Vegyn wants to laugh: "Music is a real opportunity for escapism."
After striking up a close rapport with Frank Ocean, Joe Thornalley – better known as Vegyn – returns to the fore, an artist on an unconventional mission of his own.
Header image by Alec Martin.
Joe Thornalley, a twenty-five-year-old London-based musician, has graced more speakers than most. He’s a man of many guises – chief amongst them independent label head, noted radio show curator, studio session stalwart and fledgling graphic designer – but today, he’s Vegyn, the transgressive dance artist who started it all.
Vegyn is tired, and rightfully so. The press cycle has been an exhausting one, a fact particularly true for an artist more accustomed to dim-lit studio interiors and deep cut liner notes than the spotlight itself. I promise to try and ask some novel questions, and he laughs a little. “I'll try my best to not go over too many of the same topics,” he assures me, lighthearted even when fatigued.
He’s earned his exhaustion: press aside, Joe has spent 2019 choreographing his own moment, releasing a massive comeback project, Text While Driving If You Want To Meet God!, and finalising his debut album, Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, all whilst helming his own record label, producing for friends and collaborators, curating the ever-anticipated Blonded Radio and helping run the recent spate of PrEP+ club nights. That’s to say nothing of his musical rapport with Frank Ocean, one so shrouded in mystery, it’s all but impossible to know how much time – if any – the pair have spent collaborating.
That’s just one of the creative relationships that have paved the way for Vegyn’s moment in the sun, one which began back in June with his abrupt and admirable return to long-form projects. “David Byrne talks about it in his book,” he explains, “about how… if you spend all the budget on the big set-piece that's about to happen, you kinda have to gesture towards it with something else.” Text While Driving If You Want To Meet God! is as titanic a gesture as one could imagine: a 71-track, 86-minute mixtape stacked with fleeting musical ideas, ebbing and flowing tempos and tongue-in-cheek titles. “I also have all these unfinished songs,” he says. “If I put up that many, then it kind of takes away the attention from anyone particular idea. It's like, well, there's so many of them, I don't expect you to like all of them, you know?” He laughs again – it’s something he does often.
4 Year Break (126 BPM) opens the prelude, an explicit acknowledgement of his solo absence, one defined by his roles in both Ocean’s Endless, on which he produced all but three tracks, and Blonde, for which he contributed production, writing and arrangement to Nights. “I guess I had a lot of time to think, and a lot of time making music for other people,” he says of the last four years, ones that brought unimaginable success whilst pushing him further from his personal creative aspirations. Text While Driving… shifts the focus back to both his mononymous solo project and his unique and personal approach to music itself.
The tracks within are interstitial, representing half-formed thoughts and otherwise maligned moments. It’s a format that makes for a curio, providing an uncommon level of insight into the creative process of a largely mysterious artist: each vignette helps to further illuminate the tenets of a Vegyn track, spotlighting scattered synthesizers, skittish percussion, sweeping ambience and playful progressions. The result is a sketch of an artist, one that functions as a raw glimpse than a fully-formed, mixed and mastered statement.
“I guess it was really just kind of seeing a different side of music,” he says of the four years that went into the odds-and-ends. “I've been making music the whole time, but just not necessarily for myself, so it was nice to be able to come back to it, what I wanted to make, after such a long time just trying to hone my skills and getting better.” In this way, it’s less of a comeback and more of a reiteration, mobilising his ever-improving skills – and newly-expanded fanbase – in pursuit of his own creative visions. “I guess you always learn something when you work with other people… I try to like pay as much attention as I can and imbue my own stuff with the things that I like from other people, like work ethics or stylistic approaches.”
That he’s taken so long to arrive at this moment speaks volumes. Whilst his collaborations with Ocean and company have brought him fame, it’s his other collaborations – particularly those from within his label, PLZ Make It Ruins – that have brought him personal satisfaction. “I'd say it's in a pretty good place,” he says of the initiative, now in its fifth year. Founded as a response to the oft-unforgiving nature of the music industry, PLZ Make It Ruins is envisaged as a new-age independent label, one which responds to the antiquated model with a more personal and intimate approach. “I learned a lot of things over the years, and, you know, it's been a rewarding process… I definitely learned the hard way with some things,” he reminisces. “Working with ARTHUR last year on his album, it was a real honour, and I love that music.”
One of the most interesting projects to emerge from the label involved Lil Sko, a late-’90s Memphis emcee a world away from Vegyn’s high-tempo dance music. “I was just such a huge fan,” he says of the subgenre, highlighting the “isolated and original” sounds that emerged from the often macabre, typically lo-fi culture. “I ended up, when I was still using Facebook, I got in touch with a bunch of them over the internet,” an opportunity which led to “the idea of maybe doing a re-release.” That Lil Sko’s U Know Tha Sko fit so comfortably in PLZ Make It Ruins highlights the label’s versatility: it features a roster that could be best described as “music Joe enjoys,” a designation that pushes far beyond anyone genre, era or approach. “Getting to put some money in these people's hands... that felt really good, you know, to be able to do that. I'm really honoured that they wanted me to – and let me – do that.”
Indeed, in the two years since the re-release, Lil Sko has had something of a renaissance. Freddie Gibbs – who appears on Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds – recently rapped over a Lil Sko sample on Kenny Beats’ The Cave, something Joe puts down to “a nice bit of synergy.” He does admit that the inclusion of Miss White Cocaine on Grand Theft Auto V’s Blonded Radio channel might just explain the cosmic coincidence. “Growing up, for me, GTA was always a really cool place… it put me on to like a whole new wave of music, so it was nice to give something back.”
There’s something poetic about that relationship: Joe being put onto music by GTA, and GTA then being put onto much by Joe. Though it may have been the beginnings of his musical exploration, no single source could account for such a voracious musical appetite. “I've got a lot of very knowledgeable friends, and I'm always listening,” he says, the justification only just scratching the surface of his intense and intricate musical knowledge. The piercing curatorial gaze that plumbs musical depths for Blonded rears its head on Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, a project replete with dreamlike samples, antiquated audio and curious slices of cartoonish dialogue.
“I try to listen to anything that people send me. I'll just like to go out and look for things. You know, it's always kind of nice, especially if you feel like you're kind of discovering stuff yourself. That's always really exciting.” It’s a philosophy any crate digger can attest to, a hallmark of the most committed and adventurous music fans. Vegyn’s place amongst them comes as no surprise: as a playlister and a musician, he walks the line between fan and fellow creative with uncommon poise. “There's a certain romanticism to being like, 'oh, like no one's heard this,' you know? It's kind of like mining away and then like finding like a little gemstone or something.”
Plenty of these gemstones grace Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, emerging and receding with the ebb and flow of the music itself. Played synths intermingle with sampled elements, pulled from mysterious and long-forgotten sources, each a fraction of a pop culture moment. There’s a real levity to the way that they’re arranged, a lighthearted emotion achieved with or without vocalists in tow. That Ain’t No Dang Cat! pairs a childlike opening with a playfully tinkering instrumental, whilst single Cowboy ALLSTAR takes an expansive and uniquely digital look at yee-haw culture, itself a joyous rendering of American mythos. Fire Like Tyndell ambles along, buoyed by a relaxing melody and Gibbs’ muffled-yet-unmistakable vocal. You can’t help but feel the cultivation of a mood is at the centre of the record, and though the mood itself might shift throughout, Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds remains a far-reaching exploration of joy itself.
In many ways, Vegyn’s optimistic musical outlook seems to push up against an unsavoury and insincere world, one dominated by reactionary politics, rights violations and environmental crises. “I feel like we're always on the verge of the end of the world, throughout history… I mean, I'm glad to not be living in the time of the Bubonic Plague,” he responds, adding perspective to the ever-present onslaught of an online world. “I think about my parents growing up in the Cold War, or like, having something like the Berlin Wall. There's always going to be like rifts and divides between people.”
It’s a particularly measured take from the outspoken progressive, embroiled in the ever-complicating Brexit fiasco by virtue of his hometown. “Music is kind of a real opportunity for escapism,” he muses, a response to both the pervasive bleakness of the world and the artform. If escapism is a dirty word – one burdened with images of empty avoidance and immature delusion – then Joe sees it differently, offering up a realm of idealised virtues and self-improvement. “I try to do the same things, and also just to present the sentiments that I would hope other people would try and take home: be kind to other people, be nice without being manipulative, or to be honest.” Joe sees it not so much a creed as conventional wisdom, summarising with a well-worn adage: “if you've not got anything nice to say, why say anything at all?”
These simple sentiments dominate Vegyn’s art, whether it be musical, visual or editorial. It’s in the way he talks about his collaborators, a fan honoured to be involved in the process at all, eager to learn and keen to contribute. It’s in the way he uses the internet – so often a conduit of hate and cynicism – to shine a light on underappreciated and bygone artists. It’s in the way he talks, engaged and contemplative, mulling over words with the kind of curatorial discretion you’d expect from a radio host. It’s in the way he composes, juxtaposing the rhythmic and the comedic, going for grooves and laughs in the very same track.
“I like making people laugh,” he admits, “I think that's kind of like a good starting point for a lot of songs.” It’s a mission that speaks to his love of happiness, a somewhat self-evident idea that still manages to feel radical in this ever-apocalyptic age. “It's really affirming,” he says of seeing his work impact people’s lives in positive ways. “I like the idea of making something and it being someone's favourite song, or like someone's favourite t-shirt. That brings me a lot of joy.”
Vegyn wants you to laugh; to have fun; to approach each and every interaction with a clarity of vision and absence of hate. It’s not enough to say that his music sounds like the future: Vegyn sounds like the future we deserve, the future we can create for ourselves if only we try. In the smatterings of laughter, the neighing of horses, the compelling rhythms of the songs, we can uncover the best versions of ourselves. It’s a lesson that’s been tied to dancefloors and discos for decades, and yet, it feels more important than ever before.
We touch on the future of Vegyn, and he’s invigorated. “I'm probably like seventy to eighty per cent of the way through another record,” he tells me, moments after insisting he’s in no great rush. “I'm trying to finish that before the end of the year, and then I really want to put together a live show.” It’s a daunting task – one he’s been quietly hesitant about – but, as he explains, he’s trying to push beyond the boundaries of his “comfort zone.”
“It'll be an interesting challenge,” he says, nonetheless assured.
Won’t it just?
Vegyn's new album Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds is out November 8th via PLZ Make It Ruins.
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