“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims,” said designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller. It’s a view of constant creation leading to wonder, rather than regret, on a personal and global scale. It’s a view that directly connects to the ideals of optimistic futurepop duo VNV Nation.
VNV Nation traipses the space between underground electronic and industrial music with power synth and emotive vocals. Founder and lead singer Ronan Harris creates restorative, electric symphonies. It’s the kind of music that could score inventor Elon Musk’s utopian future of self-driving cars and solar-roofed everything.
DGO spoke to Harris about the positive outlook of VNV Nation, the corporatization of music, and what he holds sacred.
On the tour busReading anything interesting on the tour bus?I’m reading a biography of a gentleman named Norman Bel Geddes. There’s a verse in the song “Streamline” inspired by him. He was an American industrialist designer, a true creative savant. It goes through his entire life and how he jumped from job to job to job just wanting to create and be better. Everything he turned his mind to he was phenomenal at. He is one of my heroes. He changed the 20th century and a lot of people don’t even know he was.
Before that, I was reading a James Ellroy book, “Perfidia.” It’s hardboiled but nuanced and done to the max. It’s cutthroat and it is vile and it takes you into the sewer and Ellroy writes aspects of humanity we have to embrace, the darker side to ourselves.
That brings us back to VNV Nation. There’s a dual nature to your music. The audience has to barrel through a driving, dark forcefulness to reach an uplifting symphonic release.Indeed. There’s one side that is, “if you want it, you’ve got to work for it.” It’s not a matter of, “Hey, happy song. Everyone be happy.” It is a process. It’s an attitude toward life. I’m not always the best at it, but I do my best at it most of the time and I succeed for the most part. I conquer my demons and I try to conquer my bad habits.
The other aspect is that there’s not a sense of melancholy in a bad sense, but melancholy as a sentimentalist. It is very personal with an inner reflective touch. No matter how happy and uplifting a song might be, it can also be intense and focused.
A growing monocultureIf you could change one element of the music world what would it be? There’s a monoculture growing. People think it’s already here but I think it’s only getting started. Everyone is listening to the same things and that’s starting to work on a world level … The commercial world heads on like a juggernaut. They’re going to create the Japanese icon artist who’s going to be so perfect everyone across the world will love he or she or it.
I love niche music. If I could change anything it would be the ability for niche music to be reachable – aximizing that.
Most people just like music. It’s nice. It’s there. They like the hits. “It’s a nice song,” is as far as it goes. It doesn’t go deeper. Every now and then a song will sum up an element of their lives but they don’t need music. For those people who do need music, I want the ability to cross-pollinate and hear diverse genres and break free of the purism.
There used to be a college rock attitude in America where you would listen to a college station because you felt, “I’m alternative. I’m different.” Which meant you listened to everything it played and you were aware of all these bands whether you liked them or not. Chances were you got into bands you never would have liked because of it. That’s what I mean when I miss the college radio station attitude. If I was to encourage people to do more it would be to listen to internet radio stations because they curate music for you. Not everything will be to your taste but leave it on because you’re going to hear something that will do it for you.
If the monoculture and corporate influence are building, is there hope for genuine music? Music will continue. Music continues.
One side is that a lot of indie music I hear is incredibly derivative. Bands play me songs and I say, you’ve ripped that riff off from that song and they’ll go, “Yeah, I really like it.” And I’m like, “Don’t you understand that is wrong?” … That tells me that people don’t seem to think it matters or that they think no one is going to hear it. It’s not important enough. No one will ever like us. There is a lack of confidence in some independent music.
But then you have explosions in underground music. There’s this whole five-mile-an-hour R&B movement. It’s this slow, incredibly experimental electronic music in the UK. FKA Twigs is the biggest example. What a creative explosion. That’s a kid who could’ve been left alone with an iPad or a computer and found out how to make this for themselves but didn’t learn the rules like everyone else taught. Just made their own music. It’s off the wall. It is a thing to itself. That tells me, when I hear older people saying, “Oh, music’s dead. There’s no good music,” you’re just not listening. There’s tons.
The sacredGetting back to your music, it’s held sacred by a good number of people. What do you hold sacred, music or otherwise?When someone has shared their heart and soul. When someone shares their honesty. That is sacred.
There are too many people who love to mock and don’t want to take anything serious because they have a problem with themselves. Their problem is their own self-worth, their own esteem, and their feeling of being lost in this world. I call them the hurr-hurr crowd because that’s all they’re capable of.
That’s musicians, too. There’s a ton of musicians who are in bands because they wanted to be in bands not because they had anything to say or offer. They made a band name and did the promo photographs and started to write the songs after the fact. A lot of them, by virtue of the feeling of lacking in themselves, they tend to mock others.
I find that there are things you can joke about. I joke about my own music. It doesn’t mean I take it insincerely. This is my heart and my soul. I recognize that in other people. Art that is honest. Art that is made for sharing and is there to offer something new to the world, I think is sacred. I think human creation, human expression is sacred.
You seem a very humble, sociable sort of person.I like to talk to people. I love to meet people., to know more about them. I like to interact. Sometimes I feel I don’t deserve – actually quite a lot of times – I feel I don’t deserve what I have. I get to a point where I almost apologize like, “I’m really sorry I’m playing this song. Sorry you bought tickets.”
It’s always allowed me to look around and see other people and how they’re living and give me reference points. It can be quite overwhelming when people tell you their most personal and painful secrets and how your music gave them words or solace in a situation. You sit there when they speak and you think, “Holy f—, how does anyone come back from that.” My girlfriend has asked, “Do you need therapy for this?” And I don’t. I just find it incredibly touching and think of it in terms of the human condition and I feel humble, incredibly humble by people sharing their lives with me. The flattery in this is off the scale. I don’t know what to say. I find myself lost for words. I don’t feel good enough, justified enough to speak in certain situations where people call on me for words.
Your music absolutely does channel a positivity in the world that deeply touches people. I’m very surprised when I write songs and people react to them as they do. There are times when I write a song and I know that people are going to love it. But there are songs where I think, “Really, that did that for you?” I know what it did for me but it was a reflection of an event or thought that happened in my life.
There are people who like the music for its melodies. There are people who like it when it’s trendy. There are people who don’t like it. But to those people whom the music matters, I want them to know I take this very, very seriously. What they find sacred I find sacred. I do tell people don’t take a lot of things too seriously. Don’t take life too seriously. Take some time to enjoy it. It’s the only one you got. It’ll be gone before you know it. You don’t think so, but it will be gone before you know it. Enjoy every second and try to help other people with theirs because not everyone is fortunate.
Looking back and the new albumGoing into the wayback machine, off the “Transnational” album, you ask learned spirits to inspire you in the song “Teleconnect 2.” What learned spirits would you like to sit around a kitchen table and talk to?I think I would ask Plato what he meant when wrote about Atlantis. That would be kind of cool.
Umberto Eco. I would love to know how he imagined the story for “Foucault’s Pendulum.”
A great many writers from the 1800s. Too many to name.
I wrote that learned spirits lyric before the album. I wrote it in my head before I knew it was going to be the last track. I wanted to feel inspired. It was almost like a prayer to all of the people who have gone before me to help me.
What’s going on with the new album?I’ve written about half the album. Everything mentally is written. I’ve written out all the notes. I’ve written out all the melodies, parts and pieces, but I keep writing new ones and new ones and it starts to steamroll. I’m going back after this tour to work on this album. I have a lot already prepared. The longer I leave it, the clearer it gets. My girlfriend heard some bits and pieces, some of the piano melodies and lyrics, and she said, “OK, well, you got ’em again.” You won’t be unhappy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer