Interview: Evolving with VNV Nation's Ronan Harris
VNV Nation

Legendary German electronic act VNV Nation is currently out on a Fall North American Tour and the band will be bringing their vibrant show to Detroit Friday, Nov. 30 at Saint Andrews Hall.  The tour runs through Dec. 15 when the band heads back overseas to play some shows.

VNV Nation is out in support of their tenth studio album Noire., which features new single "When is the Future?" and is an intense and dark release that packs a hard punch.

Known for their energetic and inspiring live performances, VNV Nation is driven by the creative-force of frontman Ronan Harris, who took some time out recently to talk to AXS about the new release and the tour.

AXS: You recently released your 10th studio album.  Have you been happy with the response to Noire thus far and what would you say was your biggest inspiration lyrically and musically when you were working on the album?

Ronan Harris: Quite honestly, I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. Many artists get to this point in their career and either go mellow, or please the fans, or lose the spark. I’m happy that making this was as intense and energetic a process as any before it. It shows in the results. I felt I’d taken things to a new level, while still retaining a familiar feel to the music.

As far as inspiration, I drew on everything from the world of alternative music, 70s symphonic electronic rock, some 80s, shoegazer, a lot of underground dance music from the techno and progressive house stables, and even composers from the late 1800s. There was so much incorporated into the sound, it was hard for me to feel it could be categorized. It all seemed to fit and blend beautifully. Lyrically, I say what I’m feeling and seeing around me. It’s a diary and list of observations and philosophies. I have an idea for what I want to say that seems to write itself in my head, as I start to imagine the track. The strength of the reaction I have to a song seems to elevate that and draws more from me.

AXS: Can you talk a bit about the process of putting together the "When is the Future?" single and video?  Both the song and the video unfold in so many layers.

RH: The song was one of those flukes that I tell people always come late in a production. I start out making an album with a vague long list of tracks I want to work on, but something always comes out of the process late in the game, when the energy level is rolling at a faster pace. I was looking for some sounds for a track and started music on the keyboard. One day later "When is the Future?" was finished.

The video was an interesting coincidence. I’m not a fan of having “just a video” and want one to emphasize a song or add another aspect to it. I talked with a lot of video makers and stumbled on the wonderful team who made this one. When they heard the song, they instantly knew that this was going to have to happen in Tokyo. Where else can you find the most incredible representation of the future and be the stranger in a strange land who’s lost in the crowd? We flew in, it was raining heavily, and we walked around filming all night. It was like being a character in my own near-future sci-fi film. The next day we explored a lot of old areas of the city and then through the crazy alternative centers. After 1.5 days of filming, we knew we had it. The concept was adopted from an idea we saw in a short film and lent itself to work by some directors we all liked. It had to be an illustration of me on a search for something. The results were better than I’d ever expected.

AXS: After 23 years of pushing the boundaries of electronic music and setting the bar higher and higher, what is it that keeps you going?  What is it about VNV Nation and the music that keeps fans connected and coming back for more?

RH: Has it been that long? I don’t tend to look back and calculate that. I keep evolving and moving forward. If I didn’t do this, I think I’d explode.

Songs are always writing in my head. Whether it’s the music or the lyrics or both, people seem to continue to find something in what I do that resonates with them on deeper levels. It could be that the music has followed them through their life and evolved along with them, or that new influences and ideas keep them finding something new to listen to. I can’t honestly say. It’s as much of a mystery to me as it is to others. I make music that moves me personally and I share it with others. I don’t make music for specific groups or to please a specific crowd. I think that endeavors like that are doomed to failure. I’m just grateful that where I go with music continues to engage, inspire and entertain.

AXS: Looking back at the recording of first album Advance and Follow and now at the recording process that went into Noire, what do you feel has been the biggest changes for you personally and in the industry as a whole?

RH: The difference is vast. It’s as big as whistling a melody and performing it with a full band. Worlds apart. That initial release was a culmination of a series of bedroom demos written over years, not an album as such. I regard the follow-up as the first real album. A&F was recorded with no expectations, on a tiny budget with little or no time to develop and experiment in the studio. I would play the tracks and sit back while someone mixed them. I was very inexperienced and very new to this. We all have to start somewhere. It pushed me to learn more and take things to a bigger level, which I’ve been doing ever since.

Making an album like Noire is an immersive process that takes a year, including developing ideas and tracks, getting into the mindset, deciding how you want it to sound and feel, and then spending months in my own studio making what I’ve imagined it should be. I have full control and, with the experience I’ve gained over the years, I know more or less how to get the sound I want so there’s a direct process of writing, producing, recording and mixing, without involving anyone else, except my assistant producer. The reward of being able to make it like this means being able to be focused and concentrated on what I want it to be: no distractions.

AXS: Your U.S. tour kicks off next week, what can people coming out to the shows expect this time around?

RH: We just finished up the European tour a few weeks back which was incredible. We had a big stage show with us, which we’ve replicated here somewhat. We want it to be a big show for people, covering songs from the new album and lots of songs people know us for over the years. Everyone gets something. We’re about to do the 5th show of the North American Tour and so far the energy and reaction at shows has been electric.

AXS: You'll be playing in Detroit again on Nov. 30 and last time you guys played downstairs at the much smaller Shelter, but this time you will be upstairs on the larger stage at Saint Andrews Hall.  Do you prefer those smaller intimate shows or enjoy the larger crowds more?  Do you find that a difference in space or crowd size changes the complexion of the show or how you approach it?

RH: There’s a different dynamic to larger or smaller shows but each is as much fun to do. Whether we’re playing to 25000 people at a festival or 50 people in a room, we’re as comfortable with either. Small shows afford more interaction and a different kind of connection. Larger shows allow you to put on a bigger show and still make people know that they’re 50% of the show. The smaller show downstairs at St Andrews was because of the concept for that tour – playing two classic albums in intimate settings. We’ve played the big hall many times and are really looking forward to coming back.

AXS: What is your biggest goal when you set out to do a live performance? 

RH: To know we did what we set out to do by putting on the show people expected from us, and to even exceed that. We don’t want it to be a repetition. There’s always a different energy to the shows, with each tour. I think we’ve taken it up a level on this tour.

AXS: Is there a particular song from your extensive catalog that you always try to make sure to perform?  What's your favorite obscure/lesser known track that you love performing that you are including on this tour?

RH: It has to be "Nova." To see the reaction and impact that song has on people is something very special. As for a more obscure track, I love performing "Carbon," which is from an album from 2001. It’s not always played and I wanted it to be a part of this tour.

AXS: You kicked off the tour in Germany last month.  What's been your favorite moment so far and is there a new track that the fans seemed to be responding to the most?

RH: My favorite moment on the Euro tour is hard to answer. I think it was how emotional the show in Berlin made me. There are times when you forget what you’re doing without thinking, and stop to realize where you are and what’s happening. When we played "Nova," the intensity of emotion from the crowd brought me to tears. I won’t forget that. The reaction to the so-called single “When is the Future?” is always incredible, but I love seeing people react to "Immersed" or "All Our Sins." One is just about dancing, the other is somewhat more grandiose, symphonic and lyrically hard-hitting.

AXS: Looking ahead, what's the biggest goal for next year and is there any particular thing still out there on the horizon that you haven't had a chance to do yet or something that you still are looking to achieve?

RH: We’ve all talked about a few ideas I’ve had. They’re great ideas and I hope to realize one or all. I would love to perform Noire completely live. That would be quite an undertaking. The other on my list comes from an invitation I got two years ago to perform at a planetarium during one of their stellar shows. I said I would do that if I got to create a special soundtrack of VNV tracks that are blended together for the entire performance and performed live using a lot of synthesizers and equipment. The other goal for next year is to create a special show for a festival appearance. We’re headlining this festival for the first time and we want to put on the best show we can.

AXS: Anything you'd like to add?

RH: Just that I very much appreciate the interview, hope you’re satisfied with the answers and to say a big heartfelt thank you to your readers who listen to and support VNV.