an interview with Ronan Harris of VNV Nation
Mike, music editor of Auxiliary Magazine, had the chance to chat with Ronan via phone as VNV Nation prepares for the release of a new album and the start of their North American tour.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Hamburg, Germany. I’ve been up since early this morning, coordinating the upload of the master, which has been fun.
Are you almost done?
It’s out of my hands. I just have to get some European side of stuff taken care of. From now on it’s just the interviews, sales sheets, press info, and getting journalists access to all the songs on iPool and all that kind of fun stuff.
How long did it take you to record the album Of Faith Power & Glory?
Well it’s kind of a hard thing to judge because, other then the month before the album is finished, it’s kind of on and off. It’s basically an ever-going process within the same studio. I’ll work on a song up to a certain point and then I’ll leave it and go off and work on something else. I never really have full days to dedicate to the songs; I just build it up and let it build as it goes. When it comes to the last month you say, ‘right, let’s begin now.’ You start to pick out the songs you are going to work on. We pick out 13 in hopes that 10 will live. And basically you start fleshing out the production. There were four intensive weeks and the last two were the most intense of my musical career.
Though, it’s been an absolute blast, it’s been a really enjoyable processes. I have to say very creative. The main thing is the results, and that’s the point, you get to sit back and go, ‘what crap have we produced?’ You lose your prospective on it because you listen to the songs over and over. So when you finally get it back from mastering, you get to sit down and listen to the whole album from the beginning to the end and hear it as an album.
Because you wrote this album, do you think you can listen to it from an outside point of view?
I don’t make music for commercial reasons, the reason I write music is that I always had a desire to write songs and play songs I love. That’s primarily how most of the songs get written anyway. I’m just sitting there jamming away by myself. I don’t do it because I have to put out an album, or there is some commercial interest involved that says, ‘you have to put out an album, you must put out 10 songs.’ I write the songs for me, from my perspective, in many ways as a musical diary. They are about my personal thoughts, and experiences, and perspective on things and philosophies. I suppose in the process of VNV it is just something I’ve come to do for myself and then share with other people. I do not write a song or I do not want to do a song unless it gives me a feeling, it reacts with me somehow. I don’t write music where I say, ‘yeah, this sounds cool or kicks ass,’ or something like that. The song must resonate with me on some deeper level.
So I am able to listen to it in a different way then other people who haven’t been involved in the process of the music. But I do listen to these songs, because in writing them they are key moments of my life. That’s not to say that I write music so I can listen to myself singing, I am actually a big horrible critic of all that. I am probably one the biggest critics you will find of my own music. I am always plagued with uncertainty and doubt if I really like something or not, or if I think it’s really reached the level. I’ve abandoned songs that are almost finished because it wasn’t going where I wanted it to. This may sound really egotistical, but you have to understand that I’ve been doing this process since long before anyone had ever heard a VNV album. The process really hasn’t changed. I think that if I didn’t write songs, if I didn’t write music, I’d explode because they tend to build up inside of me.
Are you using music as more of a journal then?
In a way yes, sometimes the outside world takes a key role. I don’t do this very introspectively anymore. I think at one time when I did Praise the Fallen, at a very crucial point in my life, I wanted to document a great many things and never planed on releasing it. It was just something I was doing for myself. It was only through friends that it ever got released which lead me to where I am now, so thanks to them. In the experiences we have had over the years writing the albums, there are groups of people I have met people who listen to the music, and sometimes I have spoken to them through the music, that actually know what we’re talking about. And I think it’s reversed around a lot, there are a great many songs which are written to like minded people, if that makes sense, not everybody is going to pick up on it the same way but I know those like minded people will understand what the message is. There has always been an audience, or shall we say a person that I am speaking to, and it is not the general masses, in some ways it’s written to the individual. One of the benefits of that is that the music is profoundly personal to me because of its content, and I very much enjoy the fact that people come up ecstatic after a show or before a show. The people tend to share their profound experiences with the music and how it’s affected them, and how it’s played in their lives. It’s very rewarding because I know what the music has done for me, and how its helped me, and it’s been my crutch, it’s been my ascension, it’s been so many things for me.
Going back to Of Faith Power & Glory? Did you approach it any differently then previous works?
As far as the approach, I tried to, but the system always ends up the same way, how I write songs and how they develop in my head. With Judgement it was a yearlong process, where I had the time. This time around things got a lot busier, we established a record label in America. It took my mind of things, because if I got really busy with administrative work, my desire to make music got even stronger. I would find myself in a meeting imagining songs. I would start to writing and flushing them out in my head, then soon as I got to a computer I would start to document them, trying to create ideas for them. That process really hasn’t change. What did change was how we made it with the people that were involved and the atmosphere around us. Since doing Judgement we got a new location in Hamburg, Germany, it’s our home. It’s like a house in away, we can chill out here. It’s very different from where we have been before. So the crew and myself just hang out and have fun making the music. What hasn’t really changed is the fun in making the music.
Already having the record label in Europe, has that experience changed what you did when starting the label in America?
Yes, well it’s empowered me, in knowing what works over here. We were looking for a different configuration in how we do things, which we have been for awhile. When we started off a record label in Europe or Germany it was a very easy thing at the time, although I had very little experience. There were some paperwork sides of running a label in Europe that I wasn’t aware of, but I had people around to help me and advise me through this process, so I wasn’t inventing the wheel. What happed was when doing the whole thing in North America, I had the label services working for me. We have a manager, we have a business manager, we have all the necessary people helping us out. The American way of doing things as far as running a record label is vastly different then in Europe. The experiences that I have gained over the years of doing this thing over in Europe have allowed me to do this. Without having done this in Europe, I would have never conceived to do this. I think a lot of bands are actually afraid to jump out on their own.
But, I think that in recent years a lot more bands are taking the jump out on their own.
Well the distributors are offering them the ability to do so. There are so many configurations available for an artist that someone [not as successful can use]. I don’t call us highly successful, I just consider us to be where we reached the people, and people like our music, and they buy our CDs or they buy our music online, or they come to the shows, and I don’t quite know how to put it any other way. There are certainly organizations in the United States, there are distribution companies who are offering us the ability, you can get label services, somebody who handles all of this for you, as an aggregator who is doing this for five or six other bands. Financially it’s much more viable. You have a lot more say in what you do. That’s also a double-edged sword, because you have to know what you are doing. You have to have the advice, you have to have some kind of consultancy, somebody who is going to advise you to make these decisions, because ordinarily this is something someone who is trained or experienced in running a record label would do. This is all saying that every record label knows what the hell they are doing.
When you get your tour together who selects your supporting acts? In the past did previous record labels ever force you to tour with a group?
No, no one has ever forced us to do anything. One of the reasons we are striking out on our own is because we just want to hone our independence. If anything we have always been vastly independent. No one has ever told us what to put on the cover of a CD or how a record should sound. No one has ever been aloud to. If somebody gives me constructive criticism, if someone gives me a worthwhile suggestion, or talks to me about it, for us it is a group effort. If people are on our wavelength or we feel we are on their wavelength, we are all working together, they can bring something, we can bring something. We can always work together, we build energy and we achieve things. If somebody tells me what to do, I instantly react with an adverse reaction. I work together with our entire crew; we are all best friends. People that do our sound and our light, we hang with each other when we are touring. This isn’t a job. We are in it because we like one another. We have a great deal of fun. Same thing goes for when we’re on tour. We always consulted with people just to see who we should bring on board, by asking people for suggestions, but ultimately in the end I make the finial decision. Basically people give me options and I’ll say, ‘nah, this really doesn’t really go.’ I’ve represented the band for quite a number of years, so this is something we built up, the experience of doing it. Mark and I will talk about it as to what kind of bands we will bring along. This time around, as far as War Tapes is concerned, we played together with them in Anaheim and we got along really well, and that’s great because getting along with the band is only one side of it but it is a very important side of it. You are going to be on tour together for a month in close quarters, and you want to be able to get along. Anybody who’s been on tour with a band, and maybe they just didn’t see eye to eye or their personalities didn’t click, touring is an incredibly stressful place and if people can’t get along it can make things tense or just [make it] feel that nothing is relaxed. The thing is all the bands that we are going on tour with, we know them, we like them, we like their music, that’s the most important part of it; we really do like the music. Our philosophy has always been that when people come to see the show we would like, within our power as much as we can, that they get their moneys worth, that there is something for everybody. Our audience has evolved a great deal over the years. In terms of the kind of people who are coming to the shows, what kind of music they ordinarily they listen to. So I think it is really cool, to be honest, having War Tapes on the bill is a really, really cool thing for me to have a sweet guitar and drums band. So, no one has ever told us who to tour with, no one has ever told us what to do, people like our booking agents, our distribution company, everybody will make a suggestion, but to be honest we all sit down and discuss these thing. I love the idea that it’s a team effort. I can’t stand people who love to dictate.
How does selecting the dates of the tour work out?
Our booking agent will come up with a routing. Other people will get involved afterwards; they will come up with a test routing and say, ‘what about this?’ They will point out some cities where we have done well in the past or the places where we have a big fan base that we don’t want to miss. With the end of June/July tour we are covering as much of the United States as possible and parts of Canada. In order to cover all the main cities, it’s a longer tour than normal. Whenever we had to do a tour like this before we usually did it in two and a half to three weeks now we are doing it in five weeks. This time around we are doing that, and we are going to do additional dates [later] in the year, I believe sometime in November.
Distribution people want to know that the record is being sold, that we are actually out there promoting it, and that’s great, that’s fine for them. I want to get out and play. I want people to come along and enjoy the show and hear the music and sing along. That we all have a great time, that’s the key thing for us, otherwise there is no reason to do shows. There isn’t any major deciding factor, there isn’t a financial deciding fact, there isn’t any preordained method other then we play places where we know VNV Nation has a strong following. We want to know that we cover all those places where people can come and see us, where we love playing, where they love us playing, and we fit it all into the year. Because when we come back, we’ve got a week off, then we are off to do a European tour. Then we are off to do a couple of follow up shows in and around Europe. Then we are going back to North America for more.
Lately a lot of fans have been video recording songs at shows and putting them up on YouTube, what are your thoughts about that?
I’ve been vocally against the idea of someone who stands there looking at a 2 cm square screen for the entire duration of the show. I don’t get that. I think that people have become far to focused on a small crap quality screen in the shape of something like YouTube, that they would actually come out to the show and while standing in front of the stage, watch it through a couple of square inch screen instead of actually participating and being apart of it. But at the same time I do love the people who actually do the videos of moments and put them up online. Way back in the 80s, I used to collect bootleg tapes of live shows; I would collect as many of them as possible. They were each special, they were each important, and it was fun to collect them. I think that it is great that people keep the special moments, because a lot of things that happen live, that I know of are preserved for prosperity forever. And I am happy to see them. Like the day when it was my birthday and a clown came out on stage, or the time in Los Angeles when a guy walked out with a rubber g-string and a rubber horses head. Some moments I would choose to forget but I get to see them on YouTube.
Are you planning on having this tour officially filmed, to possibly be used for a future release?
Oh yeah, absolutely, with the Reformation box we just threw out, we added on as a last bit of bonus, this eight track DVD because it was possible that their were eight edits available that we could release. They were sitting around doing nothing and we said, ‘OK, lets use them,’ because there are no other purposes for them. We have plans for a DVD by the end of the year. As to where that gets filmed, and when and how, that’s a whole other story because there is a lot of planning and a lot of work involved in something that.
Is there anything about the new album you would like to get out there?
The new album sounds awesome. It’s a very diverse album, it’s a very positive album, it’s very soulful, and in places a very raw album. It goes from the softest moments to the hardest moments. I think that people who do listen to VNV Nation’s music will like it, will identify with it. I don’t think this is something that is going to remotely disappoint them. Two of my friends who are not really people from my genera listened to it and were very vocal about the variety of the album, the strength of the variety, and that it’s not just variety for varieties sake. They said this sounds like a shit load of work went into it. In the end, you end up with some of the songs making you want to sing along right away, and some of the songs you just want to listen to 10 or 15 times, even I do that. One of my best friends got a two-song promo, and he got home at 2 o’clock in the morning and at 8 o’clock in the morning he went to sleep. He listened to two songs on repeat.
Do you think that the album is strong as whole and not just individual songs?
Oh I can guarantee you that. Everybody has their plans on what they would like it to be when they start. It turned out better. Maybe my intentions will not always be what other people understand. There will always be those people who love a song, for example “Beloved” or “Illusion”, there are some of those kind of songs, that they would want to hear with every new album, they want to hear more new songs like that, because that was a special moment for them. But those songs will always be their special moments; these are whole new moments, new styles, and new songs. There is a really interesting blend of influences [on this album]. This is a very electronic album, this is a purely electronic album, there are no electronically acoustic instruments on it. It is interesting talking to the fans who have been around since Praise The Fallen, them hearing the evolution of the music. Them saying it’s almost like, as we learned through the process, of learning our instruments to produce music, we also learned how to write songs better to get the message out, to express in a emotional concise way rather than leaving it very obfuscated and very arty. In some places the album is very direct. There is even a post-punk song on there, which is three and a half minutes long, which is quite funny. But at the same time there are epic moments and there are anthemic moments. There is everything you would expect from a VNV Nation album. We listened to Judgement after we finished the album to compare from a technical standpoint. It’s much deeper in many ways, it’s a very soulful album. It’s still got all the elements that DJs will like. People driving in their cars will like it. People sitting home reading a book will like it. It’s definitely an album for all places.