As he prepares his debut album Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, we meet the elusive UK artist, Frank Ocean producer, and PLZ Make It Ruins label head
In 2013, when he was just 20 years old, Joe Thornalley gave a CD of his tracks to 1-800 Dinosaur, the collective co-founded by James Blake, during one of their clubnights at the legendary, since closed east London venue Plastic People. Fast forward a few months, and Blake was playing them out on his BBC Radio 1 residency. “I love this one from Vegyn, with a ‘Y’,” Blake said, careful to make sure listeners knew the precise spelling of Thornalley’s alias. “We actually met at 1-800 Dinosaur, which is the night that I run. He came down with another peculiar creature called Ersatz, they just came and handed me a CD and I really liked what I was hearing and was inspired to play it.”
Over the next few years, Vegyn turned his focus to running an electronic music label, PLZ Make It Ruins, which began back in 2014 with his debut EP All Bad Things Have Ended – Your Lunch Included, and PLZ VOL. 1, a limited edition tape featuring a cast of underground London producers, including the aforementioned Ersatz. The label nurtured a small but tight group of artists, originally exclusive to the UK, but eventually expanding to artists in Australia and the US. Vegyn went on to release a second EP on the label, Janhui, in 2015, where he further developed his particular brand of experimental, percussive bass music.
While this was happening, Vegyn crossed paths with someone else in Plastic People – Frank Ocean. The two struck up a friendship, and suddenly Vegyn was no longer DJing in tiny basement parties in London, but being flown out to LA to work on what would become Ocean’s 2016 projects Endless and Blonde, on which Thornalley was a frequently credited producer. Not just working for the singer behind the boards, Thornalley also started co-hosting episodes of the Blonded Radio show for Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio alongside Ocean and fellow producer Roof Access. Today, though, he’s understandably wary of people seeing him only in proximity to the American singer and not for the years he put into his work before and after that. “I love working for him, and I love the music I made for him,” Vegyn says of his creative relationship with Ocean, but he’s equally relishing making tracks of his own once again.
Earlier this year, Vegyn dropped his first significant solo release since 2015, a 71-track mixtape called Text While Driving If You Want To Meet God!, on PLZ. “Everyone initially was like, ‘What’s the fucking point?’” Vegyn says about the mixtape. “I mean, it’s a lot of music, but it was just sitting on my computer. I could let it rot in the digital coffin, or I could kind of just like let it live as is.” The mixtape sounds unfinished, in one sense – it’s all minute-long synth loops and fragmented samples – but it’s essential listening, and doubles as a physical separation between his older and newer output. “It's been a long time since I put out my own music,” Vegyn says. “In terms of streaming, it creates like literally scroll space between the new shit and my very, very old stuff.”
It was a palate cleanser in the context of Vegyn’s incoming debut album. Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds comes in at a more modest 16 tracks, swapping the raw loops of Text While Driving for a rich collage of video game sounds, 90s rap beats, and atmospheric field recordings, but it’s no less impressive in its ambition to wrong-foot you. The album feels alive: tracks change tempo like throbbing blood vessels, and chord progressions and drum patterns are as unpredictable and irregular as involuntary muscular twitches. This unpredictable, constantly fluctuating sound was part of Vegyn’s desire to upend the established conventions of electronic music. “Why can’t we have the chopped and screwed version in the same song? Why does the BPM have to stay the same the whole way through?” he asks. “I wanted to find new ways to build tension and release.” He points to the track “Nauseous / Devilish”, a collaboration with JPEGMAFIA (Vegyn also worked on the rapper’s recent album All My Heroes Are Cornballs) on the album that starts off “mad hard”, but “by the end is just some weird self-conscious string parts. It builds and builds and then everything just dissipates away. It’s like trying to build those juxtapositions in the same tracks, trying to make it its own little world.”
“The best thing about electronic music is that it’s an opportunity to step away from typical structures and formats and try to figure out new ways to contextualise things” – Vegyn
There’s a tension between the album’s organic and synthetic aspects, a blurring of the lines between natural and artificial. Large parts of the record are electronic (GarageBand/Logic Pro presets, software synthesisers), but large parts are ‘real’ too (recorded vocals, strings, the ambience of a room). It was made almost entirely with MIDI programming – entering the notes into a computer – but rather than this being a stiff or robotic practise, Vegyn sees it as highly intimate and human, literally touching notes and samples and arranging them precisely where he wants. “I got my little Motorola Razr over here, and I record everything through the little mic. Real world, fake world, put it all in, turn the microwave on, see how much brain damage you get,” he jokes of his recording process. It’s maybe what you’d expect from someone who describes Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds as the result of “insanely stoned experimentation”.
“I was smoking a lot of weed at the time, and I started experimenting again, trying to make things with the mindset of ‘Okay, this isn’t a song for somebody else, this is something that I want to listen to,” Vegyn says. “I was spending a lot of time in the States. I wanted to move to LA and I really wanted to be a producer. The music I was making was – not stagnant, but I was making music with the intention of it being for somebody else, and this record was like making music for me again.”
While primarily instrumental, Vegyn’s own voice does feature twice on the album, low in the mix and nearly submerged in the bubblings of the tracks around him, but it feels like a significant move to something more personal. “It was trying to embellish that: how do I make this really weird, but still have this kinda emotional core to it?” he says. We both agree on a favourite track, “Debold”, in which the vocal emerges halfway through, the first time we hear Vegyn’s voice clearly on the record: “The best thing about electronic music is that it’s an opportunity to step away from typical structures and formats and try to figure out new ways to contextualise things,” he says. “Just having that verse come in halfway through the song feels good, or having a feature from somebody else right at the end. When I work with other people too, it’s like: ‘Just do whatever you want. You can put it wherever.’”
The record has an array of samples and soundbites from across Vegyn’s extended musical family, including west London rapper Lava La Rue and other hidden “easter eggs”, but the two named features come from London artist Jeshi, whose deep tones are heard on “I Don’t Owe You NYthing”, and French rapper Retro X on “You Owe Me”. “I love his cadence, and his flow,” Vegyn says of Retro X. “I kinda wanted to have this ‘international’ quality to it. It’s not all in English. There’s little bits of Chinese and Russian in there – it’s subtle, but it’s in there.”
Vegyn says that Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds is a way of “coming to terms with certain things”. “A bit of anger, a bit of frustration, a lot of confusion,” he says. “I’m an emotional guy, and music is therapy for me. It’s how I let loose. I can take these negative things – the way certain people make me feel, or vice versa – and music is a way for me to condense it down and put it on paper.” The album only captures “some shades” of his character, and that his next project, which he’s already “deep into”, might reveal more. At the tail-end of “Retro OTW”, a wall of real/fake strings, haunting vocals, and pulsating synthesisers build to a poignant climax as the words “you don’t know the half of it” ring out. Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds may only be an introduction to to Vegyn’s world, but it leaves you wanting to know more.
Vegyn’s debut album Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds is out November 8