Leon Vynehall on DJ-Kicks and his upcoming tour
The latest to take part in !K7's DJ-Kicks series, Leon Vynehall discusses his approach to the mix, suffering with impostor syndrome and his upcoming tour
Since its debut in 1995, !K7’s renowned DJ-Kicks series has become a fragment of dance music history. Over the years, the series has seen an array of well-known and respected names in dance music – such as Four Tet, Maya Jane Coles, John Talabot and, most recently, Robert Hood – provide their own unique mixes to the DJ-Kicks back catalogue.
For the latest in the series, and first of 2019, the label invited Leon Vynehall to offer his contribution. Despite being a fan of the series though – with just one of his favourites being Bristol duo Smith & Mighty’s 1998 drum‘n’bass mix – Vynehall didn’t want his contribution to be influenced by previous efforts. “With everything that I do in music, I try not to look outward too much,” he says. “You know what it is for me, I start comparing myself and that for me is such a downhill slope when I start doing that; everything sort of snowballs.
“I only found out what impostor syndrome is about six weeks ago and I definitely suffered with it – I mean I still do – but I think I'm making more of a conscious effort not to do that and not to compare myself to others and wonder what other people think too much. I think the DJ-Kicks is probably the first sort of project or public outing that I could try and apply that mental state to.”
The mix comes less than a year since the release of Vynehall’s debut album, Nothing Is Still, and his first release since signing to Ninja Tune. The album is a masterclass in ambient music; a cinematic epic created to document his grandparents’ time spent in the US, following the death of his grandfather. As well as releasing two accompanying short films and following it up with a series of specially-developed live shows, a limited edition box-set version of the album also came with an accompanying novella, co-written by Vynehall and his friend Max Sztyber.
“It sort of began as a nice exercise for me and my nan to do, then from that I thought I can make a pretty interesting story out of this… Then I thought how could I lend my own creative stamp to it, then it just sort of blew up from there and it took like four years to put it all together,” he says. “It felt right to do because it was such a personal family story and I was already so attached and involved with it that I felt like I could do it justice… doing some sort of house-y, club thing for such a sentimental or personal story like that would do it such a gross misjustice.”
When it came to compiling his DJ-Kicks, Vynehall favoured the track selections over the actual mixing itself, initially beginning the process with a list of around 150 songs before eventually narrowing it down to the final 26 that appear on the mix. “I wanted to approach the DJ-Kicks more like a compilation than a sort of stand-alone mix,” he says. “I thought how about I look at it from a different angle and think about what songs I like, and would like to present them to sort of represent myself, and also what would people like to buy.
“So I thought more about that than how the mix flowed; that was definitely a secondary thought,” he continues. “But in a way that was a really interesting thing to do, to be given a bunch of songs that I really like that may not necessarily go together and figuring out how they flow in a coherent manner.”
Vynehall’s tracklist is as eclectic as you would expect, travelling through first-time digital releases from the likes of Japanese pop icon Haruomi Hosono and The Bygraves to more recent exclusives from NTS radio host Peach and Hessle Audio affiliate Ploy. “I made a list of tracks that I thought would be good for it and I'd sort of been penning names and artists for a little while,” he says. “I remember hearing (Rose & Beast) in a Madlib track years ago and finding out it was Haruomi Hosono and being quite surprised because I'd never heard it and it stuck out… I've loved that song for a long time, so I guess that was probably one song that I definitely had earmarked for quite a while.”
The mix also features two new tracks by Vynehall himself – the warped opener Who Loved Before and the chuggy builder Ducee’s Drawbar, which he recently shared online ahead of the mix’s release. “My head was kind of all over the place, and I was being mentally and emotionally pulled in many different directions, because the kind of mad thing was I was trying to put together the DJ-Kicks stuff, and put together the live show for Nothing Is Still, and DJing a bit, and doing the album campaign thing,” he says of the track’s inception. “So what came out of that kind of felt almost like an exorcism of feelings of what I'd been going through the whole year.
“I knew that I wanted to do something that was aimed a bit more towards the dancefloor, but I didn't want to revert to something that I'd done like two albums ago, so it's kind of like an anti-club club song actually.” If you were hoping to hear Vynehall drop a few of his own tracks in his upcoming DJ sets though, you might not want to hold your breath. “There's a part of me that finds it a bit self-aggrandising when you play your own stuff out... It just feels like someone's rubbing my ego, especially when it's yourself rubbing your own ego,” he laughs. “That's a strange analogy saying rubbing your own ego.”
To coincide with the release of Vynehall’s DJ-Kicks, he’ll be embarking on an accompanying tour in the coming months, which will see him playing all night long at Edinburgh’s Sneaky Pete’s and Glasgow’s La Cheetah Club, as well as several other venues across the UK and US. “I always prefer playing all night because you've got a lot more room to change tempos and timbres and styles when you're playing. It's kind of what I wanted to do with the mix as well, starting kind of slow and moving into different areas,” he says. “It's a lot more fun for me as well. Going into a club and playing for 90 minutes is all well and good but you don't really have a lot of time to sort of experiment or be playful or challenging or trying to educate audiences a little bit.”
It seems he’s picked up some new ideas for his DJ sets along the way too, taking tips from a recent support slot for Jon Hopkins on a few of his US dates towards the end of last year, along with his experience of putting together his own live show for Nothing Is Still. But his DJ etiquette certainly hasn’t gone out the window in the process. “I was essentially supporting Jon's live show, so if I was to come out and start playing 135bpm techno I think that would be a bit of a dick move,” he jokes.
“Jon's show was essentially a live show in a gig venue rather than a club, and DJing in gig venues to audiences that are there to stand and watch a show rather than sort of be physically moved and dance for hours on end, it's quite interesting playing a different type of music to those audiences because they're a lot more attentive to what you do,” he says. “Again, it's similar when you do all night, you've got a lot more freedom to do something perhaps a bit more interesting, and actually DJing and playing records before Jon made me think about my club sets a bit differently as well and how I'd like to incorporate more of the unusual material in a nightclub set and seeing how that works.”
DJ-Kicks: Leon Vynehall is out now via !K7; Nothing Is Still is out now via Ninja Tune
Leon Vynehall plays Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 13 Feb; La Cheetah Club, Glasgow, 16 Feb