Nestled in his Hamburg, Germany recording studio, VNV Nation’s Ronan Harris is puzzled. He has taken a break from editing video clips for his band’s upcoming world tour in support of its latest album, Matter+Form, to ruminate on the last tour, in which it sold out venues across the United States, an impressive feat for a European industrial music act.
“I don’t know where 40 percent of the audience came from,” he says. “They weren’t regular industrial types, either. Everywhere we played, there were loads of regular people. I was amazed. I mean, we had parents with their kids. We had regular college students. And we had people who just generally like alternative music. I thought, ‘Okay, obviously something’s happened.'”
Whatever’s happened, this much is clear: VNV Nation has found its audience.
Harris’ Irish brogue possesses a unique mix of unflappable confidence and self-conscious humility. “I’m just a former project manager for an oil company who started writing songs,” he demurs at one point. Still, one wonders if, after becoming arguably the largest act in the industrial music genre, he isn’t being just a little coy.
VNV Nation, the bedroom project of former project manager Harris, was born in London in 1993. It took him two years to release his debut effort, 1995’s Advance and Follow; the response was positive enough that Harris recruited electronic percussionist Mark Jackson to help with a spate of inaugural live shows. In 1998, the newly minted duo released Praise the Fallen, an album Harris regards as the band’s first true record. “What VNV Nation is today stems directly from Praise the Fallen,“ he explains. That album introduced the world to the band’s unique sound — impassioned vocals and thought-provoking lyrics overlaid with pounding, anthemic beats — a sonic mélange that could be likened to a futuristic war march intended to stir the hearts of its synthetic troops.
Praise the Fallen paved the way for VNV Nation’s larger success with 1999’s Empires and 2002’s FuturePerfect. Frequent US tours cemented the band’s reputation as an act that could enthrall live audiences and dance floors. In short, VNV Nation became a name that needed no introduction in the goth/industrial community, and with each successive release, it gained momentum outside the genre’s close-knit walls with a swiftness that surprised everyone, Harris included.
What about the band might have attracted this diverse following? After all, the goth/industrial genre is traditionally ignored by the mainstream. Maybe it’s the music’s infectious danceability. Or perhaps it’s VNV Nation’s philosophy — defined by the band’s “Victory Not Vengeance” motto and Harris’ poetic voice. Whether his lyrics ruminate on life after death or implore his audience to “stand their ground,” his ultimate intent is to provoke thought. “I wrote Empires and Praise the Fallen to describe what was going on inside of me and how I saw the world, with lyrics I felt deeply about,” he explains. What was surprising, however, was just how many people connected with their meaning. And the success of VNV Nation clearly demonstrates that his message is being heard.
That message is being communicated no less strongly with VNV Nation’s latest effort, Matter+Form. Explains Harris: “The album concept was one of transition, lyrically and also musically. The title even comes from a subject within philosophy which is the transformation of one base substance into something else. It is about realizing potential, or turning potential into ability. That is illustrated through every song, whether it is lyrically or through the music itself.”
Matter+Form is certainly the band’s most diverse record to date. Over the course of its eleven tracks, Harris mixes VNV Nation’s trademarks with dalliances into underground dance music, uplifting electropop, and even piano ballads. He believes this new direction is indicative of both the band’s wider appeal and his own constantly evolving music tastes. While VNV Nation’s home is certainly in the legacy of industrial music, its new album draws inspiration from a myriad of styles — from indie bands such as Sigur Rós and Interpol to European underground dance artists like Vitalic and Azzido Da Bass. In truth, fans expecting a reprise of the formula that made previous VNV Nation efforts so popular might be surprised by the new album’s sonic genre-bending. But Harris isn’t worried: “I think it’s our most comprehensive work.”
If VNV Nation’s live shows are any indication of the band’s appeal, Harris’s confidence is not misplaced after the band’s successful January tour, which included a sold-out show at the Fillmore. In fact, one of the attendees that night was Harris’ highest-profile admirer, AFI’s Davey Havoc. “VNV Nation is not only one of my favorite electronic bands, but one of the few current bands that I feel passionate about,” the East Bay icon says. “It is cinematic and emotional. It is dark yet dancy, heavy yet beautiful, brutal yet melodic in a way that has you instantly singing along to honest and heartfelt lyrics. Simply, they are glorious.”
Harris even invited the AFI frontman and Bay Area local to join him onstage. “I was shocked,” Havoc says. “I had no idea it was coming, but despite me being totally nervous, it was a joy and an honor to join VNV Nation.” Harris was equally smitten. “It was a very spontaneous thing, to ask him to come up,” he says. “I thought it was just amazing, something really special.” Adds Havoc, “Whether it’s from the stage or the floor, I can’t wait to sing along with VNV Nation again.”
He might get his chance next week. Now sporting an expanded lineup plus a video and light show that, Harris enthuses, is “a whole lot more energetic,” VNV Nation is poised to blow away new and returning fans. And while Harris is certainly thrilled with his largely industrial fan base, he also is delighted that, with each successive record and tour, more and more people outside of the genre are becoming fans: “Sometimes I ask [our new fans], ‘Why is it that you like us? You don’t like the genre, you don’t like the style of music, but you like us. Why is that?’ And they say, ‘The message is very much what we want to hear.’ I think it is amazing. It’s a real life-stopping moment when someone says something like that to you.”