Leon Vynehall interview: The producer reveals the intricacies of his multi-media Nothing Is Still project and ambitious live show
A couple of weeks ago Leon Vynehall put out Nothing Is Still, a multi-media project that was inspired by his grandparents’ 1960s emigration from England to New York, which encompassed a novella, a short film, and of course an album. The project pushed Vynehall into all sorts of new territories artistically, compositionally and emotionally, resulting in an extremely impressive whole.
We caught up with Vynehall to discuss the genesis and creation of the various facets of Nothing Is Still, how the various pieces came into being and how they are all interlinked. We also took some time to discuss how he’s transposing this ambitious artistic statement into his first ever live show, which will be hitting Hackney for a trio of dates next week. Check out our chat below.
I'm fascinated by the genesis of the whole Nothing Is Still project; when your grandfather passed and these Polaroids of him and your grandmother in New York surfaced you were in the middle of working on Rojus?
Yeah, that was kind of a mad time for me. I was working on the Rojus record, my grandfather passed and I was moving from Leicester down to Brighton, so there was a lot of stuff going on at that time.
But as soon as you saw the Polaroids the idea for a record about it was immediate?
It was more just an idea rather than thinking about all these different conceptual arms of what Nothing Is Still has turned out to be. It was more hearing my Nan telling all these stories and I thought it would be a really nice thing to do to document them all together. And then as she was talking and telling all these anecdotes and stories and things that they'd got up to, it kind of felt like I should do a bit more with it, because it was so fascinating. Then with my friend Max Sztyber, who I co-wrote the book with, we timelined it out, and I thought "how could I put more of my creative arm towards it?" And that's when I thought about writing music to go with each of the chapters, having this musical imagery to go with the literature.
Was the book completely done before the music?
Most of it, yeah. I couldn't really jump ahead and start writing music to something which wasn't finished. I had rough ideas of what would be happening in the chapters, or at least how the book was going to go, but we did four or five different drafts of each chapter and the story ended up going up in a different direction to what we thought at the beginning, because it's based on true events but it's fictional in places.
Did you know that for the musical accompaniment you were going to have to change your style somewhat?
It's funny, I've been asked this similar sort of question about changing styles, and I understand that it's not sort of dancey, more club-centric stuff that people are used to hearing from me, but I think all of my releases have been littered with more downtempo or ambient things, like at the beginning of a release. I knew I wasn't gonna do anything clubby, because my creative job in this particular project was to take the information that was in the chapters and turn that into music, and there's absolutely nothing in there that should be contemporary club music, so I definitely wasn't going to do that.
Were the strings and brass always in the idea?
No, that just came along as I was writing, I didn't think "I want a 10 piece string section and two saxophanists and a pianist and flautist" and all this sort of stuff. It was more me writing it and thinking "you know what would sound great here is a nice string line," or "I wanna put in a top line here and what would sound great is a nice breathy saxophone." To be honest I'd actually given myself an almost manifesto at the start in terms of how I was going to write all the music, so I think to then give myself even more restrictions only choosing certain instruments would've made it harder.
How did it work with those extra players when they came in the studio? Did you conduct or give them a vibe or let them do their own thing?
I'd written the string parts, and then I went to Amy Langley who's the arranger that I work with, and she really helped me flesh it all out and score it out, because there were some things that I was writing that wouldn't sound good with a human playing them. You've got an endless amount of options when you're working with computers and their superhuman tendencies to play ridiculous parts that you're writing in MIDI. So she helped me to flesh them out a little bit and make them flow and whatnot. Then with Finn Peters and Sam Beste, again I'd written the parts, but I wanted them to really put their touch to it, so I was directing them what to do in a sense.
New York is obviously a huge presence on the album. Do you have a relationship with the city?
My relationship to the city is only really through my grandparents. I mean I love the city, I've played there lots of times, but I have no personal connection to it, other than them to be honest.
You've picked out certain samples that you've used that seem to capture the spirit of New York. The one on the beginning of 'Movements'...
That weird singing thing? That's from a film called Midnight Cowboy with Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman, and I used that because I thought it was kind of fitting; it's about a man leaving a small town to go to New York to find his dream, and it's pretty similar to what my Nan and Pops were doing. I just thought that that little skit at the start was kind of nice to put in.
And then there's one on 'Julia'...
That's a clip of a woman talking at a cafe in Brooklyn, run by a Samaritan-esque organisation who would take in runaways from all around the country and help them get on their feet and give them a place to stay, and that's one woman talking about why she wanted to come to New York and what she was planning on doing there.
That's cool. So there are some thematic New York things sewn in. I think 'From The Sea/It Looms' is such a great opener, especially when you read the book along with it, because we'll probably never travel there by boat, so in conjunction it captures that experience really amazingly.
Cool, I'm glad you think so.
I didn't really have any other point apart from that, I just wanted to say that.
[Laughs] Thanks man, that's very nice.
I've read that you said that you picked out certain words from the chapters and used that to inform the sounds. So on the first half of the album, it's them settling into life in New York, do you remember the words or moods you were capturing in those tracks?
It's things like in the second chapter they hear the sound of seagulls and whatnot as they see the coastline of Nova Scotia, and in the middle part of 'From The Sea/It Looms', where that big fizzy synth comes in, that's her coming up to the deck - because the chapter starts "so I've come up for air," and she's talking about the sea salt spray on her face, so I made the synths sound really fizzy and fizzly and it sounds like waves crashing, and you can see and hear droplets of water hitting a surface. Even stuff like in 'Movements' it says "the city shuffles towards the festive season," so that there informs me that the beat should have a swing to it in a sense. Quite a lot of the opening chapters is about them discovering New York, its 60s jazz nights, that sort of stuff.
Jazz plays a big part on the album, was that something that your Nan talked about that they used to enjoy?
It's funny, they liked jazz, but actually the thing they loved was country music. My Pops loved country, he would take me line dancing sometimes when I was a kid, dress me up in those little tassel things that go round, they're not ties, but they're what all the country and western guys wear - and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. But yeah, they loved country, he was a massive Jonny Cash fan, Hank Williams, Willy Nelson, that sort of stuff. They liked jazz, but I don't think that was their tipple. But they would go out in New York in the 60s and go to these places. But he played in a skiffle band, so that informs you what he liked.
There was never any thought of doing country on this album was there?
[Laughs] I like country, but I'm not sure that would work for me. I'm more of a jazz guy than a country guy.
When I listened to 'Trouble' before I read the book I thought the big central, kind of black hole moment sounded like being sucked up by a giant straw, and when I read the book that chapter is about them going to Niagara Falls, which isn't too far off. Is that what that moment is supposed to be?
The first part you hear in the tune, when there's areggiated pianos going forward, that was meant to be them in the car, driving up there. I thought about using a motorik beat like they do in Krautrock, but then I thought "how can I make something that sounds like a car but isn't as pastiche as putting a motorik beat in there?" So there's that bit going up there, then there's that tranquil part before it goes really gnarly, and the thing that you're saying sounds like a big black hole is representative of them getting arrested. They get arrested in the chapter because they're young kids in the middle of the night up at Niagara Falls, and they didn't realise they had actually crossed the border, and the cops there thought they were part of a hippie counter culture that were up to no good. So that part of the chapter is the only fairly violent part in the book, where my Pops gets beaten up a bit and my Nan switches and turns into this person that she doesn't really recognise. So I thought it would be kind of cool to have this super loud, super aggressive, super brash percussion sound that I don't really use that much - I can do it and I love listening to that sort of music, but I thought about as well as the character Stephanie in the book not recognising herself, how about do something as well where people wouldn't recognise it as me.
Very cool. And how much of that chapter is true?
They did actually go up to Niagara Falls, they did accidentally cross the Canadian border and they were in cells for four hours. My Pops didn't get beaten up as badly as it says in the book, but they definitely gave him a rough time.
Interesting. 'Envelopes' was the first single to be released from the album, and then I was quite surprised in reading the book that it's a chapter based back in England. But now when I listen to it, it makes sense, the sound of the rain and the plane overhead…
I like the fact that you've pointed out that the rain sounds very English.
Yeah! So that was a bit of a twist, because the whole intro to the album was that this is based in New York, but this song coming out first was based in England!
It kind of felt serendipitous to put that song out first, because it was one of the first chapters that got finished off, the first song that I'd written for the book, and it was the first one that I'd written all the strings for and stuff. There was something about it that felt right, putting that one out first, and I think it's a good introduction to the album's setting as a whole.
'English Oak' is probably my favourite song, and probably also my favourite chapter of the book, how much artistic license did you take in recounting your Nan's dream?
This is one of the entirely fictional parts; that was something that we made up. The chapter's set out in two parts where she's in reality and then not in reality, and it's a metaphor for her sense of reality becoming skewed; she's not really seeing this American Dream as her own anymore. What I really wanted to do for that song was do something super counterpoint, super minimalist, to see how the two different scenes - reality and dream - would interplay between each other, but I tried writing four or five songs for that and it just didn't work, so I ended up just doing it for the dream part.
The last two tracks give quite a sombre ending to the album, but now that I've read the book it makes a lot more sense as it's the end of their American Dream; where most stories would have a big climax this has a more realistic sense of deflation. Was that your intention?
Yeah. It's not hyper-real, but it's a human story and we didn't want to get carried away and sex the whole thing up too much. I'm glad you said "deflated" because that's one of the words that I'd always thought the last song felt like.
The novella is available in the deluxe version of the Nothing Is Still album, or to buy separately. How much would you like people to read the book along with the album?
I didn't do all this so that you have to listen to the music and read the book at the same time - I personally can't do that - it's more like one story over these three different media; the literature, the musical adaptation of the literature and then the film is combining those two things together. Obviously Max and I have spent a lot of time writing the book and making it as good as it could be, so I'd love people to read it of course, but what I wanted this project to be was fairly modular, so you could take one piece out and it would still hold up. As much as I would like people to consume and digest the whole thing, it is there so you can pick bits out and enjoy them on their own. But, I think with them all together, the scope of the picture painted is much wider.
Cool. You've been busily preparing for your new live show, how's it going?
It's the only live show I've ever done as Leon Vynehall. It's a mammoth task, there's a lot of moving parts. There's a lot of equipment onstage, and there's four of us up there playing it all. There's barely any backing tracks, because one thing I didn't want it to be is me going up there and pressing play, so bar things like strings that I can't personally afford, it's all being played, it's all live. It took a while to put it all together, and we were in the rehearsal room for a good two weeks, full-on days, putting it all together. The shows so far have been really good.
Who are the four people on stage and what are they doing?
It's me, I play keys, I've got some drum machines and a mixer and a lap steel with a bunch of pedals, and I'm sort of manipulating everyone else on stage as well as playing my own stuff. Then there's Sam Beste, who actually played keys on the record, he's playing piano and has a bunch of synths; he has a ROLI synth, which is this wicked super fluid sounding thing, and a lot of samplers and stuff. The bassist is called Robin Mullarkey, and he's an exceptional musician; he's got an upright bass, an electric bass and a synth bass, and he does a lot of mad stuff with a bow on his upright. Then Will Richardson plays drums, he's great, he's doing a lot of textural stuff as well as keeping beats, and he has a sampler thing as well. So there's a lot going on and we're all giving everything out to each other.
Amazing! And do the film or book have any presence in the live show?
Yeah, we're using footage that we've got from the film and manipulating that live. There's a guy called Chip Warrior who's our visuals guy, and he's manipulating the whole thing live as we play it in real time, which is pretty cool.
Are you playing the whole album in order?
Not in order, but we're playing the whole album, and maybe some older ones as well.
Are you happy with how the shows have gone so far?
Yeah man! I'm blessed that I'm surrounded by three of the best musicians in London, or in the UK to be honest. Blue May, who I mixed the record with, is managing the show with me, so we have a really good team putting it all together. Last week's shows in Europe went as well as they could have done, I was really happy.
You must be pumped for the trio in Hackney next week. Do you know much about that venue Hackney Showrooms?
I've not played there before, but it's a great room. It's just a really large room which they've given us for three days, so we're gonna have the photographs that my Nan and Pops took at the time up around the venue. We're gonna do viewings of the film as well, that'll be playing in the foyer. I'm gonna try and make it something that's not just a gig, so people can see the more artistic side of it.
It's not just an album, so it can't be just a gig. Do you think your Nan will come?
Yeah, she's coming! Actually my mum, my sister and my Nan surprised me for the first show in Paris last week. We were setting up and soundchecking and I was up in the rafters helping with all the visual stuff and I looked down and there were these three silhouettes waving at me and I was like "who the fuck is that?” and it was them! It was really sweet. And they'll be coming to the London shows as well. I think I've got like 20 family members coming, so that'll be fun.
Amazing. And amidst all this stuff have you had a chance to think about what's next?
I'm always thinking about what's next. I'm always asked to think about what's next as well. I've been thinking about it; nothing concrete yet though.
Leon Vynehall’s Nothing Is Still album and book are out now; both can be purchased on his official site.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 29th June 2018.