VNV Nation

VNV Nation. The name is easily synonymous with a pioneering revolution in electronic music. They are a band that brought fresh life to a withering body of industrial doldrums, an entity that consists of only two souls—Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson—yet is a shining light that proves the value and potential that can come of a partnership intent on creating genuinely moving music. They care about their music, and more importantly about their fans. And it shows.

This interview was cancelled a few times before actually coming to fruition due to technical difficulties at the start of the Matter + Form tour, but thanks to Ronan’s patience and all the great folks at Metropolis Records and Adrenaline PR, we were finally able to have a solid chat about VNV Nation’s new album, and about his thoughts in general.

Daryl: I was shocked to hear that you had a producer for this album, especially since you’ve played the role yourself in the past and the band is normally very exclusive.

Call OutRonan: I wanted a co-producer rather than a producer. A producer would ordinarily have a great deal of decision making in the sound of an album. I wanted a co-producer because I felt I had reached a limit with my own production skills, where there were sounds or vibes that I liked a great deal and wanted to achieve without spending a great amount of time on them. I wanted a much bigger sound for this album, but with more expertise and things like high end studio equipment that I ordinarily wouldn’t have access to because I produce things myself. I suppose you could say that I wrote the songs as I ordinarily do: I did all the instrumentation, arrangement, sound programming, and gave instruction on how I wanted things to sound. One of the things that Humate brings to the table (which I found very valuable) is that he’s not headstrong and doesn’t need everything to sound his way. He actually offered an awful lot of suggestions; there was a really nice play between us where we would bounce ideas off each other and it helped to develop tracks a bit more. Sometimes we were just mixing ideas, but it was my concept as a producer. In the bigger world, it was how someone knows how they want something to sound tells an engineer how things are going to sound. I didn’t want to call him a “producer” on this album, but it was co-production, engineering and mixing.

D: You actually took a step back in terms of the equipment you used on the album. How did using older equipment relate to the themes that you wanted convey?

R: I wanted a very specific feeling for this album and I’m a bit of a synth-geek. A lot of digital software and synthesizers and stuff just don’t cut it and didn’t come close to what I wanted. I wanted to go back to taking out my old analog synthesizers. I wanted to use old compressors. I wanted this album to have a very organic, warm feel to it. So I said “Okay, this is what I want, this is what I want it to sound like,” and we decided how we would go about doing that and we came up with some ideas. A lot of it was basically mixing some 70s recording techniques (some of my favorite electronic music does come from the 70s, like early Human League and Kraftwerk) and saying, “Okay this kind of stuff achieves a certain level through things like tape saturation and analog delays,” if you want to get technical about it. These were some of the sound qualities I wanted to get into the album. There’s something about analog synthesizers—not all—I mean, there are people who rave about all of them, but to be honest most of them are crap and they’ve been superseded quite easily. There are some vintage choice items that can produce sounds and have a quality to them that is unlike anything else. It’s a characterisic that is unmistakable.

D: Your music is very dramatic and your visuals are rather stoic. How do you conceptualize how the packaging should look after you’ve completed the music?

Matter + FormR: It’s very strange. It’s kind of like a cloud, if I could put it that way. Little ideas start to form and grow, becoming a very complex process. A lot of things are visualized in an abstract sense in my head. What I wanted with the packaging was something strong that had a relation to minimalism. I believe in the philosophy that less is more, so as far as the imagery, I wanted a lot of symmetry and a lot of biological, but also very modern and futuristic elements. In the videos we use on stage for example, a lot of them work around geometric objects. There is an underlying element of philosophy on the album dealing with transition. I am also a big fan of things like psycho-geometry and numerology and stuff like that, which makes me sound like a completely weird geek, but I like incorporating some textual elements with visual stuff to go along with the songs because they’re all connected in some way. To me it’s more of a feeling, in that when I bring a song to an album, they all fit a theme. An underlying theme had certain elements of alchemy. Alchemy would be a metaphor that you could use to describe what Matter + Form is about. It’s about transition from potential and the acquisition of knowledge of oneself and turning that into ability. I use metaphors to parallel that and describe it in a different way. For example, the three symbols on the front of the album equate to the three sacred symbols in alchemy. I replaced one of them with our own logo, and anyone who has knowledge of alchemy might understand why. These are all like subliminal subtexts that somebody might be interested in; other people may say “hey, cool—nice cover.” I do spend a lot of time and thought on these things. Not everyone gets it, but that’s not the important thing to me. The important thing is that when I look back at the body of work, it contains the necessary amount of layers and levels, whether they be apparent or not.

D: So what does the logo represent alchemically on the cover?

R: Well, Sulfur and Mercury are the two opposing ends of the spectrum of the three sacred symbols of alchemy. The central symbol should be salt, which is the balancing quality. Maybe it’s slightly humorous, but I put our logo in as the balancing quality.

D: (Laughs) Your music has always been very energetic and emotional, but lately it seems to have become even more positive and uplifting. I wonder if this reflects your personal life and your success as a musician, or vice versa.

R: In a way, yes—but it’s not necessarily true that it’s become positive lately. I would say that this album was meant to have a more constructive or focused feeling. It reflects a stage that I’ve reached in my life. Futureperfect was about me looking at the world, and every album has had its own theme and focus based around what I was thinking or feeling at the time. But yes, it is about having turned a lot of potential into a certain amount of ability. But I also felt that it was a message for a lot of people I’ve met along the way who like our music. I feel a sense of responsibility in that I share my thoughts and feelings with a lot of people who listen to our music, and I hope they will gain something from that. Writing an album that is about something positive (or different allusions to it) with each song having its own take on that, I hope in some way it might reach somebody and give them some form of inspiration. I spent a lot of time over the last couple of years forming a label (on a superficial level) and doing a lot of things for ourselves. I felt I’d reached a point of absolute contentment with being a musician or with the world we live in and the things that we do. I just felt like this was my civil statement about how I want to see things, how I want to face things for the next few years.

D: So the whole business side of the industry and having to handle everything yourself doesn’t really affect you negatively?

Call OutR: It is an incredibly stressful process, and quite a big job to run your own label. With the success VNV Nation has in Germany and in the United States (or North America as a whole), there’s a large number of demands on us. I’ve always made business decisions. Even if we had managers or labels, I always had the last say in major decisions. This is just taking it one step further. But I don’t have to do all of the work because I work with a lot of people who assist in doing all of the jobs that are necessary. I work with people who are experts or have a forte in something that I need done. It’s kind of like a matrix organization in that way, and it works very well for me and everybody else around us. The stresses come when the album is finished and suddenly I have to start promoting it, organizing all of the interviews and press, organizing the tour and all that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t call it a negative experience at all—it’s more of a great insight because I’ve learned so much about the music industry in the last couple years. I’m quite happy that we have our own label.

D: Every time I play a VNV CD, invariably someone says “Wow, this is great…what is this?!” I think you have the potential to reach even more people than you imagine. Since you’re not interested in major label deals, I wonder if you’ve noticed a kind of “word of mouth” phenomenon.

R: Actually, that’s something I’m very proud of, because how music is presented and how people get to hear us is very important to me. There is a set formula for how you promote something in the world today. Through various marketing techniques, you put music out in a way that everyone expects. I’ve never been interested in that, although it’s a game we have to play. I’m happier not to make music that is pop, watered down to a point that can reach a mass. I do want a certain amount of intelligence in the music, and I would like people to hear about it by word of mouth or to hear it in a club and say that there’s something in the music that they respond to. A lot of people coming to our concerts in the United States said that they heard about us through friends, or their friends put us on a compilation. They wanted to learn more and became fans through that. I don’t know how to turn that into reaching mass numbers of people, because invariably in order to do so, you have to dumb down the message and the music. Maybe there is a method or some master of marketing out there who has got some solution that I don’t know about. My focus is to reach people but not necessarily making too many compromises.

D: I think people can also relate to the amount of emotion you put into your live performances and the messages on your albums. I think you guys probably do that more than a lot of other electronic bands.

R: I don’t see it in terms of doing it more than other bands. It was something that we enjoyed doing and felt very natural for us. It was our thing. We weren’t trying to be different or individual, but I was never the type to do so. I took my influences and I made something that I personally enjoyed. It was never made or developed in terms of something else or as a reaction to anything. I guess I’d reached a certain point in the adult stage of my life where I had many things I needed to say to myself, with Praise the Fallen particularly. I wanted to document everything I needed to say at that time. From my own end, I hit the nail on the head, I guess. I am amazed by the fact that I can look back at the album and actually recapture exactly what was going through my head, what I was feeling, where I was, all the people around me, and everything that was going on in my life. It’s like a perfect picture of it. Putting emotion into a concert—well, that’s something different. Mark and I have always felt that we wanted to give the concerts we expect when we go to a concert. There’s no reason for us to be there if there isn’t a crowd. We want people to enjoy the show. Those people who come to us before or after the show explain what the music means to them. We have time for them and we very much enjoy that because it’s a reward in a way for us. Those people have a million bands they could listen to, yet something in our music has inspired them or made them feel something in some way; they feel it’s positive or something they wish to share. That’s quite an honor and quite a compliment for us. We’re very respectful of our concerts in that we mainly want to be ourselves on stage. We don’t try to have a façade or employ psychology techniques to put on an image or mood that makes everybody believe that’s what we are when it’s not. I think one of the secrets of VNV Nation is that we have been true to ourselves. We very much say who we are. There are times that get a bit chaotic when we’re playing a concert and we’ve got 1,500 people coming at us from all directions. It’s not possible to have the time for everybody, which is something I find upsetting because I would like to have time for everybody, but I’d probably be sitting around for three days. There are times like last night (we played North Carolina) where there were maybe 350 people at the concert and people came up with the most amazing things to say…even people just saying “I really like the new album” or “I really like that song…” or something as simple as that. You can sit around and laugh with people, joke with them, have a drink with them, talk with them…there are people who tell you very, very amazing stories. One guy even told me something last night about what the music did for him that just left me speechless. I don’t know—it’s just that we never really thought about it. We just did what came naturally and this is how it’s become.

D: I have to mention this… It seems like after every VNV Nation CD comes out, bands tend to crop up with similar sounds. Recently I’ve even noticed bands appropriating some of your imagery and visuals, especially the flame part of your logo.

R: Yeah, I noticed that too.

Call OutD: What do you have to say about that?

R: It’s quite a compliment when you think about it. I won’t say it was just us, because after about 1999 when we did Empires, and Apoptygma Berzerk did Welcome to Earth and Covenant did United States of Mind, there was this sound that had been generated by these three bands and a lot of bands were influenced by that. It also gave a lot of people the feeling that they could incorporate the euphoric trance sounds that they were listening to on the side into their music. That wasn’t actually what we were trying to do. We were just sort of saying that was the music we were listening to at the time—before it became vastly commercialized and formulated. It was still underground. We were listening to that and many other things. We wanted other people to incorporate other forms of music into it, kind of give the encouragement to do a little cross-pollination. I use three band names to give people an idea because they’re easy references that many people would know. But in European interviews I was telling people that as well as electronic music, I also listen to a lot of bands that don’t fit into electronic music categories, like, say, Interpol or Death in Vegas on top of listening to underground techno, experimental electronic music, EBM or whatever. People were just staring at me, like “how can you equate these together?” All that I hope for—and a number of bands that I know say the same thing—is that it encourages people to listen beyond the boundaries of the cliché, because with every popular album, whether it be Wumpscut or Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, the number of copies and absolute duplicates was astounding. It was the same with Ministry. It was the new thing and everyone had to sound like that. Suddenly a million industrial bands cropped up and that’s what they sounded like. I think that’s a bit tiresome, but unfortunately that is the way it works. About every five years there’s a revolution and there’s a hot new sound that everybody has to sound like. It is quite a compliment. There is a lack of originality in some bands. They’re not copying other bands, but they’re not taking the sound forward or developing it and doing something new with it. I don’t see us as innovators by any stretch of the imagination, but I just think we added a very emotional sound to a melodic structure and sounds that fit with it at the time, as a trailer to get it across. I think it’s an incredible compliment to know that we’ve had an influence on the scene or in the shaping of electronic music. How many bands can actually say that? It’s an incredible thing. It blows us away because—and I say it to you very honestly—Mark and I were talking about this last night… We were standing outside of a pub just having a chat and we both started to laugh. We laugh at it more out of shock, because we take it in our stride when we go off to a gig and do the concert and meet fans and everything. Every now and again Mark and I will just simultaneously stop, look at each other, and go, “What the fuck?! How did this happen and how did we get to here? Did we ever actually stop to think about what we have done?” It’s frightening, but also incredibly mind-blowing at times.

VNV NationD: What do you think about the term “futurepop,” then?

R: I think the term itself was invented mainly to get us played on radio stations in Germany, because there’s the case in America that everything in the genre must have the words “industrial,” “goth,” “dark” or “darkwave” attached to it, and I don’t think any of those terms apply to us. When we were trying to get played on German radio, they wouldn’t play anything that had the words “dark scene” or “goth” or anything like that attached to it. We’re definitely not Goths in the sense that I understand the genre, and I don’t go around covered with petruli oil and sulking in the corner, upset because my parents won’t let me out past 10 o’clock and nobody understands me. I think there’s a bunch of punk kids who can say that nobody ever understood them, but they’re not Goths. Anyway, the term [futurepop] got misunderstood, because what we were trying to do at the time was incorporate other sounds and basically bridge a bunch of types of music that we really liked. Oddly enough, we all started doing the same thing around the same time. I don’t call what we do now futurepop, I basically just describe it as an alternative electronic band. I got a bit angry at the term for a while because of the way it was being derided or the way it came to mean a kind of “synthpop on steroids.” That is nowhere near the proximity of what I’d intended. Stephan Groth from Apoptygma was in Hamburg (where I live) a couple of months ago, and we were talking about this and he said, “But it worked and served its purpose and it did something.” We invented a bloody term man, and everyone uses it! How successful is that? How many people come up with titles for a style of music that no one has ever bothered to use? “There’s no such thing as bad press” is one adage I could say to that, but whether people liked it or hated it, I still came up with a classification for a brand new style of music that they couldn’t continue to call electro, EBM or darkwave because it just wasn’t. It was an extension of dance music, which is something that spirals off from industrial music in the beginning of the 90s, if you think of it that way. Bands like Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb have inspired all the techno artists to go off and do their own thing. They all (and I know many of the major ones) have gained a great deal of influence from bands like Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and whatever else was around in the late 80s. We continued on listening to underground electronic music and the dance things and just decided to bridge them together…Why not? There are a lot of industrial artists who do what I think of as just a very aggressive version of Goa trance, but they still call it industrial. They incorporate many different styles into it and personally, I like that. I like to see people taking in a variety of different styles. When Nine Inch Nails incorporated drum ’n’ bass into his music at one time I thought it was cool because it wasn’t strictly drum ’n’ bass—it was just a flavor of it. Kudos to him.

D: I know you had some production issues when releasing the Pastperfect DVD…are you planning on doing a follow-up on this tour?

R: Well, I’m actually planning something magnificent for the end of the year which is not a DVD, but is something very unique. I think the DVD served its purpose in that it was a pet project and a dream of mine. It was very successful and I was very happy about that. I was also very happy with the content. The quality of it appealed to fans because it wasn’t too super-highly polished, but it felt kind of like a concert and gave a good idea of what we’re like live. It showed a very accurate side of us and who we are, what kind of people we are, and how things are on a tour bus. But I have something much more interesting planned. I think there’s going to be another DVD, but I want to give it some time.

Call OutD: Is this related to the project you’ve mentioned before…something about a story soundtrack?

R: No, no, no, nothing like that. It’s something VNV-related—unique and special—planned for the end of this year. When I get off tour I can start work on it. It’s definitely going to be interesting.

D: So it’s top-secret and you can’t give me any clue as to what it is?

R: I can tell you that it’s going to make a lot of fans very happy. To be honest I actually do think a lot about what fans want. Fans have asked for years if we could put out some kind of live thing, and we did. They’ve also asked for vinyl…maybe this year we will do that. I like that. If fans are interested in something, we’ll put it out. We’ve had fans asking for a bunch of other things, so instead of just doing them one at a time, I think we’re actually going to bundle them together in a way that no one ever expected.

You can keep tabs on VNV Nation and their current tour at vnvnation.com or metropolis-records.com.