Interview: Leon Vynehall on Cassettes, Nostalgia and the Deku Tree
We catch up with the up-and-coming UK producer to chat about his upcoming EP on Martyn’s 3024 imprint.
Leon Vynehall’s route to house music hasn’t been direct. His teenage years were spent listening to crunchy post-hardcore before fretboard-scratching funk entered the picture. A stint living in artsy Brighton accelerated the adaptation to even dancier climes and, in 2012, he made his debut bows on Well Rounded Housing Project and George Fitzgerald’s ManMakeMusic. But even as he becomes more strongly aligned with the dance music firmament, his outsider ear always seems to make itself known. A case in point: The forthcoming sample-heavy 3024 release Music for the Uninvited, where samples and interwoven sonic tics arrive from all over the map: a Harlem ball queen; Miss America ‘84; pixellated forestry.
Probably the best thing is for you to lead in with a backdrop to the concept and how it came into execution.
What I wanted to do with this was look back on what moulded the way I write music – the melodies and application of samples – as well as how I listen to it, and the sonic palettes I use. The first music I listened to subconsciously was on the way to school in my mum’s car. Still to this day she’s never had a CD player in her car, it was always cassettes that her and her friends would put together. Lots of old funk – originals and Mr Scruff samples – early dance, plus some hip-hop, mainly Aim.
One song I’ll always remember being on there was “Demonique,” which samples a speech from Halloween, with loads of bells. At the time thinking how the hell he got something from the movie onto a track while making it sound naturally part of the track, it baffled me. I wanted to record it to cassette, hearing the hiss. Tape has a really nice way of rounding off all the frequencies – there’s a natural compression that I love, and I wanted to put it as part of a piece of work.
Although it won’t end up on that format?
It’s more about the narrative, and the theme, and the concept behind it. For example the first track, “Inside the Deku Tree,” comes from Zelda, which I used to play all the time as a kid – [gestures to N64 in the corner] and still do. Looking back, I can kind of see now how I’ve put certain things like the way they’ve been made into what I’m doing: such as the ethereal atmosphere when you walk into the Deku Tree. It just makes it a little bit more interesting. It’s good to use ‘foreign’ sources. The title itself – Music for the Uninvited – is a nod to disco, as well as voguing and the origin of house music. I love the scene, and the whole idea of it. I’m trying my best to have the same feel as those sonic templates.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk about it is because over the past year, there’s been a real resurgence in cassette releases. The first song I wrote was “Goodthing,” which was started back in Brighton in October 2012. I would hope when people see what the concept is about, it’s not a by-product of something that’s recently come about again. It’s not about “oh, cassettes are cool again,” people lazily branding it a hipster thing.
In video game terms, after I’ve written an EP my health falls down quite low, so I have to wait for it to fill up again before I can go for it.
You seem to be acutely aware of the process, analysing as you go along.
True, but I’m not consciously going, “What do I do now?” I have spurts of inspiration. I’m not one of these people that writes all the time, whether it’s shit or not. In video game terms, after I’ve written an EP my health falls down quite low, so I have to wait for it to fill up again before I can go for it. I find I work better that way: going straight ahead and staying in the moment of making it, and the excitement, rather than coming back to it two weeks later, like, “Oh okay, what can I do here?” If I’m trying to work on a song for two hours and it’s getting nowhere, I kill it. There’s a certain feeling you get when you’re writing something and everything is just going, going, going – yep, got it, can do that, pull out a record, sample this and that – and it’s all great.
Do you know when to stop?
That’s a really hard question. A lot of people would say you don’t stop until it’s ripped to the lacquer. I finished Music for the Uninvited a long time ago, and have been purposefully trying not to tinker with it, just affording it breathing space.
Do you find a romanticism in imperfection? The format is naturally imperfect – even the bits of liner notes make it feel like a one-off personal thing.
Yeah. I never write music so it sounds technically clean and punchy. I want it to be a mesh, a ball of sound, where all of the elements play off each other. Tape really helps that, because the natural compression compliments that way of writing and mixing really well. Kevin Shields is probably the exception to this rule but I think you lose a lot of character when you’re so picky about everything, honing in on every single element – which is why I like to do stuff fast, while there’s a moment. It baffles me how Shields spends 20 years making something and it still sounds raw and spontaneous.
It’s not deliberately imperfect, but nothing ever was on a tape. You know, even when you’d be recording radio shows and go over and there’d be a whisper of what was before. In the car, I’d start from the wrong place, but I’d never gripe and try to find a particular song, just listen to it all the way. Which is why I wanted to make it flow because it forces you to hear it as a whole piece rather than picking out your favourite song or the single, or whatever. Cassettes really force you to listen to something continuously.
Have you considered that in the future people might look back at iPod playlists with the same romanticism you do with cassettes now?
That’s a really interesting way to look it. I guess so. I don’t see why they wouldn’t. I don’t think there’s anything bad in it. My sister, who was born in ‘95, has grown up with CDs and mp3 players, not cassettes. You don’t know what the next stage of technology will shape how you listen to something else. Everyone now would have it on their phones or loaded into Spotify playlists, and that’ll seem primitive soon.
You said before we started rolling that you didn’t want to put an album out yet, because it’s not the right time. Is that an awareness of the mechanisms of the game, not wanting to jump the gun?
No, it’s not part of the game. It’s a really difficult one: I appreciate that music is a business for the majority of people, but I feel a bit dirty saying that. I don’t see it as a business even though it affords me to be able to do this day-in day-out without having a part-time job – I get that, and I’m very grateful, and very aware. But I would never purposefully put out something just to get more bookings. I do a lot of this because I enjoy doing it, and however soppy it sounds, I want to make my family proud. They were the ones who got me into music, from my granddad putting a guitar in my lap and teaching me to play country through to listening to my dad’s Stiff Little Fingers tapes, being in a band and adopting that kind of mentality. To me, it seems kind of silly going, “oh I’m doing this as a thanks to my family…making house music.” I don’t see myself as a house musician; I’m just a musician, and this is just the beginning of it. I feel like everything I’ve done up to now has been the really easy part.
I don’t see myself as a house musician; I’m just a musician, and this is just the beginning of it.
I’m essentially leaving a legacy – however dramatic it sounds, you leave an artefact behind. A record lasts forever. I want to look back, and be happy, and see some sort of progress. Growth is a basic human instinct, and I want to do that right. I don’t want to rush things as well. You can have such a flash in the pan career where you just go, “I need to get everything out, and prove my point right now!” I’d never want to just have a collection of the last songs I made. I mean, they’re definitely not the last three or four songs I made, given it takes around 18 months to get everything out. I find that very strange, to try and get something out really quickly after you’ve made it. A lot of people are very scared that things will become stale after they’ve bounced it down.
So there’s no frustration sitting on things?
Nah, I’m perfectly comfortable making something that isn’t irrelevant in a year’s time. You almost make records as timestamps. Even when I look at “Mauve,” that reminds me of a time when I was living with my mum and stepdad. I had the tiniest little MIDI keyboard, a pair of headphones and a laptop, that’s all. They’re reminders of moments in time, which again [laughs]... It's another nostalgia thing. I’m not trying to start a retro revival or make people dwell on things, or whatever, or think back lovingly. If anything, I’m doing it somewhat selfishly for myself, rather than to ignite it for other people. It’s in my makeup so I can’t get away from that. There’d be no point in me doing a concept album about, y’know, USB sticks. It’s not me. How would you even go about starting to do something about that?
The oh-so-smooth contours of the gadgetry. When all data is transmitted through the air, we’ll miss the physical product.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. That’s actually part of it as well. Backtracking to the topic of romanticising about playlists, that still won’t be the same as holding a cassette, which has a certain sound. Same with vinyl, and even CDs – people have their collections, they love the inlays and the booklets. You don’t get that with an iPod playlist, but you would get the memory of making it and listening to it. It’s a different way to romanticise about it. You can romanticise about anything really. The whole point of the concept of this record is about the experience: what led up that point, what happened at that point, and what came after that point; and what it means.