By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2009
At times aggressive but always catchy, the music of Hamburg-based electronic band VNV Nation combines elements or industrial, synthpop and EBM (electronic body music). VNV Nation has recently put out two new releases. The first was the boxset “Reformation 1”, which member Ronan Harris says was aimed squarely at their existing fanbase. It features two CDs of live and unreleased tracks, as well as a DVD of performance footage. After that came a new studio album, “Of Faith, Power and Glory”, which will be supported by North American and European tours starting this summer. The following is the first half of a phone interview with Ronan that was conducted in late May. Check back soon for the second part, where Ronan gets more into his views on the current state of the music industry and digital distribution.
What can fans expect from the new album?
Well, Im a terrible judge of my own work. Ill give you an example. There are 2 songs that have become probably our most popular – Beloved and Illusion. And both are songs that I was up until the very last minute against putting on an album, thinking them not the sort of things that people would expect or like from VNV. Maybe they were too commercial or there was something about them that I didnt like, although I love the songs themselves – I must stress that. Everybody else around me said youre mad and to put them on the album and shut up. So I did.
So in that sense, Im not very good at judging my own stuff. As far as the album in concerned, Id say that in some ways its the most schizophrenic album weve done so far, in the sense that its pleasantly schizophrenic. Im going on the comments of one reviewer who had a chance to come in to the studio and listen to all the tracks before they went off to mastering, He said that the range on this album … it flows and everything fits together, but the range on this album is like taking Judgement and multiplying it times ten. Its firmly going off from that point. He said everything flows but the range is incredible.
The other comment that Ive heard is that melodically, this is a very dynamic album. It goes from highs to lows …. Im finding it very difficult to even describe this objectively without sounding like Im patting myself on the back! [laughs]. There is a fine line, a blending and blurring of styles. There is a good deal of electro on this album. Obviously everything we do is electronic, there is not a single acoustic instrument or electrified acoustic instrument on our albums with the exception of the voice. So in terms of styles, if people who are familiar with Judgement found it to be their thing, this tends to go a very big step beyond that. Its a very anthemic album, its a very positive album. Its not a dark album although it has very dark moments. Its also an album of reckoning. It is ostensibly describing the title, which is Of Faith, Power, and Glory. Its a title that some people thought was very bombastic. But these are three characteristics of humans that can either bring them to their greatest heights or destroy them, but that in succession can allow people to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.
In terms of what people associate with VNV, which is a very hard thing to say anyway, the electronic elements are definitely there. We have obviously gone off and embraced other styles in the last couple of years, and this sort of mish mash of styles has definitely factored heavily into this album. Its a very contemporary album, and yet at the same time stays somewhere between the hard electro on one end of the spectrum and the sort of light and melodic on the other. I would say thats the element that people find very positive, but its not a wonderful, the sun in shining, were all happy kind of album. Its more of a sort of reflection of what it takes or requires to reach one\’s own potential.
How did the process of making it compare to previous releases?
It was very similar to Judgement. What changes, of course, is obviously software and what have you. We have two studios working in parallel. So Id write the songs using the computer and using all the available plug-ins and bits and pieces. When we got off the Judgement tour, we built our studio in a new location in Hamburg, so I got a chance to revamp the computer from the ground up and restructure everything. It was a hybrid of digital and analog technology, and thats both for sound generation and processing. Im a big fan of \’60s and \’70s recording techniques as well, and to emulate those using a computer is a lot of fun.
As far as the set-up, ostensibly the brain of the operation is a sort of overloaded Mac computer which runs Apples Logic Pro. I do all my writing on that. To be honest, its just the palette that Ive always used for writing songs because I was using it in the studios where I went to record, back to 1997, Id say. I just got used to it, because I got accustomed to using it in the studio. I continued using it and bought it for myself. Ive been happy with it. To be honest, I dont want anything to get in my way when I get a melody in my head. When I write songs, and this is the thing that people find it hard to grasp, Ill be walking down the street, Ill be reading a book, I could be brushing my teeth, whatever. And a song will play in my head, and its quite literally like you hear a song on the radio and you remember it and you cant get it out of your head. Its playing over and over. I hear the full song. And its when Im not thinking about making music that these things happen. They tend to kind of possess me, they play over and over until I get them out. Illusion was one such a case. There were a number of songs on that album where I had the melodies running through my head for a long time. If Im not at the studio Ill run Garageband and try to write in quick melodies on the actual computer keyboard. I have a form of shorthand that I use to write out how the beat should feel, what the structure of the rhythm should be, what the melody should be.
Overall, for me, its not about the individual elements, its the feel and vibe of the song. And Im never happy with the final thing and I never feel I can take to the conclusion unless it starts to feel the way I wanted it to feel. The lyrics are a part of that, the music are a part of that, and in the end it comes together to give me a feeling. They are not individual elements, as with people who need to hear a voice and everything else is just backing, providing the style and characteristic of the song. For me its the sum total of everything. So how things are sung, what words are used, the rhythm of those words. These are all elements that appear in my head. So I try to document these things as best I can, and I ended up with a directory of 120 files of ideas and bits pieces and melodies. I pull this all down into a strict structure and in the end had to pick 12 or 13 songs to concentrate on for this album because they typify the sound that Im going for. Then it comes to fleshing it all out and giving it the edge that I want.
Of those initial 120 files, how many would you say represented fairly complete songs?
I would say almost all. Im writing verses and choruses and everything. The instrumentation of the song is what it really comes down to for me when it comes to production. Ill try different sounds with it. Most of the time, I have a very specific idea in my head of what I want it to sound like and I know which sounds I will need to make that happen. I can spend days working on a sound, just to get it to have that characteristic that I really really want. Its an odd process, as most of the song is still in my head. Its like youre a writer and you have a sentence in your head, and its not actually going to be finished until your pen has touched paper. So its very much like that process for me. A lot of people think that a finished song is already written out and recorded and just needs annotations and corrections. A finished song for me is that Ive got all of the main structure and elements, and I know how the song is going to flow and how it should flow and Ive experimented with that. But all of that has already happened in my head.
Do you ever go back to ideas not used on previous albums?
There are loads of these little weird song files that lie around with just a sound playing a sequence or some weird progression or some drum track or whatever else. And I basically beg, borrow, and steal and rip these things apart. Ive always done this, even since the early days. I would have half finished ideas of a sequence or a melody and then I would rip it off for another song because I needed something. Id go through of think oh, thats exactly what I need for that song Im completing. So I have idea files of basslines, drum tracks, melodies, anything like that. Even sound effects. I go through them all, and then I start to hear and refamiliarize myself with them going into the production of an album, I make notes. Ok, this idea file has the following…. – I describe it in whatever way I can. So if Im working on a track and need, say, a very very strong bassline thats in a certain key or style, I have a list of things to go through and try. Ive done things where Ive written a song and the verse wasnt anything spectacular and Ive cut and pasted two songs together to see if it take a song to its logical conclusion. Because, for me, sometimes the point of the track …. say for a song like Dark Angel, the point of the track is what happens not until about a minute before the end. There are a lot of songs that Ive written that are like that. Everything happening in the song is only building up until the end, where the actual point is being made. So in many ways, when I write a song, I have a main idea or a main key element, and everything else is being built around it to highlight that point.
As you write, are you thinking about how the songs will be performed live?
Up until the album, Id say that I always thought about the live element, i.e. what is someone going to play? The more crucial thing on the album was okay, whos going to give Mark Jackson the count in for this one? Because the drums start on the first beat. Those are the kind of considerations. The other consideration is how do you start a song purely with vocals, where the song starts with only vocals and slowly builds up behind it? Id get the key wrong. I do think about these things, because our live show is a very important part of what we do. The records are this is us in the studio, live is this is us demonstrating our music. Its not just that were playing it live; it is, I suppose, it is us acting it out.
What were the reasons behind putting out the Reformation boxset?
The overall intention was to put out a fan release. We wanted to release Reformation a number of years ago as a way to avoid the need for singles, because I believe the release of singles is a pointless task. In the \’50s obviously it was the only way to do things, but in the \’70s and \’80s the whole idea of the single was an advertisement for the album, or an additional version from the album to be played on radio. The strategies and formulas were worked out to make that happen. I dont really think that is the case in the music genre we belong to. So Reformation was meant to be a follow up to the album Matter and Form and it was to include a number of live tracks, some unreleased tracks, and alternate versions from that album. It would be a way to pack a bunch of things together that we had available. It never happened. The story behind that is the live tracks were recorded at a venue where we didnt find out until long after that the venue wanted a great deal of money for us to use those tracks. This is something that doesnt happen in Europe. It kind of shocked us, and I think that the people at the venue looked at the status of the VNV Nation and got the feeling that this is a really big band and wanted vasts amount of money for it. We fought and fought and tried to reach a compromise, as we had a bunch of great tracks. But then I started working on Judgement and thought okay, I cant release this in connection with Judgement, it would make no sense, it would be too late to release this.
So what happened was Judgement came out, we went on tour for the best part of 9 months. We came back here and had lost our studio, because the complex wed been in closed. So when we got back off the tour we found a location and started building a new studio, working on the new album in a slow pace, letting it come as it wanted to. In about mid 2008, I met up with a bunch of people to discuss plans for what we were about to do – start our own label [for America]. It was an idea wed been thinking about for a number of years, because the opportunities available to us had been growing and growing in terms of what distribution companies offer to artists directly. Artists who are somewhat successful. I wouldnt call ourselves ridiculously successful in any shape, manner or form. We do okay. But our audience had broadened massively. The range of people and their musical backgrounds is getting more and more stellar. We had planned that when we inaugurated this venture, setting up out own label, that we would release the Reformation boxed set for that.
There were number of intentions for it. One, it should have really good packaging, because I want this to be a collector\’s item, something special that signifies that were starting off something spectacular here, we hope. Second thing is that we had a lot of content we could use. We had a live CD from a number of different concerts, none of which required a vast amount of money to use the sound from the club. And then we had remixes lying around for a number of years, we had alternate versions, bits and pieces. There were a ton of things we wanted to include. Basically, what I wanted to do was just to put out a release specifically aimed at our fans. And most importantly was that as far as price was concerned, it should be as low as possible. Because we run our own label, that affords us some luxuries. We can decide the price, we can still do so and make some kind of profit, which we invest back into what we do. It would be in no way exploiting our fans. This is a gift, priced as low as we can make it with all the concerned parties taking their cut along the chain. In the end, the box itself is a high quality item. We wanted that, and researched suppliers, sourcing suppliers in Europe actually. It basically comes in a box that youd want sitting upon your shelf, because the company that did it is a specialist in bound boxes and were using this for cover art. They do all kinds of crazy stuff, but what we wanted something that was a really nice compact pack.
The idea of the DVD was that there is a public access channel here in Hamburg that has a TV show for our musical genre. They had edited a number of live songs over the years, and we had a few that we were having edited ourselves from concerts we recorded. Originally, it would have just been a double CD, but I said \’no, lets put in everything but the kitchen sink\’. So we threw in the DVD as well.See all interviews →