The Mystery Behind It All
"I don’t really like talking that much.", says the refreshingly down to earth British artist Leon Vynehall. Known for being media shy, Leon has developed an enigmatic persona based on a highly respected body of work over the last few years.
Judging from his two EPs Rojus from 2016 and Music for the Uninvited from 2014 he’s trademarked a sound which blissfully sways between a romantic style of house, deep electronica and dramatic instrumentals.
But Leon is now turning a corner, upon the release of his debut album, Nothing Is Still, he has found a groove based around the idea of shifting away from his roots. An embrace of the post-modern composition rather than the beat.
This is a highly personal project based on his own families migration across the world decades ago. Accompanied by a series of films, a novella and a stunning debut, in this, you can see how clearly Leon channels his influences through his music, whether it be Steve Reich’s academic colours, Jonny Greenwood’s exploration of melody or Oneohtrix Point Never’s chaotic electronica.
Their influences so important Leon has been able to craft for us a personalised mix of music that he carries on his shoulders. Vynehall describing them as being ‘ever-present since he discovered them.’
Leon Vynehall really is one of dance music’s most thought-provoking talented producers working today. Find out the full story behind the debut record Nothing Is Still.
Let’s talk about you as an artist, there’s a subtle tension that has been accumulating for a while in your music, it’s hard to work out what side of the fence you sit on. Are you an electronic artist, house producer or a post-modern composer?
First of all, house music and dance music happened to be the door that opened for me at that particular time and I kind of ran with it. I’ve always done lots of different types of music. I’ve been in noise bands and punk bands and shoegaze bands and twee little folky things.
"Whatever time I have on this planet, I’m best put to use when I’m being creative."
Leon Vynehall's world
What instruments were you playing?
My main instrument in those other forays was drums. But I’m a jack of all trades master of none sort of person, self-taught on everything pretty much, bar a few lessons on the guitar. But everything else I tried to learn via a more photographic route, through watching and looking at shapes.
You went down from five people to one and you changed the dynamic and the number of instruments you had to rely on so something else must have shifted in you?
You could say it’s the age-old thing of the drummer wanting to be the creative one, so he goes off and does his own project. I don’t know, I’m a curious person. I’ve always wanted to pick up instruments or see what that sounds like or talk to this person and ask them their view.
I think I’d been in two bands by that point that had begun to go somewhere and then just dropped off and it was around the time I started doing my own stuff at home more. We were recording an album at that point and I’d come back at 11 pm, I’d open up my laptop, and I was still living at my mum’s, and I’d be fiddling around until about 4am and then I’d be up again at 8 am.
But I think that after a while when you’ve had fairly bitter experiences with bands you almost feel like you had the license to do it yourself.
You have had several long players before this, Rojus  and Music for the Uninvited  but they’re not considered long debut albums. Why is that?
I think ‘Music for the Uninvited’ was the first long player I put out and it was 6 tracks, and it was maybe my fourth release and I really didn’t feel comfortable calling it an album. An album is a very significant thing for me. I think people look at things a different way when they’re considered albums.
“I once couldn’t write anything for about 6 months …When you really have this need to get something out, it’s like being ill.” – Leon Vynehall on creative block
But are you hesitant because this is how you will be earmarked?
Yeah maybe. And then the other one, ‘Rojus’, they were just dance tracks and house tracks. And I’ve always felt uncomfortable calling something full of house tracks, however, structured they are, or how the sequencing flows. An album is a very significant thing for me. I think people look at things a different way when they’re considered albums.
Have you thought about doing soundtracks to films?
Yes, I’d love to do that. This in a sense, is sort of like me, rather than waiting for someone to commission me to do something, I’m almost doing my own one myself.
What film have you seen in the last year or two has inspired you?
‘You Were Never Really Here’, Jonny Greenwood. Everything that Jonny Greenwood does.
‘You Were Never Really Here’ is Lynne Ramsay’s 2018 film with Joaquin Phoenix. It’s fantastic, it’s like a more arthouse version of ‘Drive’. Joaquin Phoenix is one of my favourite actors, he’s remarkable, really intense.
I would definitely love to do something for film or TV. I’m really interested in the idea of making something for something else that isn’t yours. I know people that work on soundtracks and they say it’s a very difficult process but I’m kind of morbidly curious about it, and how intense it would be because you’re like the eighth person in the chain of what goes on, from what I’ve heard.
“It started when my grandad passed away.” – Leon Vynehall
So maybe talk to me a bit about the story of the debut record and the history, because I know it’s about your family, immigration and the trip they’ve made. So how did that start?
It started when my grandad passed away, I called him Pops, we all called him Pops, and as families do when a member dies everyone comes together and the first way to grieve is to start talking about them and exchange stories and reminisce.
My nan started to talk about their time in New York which I’d heard about before, but she never really divulged that much openly about it when he was alive. I’d heard stories about it because her sister (my auntie) still lives in Miami. But she pulled out this box of pictures and started telling stories, I was so fascinated by their story. Because to me, they were Nana and Pops, but then to hear about them being younger and these adventures such as finding their American Dream was really intriguing.
In a crass way, I drew parallels with me travelling around touring, even though it’s not the same as trying to find a new home.
Then in a facetious way, I looked at all of the pictures that were strewn across the table and made a frame with my fingers and thought it would make for a neat LP cover. It all really just snowballed from there.
I also think my nan is a very humble woman, she’s a fantastic storyteller, she’s funny but she’s not a bragger and I didn’t want that part of their lives to get lost in future generations. I didn’t want it to become Chinese whispers.
So this is a way of keeping your family story alive but also exploring the art and symbolism of remembering and the power of remembering?
Yes, and also in a selfish a way it’s a way that I can stretch my creative muscles using something that is from me and from my family.
There is something deep in it. The music is tense, it’s inviting but it’s quite sombre and there’s real drama going on.
There’s drama in the novella.
It’s like an 8-part opera or something.
The music is intricately connected to literature, whether it’s figuratively or directly. I printed out all of the chapters and I would go through everything with a highlighter pen.
The reason that there is that in the music as well is because the whole project is at once about my family story and also about how all these mediums have a really intrinsic relationship with each other.
I think we’ve lost the art of the narrative in music though.
I think concepts and narrative within music or albums can be quite loose sometimes. If people were going to do that, it would be great for them to go in deep with it.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is that you’ve taken the time to structure and make a coherent idea around your life.
Not my life.
But it is your life in a way.
Actually, there’s a funny little nugget there which is that in the book Stephanie, the main character, my nan, suffers a miscarriage and that would’ve been my mother. So I’ve actually written myself out of existence in the novella.
But was there any trauma involved in the passing of the story and the understanding of the background and what happened? Because the story of the immigrant these days is one of trauma.
No, there’s not a correlation between that. The story in this sense is more just trying to find your place somewhere and going to whatever lengths you can to try and find that. So maybe it’s over the Atlantic Ocean or 20 miles up the road.
It wasn’t necessarily trauma, it’s more about a journey of hope and new pastures. When you’re there finally realising that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side thinking ‘I don’t really recognise this as the dream I thought it was going to be.’
So what do your parents think of this project?
My nan is kind of gobsmacked. My mum is very caring and supportive, I could make a terrible piece of work and she’d still be proud of me. She’s biased.
But what was her immediate emotional response? It must have been very deep?
She was very encouraging when I first did it and saw how much work I put into it and then actually when I presented it to her with the novella and all the artwork she did get quite emotional about it.
"It’s funny you keep saying house, as I never see myself as this house guy."
On being pigeonholed
But there is a contradiction that I’m picking up here that you don’t talk to the press and you don’t like to talk about yourself, yet you’ve released an incredibly personal record and you’ve basically told the world about yourself and your family. How do you reconcile that?
I think I can hide behind the music and the art side of it which is quite a cliché thing to say, but I could probably say what I want to more clearly that way.
I like it when people project themselves onto what you’re doing. I think that’s a really beautiful thing about art and about music especially as it’s so visceral and in your head that you can imagine your own stories and your own meanings behind it and the audience become part of the art that way. I find that more interesting than me sitting somewhere and explaining everything.
I understand that with this project though there’s a lot of parts and things and it does need explaining, hence why I’ve been more open to talking about it and being in these situations and talking to other people.
But you’ve now allowed yourself in this project to explain more of yourself.
I’ve never really thought about it like that, but I guess so.
What do you think about the word evolution? The way that you’ve evolved is quite fascinating. It seems like you’ve found all these new outlets and meanings for yourself and so in some way you’ve moved from drummer to DJ and now to mature, almost philosophical composer.
My favourite saying is if you stop learning then you’re dead, I don’t want to be dead. For me, it’s more about learning than evolution. I’m curious and I always want to try new things. I just want to continue that. My interests are always expanding, and I think human nature means we’re always drawn to new things biologically.
You know what they call that, neophilia. The obsession with the new and the novelty.
I think that’s intrinsic in humans. I think that’s intrinsic in all species.
You seem quite thoughtful, I think there’s some really interesting house and electronic music producers at the moment who actually take time to deconstruct what electronic music is and think about it.
It’s funny you keep saying house, as I never see myself as this house guy.
Are you trying to get away from that?
I’m not trying to get away from that, I just don’t want to be pigeonholed as that because I’ve never singularly wanted to be a DJ or do one thing.
You just want to be an artist?
I just want to be creative all the time. Whatever time I have on this planet, I’m best put to use when I’m being creative. That’s what I need to do. Whether that’s doing anything that’s dancey or housey or something that’s more composer-esque, I just need to do that.
If I ever have writer’s block, which happens a lot, I once couldn’t write anything for about 6 months and I really felt like I was going round the twist. When you really have this need to get something out, whatever it is, and you can’t or there’s a blockage, it’s like being ill.
But we all know when the Vynehall sound comes on, there’s that familiarity which is really romantic and beautiful such as my favourites Midnight to Rainbow Road and St. Sinclair. But you probably don’t classify yourself as a romantic?
I’m a romantic in everyday life, I’m a soppy git.
Nothing Is Still is released on June 15th through Ninja Tune
All original images by: Phil Sharp