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Ones to Watch: Vegyn

Joe Thornalley, more commonly known as Vegyn, is a 25-year-old producer based in South London. Having briefly studied design in university, Thornalley made the shift to music and began making beats in his room. In 2014, those beats made it to BBC Radio via James Blake. Through production with Frank Ocean and Travis Scott, Vegyn’s name has been known and respected within the internal music community for a moment.

Through his label, PLZ Make It Ruins, Thornalley, as both an artist and industry member, reevaluates the role of the middleman; by offering a “decent advance, better split, [and lease on his signee’s masters,]” to mention a few things, he commits to democratizing and supporting the artists he believes in.

This November, Vegyn is dropping his debut album, Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, with visuals sprinkled throughout the interim.  With moments from UK artist Jeshi, French rapper Retro X, and US rapper/producer JPEGMAFIA, the producer describes his record as a combination of ”sadness and optimism… It’s not like happy being sad, but happy to have been sad.”

After getting his first tattoo, Thornalley stopped by Milk Studios NY to chat about overcoming his fears, video games, his upcoming record, and the importance of taking a break.

So, New York. What are you doing here? How’s it going? 

Good question. I’m here, I’m soaking up the sun, the last remnants of it. Maybe a holiday of some kind, on the official list. 

Do you want to talk a bit about your label?

Sure. So PLZ [PLZ Make It Ruins] was kind of born out of frustrations that I’ve had with other independent labels. I never really set out for it to make money. I got offered some completely normal deals when I was younger, and I was kind of shocked at how unfair they paid. You know, the company would own your masters forever, they’re still taking 50%. They weren’t going to clear any samples, and sure they’re going to promote it, but I got some offers from labels that I really looked up to when I was younger, and then when the deal actually came around, it was like, “Oh, this is not a good deal.” 

So I guess PLZ kind is meant to kind of fill that void. I’ve been quite lucky in where I am in my career and the opportunities that I’ve had presented to me, and so the way I see it is that it’s a way to invest in younger artists, especially when they don’t have a particular buzz or clout.  You can find someone who’s doing really cool stuff and can offer them a decent advance, better split, it’s a lease on their masters, so at the end of the period, everyone gets their stuff back; I can offer them a decent marketing budget, get the opportunity to work with good graphic designers, and help them brand their whole thing.

The idea was to create a platform that other artists that I like could be able to get their foot in the door, and still kind of maintain the creative control. They can get that push that they deserve. Because like I said, for me, the point isn’t really to make money; I can make my money elsewhere. It’s more, how can I help curate this good brand? If you do good things, it’ll come around and help you where you’re going. 

It’s karma! I studied music in college, and initially, I want to work in the music industry because I want to change how horrible it is, but it’s heavy how horrible it can be…

But that’s exactly it…I have an opportunity to be able to offer something different. I have to look at it and be like, “Well, I’ve existed as an independent,” and so, “What’s the point of a label? Today, what’s really the point of it?”  Before there were more gatekeepers to success or to distribution, and that’s still definitely the case, but the internet democratized the platform a lot more. I realized I could still make some money from this, ultimately any project is really only one sync deal away from breaking even, but I want to help however I can; that’s usually how I start the conversations with artists.

Who are you really excited about at the moment?

So we’re just going through a new round of signs. We just signed this kid, OTTO, who is based in New York; very excited about his stuff, it’s quite eclectic, electronic stuff, but very much still within the poppy thing; kind of fun, experimental.

How do you find these people?

Well, OTTO is from Sydney. Sydney kind of does A&R, and all of that. And then, someone like Louis Culture, who’s back in London, that was through exposure from friends of friends. I don’t really go on SoundCloud, so I’m not really looking for it.  You can just get a sense for people, a lot of times it’s just conversations. Usually, you can tell when something’s good. Usually when you hear a song, you can hear it from the first 30 seconds or whatever, you can tell it.

It can be such a gut feeling. 

Yeah, well, that’s kind of the key; trusting your gut or, at least, trusting your subconscious. I get called an empath, so I got a kind of try to base a little bit my judgment off of that, especially if you get like the little shivers down the spine. There are little tells, for me, that are like, “Hey, this is cool. This is making me feel a certain way.” It’s the same with making music as well. They’re very different processes, but for music, at least, I’m just trying to trust my subconscious.

Do you meditate? What are the things you do to connect to your subconscious? 

I used to smoke a lot of weed, and that definitely helps with that. This record’s [‘ONLY DIAMONDS CUT DIAMONDS’ ], current curation, was kind of just like real stoner energy. 

Making music is a quite reactive thing for me, and I tried my best to kind of play off of subconscious. I’ve been producing for like seven years now, and I’ve been on the same kind of digital workstation the whole time. It’s quite easy if I have an idea, there’s not much umming and ahhing about it. I can kind of implement that idea quite quickly. 

I was always quite fearful of the idea of doing a record, especially an electronic record. I was in a  bit of a weird part of my life, where I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I hadn’t made music for myself in a really long time; it’s what I did when I first started, but when you kind of get tied into the production stuff, a lot of the time, for better or worse, you end up making compromises, because you feel like, and a lot of times it’s true, people kind of want what they’ve already heard. They want the same thing, but a little bit different, you know? And I guess, I tried to employ those same thoughts, at least in terms of familiarity and kind of focus, and playing with different kind of styles on the record. I was kind of focusing in on making music for myself really.

And when you said that you were kind of deciding what you wanted to do, was it always going to be in the music realm? Or were you like, “Maybe I’ll go into banking?”

No, no. I wanted to do art when I first started, but I think I would have made a really bad artist. I did a brief year of design school, where I met some good friends and kind of good teachers, but it wasn’t for me. It’s been quite funny, because I stopped doing that for a while, and then about a year ago, I started doing graphics again; that’s become quite a fun little balance where cool if I’m sick of music, I can go and make some visual for bit, or, “I fucking hate computer graphics right now, I’m going to go and make some music.” I’ve seen with other people, if your job is also your passion or your hobby, it’s kind of difficult to relax a lot of the time. And I found by splitting up these two things, if I can get sick of one, I can go to the other one. 

Is there ever a time that you fully step away from it? What do you do in your free time? 

Yeah, of course. It’s good to take time away because otherwise, you don’t have any experience to draw on. Mark Kozelek said something quite funny recently, where he’s like, “if you can’t walk down the street and find something to talk about or write a song about that, then you’re a fucking shitty songwriter.” But he also writes very insanely weird songs… 

But what do I do to relax? Good question… I play video games…

What’s your favorite?

When I was little, I always played this game called Fable pretty religiously. I really liked that art style of it. It’s very kind of “Hero’s Journey RPG”, but I think as a young white man growing up, it kind of like checked all the boxes. 

Other things that really kind of stood out when I was younger were Shadow of the Colossus, that’s pretty beautiful, Katamari Damacy, that’s pretty funny. Just anything with a great sense of escapism to it. That was usually what look for, GTA4 [Grand Theft Auto IV.] A lot of games kind of provide you with this power fantasy; they provide a bit of control. The most frustrating thing in life, in a lot of ways, is not having control. Here, you truly are the master of your own domain. And so, it allows you to have escapism; I’m not going to like shoot someone in the fucking face, but in GTA, this is the objective here, you know? 

I’m kind of regressing, now I play Tetris, that’s pretty much all I play. There’s been a few other bits and pieces. I can’t really play competitive games anymore. It’s much more of like a solo-fare. But even still I’ve been taking a break from that, to be honest. I’ve been reading more. I finished the MaddAddam trilogy, which is by Margaret Atwood; it’s this kind of teen drama, it’s a really easy read; very dystopian sci-fi. Again, the typical rule of thumb, is that because sci-fi is such a male dominated genre, and especially in book publishing, so if you see some a woman getting a claim, it usually means that it’s fucking insanely good. So that’s the case with Margaret. Right now, I’m reading a book on Tarot called the Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack.

And what have you learned about tarot?

That sometimes they’re not necessarily going to tell you the truth, but they might tell you what you need to hear.

Anything that incites a period of self-reflection is a good thing, regardless of what it is, sometimes it’s drugs, sometimes it’s tarot, sometimes it’s going to the movies, or going to a therapist. 

A new perspective. 

I’m just trying to spend more time off, you know? I’ve got a lot of pressure, especially in today’s society, to always be working, no matter; this whole “rise and grind attitude.” I hate that, I feel like that’s mad unhealthy.

You’re promising yourself to burn out…

It’s not actually productive to work at that scale. A lot of the time, you kinda like lose track of why you’re kind of pursuing something in the first place. For me personally, I’ve gotten a lot of the things that I really wanted when I was younger, so it’s not taking that for granted, and almost kind of allowing myself to relish in that. Even if it’s just like, taking a day off or maybe cooking an elaborate meal or something like that. 

Let’s chat about your most recent visuals, the videos you did for “Devilish/Nauseous” and “Blue Verb.”

I was working with my friend, Joshua Gordon, he’s a really cool sort of photographer/videographer/visual person. Those were his idea. He doesn’t do music videos, so I really appreciate him taking the time. He made an exception for me, which I’m very appreciative of. I like them a lot because it’s kind of like that same thing of escapism or whatever. It’s just someone dancing in the street listening to the songs, or in a weird location.

And they’re dancing in such a way, that you really can’t look away from the screen.

Well, Joshua did a great job finding these particular people. They’re really good. It helps with that initial goal; I wanted to make something that feels familiar, but not nostalgic. Everything was an attempt to be of the future. I feel like when we like to look back at stuff, especially with nostalgia, we have a habit of cherry-picking the nice elements of it, as opposed to the actual real thing. In a  weird way, it’s this idea of fantasy, like a real good acid trip, or something that kind of pulls you out; a lot of the time, dance is just a good form of expression. It’s pretty integral, it’s that and music, a bit of synergy there. 

Can you discuss the different components of the record? There are a bunch, but what were some of the samples?

There are a lot things in there. With the record, I was trying to pull out little elements, like tidbits, or bliss points, right? I think about listening through something for the first time; at least when I consume something, I’m quite apathetic about it because I can’t really input information like that. But I’ve kind of given things to go back and listen to, and certainly the kind of moments that maybe only happen one time; ways to create this kind of little world. 

Most of the time, the lyrics or voice in a song, kind of help to direct; that’s typically the focal point for how you’re supposed to be feeling. And so with these, it’s like, “How can I kind of put that in?” and maybe it’s something really fucking stupid, but I kind of felt like there was also a bit of a lack of that in electronic music. At least right now, it feels like there’s a lot of, I don’t know how to describe it…self-seriousness or irony, and I don’t really like either of those. I mean, we’re all desperate to be taken seriously, but here, I can carve my own little niche, and I don’t really care about what other people are doing. 

How do I make this feel how I want it to feel? A lot of the time, I’m just cherry-picking little pieces of me. If I can make someone laugh, with Cowboy ALLSTAR, for example, when I used to play that to people, there is a horse in the track and it used to always make people laugh. Mission accomplished. It’s good to make people feel good, or sad, or whatever.

So when there are moments of people speaking in your tracks, did you have them say something specific in mind or was it candid?

Sometimes, somebody would say something quite poignant.  I obviously wouldn’t be recording people without them being aware because that’s a federal offense, so there’s no way I’d ever do that. But you know, if you ever want to write a script, it’s like, “it doesn’t make any fucking sense. This is not how people talk.” The way that you think people talk, is not how they actually talk. There are lots of ums and ahs, and people cutting themselves off. There’s a couple of bits in there, of me, right, where sometimes I’ll forget that I’m recording something, and I’ll just be talking and then I’ll reply to someone and it’s so disingenuous. Someone will ask like, “How are you?” “I’m so good.”  You’re wearing a mask or something…

There’s a sample that I can’t tell if it’s someone getting home and jingling their keys or if it’s a dog’s leash… 

But that’s cool, and that’s where I kind of feel like it’s best not to tell. I do quite a good job of making the credits list for this as well-rounded as possible, to give people an insight into who’s playing because that to me, is what’s actually important. In the same way, that when I’d listen to tracks as a kid at school, I’d be like, “Man, this guy, he fucking understands me like, he fucking gets it.” Then you look up the lyrics and you’re like, “Oh, it’s completely different. This is about something completely different.” And then it kind of spoils the song for you.

It’s so true. Sometimes, when I sing songs to myself, I look at the lyrics and realize I’m making it all up.

But you singing it wrong, you imbue it with your own sense of meaning. And that’s kind of exactly what I’m looking for. It’s like, you know, you know, it’s like, when you view when you look at, like a piece of art or whatever, you know, there’s only so much that you can do to kind of infer what you mean, and the rest is kind of left up to the viewer to decide for themselves. The record is kind of about a couple of different, specific things for me,  but it’s better if I don’t say what, because then it might be about something for somebody else. A lot of the time, it’s better to just kind of just leave it open to interpretation.

Are you so excited for this record to come out?

Yeah, it’s great! I mean, it’s been done for like a year. I was usually such an anxious person, and now this is really nice because I’ve had a lot of time to change things if I wanted to. I’m happy, I’m ready for other people to get to experience it, or enjoy it, hopefully. 

Because you mentioned that you’ve accomplished a lot of the things that you would have been very happy to accomplish when you’re younger, what are some pieces of advice you have for people that are on a similar path? 

Setting realistic expectations, which is often the hardest thing to do; having your ultimate goal, and then having some other, more achievable things up the ladder. The more you can figure out for yourself, in terms of what you want, what the difference between a good deal and a bad deal is, and what a manager should be, what a press person does; the more you know, the less you can be taken advantage of. 

What did you find were some of your biggest resources for that?

Oh God, making mistakes. Horrible, horrible mistakes. (Not that bad.) You just gotta try. The world is your oyster, and in the words of Ronan Keating, “Life’s a roller coaster, just gotta ride it.”

That’s an excellent point to end on. 

No, no that, haha. Taking breaks, it’s not the worst thing in the world to get a job, and experience life through that. My dad made me get a job when I was like 16, as soon as I could. It kind of sets you out like, “Damn. This is how much my time is worth to other people.”  I did quite a few years in retail, nothing really that exciting, other than learning how to kiss ass in the name of commission. 

It’s more the value…It’s one thing to think that you’re better than minimum wage, but it’s another thing to experience that and then really know it.  A lot of wealthy people and kids skip out on that kind of experience, and you can’t hate on anyone for their upbringing or where they come from, but it’s just really important. Life is about experience, and it’s about fessing up to things that you might not necessarily want to deal with. I never would have gotten a tattoo a year ago, it’s something that really scared me. I never wanted to make an album, it’s something that really scared me. I never wanted to do a live show, but guess what I’m working on right now?

Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.

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