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Vegyn and Roof Access on fetishising club music, Marx, and crystals

The longtime friends, creative peers, and Frank Ocean’s Blonded radio co-hosts get in conversation for Vegyn’s latest EP Like A Good Old Friend

Whether it’s someone to send endless TikToks to, or a companion for your government-mandated walk, the pandemic has made us realise how much of a lifeline our friendships are. For Joe Thornalley, AKA Vegyn, friends have always been central to what he does. He’s kept a close circle of collaborators around him as well as a tight-knit crew on his PLZ Make It Ruins label, which is focused on offering artists fair deals and comparting his industry knowledge. It was friendships that drew Vegyn back out to LA from London, mid-pandemic, to link up with the creative community out there (that same move had previously sparked credits on Frank Ocean’s Endless and Blonde, so you can hardly blame him).

Following 2019’s debut album Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds and the sprawling, 71-track mixtape Text While Driving If You Want To Meet God!, Vegyn’s latest offering is Like A Good Old Friend. Both melancholy and uplifting at once, the EP is made up of warped dance tracks built from surprising textures and Vegyn’s characteristic playfulness. With tougher drums and a grainy dancefloor grit to it, the record also saw vocals from London’s Jeshi and John Glacier (who Vegyn has produced an entire forthcoming project for, too).

London DJ, Wheelie show Balamii resident, and Film Graze podcast host Roof Access is one of Vegyn’s oldest friends in the ‘biz, and a fellow co-host on Frank Ocean’s blonded RADIO Apple Music 1 show – so it made sense to pair the two of them up in conversation. We sat them down over Zoom to discuss the latest record, life in LA, and releasing music for the club when there aren’t any clubs.

Roof Access: Joe, congrats on the record, it's terrific. I read something you said in another interview about club music for people who hate the club and for people who stand at the back of the club. I don’t know – I guess it’s the most outwardly clubby music you’ve made. 

Vegyn: I guess after Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds I was looking for new things to attempt, and a live show was definitely in mind when we were creating these. There’s been a disconnect between me and four-to-the-floor music for the longest time so it felt like a good way to start. I wanted to simplify some of the production choices this time, try to put more emphasis on the melodies rather than the kick programming specifically. 

Roof Access: Do you see this record as being more for DJs?

Vegyn: Maybe not, in a weird way, because a lot of the tracks and the way the BPM fluctuates makes them near-impossible to mix. Or at least you’d have to use them quite specifically as a tool to get from one place to another. I definitely would love to hear some of this music out. We were doing a listening party the other day and playing “Sometimes I Feel Like I’m Ruining Songs” and I was like, ‘Oh yeah I definitely want to hear this in a big room’.

Roof Access: It feels like they are made to be played loud… it’s like dance music for a dark room, but right now obviously that’s not going down, so… It’s funny to think, like, the next time you play a show over here, there may be a plain-clothed police officer lurking at the back...

Vegyn: Oh my god, yeah I didn’t even follow that. I’ve just been looking at the memes, but… 

Roof Access: Yeah! The police’s grand plan to combat sexual harassment and to protect women is to integrate plain-clothed police officers into every club, every night. That’s some genuine police state shit.

Vegyn: I saw this really good tweet that was like, ‘RIP giving a bump to a guy you just met in the crowd’.

Roof Access: So what’s it going to sound like when you come back and deliver a set? I saw that you’re playing at a festival which is, if that happens… fucking hell. 

Vegyn: Yeah Miami, October, man. Come out. It’s so hard to tell right now just regarding how any of this shit is going to turn out. I’d love to be DJing more again. The USBs have a nice layer of dust on them at the moment. I’d love to try to put together an actual live show. It’s funny, I didn’t want to do live shows at all and as soon as they were taken away I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe I can figure this out, actually’.

Roof Access: Over the decade-plus I’ve known you, you’ve spent so many hours DJing for work as a commerce thing. Sorry, that wasn’t really a question. 

Vegyn: It’s weird to put pause on all this stuff, honestly. It’s weird to not be able to let your hair down – that being said – go on Instagram, a lot of people be partying right now. A lot in America, and a lot in France.

Roof Access: They’re doing it over here, they just don’t put it on Instagram, you know. What I really liked about this record was how continuous it felt from the album. Maintaining those tempo changes that I think are so cool, or the sort of rushing drum-off or whatever.

Vegyn: That’s it, I just have a really bad drummer. 

Roof Access: That drummer’s on speed. And I like how you’ve kept it vaguely in-house with the collaborations. It’s all friendly stuff, and people that you’ve made music with before. It’s cool to see – I guess it’s a trust thing as well – but like, bringing people back like Ben Reid’s virtuosic bass-playing or whatever. Can you tell me about making a collaborative record over the past year?

Vegyn: A lot of these collabs were done digitally, so it’s interesting how some of the process hasn’t changed at all. I feel like it’s good to have recurring contributors. I also think I’m maybe kind of difficult to work with, so when I find people that are down and are really good... Like Ben Reid, he hears my chords and he’s like, ‘Oh this is going to be really fun to play on’. I play my chords to somebody else, and they’re like, ‘How the fuck am I supposed to find a top line on this, you freak’. I’m honoured that I get to work with all these amazing people and that they like working with me. Even John (Glacier), like this is the first track to this whole project we’ve done together. 

Roof Access: I remember hearing a slightly more balls-to-the-wall version of “Mushroom Abolitionist” when we were in Paris a couple of years ago. Was there an element of subduing the songs during the pandemic?

Vegyn: Yeah, I probably did most of the rowdy edits when we were in NY together, when we were staying at that hotel. It was kind of like, ‘Oh okay I’m just going to hit this weed pen really hard,’ and then it was like, ‘How do I end this song?’ I have this habit of my songs petering out. It’s nice to go and strip things back. “Mushroom Abolitionist” was the original demo, then I think one day I just swapped it out with the straight kick and there was so much more breathing room, the melodies were so much clearer.

Roof Access: That’s interesting because with a lot of the music you’ve played when we’ve done radio shows together, like on blonded – this is a very archaic term, and it's not really appropriate, like ‘IDM’, but it’s more like deconstructed club music. To me, you’ve always drawn from Boards of Canada or Andy Stott. It’s very, like, Adam Curtis’ taste vibes.

Vegyn: It almost feels like the most direct way of holding a certain level of energy throughout a project. People are always going to try to pigeonhole things. But ‘IDM’ is pretty historically awful as a term.

Roof Access: Racist... 

Vegyn: Yeah, literally. For me, I don’t try to think about it like, ‘Oh I listen to house trap.’ I think electronic music is so great for that because there are less rules. Generally, I wanted to make dance music. I wanted to make music for people to move to. I felt like that was kind of the music on the last album that in hindsight that people connected to the most, so…

Roof Access: Do you still have as much fun naming tunes as you used to? “Like A Good Old Friend” reminds me of a Rancid song or something. I’m sure that wasn’t an unconscious decision, using the word ‘sometimes’ twice in the tracklist?

Vegyn: I think three times! I love naming stuff. You know me, man, it’s just the first thing that'll come into my head or whatever. Sometimes it’s just a string of adjectives and nouns, you know? It’s weird, it’s almost like I’m assigning an emotional value to each of these tracks. When I’m thinking about them, it’s nice to recall the initial sentiment that was there. It’s funny returning to them a year later.

Roof Access: It reminds me a bit of like – well, you’re a graphic artist as well? When a pictorial artist names their abstract piece of work or whatever they can name it anything, it’s got to be funny. 

Vegyn: I think there’s an element of self-seriousness in electronic music that I’m really trying to get away from. My music is already pretty sad at points, like emotional AF. I love a needlessly pedantic title, but it almost gets to the point where it goes full circle and becomes silly again once you get it over a certain amount of syllables. Even if the tone of the record is serious. Like A Good Old Friend is definitely sadder than Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds. There’s less outright goofy, or happy, or fun. All this music is presented as fun dance music, but the tone is a little bit more melancholic.

Roof Access: Is that something you’re going to try to carry on with, or is that quite specific to this project?

Vegyn: With all the stuff I’ve been working on at the moment I don’t think that’s going away, and I am definitely making more dance music. Again, I’m sure as soon as the parties start again I’m going to be like, ‘Ooh I’m over this shit,’ but it’s sort of like the perfect time, you know? I’ve always fetishised the club space, and now it’s even more fetishised. Even if (people) are just dancing in their bedroom or with a friend in their bubble in the car – it’s nice to still be putting these things out there. As much as I would say my music has tones of melancholia, it’s also quite optimistic, I feel. It’s like, memories can be tinged with both extreme sadness and happiness at the same time. That’s definitely the line I’m trying to tip tap. 

Roof Access: Speaking of fetishisation, you released a t-shirt with everything you put out in the last two years. Is that a necessary part of the art to you? 

Vegyn: I would be lying if I said it’s not driven by the commercial element of it as well, but I feel like people will find more use out of a t-shirt then they will out of a vinyl. It brings me a lot of joy to see people wearing the stuff, honestly, and it's fun to make something that somebody wants to wear, whether it’s my own merch or OTTO or ARTHUR. It’s a really honest compliment when someone wants to wear it. Good design helps to create conversation, you know? Even going back to when we first started doing merch, you know the skull hoodie, I’d have strangers that would ask, ‘What does that mean?’ Someone would just talk to you randomly.

Roof Access: I’d really recommend Ellis from Trust Fund’s book which just came out – it’s his PhD. It’s called DIY Music and the Politics of Social Media. It’s like a Marxist analysis of Bandcamp and Facebook pages and – he’s talking about DIY sort of punk/emo – but just the way that independent music has to replicate the market. But I remember that when we did the last NTS show for Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds where I was like, ‘If you had one thing to say to your younger self?‘ and you said, ‘I wouldn’t have bought all that fucking vinyl’.

Vegyn: Yeah, I mean it’s all gone now. I’ve sold most of it. 

Roof Access: But this EP has most of your longest songs ever and still fits on a 12” piece of vinyl – did you try to make an EP or did you find yourself with a piece of vinyl’s worth of music?

Vegyn: I don’t try to think about the physicality of the record until much, much later. It’s kind of, let’s focus on making the music. Unless you have something like the Locked Grooves project or whatever in which case the physicality is actually dictating how long a piece of music can be. With the limited edition CD we’ve done for this one, it’s like a GameCube sized CD, and we did that because we were like, ‘Oh this is small.’ It can only fit 25 minutes of audio so it’s perfect for it, and also we’ll take the music and think later on how to package it in a silly way. 

Roof Access: You’re running out of media forms to exploit. It’ll have to be the player piano roll next, or sheet music.

Vegyn: Exactly, the BetaMax release. Techmoan is really good for that and LGR, on YouTube. They’re always coming through with the weird prison-tech or weird really defunct bits of media. I can guarantee you I’m not going to do a laser disc anytime soon, but I do think it’s quite fun to try to mess with the physicality of records. Even like etchings on the side of the vinyl are kind of cryptically utilised. To me, that makes the product or the vinyl experience a little more special. 

Roof Access: Yeah, definitely. Like a signature on a painting or whatever. Hancock shit.

Vegyn: Yeah, and it’s nice to have that…

Roof Access: Spectre of the commodity. I’m sorry to quote Marx. 

Vegyn: Whenever something is tangible it’s easier to assign value to, because you’re holding it in your hand. I also don’t want to rip anyone off because vinyl is expensive, t-shirts, merch, and stuff can be expensive. When people buy anything from me, I want them to receive it and go, ‘This is worth the amount of money that I spent on it.’

Roof Access: That’s what that whole book is about, man. The ghost of the thing inside the product. So does shit sound different to you now that you’ve moved to LA? Does music have a different role in your life? 

Vegyn: Yeah, shit hits real different. I don’t have bluetooth in my car at the moment so I’ve been listening to a lot of radio which has been quite fun. I’m trying to fix that very soon – at least before you get here, so we can bump the tunes in the whip, put the sub in there, you know? I’ve been listening to more NTS shows as well. Sometimes I get quite stressed about putting on a playlist, especially when you’re with other people, so (I like) tapping into the wealth of curatorial effort that’s gone into countless hours of online radio...

Roof Access: Some people are really good at that shit though, huh? 

”I think it’s still just as important to listen to people’s projects from start to finish because that’s the only way that you’re going to get a sense of what they’re trying to curate. You can’t tap into someone’s world just from a single” – Vegyn

Vegyn: But yeah it’s definitely changed, because I used to listen to a lot of music walking around or taking public transport. My commute is kind of non-existent right now as I’ve been working from home so it’s a little bit more tricky. If you’ve got a 45-minute journey you can be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to listen to this album.’ I think that Apple Music is definitely more catered to listening to a project from start to finish. Spotify is much more like you’re interacting with a song here, a song there. I think it’s still just as important to listen to people’s projects from start to finish because that’s the only way that you’re going to get a sense of what they’re trying to curate. I feel that with Loraine James, or Oli XL. They feel very otherworldly. You can’t tap into someone’s world just from a single.

Roof Access: I feel like the whole time you’ve been making Vegyn music, or at least the last five years, you’ve been between two places. You’d write a record in LA, but then finish it in London or whatever, but they must do quite different things to your attitude. 

Vegyn: In London, LA, and New York, there’s a different energy to each of these places and it breeds a different kind of creativity. The move here has been prompted by – same for a lot of people – a really tough 2020. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t eat into my savings. I haven’t been that dependent on live shows as a source of income, but it’s still a third of my income. I’m a dual citizen so the option’s always been there. As much as it pains me to leave all of my closest friends, it’s definitely accepting a certain level of personal responsibility in a way where I know that, as much as I love London and I love working with people in London, I historically have made most of my money in this city specifically. Not even in America, but this city. (I’ve had to) take the bull by the horns and be a bit more proactive on that side.

This year has been such a weird wake-up call – we’ve all had to pay much closer attention to the minutiae of our day-to-day. Being somewhere that, you know, I can drive now, I can go for hikes, I get a lot of sunshine. There’s a lot of people that I want to work with over here so it checks all the boxes.

Roof Access: You haven’t gotten into crystal therapy yet?!

Vegyn: You know I’m already into my crystals. 

Vegyn’s Like A Good Old Friend EP is out now via PLZ Make It Ruins. You can hear Roof Access on the Wheelie show on Balamii Radio and the Film Graze podcast