Music » Music Lead

Dancin' in the Dark

VNV Nation's synthpop may be sullen, but the dudes who make it are anything but.


VNV Nation frontman Ronan Harris (right) wants you to - "Get off your ass and get yourself out of your problem."
  • VNV Nation frontman Ronan Harris (right) wants you to "Get off your ass and get yourself out of your problem."
A surreal thought occurred to VNV Nation founder Ronan Harris during a recent show in Atlanta. Playing at the midtown venue EarthLink Live, he realized that just the night before, pimpin' pee-wee football coach Snoop Dogg had graced the very same stage. The laid-back mannerisms of the gangsta-rap icon stand in stark contrast to Harris' pulsating, darkwave synthpop -- not just sonically, but also in terms of perceived popularity.

"Snoop Dogg has become a very, very popular character in alternative culture," Harris says, chatting during a rainy afternoon in Nashville. "We were onstage thinking, 'Snoop Dogg was here last night?' The perspective on that is just incredible. 'What are we doing here? How did we get on the same stage as that guy?' We still think of ourselves as a little band. We've lost our perspective, in that we don't think of ourselves as having got bigger and bigger and bigger."

But the Berlin-based duo -- which also includes drummer Mark Jackson -- has grown into one of the world's premier touring electronic acts over the last 15 years, thanks to the stomping techno tantrums of 1999's Empires and dreamy keyboard bliss-outs of 2002's Futureperfect. The band's throbbing tunes have become playlist staples at goth and industrial clubs -- and as a result, VNV often gets labeled a goth band, much to Harris' chagrin.

"It's a death sentence in a way," he says. "It's something we never really have to fight against in Europe. But over here, there just seems to be two terms: goth and industrial. I'd rather be called industrial than goth. And it's no offense to gothic people, but from a musical perspective, it's not what we're doing. Our music's emotive, there's a lot of passion to it -- but I could describe a lot of bands like that from many different musical categories."

The Dublin-born Harris certainly does his part to escape the bats-in-the-belfry stereotype. In contrast to his carefully measured, Gary Numan-worthy vocals, his speaking voice races along like a quintessential fast-talking Irishman's, complete with a jovial brogue. Furthermore, when talking about VNV Nation's latest album, Matter + Form, he notes that his creative reference points were moody, but not explicitly gothic-leaning -- bands like Interpol, Death in Vegas, and Sigur Ros.

"I don't see why we would have to be called gloom-and-doom," Harris says. "I read a review this morning which painted a picture like we were the bleakest, most depressing band on the planet. I wondered if the reviewer had actually listened to any of our records, or if they had just listened to El DeBarge all day. By comparison, I'm sure that's why we sound like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

Indeed, Harris frequently uses the word "positive" when he speaks -- especially in terms of what effect he wants his tunes to have on people. A measure of hopefulness isn't exactly what springs to mind when listening to Form, which recalls the Human League's vintage electro-pop even as it screams forward like a frantic, high-BPM discotheque rave-up. But at the same time, Harris' faith in music as a way to achieve catharsis or encourage self-improvement is undeniably Pollyanna-like in its optimism.

"Every album is written with a state of mind -- the point that brought me to where I am," he says. "Futureperfect, the album prior to this, was about my dissatisfaction with the world around me and things I found in my own personal life that mirrored it -- but also my need to change that.

"[Form] is about transition, or turning potential -- particularly creative and personal potential -- into ability. It's aimed very much at people who feel like they don't know what their calling in life is or what their abilities are. [We're] trying to -- hopefully -- incite people to feel that they can be something much better than what they already are."

Harris adopted the same approach to his musical career, which originally took second fiddle to his day job as a network specialist and computer programmer at a large corporation. But eventually he realized that he was "pretending to be someone else, when I went there in a suit and a shirt and a tie" and made the transition to becoming a full-time musician.

His dedication has certainly paid off. VNV Nation fans aren't simply palefaces who soak up the sunshine only when driving to CVS to get black nail polish. Thanks in part to a series of all-ages shows, its concerts now draw people who are into everything from indie rock to goth punk to trance. And like Harris' can-do attitude, the band's followers find that VNV Nation's proactive stance on solving problems -- rather than drowning in abject misery -- is the root of the band's appeal.

"So many people that I speak to at the shows just love the lyrics, love the mood, the vibe, the message -- they love this togetherness feeling," Harris says. "We have heard some stories from people that have just flattened us and left us completely speechless. We're not wallowing and sitting in a corner with our hands stapled to our foreheads, saying, 'Everything's tragic.' We're actually doing something about ourselves. There's a great deal of 'Get off your ass and get yourself out of your problem.' Wallowing is a waste of time."

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