VNV Nation's Ronan Harris reflects on making music for 20 years, the Compendium tour, and the evolution of the band
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Some bands just can’t keep it together. Lineup changes, breakups, reunions, and in-band fights often plague bands as early as the three-year mark. This is the new norm, making a band that stays together for two decades an analogy. But that’s exactly what futurepop pioneers VNV Nation did. They celebrated their 20th anniversary this year with a series of special, three-hours shows to celebrate a long career of music with their friends and fans. Does this mean they’re near the end? Frontman and VNV Nation brainchild Ronan Harris assures us not even close. Before heading overseas for the UK leg of the Compendium tour, Harris sits down to talk about the what he’s learned on this tour, how he’s changed over the years, and why music is so important in this two-part interview.

AXS: VNV Nation have been going strong for 20 years. What's it feel like to make music for such a long time and still have people love it and recruit new fans along the way?

Ronan Harris: Surreal. There are moments you get caught up in the momentum of it. But when you stop to talk to people and hear what the music is doing for them and how they interact with it, it's quite [humbling]. There are always new generations of people joining us. On this tour, we met a great many people who had some of the most beautiful things to say. Making music is something I can't imagine my life without regardless of whether it’s for a crowd or not. I just love making music. It used to be a hobby and then it got to the point where I couldn't sustain a regular job and a hobby and I had to make a choice. I know I made the right one. The feeling of playing [music] for entertainment and enriching the lives of so many people; I wouldn't swap that for the world.

AXS: To celebrate 20 years of the band, you guys wanted to do something special for this tour. How did you come on playing extended shows?

RH: The idea came from a festival in Europe. I thought, here we are playing for a large crowd of people and we have the benefit of a big stage and being able to use a large production, a large light show, and really invest our time into a single show. And I thought it'd be great if we could do that in large venues and have it as a big gala event. Everyone can see a more spectral show rather than a small down to earth show. So, we did these gala events and they were immense, they were so much fun. Everybody was singing, everybody got to see us celebrating our music but on a bigger stage. The same thing was bound to happen in North America, so we had to play key graphical locations. We couldn't play everywhere. It was a wonderful thing. It was a spectacular experience. At the end of it we were so focused we didn't really have a moment to stop and breathe and see what we’ve done. It was only when we went back and watched the video after the last show we realized just how monumental this had been. We're extremely proud and very humbled by the experience.

AXS: On this tour, you also brought some special guests to play with you. What was it like sharing the stage with them?

RH: It was very wonderful. We had Stephan Groth with us. He’s a good friend and I thought it would be great to have him on for the show. He didn't even know if he could join this tour due to some serious issues at home. He flew in from Norway to Chicago; he bought the ticket the day before. He landed and arrived at the venue just before we got on stage. We got a chance to talk for about five minutes and he said ‘okay I’m ready what do I do?’ And I said ‘it's this song, and it's at this time.’ He was jetlagged as hell. But when he walked out on stage – I don't think anyone knew any of that had happened. It was just a magical moment. Here we are after all these years and we get to tour with one of our friends. And he gets to be a part the show and we're having a fantastic time and we love it.

AXS: Seeing videos of the shows online, it looks like great fun. With everyone dancing and singing, it’s like one big party.

RH: Yeah, the best thing is party, but not in the superficial sense. This music has such an important role in so many people’s lives that listen to it. The chance to celebrate that with other people who like it for the same reasons or for who music has been there in times when they need it; it was such an incredible feeling to give people. It was beautiful.

AXS: The lights you guys had going on while performing looked really cool too.

RH: The light show was bizarre but brilliant. I absolutely loved it. We had this laser show going on in the tour and it's so funny hearing these people go “oooh” as soon as the lasers kick in. The last time they saw a laser show was in the 80s, probably. It's just a childish kind of thing, but brilliant at the same time. We're not the sort where we have to take ourselves so seriously, where we have to act like we're uber cool on stage. Our songs can be serious, very uplifting, very emotive, and sometimes very emotional in another sense. We were having as much fun as everyone in the place, we really were. The other thing that's very important in our shows is we talk to people in the audience. People stand out and somehow become involved in the show. And there's no formula for it. It's totally spontaneous.

AXS: Is there one random moment from the tour that stands out?

RH: I did a shout out for my friend who runs a very well respected hat store in Milwaukee. There was a guy in the audience who had this fedora on that look like it had seen better days. And he's throwing it around he's jumping all over the place and he's really going for it. So I look at him and say ‘gimme your hat.’ He throws me his hat and I said ‘oh that's a vintage hat, but you're treating it very badly.’ I pointed out to my friend in the audience and say give that man your hat. I give him the hat, ask him to fix it, and send me the bill. I want this guy to have a nice hat. My friend has never seen us live before and I'm giving him an advert for his store in the middle of the show. That's the kind of spontaneous, silly things that happen at our shows. People just become involve and we laugh and joke and we get so many diverse people from so many backgrounds and styles of music.

AXS: VNV Nation has hit several milestones considering how long the band has been creating music. Why was it important for VNV Nation to celebrate this 20th anniversary? 

RH: It’s just a number. There were some people thinking ‘oh you're doing 20 years of albums cause you're slowly bowing out.’ No, not at all. It's a milestone. Someone pointed out 1995 is when the first album came out and asked ‘are you gonna be celebrating this year?’ I never thought about it because I'm not thinking about the past. I thought we should mark that. That's where the festival idea kicked in. That was really the only reason.  Here we are celebrating 20 years of albums and our audience are amazing people. They're having the best time of their lives. A lot of them felt they needed it, they were expressing that to us. And it was a beautiful experience to be able to party with your friends, meet a lot of great people, see a lot of great people again, and entertain people, give them what they came for. That's the reason we're there. We're not there for our own benefit.

Harris had a lot more to say about VNV Nation, the upcoming box set, and what he's learned about the band, but we couldn't fit it in one interview! Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with VNV Nation's Ronan Harris.