Leon Vynehall reflects on his latest album – an immersive dive into his psyche
“This day is just another day in which I’m chasing my tail,” begins Leon Vynehall on our call, which feels appropriate given his latest work is emblazoned with an ouroboros. Rare, Forever’s emblem of a serpent eating itself, twisted into an infinity figuration, has symbolised the eternal cycle of life and death, creation through destruction, since 4th-century BCE. The acclaimed musicians’ second album for Ninja Tune, released today, is another instance of rebirth, once again subverting expectations and sloughing off previous soundscapes to produce something exquisitely new. It doesn’t stand still for a second. It bristles, bounces, mutters, shakes, warps, distorts, chirps, prowls – by turns euphoric, reflective and darkly industrial, it’s bathed in the hiss of static, encircled by fluttering saxophones, sharp samples and swooning strings. It is superb.
Some of Vynehall’s most accomplished work to date – his masterful 2018 album Nothing Is Still and 2014 EP Music for the Uninvited – uses his own family as a creative touchpoint. While the former told the sonic journey of his grandparents’ emigration to New York in the 1960s, and the latter channelled the soul and hip-hop cassette tapes his mum used to play in the car, Rare, Forever is an introspective, free expression dive into Vynehall himself. This is made abundantly (and playfully) clear in the powerful opening track, Ecce! Ego! (the Latin for ‘Behold! Me!’).
“I was sat trying to explain and examine myself in the here and now,” he tells me, when asked about its conception, “rather than the external influences that have shaped me to get here. It came from a period of contemplation, thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, what made me happy, and my reason for creating in the first place. I’ve always made a point that anything I make has to have a reason for existing – I don’t want to add to the landfill.”
“This record is me using music as a vessel to try and find answers to these questions. In doing that, I realised that there is no finite or final goal, no pot at the end of the rainbow. There’s no tangible thing that you can hold or feel, it’s this forever ongoing process. You always evolve, things always change. Life is in a constant state of flux. It’s like a droplet of water in the palm of your hand. It’s going to find different ways to keep moving. I’ve been reading quite a bit of philosophy and Friedrich Nietzsche, when speaking about self-actualisation, said it was a great and rare art. That really stuck with me.”
Vynehall describes the album as “Nothing Is Still’s fucked up cousin who likes post-punk”, and the ten songs that comprise it balance real instruments with samples and spoken word to immerse listeners in his trademark layers of lush, densely woven textures. Although the drummer-turned-self-taught-multi-instrumentalist employs less standard harmonies then previous work, it remains a deeply melodic record that has aural parallels to his 2019 DJ-Kicks mix, which swam in a palimpsest of echoes, crackles and reverberations, fluently switching between personal work and everything from Drone, House, Japanese Soul, DnB, Jazz, Breakbeat and Techno.
There is a lot to love on top of the first two singles released earlier this year, Ecce! Ego! and Mothra. The saxophone features throughout, most notably dancing between a lilting refrain that keeps time in the charming Alichea Vella Amor, before we move into Snakeskin ∞ Has-Been, a controlled chaos of swirling sirens and Burial-esque samples punctuating the action. Dumbo is one of the many tracks crying out to be played on the dancefloor – all tribal rhythm, electronic squawks and acid stabs – while Worm (& Closer & Closer) feels like the fuzzy inner workings of the brain come 4am. The grand second half breather An Exhale, meanwhile, builds to a crescendo worthy only of a live setting where you can rub shoulders with strangers. After – in the musicians’ own words – ‘chronicle heavy releases’, I ask whether he’s missed the dancefloor and its animal expression of freedom?
“I actually find writing for the dancefloor more constricting than freeing,” he notes. “Music for nightclubs is functional in its approach. You can twist it, mould it in whatever way you want, but if you need something to land in a club environment there are certain parameters in which you live. No matter how much you bend them, there’s still a ring around it. Songs like Farewell! Magnus Gabbro, I wouldn’t be able to write those if I was writing a dance record. What I’ve been able to experiment with here, where there are no rules, has felt a lot more freeing.”
We both agree that the very idea of a live show is enough to make us giddy after such a barren period – half of Vynehall’s week used to be taken up with travelling and playing live, “prepping or recovering”. With a UK and European tour tentatively booked later this year, I enquire whether he’s optimistic nightlife and music venues (which were already hurting) will return in full effect post-pandemic. “The level of support for clubs, and the arts in general from the government, has been pretty fucking appalling,” he replies. “I worry, particularly in London, about smaller clubs. Even before COVID ground everything to a halt they were dropping like flies because of business rates and rent going up, or more stringent rules from councils about opening times.”
“I’m not pessimistic, but I am wary because the pendulum will either swing two ways. Promoters and clubs will feel the need to book your standard larger acts to try and get people through the door, or, because there’ll be such an unquenchable thirst for going out, it’s going to give clubs more wiggle room to book people that they often overlook, because they maybe don’t sell as many tickets. I’m hoping it goes the latter way, that there’s more leniency and room for expression as there’s so many amazing artists and DJs out there, especially homegrown talent. But, I have to be excited that places are opening up again because it means those spaces, the staff, the promoters, the artists like me, the punters – they all get to experience what we all know and love about nightlife again.”
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung considered the ouroboros a psychological ‘archetype’ that represented the subconscious desire to consume oneself and continually be reborn. Rare, Forever, for all its meditations on its creator’s psyche, never feels indulgent. Instead, it’s a progressive, emotionally raw yet perfectly produced record of such depth, that it is easy to go back to again and again – in a cyclical feedback loop – to find something new. Much of the London-based artist’s soul searching that we hear on the album occurred in Los Angeles, where he turned thirty at the close of 2019. A week before his birthday, he posted a photo online of himself in front of a mirror, refracted and multiplied endlessly, alongside a frank and open statement about how he had been experiencing an identity crisis despite his achievements. His post, however, ended on a note of solace: “because for all the noise, notes and words I put out into the world, I receive an echo – and that echo, is all of you.” At a time of synthetic social media bravado and stale, cynically safe releases, Leon Vynehall’s candid questioning and bracing experimentation marks him as a rare beast indeed. I look forward to the next rebirth.