Leon Vynehall is probably best known for euphoric house numbers and four-to-the-floor club cuts but upon signing to Ninja Tune for his third album, 'Nothing Is Still', the British producer has journeyed down an ambitious new path.
Comprised of nine ‘chapters’, Nothing Is Still tells the story of Vynehall’s grandparent’s emigration from the UK to New York in the Sixties. Ditching the dancefloor prowess in favour of ambient, textural compositions that fall somewhere between the classical minimalism of Terry Riley or Steve Reich and experimental electronica that’s more in line with the likes of Bonobo and Floating Points than any of the Chicago House forebears.
The album is a remarkably meditative listen built upon sprawling layers of minimalist piano arrangements, orchestral string sections, field recordings, atmospheric synths and off-kilter percussion - the compositions just as evocative and impassioned as the subject matter and circumstance that laid the album’s foundations.
Following the death of his grandfather four years ago, as well as uncovering a collection of polaroids from that time, Vynehall’s grandmother began to recall fond memories and anecdotes detailing their seven-day boat journey crossing the Atlantic and the stories that followed when they touched down in Brooklyn. This is how the concept of 'Nothing Is Still' was born, out of a desire to immortalise his grandparents' story.
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Unbeknown to Vynehall this project would evolve into something far more ambitious than he could have possibly realised at the time. A huge multi-medium effort, Nothing Is Still has been released alongside a semi-fictional novella, visual components in collaboration with filmmaker Young Replicant (Flying Lotus, Bonobo, alt-J) and a three-day live audio-visual installation at Hackney Showroom. With the residency in full-swing, we headed down to chat to Vynehall about the project and what’s happening next.
'Nothing Is Still' is a piece of work that hits very close to home for Vynehall so capturing, to a true extent, the human and emotional depth embedded within his grandmother's stories required a completely revised creative approach. On how he went about realising those polaroids and anecdotes within his music, Vynehall explains the most important thing was establishing the narrative throughout the album: “The story itself was the main element of the whole project so the novella itself had to be finished before I could really get started on the music side of it.”
He describes the initial stages of the project as involving in-depth “interviews” with his nan recalling what life was like when they got to Brooklyn. He would then take these recollections and, alongside co-author Max Sztyber, timeline the events and set out the plot arc that would form the basis of the project:
“Me and Max would go backwards and forwards with each other doing different drafts of chapters, trying to figure out where the story was gonna go. We knew where it started but we were trying to find a good ending because it's fiction but it's based on true stuff so there are fabricated things in there."
An example of this, he points out, is where Stephanie - the main character, based on his grandmother - has a miscarriage: "That would have been my mum so I've essentially written myself out of existence."
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Once the novella had been pieced together, the next part was to translate this story into an album: “It was my job to interpret that into music. I basically just went through everything trying to find certain words or phrases, and then the mood of the chapter was how the music would come out stylistically.”
Given the nature of the story this move into the more downtempo and experimental was almost inevitable, especially considering the layered instrumentals he began to flirt with particularly on 2016’s Rojus: “I think because the story is so connected to it, it would be wrong for me to do anything club-centric if you know what I mean? That would feel so far detached from anything that’s even close to the story.”
Although the album is a mostly ambient and cinematic affair, there are moments that feel somewhat familiar – be it the jazz-tainted downtempo of ‘Movements (Chapter III)’ and ‘Envelopes (Chapter VI)’, or the intense dancefloor stomp of ‘English Oak (Chapter VII)’.
Although these moments may nod to Vynehall’s earlier "club fodder", as he puts it, he tells me they are still solely meant as interpretations of events in the story as opposed to an attempt to ‘liven’ the album up: “'English Oak' in particular is representing this dream that [Stephanie] has where she’s falling from the Chrysler building. It’s just kind of meant to represent the speed and anxiety of it, rather than intentionally wanting to make people dance, or lose their shit.”
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That’s the great thing about these art-forms, literature and music, they’re not tangible.
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“I think any artist worth their salt would want things to connect with people, or something to resonate with them. You want to move people, whether you piss them off or make them overjoyed with tears, you know?” Through the many mediums of 'Nothing Is Still', Vynehall tells a story that is deeply personal but he asserts that as an artist he hopes it’s something that everyone will be able to find some sort of solace or identification with.
“Although it is about two people in particular, it’s quite a universal theme. That’s the great thing about these art-forms, literature and music, they’re not tangible. They’re so visceral and in your head that you’re able to implant yourself into whatever you’re listening to or reading and you become part of it.”
What strikes me about the album is how through the music he’s able to capture the different moods and emotions in his grandparents story, from the romantic sense of adventure and optimism that came with the promise of a better life, to the hostility, anxieties and loneliness that can rear their ugly heads when you arrive.
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People are just trying to find a place they feel comfortable, a place they can feel like they’re at home...
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We discuss how such a story has become depressingly all-too-common in the current climate, with thousands of people leaving their lives behind in the hope of a better life every day. Although Vynehall is quick to insist that the circumstances are very different, he reflects: “It’s so strange to think that when I first started this project, when me and Max began writing this book, no-one had ever heard of Brexit and the thought of Trump being in power was laughable. I feel like things, especially in Western Europe, hadn’t escalated to where they are now.”
“I would never want to compare what my grandparents went through to that of migrants coming into Europe from the Middle East, fleeing war zones, but I guess you could draw some sort of sort parallels to that.” He reasons that although the circumstances aren’t similar there are definitely some comparisons in that human desire to up-sticks: “People are just trying to find a place they feel comfortable, a place they can feel like they’re at home. Then sometimes you can get there and feel isolated and end up questioning what you even came for.”
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With the album and novella officially out in the world, Vynehall is marking the release with a residency at Hackney Showroom. With a live band in-tow comprised of Will Ritson (drums/percussion), Rob Mullarkey (bass/double bass) and Sam Beste (piano/synth), Vynehall is performing the album for three nights alongside an audio-visual exhibition.
On the walls of the venue foyer are the polaroids that inspired the story and in another room is an installation with grainy home-videos of New York in the Sixties being projected onto a wall, soundtracked by fragments of the record and readings from some of the chapters through crackly speakers. While Vynehall and his band are on stage in the main room, projected behind them are glitchy, rendered visuals taken from the polaroids and videos released alongside the album.
Clash asks Vynehall what it’s been like juggling all of this and he confesses: “It’s been a lot of work, man. The whole project really is essentially about how all of these little different forms and mediums connect with each other and their relationship to one another, how it becomes one solidified piece of work.”
Due to the sheer ambitiousness of the project, for the first time, Vynehall found himself collaborating with numerous different people across many different art forms – a new kind of challenge for someone who confesses to struggling with “relinquishing control over something creatively.”
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It’s such a personal thing for my family, I can’t even really put it into words.
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Ultimately though, he admits: “I’m so fucking blessed that everyone that’s been involved in it has been as invested in it as I have been, they really took it on board… It’s such a personal thing for my family, I can’t even really put it into words. It means a lot to my nan, she read the novella and instantly said she was just transported back to America and for me, that’s the number one thing I wanted to accomplish.”
A few hours later and Vynehall and his band take to the stage in front of a sold-out crowd and power through a remarkable, transportive performance that sees the songs on the album take on a whole new life. Even the most subdued and slow-burning cuts leaving the audience swaying in awe as the four musicians on stage, each ridiculously talented in their own right, omit an enchanting wall-of-noise.
Although tonight is all about 'Nothing Is Still', Vynehall and Co. still perform some of his more upbeat earlier cuts such as ‘Inside The Deku Tree’ and ‘Midnight On Rainbow Road’, before closing things up with the rapturous club- night staple ‘House Of Dupris’ that bounces around the walls, leaving the sweaty crowd cutting shapes as the night draws to a close.
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I’ve never wanted to pigeonhole myself...
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Before the show Clash asks Vynehall if this is the beginning of a whole new chapter in his career or if it’s simply just a passing moment: “I’ve never wanted to pigeonhole myself… ['Nothing Is Still'] feels like an amalgamation of the old and new stuff, but sort of just widening the scope of instrumentation,” he explains.
“I don’t ever want to anchor myself down to one particular thing, I don’t know I’ll see what happens – I’m always thinking about what I can do next, I’ve already thought about another concept for a live show. I can’t just switch off, even though I’m up to my neck in this stuff.”
Regardless of whether Vynehall continues down this path or not, after seeing how everything has come together in this project it’s clear that whatever’s next in store, it’s bound to be pretty special – for Vynehall is a master of his craft, whether it’s music or in new ventures into literature and art.
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'Nothing Is Still' is out now on Ninja Tune.
Words: Jack Palfrey
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