Bubblin' Up: Leon Vynehall
- Words: Glenn Jackson
It may come as a surprise to find out that the Brighton-based producer Leon Vynehall is operating under an alias. The moniker—partly a reference to the Spanish word for "lion" mixed with a surname with roots in a bit of local history—has so far seemed a natural fit for the man's work. "It's nothing more than something that looks and sounds nice; it rolls off the tongue," Vynehall (who has elected to keep his real name out of the picture at this point) says of his chosen guise. Still, it's hard not to conjure up a certain image when you pair the name with the type of dense, rolling productions Vynehall has been responsible for across two 12"s this year, both marked by seamless infusions of refined soul and often paired with unexpectedly infectious rhythms. All this has added up to make Vynehall a name to watch amongst the growing wave of producers keen to explore the fertile ground which exists between bass music and today's ongoing house revival.
Vynehall's path to becoming a producer is not unheard of. Exposed to music throughout his whole life, he tinkered around with various instruments, playing drums, piano, and guitar in a number of outfits since the age of 12. In college, he toyed with producing, mostly turning out bits of adventurous IDM for fun. "I started taking production a bit more seriously around the start of last year, which is about the time I wrote 'Mauve' (the a-side of his debut 12")," explains Vynehall, "Some ears sort of pricked up, so I kept on doing it." Around the same time, Vynehall had secured a spot as a resident DJ for Brighton's Aka Aka Roar night. Originally a weekly event, it quickly took shape as a larger-scale monthly, consistently pushing quality names in the realm of UK bass inside Brighton's Life club, which, according to Vynehall, was the first venue of its kind to bring underground club and house music to the seaside city.
This May, the Brighton resident appeared for the first time on record as Leon Vynehall, offering up a three-track EP, Mauve, via hometown label Well Rounded Housing Project. The debut set the tone for Vynehall's output, fashioning perceivable—but not overbearing—references to the '90s underground (mainly heard in the anthemic piano chords and acid-tweaked low end) amidst a subtle haze of blue-tinged chords, sequenced basslines, and grooving shuffles. "I like chords, I like atmosphere and some sort of emotion in music," says Vynehall while reflecting on his sound. "Rather than it being just all about the dancefloor, I like it being a bit of both." Without a doubt, much of Mauve is suitable dancefloor fare, but beyond the sunken grooves and enticing basslines, there is a layer of genuine songcraft at play—the title track's silky chords and understated vocal manipulation have a way of lingering in one's head, and the closing cut, "Picture Frame," slows down to a hip-hop tempo, drenched in contemplative chords and glistening melodies like an updated version of DJ Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World" through the hands of a house producer.
Two months later, Vynehall followed up his debut outing with a two-track 12" for George FitzGerald's Man Make Music imprint. FitzGerald had heard Vynehall's track "Teal"—an early demo which had been floating around in various emails for some time but is yet to, and most likely will not, see a release—and when the garage kingpin came through to play the Aka Aka Roar night, the connection was made. Eventually, Vynehall would opt to offer "Gold Language" and "Don't Know Why" for the single—two songs that continued to display his propensity for deep grooves but stripped back a bit of the Mauve EP's smoothness in exchange for a rawer touch. "Gold Language" in particular, with its layers of loose percussion and rolling toms and snares, taps into a more driving feel, hunkering down in the slanted rhythms created by the combination of percussive elements and highlighted every so often by a hazy procession of jazzy piano chords. For Vynehall, this touch of swing and unpolished air is exactly what he's after, "I like to take a sound and change it, manipulating things so they sound a bit dusty. With drums, I like to make them sound more human. I prefer dance music that isn't really quantized, regimented, and super mixed down to the nano-perfect spot." To his credit as a producer, Vynehall manages to illicit this natural sense all on a computer, saying he'd love to use hardware if it wasn't so far out of his budget. At this point, the lack of extra tools hasn't seemed to dictate his sound. "I'm a believer in the fact that music doesn't have to sound professional to sound great," he says before laughing. "Mastering engineers hate me."
Although he would consider himself a producer first, DJing is something Vynehall takes seriously, his Aka Aka Roar residency having gradually molded him into a proper mixer. "I wasn't very adventurous as a DJ when I first started because I was new to it," he explains. "I'd always made music and played music live, but before the Leon project, I'd never really thought about DJing." But as his 75-minute set for Boiler Room this June showcased, his skills behind the decks have been well honed. This he largely credits to the humbling experience of being a resident DJ, explaining, "I think the good thing about being a resident is that I get a chance to learn my craft. Sometimes I'll start at 11 and there will be just three people there, so I've learned how to build a set from nothing to having a crowd be ready for the main act." He goes on to add, "I think you see a lot of DJs who come on and just play bangers for an hour or two to an empty room. That's not what DJing is about. There are two sides to it—you have to cater to a crowd and, at the same time, you have to play what you want to play. It's the middle ground, the fine line between the two, that you're after."
Similar to his production approach, Vynehall doesn't seem too keen on mapping out his future as a producer and DJ to any exact end. With a forthcoming EP, Rosalind, again for the Well Rounded Housing Project label and a few more that could "come out in the next year," his plan appears to center around simply continuing to make music and developing his talents, with a vague goal to one day put together an album. Still, he thinks that is a ways off, saying, "I'd need to be more settled with myself as Leon. I'm still sort of experimenting around, seeing where I fit better. I feel like I have a sound now, but it'll be a bit before I'm ready to put out a full piece of work rather than an EP." Wherever his career path takes him, Vynehall's trajectory is quickly shaping up to be one worth following.
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