We asked Ronan Harris of VNV Nation how he felt the new album ‘Of Faith, Power and Glory’ represented his progression as an artist and a person.
“VNV has always been a bit of a catharsis for me but it’s also served as that for so many other people”
Ronan] The progression seems to happen naturally – it’s not something I intentionally do. I do find myself sometimes deliberately trying not to rehash the past. I like to have fun with music and do slightly new things or if I’ve got an idea that I’ve been working on through an album, on the next album I might perfect that or I might really enjoy that style and decide to go with it and take it further. As far as the album is concerned, one of the biggest things that’s happened in the last few years is that since matter and form when working with a producer, I never really knew how a lot of studio equipment works – I knew what it did in principal but I didn’t really know how to use it and I guess I was in the same position as a lot of people where they just bang it out and think, ‘yeah, that sounds great’ and in actual fact it sounds rather miserable and there’s bits of it that can be seriously cleaned up.
There are a lot of people within every genre who love the ‘lofi’ sound or they like it to sound slightly more personal and not polished – I don’t like ‘polished’, but what has happened in the last few years is that I’ve learned so much more about how to make the sound that I hear in my head. I don’t mean to sound like a psycho or something but songs tend to play in my head without me pushing them – it’s like I always have this melody humming around. I can be walking down the street or making a coffee and a song will start playing in my head, it’s like when you hear a song on the radio and you can’t get it out of your head – you don’t know the words but you start making up your own because you’re so incensed by the song.
That’s generally how I’ve ended up writing an awful lot of my songs. I tend to get these sequences or ideas for melodies and I try to write them down and if I get to the studio in time before I forget them, because they tend to pass, I can actually throw out a quick idea which will remind me exactly what I was thinking of. I tend to jam a lot in the studio. To be honest, in the past it was hit or miss. I would have an idea about the way I wanted a song to sound and it would never get to the point – not always, I mean there were a lot of songs that did – that I wanted. What’s really changed since then is that I have my own studio – it’s mine and I’ve really learned in the last few years how to get the sound I want. Also my appreciation for how to construct a song has changed. There used to be a time when I would throw everything and the kitchen sink into a track and it would be, like, four billion sequences and it was cluttered and lost the point. If the point was the vocal or the point was the message or the point was a melody I couldn’t structure everything to highlight that. It’s how I approach song writing. I suppose it all comes down to experience. Another thing I would say is that it’s been a very liberating experience and I feel a hell of a lot happier making music now because it’s less frustrating for me than it was in the past.
We brought up the subject of the new stylistic influences to be found on the new album as we were interested to find out if this represented a new direction. This is what he told us about the new styles and musical diversity.
Ronan] Yeah, there’s some indie going on there… I’m sorry about that… I find that alternative music is a sphere of music that comes from before there were defined genres and formulas. What I despised really a long time ago was that in the 80s, say, you listened to a band and that was the band you had to listen to and if you listened to that band you had to listen to two other bands but that was it. You didn’t listen to any other bands because that was your thing and everything was broken down into such small little bordered paddocks. I’ve always had a wide taste in music because music affects me on a very deep level. I don’t understand a person who can only listen to one style of music, who can only listen to trance or rave or happy hardcore or something like that – that would drive me mad. Like everybody I’m multi-faceted which means I’ve got my moods and got my times when I want to listen to something that’s maybe slow and melancholic; sometimes I wanna hear something that makes me wanna pound the walls and VNV albums end up like that. I embrace quite a lot of alternative music that just ‘gets’ me -Whether it be seen in the UK as a ridiculously commercial thing, after the album was written this Spanish friend of mine sent me the ‘white lies’ album. I used to like the chameleons back in the 80s and I was listening to this album thinking, ‘this is The Chameleons!’ it’s like them re-done but beautifully re-done. They represent the chart side of things but there’s so much brilliant indie music out there that doesn’t match formulas, doesn’t fit within these silly categories. It’s all about really strong song writing and being a soundtrack to your life.
When I lived in England, I always found Northern indie music was obviously a reflection of an awful lot of frustrations, particularly in economic times past, but was so full of incredible amounts of soul and emotion. I’m not saying people in the south weren’t capable of it but I can’t really imagine people in, say, Ashford in Kent writing a song about how terrible it is to live there. Being Irish I grew up listening to a lot of music coming out of England but I particularly zoned in on music that had and incredible amount of emotion, whether it be fully restrained and held back making it so minimal it was louder than bombs or whether it was full on straight in your face and hitting you with every emotion possible. All of this has definitely influenced me and it’s strange that in the last couple of years I’ve felt liberated in the sense that I didn’t feel that I’ve had to fit in these silly borders of ‘you are in an Industrial band therefore you must make music that sounds like this’. VNV Nation‘s music has been about the fact that no matter the instrumentation that’s used in the songs, they’ll still have the same power and emotion and message.
I don’t plan on being a rock band but when someone complained two albums ago about ‘oh my god there’s a guitar sound on there’ and I’m like ‘no, it’s not a guitar sound – it’s a synth but never mind. I’ve had string quartets on albums in the past and I’ve had other things and no-one complained then, so what’s the problem with me bringing this influence in?’ I think that’s kind of music Nazism and I don’t really like that. I spend a lot of time in America and I listen to a ton of different styles of music. Obviously I like a lot of electronica because I’ve always resonated with electronic sounds and they’ve resonated with me. Realistically I’m sitting in the studio and adopting different varieties of styles. Ostensibly it all ends up being electronic and I’m just using it as a sound pallet in a way. I like the fact that I can explore all these different directions. Perpetual from matter and form was kind of partly going that direction – it was a bit of an homage to a few different periods of time or tracks or bands – but that was all synthesied through into this big euphoric VNV thing which has become one of our most popular and successful songs though at the time there was a small minority of people irked by it.
If you’re a fan of a band you’ll know that on forums or whatever there’ll be those three people who feel like they speak for twenty thousand people and have nothing better to do with their day. I don’t write music for people who can’t progress and can’t evolve. Emotionally I think this album is the most unrestrained and I also felt the most liberated by it. I’m very, very self critical so for example with the song illusion on judgement I was really unsure about putting it onto the album because I felt that it was a bit too commercial and might stray people’s attention away from what VNV is about and make them concentrate on the fact that this is a really catchy, nice, almost radio song. I can guarantee radio will not play it. Nobody tells us what’s on our albums, nobody tells us what’s on our covers, nobody tells us how to release our records – we do it all ourselves. We still do it exactly the same way we’ve done it since 1998 so nothing really has changed. I explore the sound and obviously I’ve got different ways.
The new album’s got very electronic sides, some Industrial sides, some very melancholic soulful sides, but overall it’s an album of resolution, almost leaning towards redemption. I find a lot of people describe VNV‘s music as a ‘missile of hope’ and I very much appreciate that because this music has been there for me in times when I needed it just to be able to express what was going on inside me – things that I couldn’t talk to anyone else about. Being a guy, that is an issue that we all face – it is very hard sometimes to rationalise and vocalise your emotions – we tend to bury it and push it aside which causes even bigger problems for us and can screw us up severely. VNV has always been a bit of a catharsis for me but it’s also served as that for so many other people – it’s me sharing my experiences in my life, my observations of the world, and other people feeling that it fits to their view or that it can fit into their paradigm – that they can adapt these lyrics to their own personal situation.
VNV have always written very powerful lyrics. So, we asked about the themes behind the new album.
Ronan] No VNV title is there arbitrarily. VNV titles are picked for the very reason that they describe the contents of the album. To give you an example, ‘Judgement‘ was, and is, ten different interpretations of the word judgement. Not the big strokey beard, Moses on top of a hill kind of judgement, more as a kind of western version of karma. It’s the outcome of a situation based upon your choices, but judgement can mean many things. ‘Faith, Power and Glory‘ is something that you can split up into three different parts and say these are three ideals or three tenets of social behaviour that we lust after, we desire or we become obsessed with. We either become obsessed with them because we encounter them and they take over our lives because of a hole within ourselves to fill this need or we seek them because we feel the desire to fill – again- the void within our lives.
Faith is something that can drive people to zealotry. Anybody who follows an ideology to the point that it becomes the written word scares me and I think a person like that lacks the intelligence to understand that these ideals came about as a result of a long winded process and it developed through the use of intellects and should not end with a bunch of protesters running around with their fists in the air burning houses down or whatever else. Faith is something that can bring us to the highest of abilities but also destroy us. I don’t mead faith in the sense of a religion – it can be anything, it can be the faith in an ideology or a dogma whether it be religious or political, social or philosophical or whatever else. Humanity is full of people who love to believe that they’re right without ever understanding that there is no absolute. Science has never been right – it still re-writes itself consistently.
I have that discussion with a number of friends I’ve met through the band who are well known academics or renowned scientists which is one of the luxuries of being in VNV – I’m the guy who wants to talk to them when they come up after a show. Everyone else would go ‘right, where’s the beer’ and I’ll be like ‘this bloke does quantum physics research! Dude tell me everything!’ Power of course, history is full of examples where it has been used for the sense of good, the betterment of society, personal gain or just basically becoming utterly corrupt and fucking people over left, right and centre because you feel like that’s your sworn duty. Glory is praise – it’s the result of a situation where you’ve accomplished something. Glory can just be seen as the archetypal accomplishment of an ideal, it can also be praise – it fucks with the ego and we all know what happens there. Just because people say you’re brilliant for achieving something does not make you brilliant – I would firmly argue against that. The other version of the title is that it is three stages in a process that can bring you to your ideals.
Ok, so faith is faith in an ideal. I’m talking about this on a personal level. I don’t mean to sound too intellectual because this is really simple, everyday stuff. I generally like to feel that I’m talking to people who feel they’re somewhat alternative and they’re not part of the background noise or the breeder kind of head in the sand, safe lifestyle, don’t think, don’t speak, don’t have an opinion people. I don’t make music for people like that. Creative people – alternative people – have the power within them to do incredible amounts of things. They’ve been responsible over time for writing all of the books, journalism and history writing, the fashion, the aesthetics, the architecture – they are the expression of their age and yet these are people who do not belong to what is considered general society because they’re ostracised so they feel themselves to be somehow detached. And yet, they end up interpreting the age for future generations to come. If you wanna know what the fifties were like you go back and you look at the creative expression of that era, whether that be historians or journalists or whatever – those are the people who feel the need to express something. This is something I’ve always referred to as the ‘never-ending light’, which is a term that has been used in VNV Nation for a long number of years. It is the passing on of knowledge and the passing on of experience from age to age but it is only done by creative people.
I believe the potential is in every single creative person not to worry about what kind of PVC they’re wearing or if they’ve got the right shoes or are listening to the right bands, but to actually turn this potential energy within themselves into something great. All of them have brilliant ideas but they all say it’s never gonna work out and I’ve heard that – I’ve been a victim of that myself. Faith is faith in an ideal, which leads to self-belief. Power is the ability to enact that change or enact those ideals or the process towards those ideals, which comes from self-belief – it’s an incredible motivator.
It’s the antithesis of procrastination of always saying ‘yeah, I’ll get to it tomorrow’ because you never will. Glory is just in its most positive sense the ability to achieve goals. Whether you achieve them or not is neither here nor there, it’s the fact that you’ve set about a process of doing something which will change you – it’ll change your attitude to things, it’ll give you the ability to say ‘ok, that failed but I know I can do it.’ you learn self strength, you learn your abilities. You may suffer for who you are, you may suffer for your existence but it’s all going to be worth it in the end because the rewards are countless and it’s a totally different kind of reward that you can expect – it’s not going to be a lotto scratch card, it’s going to be something much more intangible and spiritual, yet it might end up being a wheelbarrow of cash if that’s what you’re after but I always believe you should never make money your goal because you’ll ultimately fail. Make success your goal because if money is a consequence of it, you’re grand – you’re alright, you’re in harmony with the universe. VNV has always been about the potential in humanity to learn about its strengths through its adversities. I’ve been more coded about it in the past but I’ve been very blatant about it in recent albums.
I’m not re-hashing a theme – it’s different interpretations, different situations and viewpoints. Everybody has the potential in them to something fucking awesome and I’m not trying to sound like one of these ITV on a Sunday morning ‘we like to help kids see the potential within themselves’ people. I think people are cleverer than anyone gives them credit for. A lot of it is just disillusionment. It’s introversion because people feel hopeless and they feel that they’re never going to get anywhere and that they’re in a rat’s maze. Living in Ireland back in the eighties there were no jobs, no chances, no social development, no nothing. Things were looking fairly bleak. There was a poster put up at the ferry port in the late eighties when England was booming saying ‘will the last person leaving Ireland please turn off the lights?’ We felt everything was hopeless but out of that hopelessness a great deal of expression was created.
You guys are based in the North – an area which has always been known for producing some incredible music and incredible expression – incredible painters, incredible writers, people who really get to the heart of the matter. Adversity teaches you your strengths – it brings things out in you. When you are complacent and satiated you want nothing – you can’t express anything. The human spirit and character is not born out of misery but it is born out of always needing hills to climb. That’s my view of things – nothing comes from nothing, kinetic energy will not just come from you sitting still all the time, you have to move, you have to set something in motion and things will happen for you. I don’t believe this is like some self-help thing where everything is going to be rosy and brilliant but life will be a hell of a lot fucking better than it is now if you’re staying still and complaining about everything.
As a final question, we asked Ronan if he would like to say anything to any fans who have been touched by his songs.
Ronan] Brendan Behan is an Irish playwright, and a fantastic drinker, a very vulgar but beautifully eloquent man and he put it in a nutshell – it’s one of his most famous quotes – ‘Fuck the begrudgers’. Most people in this world spend their time trying to drag others down. You don’t have to share what you’re doing with everybody. If you’re touched by what we do, see it as a bit of a push. You’ve got it within you to do whatever the hell you fucking want and to show everybody up. Enact everything you want. Obviously, if somebody’s out there planning to be a serial killer I wouldn’t be saying that to them or someone was thinking about starting up a pottery workshop I wouldn’t think my music would be entirely appropriate but if someone has a dream of being a musician or artist or movie-maker, fucking get out there and do it. The Internet is your friend. Everything you need, every tool is at your disposal. You are in want of nothing except confidence. Confidence comes from experience – take that from me. I am still highly critical but I shit bricks going on stage. I make music purely for myself – this is my ideal in making music. Me and Mark (Jackson – keys, percussion) make music that makes us happy. We enjoy making it, we enjoy listening to it at the end and hearing the results and feeling really good about it. For us it’s like a little bit of a challenge and then we’re sharing that with other people. There is no saying ‘lets make an album to achieve the following’. If anybody does see me walking by in a club and I’m not too jarred, I’m very easy to talk to so don’t ever be afraid to come up and say something.
For more information visit the band’s Myspace and website.
Read our review of ‘Of Faith, Power and Glory’ by clicking the image below.