Rare, Forever

Leon Vynehall reflects on his latest album – an immersive dive into his psyche

Photography Frank Lebon

“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.”

Photography Frank Lebon

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.”

Photography Frank Lebon

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.

Rare, Forever is released 30th April 2021 via Ninja Tune 

leonvynehall.bandcamp.com

Floating Points

Port talks to the acclaimed musician about his latest album and finest work to date

In June a ship captained by Carola Rackete picked up 53 migrants off the Libyan coast and docked in Lampedusa, infuriating Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini. Rackete was released from house arrest following international criticism, but could now potentially face 15 years in prison for aiding undocumented migrants. Sea-Watch, the humanitarian NGO named after the contentious ship that rescued the rubber dinghy, is directly referenced towards the end of Sam Shepherd AKA Floating Points’ latest album, Crush. The troubled, layered, lilting track with a haunting Buchla synthesiser refrain was inspired by “a modern-day hero”, explains Shepherd, “who’s actually out there doing good, physically helping people. This story gave me some degree of hope and if I can raise awareness of the organisation through my music, then I will.”

Shepherd’s first album Elaenia took him five years to make – Crush was made in five weeks. Nodding to the intense, crucible-like period it was fashioned in while he was improvising during support shows for The xx, the long awaited album is also responding to the “pressure-cooker of the current environment”. Operatic, dystopian, dark and brooding, it switches from waltzing synth requiems that serenely chirrup to bristling bass drum kicks, all with a frenetic energy and melody that is unmistakably his own. Where has this darker, heavier sound come from, I ask? “The very nature of debate and discourse now, leaves me with the feeling that the currency of truth seems to hold no value anymore. Literally anything goes. Boris Johnson can just lie, Donald Trump can just lie – there are no consequences anymore. That’s what makes me most acutely nervous, that the nature of truth holds no value, therefore democracy has no value ­– because it’s built on promises and being accountable for them. A lot of the record was born out of this feeling.”

“It upsets me when Michael Gove says ‘we’ve had enough of experts’. I spent a good 10 years at university becoming an expert in something. Neuroscience may not have much relevance in people’s day to day, but there are people who are experts in economic policy and how Brexit is going to affect fishing, farming, how disabled people are going to access health care, for example. For people to ignore this expertise, it makes everything completely fucking pointless. I was turning to the news on a minute by minute basis – I thought I was doing this to stay informed, but actually, I was looking for some sort of hope. ‘Tell me something good, show me some breakthrough news’, and it was never good.”

Last Bloom still

Having toured extensively over the past couple of years Shepherd was keen to get back to his London studio and immerse himself in a purely electronic world: “Not too long ago I accidentally wiped the entire memory of my Rhodes Chroma synthesiser, so I rebuilt its entire 200 pre-sets myself. It took a long time to create a bed of sounds that I felt really inspired to play, so when I suddenly had this gap of five weeks to nail some music down, it happened quite quickly. I could access the sounds I wanted to use so swiftly. I knew them.”

Listening to the album, you can hear a number of subconscious sonic influences – the bleeding rush of Vangelis, stabs of Phillip Glass and the tangled pulse of Aphex Twin. “Aphex – I could never pin down,” reflects Shepherd, “I love his music, but I don’t feel like I know it that well because there’s so much of it. It’s too difficult to use as a reference point because nothing will ever sound like it. I can’t do that! When I was younger all my friends at university were into him, but I used to go to a lot of Bang Face and Electrowerkz raves in Angel, see people like Ceephax Acid Crew. That sound, artists like Autechre, the world of IDM, were definitely in my head for Crush.”

Crush

The first single initially dropped by record label Ninja Tune – LesAlpx – was a bouncing return to the dancefloor, a space Shepherd feels equally at home at, regularly spinning house, disco, techno and soul in institutions like Berghain and Fabric. Mention the club Plastic People in most music circles and the response will be rose-tinted glasses covering misty eyes. The tiny yet incredibly influential basement in Shoreditch regularly played host to residencies from Theo Parrish and Four Tet – a close friend of Shepherds – but abruptly closed down in 2015. It was also where the classically trained musician learned his trade as a DJ: “I started off quite humbly, doing a couple of parties, but it quickly moved to basically whenever no one else was playing. It got to the point where we could announce a party on a Thursday or Friday and we’d get 200 people, no problem. It’d be a party too, it’d be a jam.”

I put it to Shepherd that London lost more than just the physical space when it shut down. He pauses briefly. “Last night I listened to this Pedro Santos record and one song came on that is 100% a Plastic People tune. I had totally forgotten about it. It took me by surprise and I was grinning ear to ear. But then I thought, ‘where could I play this in London now?’. The answer is nowhere, there’s nowhere good enough where the system and crowd would be that forgiving. It had a lot to answer for culturally. It’s sad to have lost it because it was more than just the sound system, it was the whole community around it. But I don’t get hung up about this stuff because I’m sure somewhere else in London is really good now. Something will rise out of the ashes over time. I hope it happens before I get into my forties though, so that I can enjoy it rather than need to go to bed. I’m 33 going on 85.”

The spontaneous energy of the album demands to be listened to loudly with the lights down low. Shepherd notes that the records rapid shift in tempo and mood is meant to mirror “what happens when you’re at home playing music with your friends and it’s going all over the place…I wanted to make some dance music, I felt I had missed it for a while. I released LesAplx as a ‘hi everyone, I’m back’, but when the album comes out, I feel it will pull the rug from under people’s feet. Because the rest of it isn’t that at all.”

Floating Points plays Crush live at Printworks 21st November

The Cinematic Orchestra: To Believe

After 12 years The Cinematic Orchestra are back with a new release – a powerful call for critical self-examination scored with stellar collaborations

It takes time to get things right. Having last released an album 12 years ago, The Cinematic Orchestra are back with a new release – ‘To Believe’ – a wistful, richly layered, strings-soaked collection of collaborations with some of the finest musicians working in contemporary jazz, hip hop, classical and electronica. Founding member Jason Swinscoe and long-time partner Dominic Smith are supported by artists such as Roots Manuva, Moses Sumney and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson across seven tracks, each offering a satisfying variant of the bands powerful, melancholic and technically accomplished sound.

All the songs, unsurprisingly, feel cinematic in scope and grandeur – swooning, hypnotic, transcendental. Opting for emotionally charged, abstract lyricism, the album resists offering definitive answers of ‘what to believe’, instead calling for critical self-examination. It seems to suggest that absolutist answers to that fundamental question often breeds division and hate. The stretch of time since their last release is characterised by the band as being comprised of “Births, deaths, success, failure. Money, drugs, temptation, rejection. Trump, Brexit, fear, hope. Art, relevance, pressure, belief.” Although not explicitly political, it’s impossible not to contrast the meditative quality of album against the current vitriolic political landscape in the UK and US.  

The Cinematic Orchestra have their fingerprints across dozens of films, tv shows and adverts, have garnered half a billion streams – and although they’ve taken their time in the studio – have consistently been performing around the world. We spoke to Jason and Dominic about the benefits of taking your time, musical influences and the importance of live performance.   

Photography B+

How did the collaborations come about and can you talk a bit about the process – what’s the give and take in musical partnerships?

The Roots Manuva collaboration obviously has history which goes back to our work on All Things To All Men, and it just felt like the perfect time to get back in touch. For that track, he listened to the instrumental for a couple of months whilst he was touring and literally walked into the studio and recorded his part. So that collaboration was building on familiar ground. In contrast, our friend Brian B+ who’s been instrumental in working with us on the concepts for the record, sent us a music video he’d filmed of Moses Sumney – Replaceable. He sent it to us early on and he was just like ‘this guy’ and we were both like ‘yeah!’.

Moses Sumney, photography Alexander Black

Why has the album had such a long gestation period? What are the benefits of taking your time like this?

I think with all our records, there’s a sense of wanting the body of work to exist beyond a passing musical trend, which happens ever so quickly these days with contemporary music. Longevity is really important – we want this music to last forever. If the process of writing a new record takes time, then so be it. We wanted to push our musical ability for this album and together, rediscover each other’s creative patterns. 

We also tried to hand-pick vocalists who are open to lyricism and metaphor in their songwriting, so that the layers of music become locked and intertwined. Finding those suitable collaborators who want to work together, rather than fight for an individual idea, takes real trust and understanding – both of which take time. We’ve always strived to have that mind-state in the studio, where people really do feel that they’re contributing to the conversation in music, not something which is individually motivated.

How has the musical landscape changed around you over the past decade?

Electronic music and club culture in London grew from an underground, critical movement, and over the last 10 years it’s turned into a huge commercial entity. People are also beginning to return to more serious forms of music like jazz, wanting a scene that provides critique. Listeners are looking back to music which is much more questioning, rather than simply dancing along with it and saying, ‘everything’s fine, nobody worry’.

Photography Eddie Alcazar

Why are live performances important to you?

The live show and studio are very symbiotic, they inspire and inform each other. When you put some of the studio ideas on stage, you get an immediate response and feedback from the audience, you can see which parts of songs truly communicate and translate in real time. It means you can then go back into the studio and finesse, so it’s a real open development. Naturally, the audience will always let you know what is working. Our live shows are tightly structured, but have a lot of improvisation in them. They become interpretations of album tracks and allow the band – all of which are incredibly talented – to freely explore the dynamics in the music. 

Who would you include in a list of artistic influences?

We often say there’s no music that we dislike, whatever the genre is. We can find inspiration in almost anything. A few that come to mind though – Bernard Herrmann and his string work, Bach, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s minimalism, John Coltrane is a big part of our soul.

How has our current social landscape informed the new album?

We definitely tried to address the things unfolding in the world around us, but at the same time, we don’t want to give definitive answers about what’s going on. We’re all grappling with the new landscape of social media and personalised broadcast, and unsurprisingly, some people are fucking it up a bit. It’s an important time to contemplate, to think more deeply, to be less quick to come to a conclusion. It would be easy to be negative about the technology that’s created some of the division happening at the moment, but there is a mirror moment here, where it reflects our nature. If we’re smart, we’ll learn from it and adapt. We’re just as bad as we’ve always been, but this is a moment in time where we’re revealing aspects about ourselves. Hopefully we’ll evolve from it.

To Believe was released by Ninja Tune on 15th March 2019