Introduced to American audiences a decade ago on Wax Trax! Records (which was also home to bands like Ministry, Coil and Front 242), VNV Nation was quickly embraced by legions of industrial music devotees. And with European festival appearances that have drawn as many as 25,000 people, the group also managed to win over trance, goth, synth-pop, darkwave and nu rave fans.
But things are playing out a bit differently here in the States, where the band is midway through a tour of what booking agents like to call "intimate venues." Over the course of 22 dates, VNV Nation's combined audience will still be considerably smaller than just one of those major festival audiences.
And Ronan Harris seems just fine with that.
"We really do everything we can to put on a good live show, whether it be 150 people or 25,000 people," says Harris, who's written, produced, sung and played nearly all the instruments on each of his band's seven studio albums.
"I think the best show on our 2007 tour was in Reno. Nobody knew us, the promoter was taking a risk on us, and I think the show was badly promoted. In any case, we ended up performing for like 100 people, but it was, for us, the best show of all, because everybody was so into it. It felt like by the end of it we knew every single person in the audience. It was like playing for your best friends, in a way, like playing at a party."
Dance dance resolution
Concert performances in the aforementioned genres can often be either stoic or canned, but VNV Nation has earned a reputation for kinetic live shows featuring actual instruments. (On this tour, Harris and drummer/electronicist Mark Jackson will be joined by two additional keyboardists.) While acts like the Chemical Brothers could easily exit the building without affecting their pre-programmed audio and light shows in the slightest, Harris prefers the more performance-based approach of a band like Underworld.
"Karl Hyde is a master, and they're just an incredible act," says the Anglo/Irish Harris, who now lives in Germany. "But you watch a band like, say, Justice or Boys Noize, and they're attracting huge audiences when they're just basically standing behind laptops with controller keyboards."
If you're just going to be a deejay, Harris figures, why pretend to be anything else?
"Obviously we love a lot of dance music. It's a big influence on our music, and it's something that we personally enjoy. We love going to clubs. And there's some bands that do really well when they're standing completely still and not doing anything, like, say, New Order were in the middle of the '80s. It's just two ends of the spectrum."
VNV Nation's end of the spectrum is lit up by Harris' impassioned vocals, which are powered by infectious synth arrangements and driving techno rhythms. Lyrically, the group (whose name stands for "Victory Not Vengeance") somehow manages to snatch affirmation out of the jaws of annihilation without sounding ridiculous in the process: "This is just one day you'll have to face / This is not the whole of your life," sings Harris on the 2009 track, "Verum Aeternus," which is Latin for "eternal truthfulness."
While VNV's music expresses no particular ideology, Harris is well-versed in politics and philosophy. But all that takes a back seat when it's finally time to talk about his first and most enduring obsession.
Growing up in Wexford, a small town on the southeast coast of Ireland, Harris first became fascinated with electronic music after hearing Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" single at the age of 7.
"I wanted it so bad, and my dad tried to get it for my birthday," says Harris of the minimalist hit that ended up putting Krautrock on the map. "But he couldn't get the single because that was after it had already been in the charts. So he got me the album instead, which was kind of nice of him."
When asked what one synthesizer he'd want to take along with him if stranded on a desert island (presumably one with electricity), Harris answers without hesitation: "A Roland System 700, because it's what I saw [Donna Summer producer] Giorgio Moroder playing on television when I was 10 years old. I looked at him standing in front of this bank of electronics, and I finally connected the sound I loved with this audio laboratory. and I thought, 'One day I will own one of these.'"
That day would eventually come, but it would take decades.
"The price of them was so unreachable, but then through a very, very good friend of mine, I found a studio that was selling one for nothing. I mean nothing. The guy didn't know what it was worth."
Harris brought his long-coveted godfather of synths home in a daze.
"I have never been happier. This was my childhood dream, and now I had it. And I just stared at it. And I left the room and I came back and it was still there!"
"It was the most bizarre feeling," says Harris of what remains a personal career highlight. "This is the thing I wanted all my life — what do I want now?"