will sound like." He made it as kind of disco cheese, but inadvertently, he ended up creating one of the best pieces of electronic music ever and gave so many styles of music its warmup. Because everybody sort of jumped on it.
Rap and electronic disco started, and then that became all of the other styles of music that happened through the '80s. They were inspired by the beat and structure of it. Trance music and all those kind of fun things can all tip their hats and thank in some ways that track. So that was the long answer to [the significance of] the cover.
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