A Rare Obsession: Leon Vynehall Interviewed
“I value my solitude, especially when writing music, the process is a vulnerable thing for me”, says Leon Vynehall from his Tottenham studio. Characterised by the British producer as “sauna-like”, he swivels around the room in his office chair to show it off, revealing keyboards and synths stacked up against the wall, a suit jacket hung up casually on the wall and a bookcase filled with resources of any kind. He’s operated there since last October after moving from Shoreditch, and it seems to have turned from a studio into an obsessive workspace and part living space. It was the room that saw him finish up his second full-length album, 'Rare, Forever', which sees the light of day soon on Ninja Tune.
Vynehall made a name for himself in the 2010s by crafting complex, texture-rich house-centric variations in which stimuli pours out like an overfilled pint glass and musical shrapnel flies everywhere. He has a tendency to draw from a wealth of styles that have touched him in his personal life, such as the early funk and hip-hop his mother played in the car, or minimalist composers like Philip Glass that he chose to soundtrack a chronicle from his family history.
His musical tastes have morphed from Deftones and the Smashing Pumpkins to experimental noise rock bands he found in the Tunbridge Wells Forum, such as Joeyfat, Charlottefield, and Jason and the Astronauts. After being introduced to Chris Cunningham favourites Aphex Twin and Björk by a friend, his interest in electronic music spurred him to create some of his own. Those tastes are ever-changing, and as he says himself: “I’m creatively greedy, and all I want to do is devour music.”
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Over six years as a thrilling DJ and thought-provoking electronic artist, his career led up to his debut album in 2018, 'Nothing Is Still'. The album brought textural confectionery by way of string-laden ambient house that tributed his grandparents’ emigration from England to New York City, further accompanied by short films, a novella and a worldwide tour. Nothing Is Still became a critical darling for its ingenuity, but the fatigue that came from such an intense artistic period put Vynehall in a lost-in-the-woods situation.
Slap-bang in between the release of 'Nothing Is Still' and this new era, Vynehall had just finished touring an extensive album cycle, and was exhausted. After creating numerous records and art pieces that grappled with his roots and influences, he had neglected searching within himself and dealing with things that were holding him back. He mentions a self-doubt that hindered him from finding a new perspective for the next record, feeling clueless as to where to go next - “I remember thinking ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough’.”
'Rare, Forever' once existed as an almost completely different album titled A Little More Liquid. “The concept was [originally] about fluidity of expression, and making something freeform,” he recalls. “I listened to it and just thought to myself ‘I sound like a really confused person, I sound like someone who couldn’t catch a thought, who couldn’t finish a sentence’.” - Discussing the nature of creating long-form projects, he finds that music is not created but found in a search within oneself, and at that time in 2019 it presented an overwhelming amount of routes to go and things to prove. “I was so hepped up with being fluid that it kind of took me away from the purpose of what I should have been doing at that moment. I didn’t know whether I needed to try and swim through the treacle or put it down and be away from it.”
Rather than fawning over his next record right away, his obsessive personality became part of the solution as he stepped away and turned towards other interests. He wasn’t completely absent from music, releasing an experimental stand-alone single in late 2019, ‘I, Cavello’, but one could instead find him digging into abstract painting.
The primal approach he discovered within the medium resonated with him, as he explains: “they would start painting and let the painting tell them what to do, where the next brush stroke should go, and what the next colour should be. After doing so many chronicle-heavy research projects with so many layers and looking back, I thought to reject the whole idea of any sort of story or narrative and instead just see what comes out of me. It’s free expression in its purest form.”
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Trying his hand at it purely as a hobby, this absorbing of outside ideas for his own betterment has been a cemented principle in Vynehall’s last half-decade. As we speak, his eyes light up at the prospect of talking about how his art has changed just as much as his person, but it still pivots around the same core values. “I remember this quote from Charles Mingus, he said ‘music is the truth to me, and I’m always changing’.” Jazz also had a subtle influence during this time, not least from the fact that he quotes legendary bassist and composer Mingus. Though not strictly a ‘head’ for the genre he, again, appreciates the thought process. Hints of its boundary-pushing attitude pop up across his album, namely in the breathy saxophone on ‘Alichea Vella Amor’.
“There are a number of songs that are still on ['Rare, Forever'] from the first iteration and I found that with some of them, I didn’t know what I was trying to say with them”, he admits. “But when I came back and put them in context with these new purpose that I’d re-focused on, their context changed.”
Revitalised, Vynehall saw new meaning in tracks that he had let loose for months, such as ‘Farewell, Magnus Gabbro’ and ‘Worm (& Closer & Closer)’. He dives into the latter track specifically: “There’s a vocal sample that goes throughout that says “I know that’s me and I’m in here, see”, and then there’s a soaring vocal that goes over the top saying “closer to my dream, closer to me”. I think it was a very subconscious thing at the time, because when I first wrote that song, I was in the first draft stages of putting the record together. But [after] I’d figured out what to do, those vocal samples started talking to me and made a lot more sense. Perhaps what I was doing beforehand was subconsciously trying to tell myself something.”
'Rare, Forever' sees Vynehall stepping out with a renewed impetus. The record uncovers a direct part of himself more than any other large-scale project before, unfogged from any wider context. Yet, as he explains, “I realised that I only know one small part of myself and that this whole reinvention thing goes on forever, hence the title 'Rare, Forever'.”
His new thesis is presented with gorgeously raw collagework courtesy of Eric Timothy Carlson, famed art director for Bon Iver since 2016. “The snake that you see on the cover is something that I really wanted to use, the ouroboros snake that goes around in an infinity symbol and eats its own tail”, he describes vehemently. “It’s a symbol of that self-actualisation, you know, snakes shedding their skin all the time as they grow and become their next form, and that goes on forever until they die.”
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That cyclical reinvention seems to happen track-for-track within the project, too, with ideas moving rapidly between completely different places as Vynehall tries to find himself. He compares the record to Kanye West’s 'Yeezus' offhandedly, as a similarly schizophrenic set of tracks that never settles into a rhythm, always challenging the listener with another deconstructed take on electronic music.
Still in the business of doing what is expected of him to some degree, Vynehall wanted to nod back to the more straightforward dance material he made earlier in his career. Certain songs muscle their way to the dancefloor, such as the factory-sized garage rhythm of ‘Snakeskin’ and lead single ‘Mothra’, which reads like a dark techno remix of Aphex Twin’s ‘Alberto Balsalm’. Fact is, electronic music has always been in touching distance while he’s explored other genres and mediums. “I still buy lots and lots of techno and house and electronic records, so I play them on dancefloors”, he affirms. “I wanted to make something that fits within the functionality of that but on my own terms.”
Diverting from the lofty concepts, Vynehall unwinds from the overthought material that heretofore has garnered him praise, and even displays self-awareness of the situation on tracks like ‘Dumbo’. A jolting steam train of a cut that gets more heady as it progresses, it acts as the cheekiest and most back-to-basic spot on the album. Vynehall points to a sample tucked in the groove of a voice bluntly asking “dya know what I mean?”, poking fun at how more serious projects require listeners to ‘get’ what the artist is trying to say. “I take my work very seriously as anyone does, but I also love having fun within that”, he adds. “I always do these long-form, narrative, conceptual things and I’m always trying to explain myself, so I thought I needed to take the piss out of myself a little bit.”
Be that as it may, there is still room for sincerity here. The most treasured track on the album for Vynehall is the discomforting ‘Farewell, Magnus Gabbro’. For four minutes, an ambient drone remains still as uncanny tones claw their way around, leaving something that moves you in foreign ways. For Vynehall, it meant far more than what led on. “I think [it’s] probably the most honest piece of music I’ve ever written. I can remember starting it, but I don’t remember how it got from this starting point to the endpoint, it’s sort of a blur”, he says as he attempts to make sense of the day he created the song.
“I was very confused that day and was in the midst of that period of questioning myself. I remember sitting down could hear this drone in my head, this singular note, and I wanted to try and get that out. I recorded one organ and I recorded another, and made them self-oscillate in pitch ever so slightly, so that they never stick on the same note. It created this very meditative drone that allowed me to sit there and not think about anything else other than what was going on within me at that minute. Everything came out in that song and is a true musical representation of how I felt at the time.”
The new album's final track is named after an ambiguous force that Vynehall characterised as Velvet. In his own words, Velvet is “the thing that’s inside of me that guides me or you one way or another, like maybe beckons you to go somewhere and halts you from going down that path. Velvet could be absolutely anything, it could be a person in your life or the butterflies you get when you’re excited.”
Like a more informed gut instinct, Velvet has been steering Vynehall’s decisions throughout the build-up of the album, and is mentioned in abstract ways elsewhere on the record, specifically in the poetry on the ‘In>Pin’ interlude, which speaks of “the clash inside yourself” and “the hidden orchestra”. “All my creative peers and friends, we’re all the same in that we hear shit in our heads all the time”, says Vynehall. “My life is just this continual thing about trying to get it out so you can put it to one side. That’s what Velvet is, sometimes it’s a comfort and sometimes it doesn’t feel so good, but whatever that thing is, it’s taking you to the right place and it’s that thing that you trust.”
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'Rare, Forever' will be released on April 30th.
Words: Nathan Evans
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