Putting the Ghost in the Machine | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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Putting the Ghost in the Machine

"The whole message of our music is 'be a better person,'" Ronan Harris says. "Do good things and make the world a better place, without necessarily associating with that cheesy, granola, Birkenstock-wearing shit." It's a surprising slice of optimism from a man who's aligned with the cold pulse of industrial music, but Harris makes a living off defying expectations -- his own and other people's. Seemingly in contrast to the ominous depths of his music, Harris consistently spouts idealistic diatribes; his intellect, sense of humor, and lust for life practically make him a humanist. No one else in this dark, beat-driven movement expounds as much love for the spiritual as for the musical.

Since 1990, Harris' VNV Nation has spearheaded the third wave of underground electronic dance, spurred first by the likes of DAF and Cabaret Voltaire and then by the more polished punch of later bands like Nitzer Ebb. Tags like synth-pop, EBM, and even goth-industrial have been slapped on VNV's music. But it's the term futurepop -- which Harris himself coined years back -- that hounds him to this day.

"I detest that name now," the Dublin native admits via cell phone during a tour break in Munich. "At the end of the '90s, I invented the term, but it got misinterpreted." While shaking off the buzzword's stigma, VNV Nation has also faced unfair alignment with another novelty genre. "I definitely wouldn't call us electroclash," Harris says. "It was pretty popular over here, especially in Berlin, though a lot of it was horrific. But our sound is far too diverse and always has been."

That sound he speaks of has indeed been harder to define in recent years. Since 1995's debut Advance and Follow, VNV Nation has meshed propulsive beats and minor-chord synths with haunting vocals: ideal for the black-clad, clove-smoking contingent who haunt goth nights, fetish parties, and other nocturnal balls. Then, with 2000's landmark Empires, a subtle pop sensibility and surprisingly cathartic balladry surfaced within Harris' socialist paranoia. Tracks like "Standing" relied on beautiful, arpeggiated melodies and restrained rhythms to accentuate tearjerker lyrics, a surprising emo twist to a scene usually bereft of such soul-baring. As with many other VNV tracks, "Standing" could almost be mistaken for a love song, but Harris quickly dismisses the notion.

"I would never be that simplistic with my lyrics," he says. "[The song is] about that moment when you've reached a point you've always wanted to reach, having a hard time visualizing yourself in this situation where you're very content and becoming light." After releasing Empires, a critical and cult favorite, Harris says he "reached that point where I had everything I'd ever wanted in one single split-second, and it was the most euphoric feeling I ever had."

Transcendence has played an increasingly vital role in Harris' work. Whereas many of his Metropolis Records colleagues feed off their sci-fi obsessions, penning lyrics littered with cybernetic tyranny and futuristic wastelands, Harris infuses a rare sense of warmth into his words. "I wasn't into this whole dark-future bullshit," he scoffs. "I was so sick and tired of all these lyrics about chemical spills. It sounded like a script to a really bad movie. The thing is, I've always liked industrial music, whether an instrumental or a vocal. But I've always preferred music with a message."

While his uplifting messages aren't your everyday motivational punk rant, Harris' profound themes fit in more comfortably with VNV's context -- an ultrapolished overhaul of the early electro sounds of bands like Depeche Mode and Frontline Assembly. VNV Nation is a huge alternative act in Europe, and its mastermind is well-aware that to translate well Stateside, lyrics are of high importance. "People in America tend to get the context of words and find out what's going on within them more so than over here," he says.

Harris boasts that dark and lovely tracks like "Standing" and "Beloved" (off 2002's Futureperfect) have even been played at weddings -- the atypical kind, of course. But his biggest gratification comes from the live experience, which he's successfully brought to South Florida in years past. (In 2000, VNV upstaged headlining labelmates Apoptygma Berzerk in their last Fort Lauderdale appearance).

"People tend to flip out more in Europe," Harris says. "But on our last tour in America, the audience was an incredible array of different backgrounds. There were college kids with pretty conservative gear, and then there were gorgeous fetish people and punks."

This diverse fan base can be attributed to the fact that VNV Nation has become an electronic act unembarrassed by its pop affinity. Its latest effort, Matter + Form, is a continuation of Futureperfect's sleek, palette-swirling approach, from the orchestral "Colours of Rain" to high-BPM monsters like "Interceptor" and the aggro "Entropy." But as with all of Harris' work, the concept is just as significant as the music.

"Matter + Form was a philosophical concept from the time of Plato," he explains. "It said every item was created from certain raw elements, but I had a more metaphysical take, where rather than looking at a conventional item, you'd look at its potential. Metaphorically, it's stopping for a moment in your chaotic, rushed life and wondering who you are and what you've actually done with your life."

Harris' philosophy has evolved since he first proclaimed "Victory, Not Vengeance" after a late-night pub-crawl and a heavy dose of antigovernment angst. "It was actually meant to be humorous," he admits of the acronym, which became both his band's name and raison d'être. "I don't convey a political message in the music, though the VNV name was inspired by 1984. Those people's lives were horrible, and our world is related to that, with political correctness. But being a strong believer in karma, it mostly means to live life with the best intentions."