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Q&A IN SIDE-LINE MAGAZINE WITH VNV NATION
VNV Nation - "Cruising To A Planet Near You"
VNV Nation sails back onto the scene with a soon to be released sixth album, "Judgement". Infusing several new sounds with compelling lyrics and exuberant vocals, "Judgement" promises to be their most ambitious and heroic album in the VNV canon to date. We caught up with a serious, yet always jovial Ronan Harris from VNV's headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, and delved into topics from synths, to sci-fi, to saving energy, to spandex, as he and Mark Jackson prepare for their next musical 'operation overlord' which includes an extensive world tour. Look, up in the sky, it's a torch, it's a flame, it's...well, nevermind! (By Christopher Hoppe and Violet)
SL. Since moving your studio to Hamburg 6 years ago, how has your music creating process changed? With the extensive list of studio equipment noted on your website, it would appear as if VNV is prepared to rule the world through analog synths! What new gear did you incorporate into the sessions of creating "Judgement?"
R. The location where I write music has changed a few times since I moved to Hamburg. For "Futureperfect" I used an empty room in an office because I could play the music loud at night. It wasn't ideal but it did the job. For "Matter+Form" I wrote it somewhere just as basic and produced it at the studio where it was recorded. After the M+F tour, I finally found an empty studio room in a studio complex. I've been here 2 years and couldn't be happier. What changed with the music creating process was finally having a permanent location with the right atmosphere to be able to focus on developing ideas and sounds. There are a lot of producers here doing different styles of music and sharing expertise, ideas and experiences. It's been an incredible education. With every album, I've always had a specific sound in mind that I wanted but I didn't know enough about production to reach that. I came close and was happy but what I was happy with 4 years ago, I wouldn't be happy with now. I learned a lot about production in the process of making M+F and have spent the last 2 years building up the studio and learning as much as I can. For "Judgement," I found myself writing songs in my head, wherever I was that wasn't in the studio. I wrote the melody down with notes to describe what I imagined. All along, I had a very strong idea of how I wanted the album to sound. In the studio, I catalogued every idea - songfiles with melody ideas, basslines, chord progressions, sounds and sequences, percussion ideas and more. I had notes saying for which song each was intended. As the proper production started, I fit it all together to see what worked and what didn't. I had also written near-finished demos that developed slowly. As for "toys" - it's true that I like using analog synths. I've used them on every VNV album for most main sounds. They have a big place in a production but are just a part of the whole sound. My modular synths were used for weird basslines, percussion, chaotic weirdness, atmospheres, etc. Tracks would be builtout of multiple layers which added a lot of depth to the sound. The production was a 50/50 split between digital and analog. I use very few synth plug-ins except for a few that have a unique character. I find that most plug in synths sound harsh, weak and noisy. I used a computer and DSP cards to compose and record but I also experimented with '70s recording techniques to give the tracks a lot of vibe and warmth. I also got to use some vintage effects and dynamic processors. Out of all the tools used on the album, my Ridge Farms Boiler and Eventide Eclipse were 2 items I couldn't do without. They're not cheap, but what they do is worth the money. I used to do what most musicians do - I had a limited budget and spent it on many things to make it go as far as possible. Instead, I bought one high quality item at a time and built up the studio from there. This really pays off in the end.
SL. "The Farthest Star" is a classic VNV anthem, at times reminescent of early electro. What are the chances that this will be the first single?
R. The chances are very good. The American label would prefer "Nemesis," I think, and the European companies we work with prefer "The Farthest Star." Why not both? It's all a matter of how much time I have in which to do a single. We've a lot of touring going on. I don't like putting out singles on CD unless they offer enough valuable content to the listener. I think an EP is a better idea.
SL. "Descent" is quite a departure from future pop, with gothic, foreboding vocals describing infernal imagery and percussion that slowly throbs like an antiquated machine from the Industrial Revolution, or like something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. What was the inspiriation behind this hellish dirge?
R. I don't see it as a departure at all. VNV Nation's music has always been made up of a large variety of sounds and atmospheres. I'm sure you know that VNV's music is not just the tracks that get played in clubs. Me, I see "Descent" as another in a series of atmospheric and cinematic pieces I've touched on over the years, but this time I took it to a new level. It's a very evocative piece, I think, that is partly inspired by old school industrial as well as soundtrack pieces I've heard over the years. I wanted the atmosphere and texture to create the background to the lyrics, which are basically describing a vision of hell on earth and its causes. It's an extreme version of what is going on today - a series of holy and ideological wars that fan a fire of twisted malignant fundamentalism, and fanaticism on all sides and move further towards the loss of all morality and logic. All wars are like this. There is no logic except the maxims you derive from it after it's over. In “Descent”, I am not talking about any one war, this applies to events all over the world. In any conflict, all sides think they are right. All sides wage war in the name of what they think is a just cause. The innocent are made to suffer or are killed as though it were an acceptable sacrifice. My point with the track is that, as humans, we seem to have an incredible capacity for violence and cruelty but we seem only to repeat our mistakes over and over instead of ever seeing that our capacity extends in both directions. We can be the greatest if we want to be but, instead, prefer to use our energies to express rage and aggression to one another. I do believe that a day will come when we see the error of our ways, but it will only come through events that bring us to the brink, as close as we can come to our own annihilation.
SL. There are some unique new sounds on this album, including the introduction of a guitar sound on "Nemesis." How were you able to incorporate this unlikely sound so seamlessly without scaring away the hardcore EBM/Industrial purists?
R. The sound comes from a synth called Sculpture. I used it to make a lot of sounds on this album, and also used it on the AFI and MSI remixes I did last year. Actually, the demo for "Nemesis" became the inspiration for the MSI mix, which is weird. It's a weird synth but its sounds have a lot of vibe to them. Using it to add an indie-guitaresque feel in some of the tracks was just bringing in another influence that's very contemporary, I guess. I've used a lot of different emulated sounds in the past to give a different feel to a track but I make sure these sounds fit into the VNV style of songmaking and express the emotion or feel in the right way. I like introducing influences we've never used before. The shocking truth that might bring some people to tears is that I do like a lot of guitar music too. I know, I know. Mass suicides will result from saying this, but I do not fear the wrath of the synth-fanatic. I'm a synth user, through and through, but I listen to a wide variety of music which is going to affect me someway or other. The reaction from fans so far is that they love it. It's another layer in our evolving sound. It's never too much or too little. if someone were scared away by it then I would say they are hung up on something petty and don't get what our music has been about. It's not exactly FLA's "Millennium" (laughs). In any case, our music shouldn't be dictated by purists of any type. Ironically, in the album credits I actually wrote "No acoustic or electrified acoustic instruments were used in the making of this album." I think it's funny. It echoes the Human League's very first albums.
SL. Overall, the sentiment expressed on "Judgement" seems to carry a paradoxical warning for humanity, expressing hope for the future, yet leaving no room for excuses if one chooses to not take responsibility. If you were a superhero called, for example, the 'Industrial Avenger,' who would be your 'Nemesis,' and who would you vindicate?
R. You know, this is the first time anyone's asked me a question like that. Well done! (Laughs) Before I answer that, I need to know - what kind of costume would I have? I mean, I'm stocky. I'll make people piss themselves laughing or throw up if I have to wear spandex and where would the world be then? Dropping in to stop a war would be achieved through causing the lot of them of to break up laughing. Mind you, it would work. Weird, eh? If I were a superhero I'd be the last person you'd suspect as being one, and I would never be called 'industrial avenger.' That sounds like a really bad username you would find on Myspace. I could use ascii characters to spell my name though and take photos of myself from angles to cover my less desirable curves. I can see it all now. By the way, "Nemesis" does not mean "enemy." That's a common misinterpretation of the word. It's the name of the greek goddess of Judgement, who punished people for Hubris. In fact, all the songs on "Judgement" relate to the title. All are interpretations of it, in some way or other. Yes, I know, that wasn't an answer, but I fear the good readers of this publication imagining me jumping across rooftops in a cape, and that's a really horrible image for someone reading this before going to bed.