At this point, British producer Joe Thornalley's origin story is pretty well known. At the age of 20 he handed James Blake a USB of tunes he made under the moniker, Vegyn, during a 1-800-DINOSAUR party at the legendary London nightclub, Plastic People. Around the same time, this was also where Thornalley met Frank Ocean and ended up as a producer on Endless and Blonde, as well as one of the hosts of Blonded Radio on Apple Music's Beats 1. But then again, you probably already knew that.
"I spent the last couple years making music, but mostly for other people," Thornalley says, hyper-cognizant that much of his career has been heavily tied up in associations with Ocean and Blake. Thornalley is still one of Blonded Radio's regular hosts and recently played one of Ocean's PReP+ club nights in New York — but he's also focusing energy into his own record label, PLZ Make It Ruins, where earlier this year he released a 71-track mixtape titled Text While Driving If You Want to Meet God!.
Now 26, Thornalley points out that he's come a long way as both an artist and person since his days frequenting at Plastic People. With the release of his debut album, Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, out now, Thornalley is hoping to shift focus away from his famous collaborators and center the conversation on him.
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As an album, Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, actively resists being locked into just one genre, one idea, and often within the span of a song, one tempo. Vegyn's experience producing dreamy, off-kilter hip-hop certainly comes into play in a more straightforward way like the head-bobbing flow from London talent Jeshi on "I Don't Owe U NYthing" or the glitchy, delicate ringtone-like beat of "You Owe Me." He's just as quick to let it all collapse on itself like on the JPEGMAFIA-featuring track "Nauseous/Devilfish."
One moment he might be channeling Aphex Twin on the string-laden "Debold" and the next weaving a horse's ludicrous neigh into intricate footwork patterns, but Vegyn remains the steadfast glue that holds Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds together. PAPER sat down with the producer to discuss his debut, haggling in Chinatown and why he considers Stereolab to be "marxist music."
How did the album come about?
I started February last year when I was trying to figure out a lot of stuff, and then had to make a record. I was considering re-purposing all this old material and trying to hash it out. I was trying to think of an easy way to do it, but then I started thinking about all my favorite electronic records and how they were successful, why I appreciated them, and started thinking more about what I wanted from actually making an album. Part of that was making music for myself again. I wanted to stay away from a "producer" album. I always thought that was really shit, really boring, and really safe. I didn't want it to be a series of songs that didn't make a placement with somebody else and now I'm getting features on the whole thing. I didn't want to sell it on its features. I basically made a bunch of rules for myself, then I set out and started experimenting.
What are some of those electronic albums you mentioned?
I was a big electro-head when I was younger, so it's Justice or Daft Punk or Crystal Castles or Boards of Canada or Autechre. Grand in scope, there's a general tone and atmosphere. I like how sonically unique each one of these records are. They have this sentiment to them. I think it's really difficult to make a record that doesn't have lyrics on it that's emotionally potent.
Listening to "It's Nice to be Alive," it gives off very Postal Service-meets-Jai Paul vibes. There's something really intricate about the way the songs are crafted on the album.
I initially made a bunch of ideas and spent about six or seven months polishing — trying to embellish as many different facets of it as I could, or have other people play on it or add strings, which is great... Owen Pallet did those. I tried to do a deep dive on as much of it as I could until I was losing my mind. Definitely a focus on the detail. I like that listening experience when you can go back and every time you listen to it there's a different element of it that pops out.
Did you approach the album with a certain concept in mind?
I talk a lot about music as therapy. One of the other things I was aware of as a classic pratfall is that the first record is about everything that you are, you have your whole life to make it and then you have a year to make the second one. I was like "Ok, I just want to make this in a year." It's almost a diary entry of how I was feeling then. There's definitely a particular way I was feeling at that time, but I often think it's better not to explain. I feel that people might pull something different out of the record and I prefer to let that stay.
Keeping it open for interpretation.
There is a clear image in my mind of what it's about, but at the same time I don't know how important my vision is for that. I don't want to tell people how to feel.
That's fair. You've described this as your "insanely stoned" record.
Yeah, and since, I've stopped smoking weed, so that's been good. Someone was asking me to describe the music and I guess schizophrenic is a pretty good way. I quite like that multiple personalities within the songs, overwhelming or weird anxieties and nervousness. That's definitely how I was feeling at that time. I was in LA making the record and doing extremely late nights, basically sneaking into a friends studio at night. I'd go in after everyone had left and work from 11 PM to about 6 or 7 AM every day for about three to four weeks. Which is great, I got a lot of work done because I didn't see anyone.
It feels hard to categorize this record because one moment you'll be listening to a hip-hop beat and the next it's a pseudo-footwork pattern.
I guess that's part of the schizo edge. I get bored really quickly. It's fun to speed up a track, like "Cowboy ALLSTAR" is getting faster and faster and faster the whole way through. I think that's sick. It's really fun to catch people off guard or make people laugh. "Cowboy ALLSTAR," that fucking horse sample, I play that for people and people will always laugh and I love that. It is fucking stupid, but it's sick. It's an amalgamation of all this different stuff that I like and trying to hit different notes or flavors throughout.
What made this an album versus a mixtape for you? How do you differentiate the two?
The mixtape that I put out earlier this year, those are all kind of unfinished, they're rough, scratchy. There's a lot of them. Visually, the way I'm differentiating is all the mixtape stuff will have the BPMs in the titles and the album stuff won't. So for me, that's a nice way to separate things, make it a bit clearer. I put the mixtape out and everyone thought it was the album, but the album is much more focused. Rather than it being one idea, there's five or six. Generally, a more focused attention to detail. These aren't throwaways.
Outside of this, what do you get up to?
I've been cooking a lot. I like the feedback loop of it. It's a very short cycle, and it's very temporary. You don't spend a lot of time doing it, then it's gone. It's a nice process to not be in front of a computer. I do graphic stuff as well, it's fun but it's still in front of a computer. I love good food. I love making weird things, I've got this chickpea pasta that's banging. I don't get to spend a lot of time at home, so when I am it's a nice way to see friends because it's a way to show your love for other people. You spend months and months and months working on a song, it's quite nice to spend an hour making a meal. Generally, one of the things I've been trying to do this year is become more comfortable with being alone. I feel like a lot of the time, I stress out about being alone and even going to the cinema by myself. Going somewhere, going to see some art, but doing things because I want to rather than –
–rather than feeling pressured to do it with a friend or a date.
I love doing that, obviously, I feel like it's trying to become more comfortable with myself.
There's such a stigma around going to shows by yourself, but then –
– but then you're like, "I want to do this because I want to do it."
Along those lines, what was the last thing you did for yourself then?
[At the moment,] I've been on other people's time. What was the last thing I did for myself, fuck. [Laughs]. It's harder because I'm traveling and working, so I'm in a bit different headspace. I don't really have that much time to do crazy stuff. Buying things for yourself doesn't really count either.
It can though...
I mean, I got a piece of jewelry, which is always nice. I like doing that. I like to haggle, it's fun. You've got to do that in Chinatown. They give you the price and you're like "eh."
It's definitely feels less common to haggle stateside than elsewhere.
I mean, I have a good relationship with the people at this jewelry spot, but I'm like, "Ok, yeah, I did bring you these customers." It's fun. It's part of the experience. What do I do for myself? I'll usually go and get myself a big ass coffee in the morning.
You're a pretty renowned selector, who are you vibing with at the moment?A lot of Benny Revival. He's my hero: very strange man, but insane music. I love music that makes me feel like I'm losing my mind. Dorothy Ashby, she's really cool. There's a rapper called Kobe Jxrdan. Arthur Verocai is always sick. Revisited some old Arca stuff, she's amazing. Oh, Stereolab, too.
Oh, aren't they currently reissuing everything?
It's so cool. I was talking with my friend Emmett who I run the radio show with, he described them as "marxist music" because of the way it's all constructed, everyone jams. The songs come about through these improvised moments. Everyone's on an equal, musical, playing field. So it's more about responding to how everyone else is playing. I think it's really sick.
What's next for you?
I've been working on another album, which is 80% done. I need a month to myself and I'll be able to get that finished — push it over the line. Something I've always been really fearful of, in the same way of doing an album, I'm really freaked out by the idea of doing a live show. So that's what I need to do next. I think that will be fun. Trying to figure it out.
How do you see that playing out?
We'll see. I want to make sure it's a really good show. That's the most important thing: making sure everyone has a really good time. What I'm trying to figure out on this next record is a little bit more of a dance music tip? It's embracing four-on-the-floor. I've never really done that before and I want to try and make the drums less a focal point.
That's an interesting concept for four-on-the-floor.
I mean, by doing four-on-the-floor it really simplifies the whole process. It's not really distracting, it grounds it. The drums really only create the genre. The drums and tempo tell you how you're supposed to feel, a dance track, or slow jam, or whatever it is. It becomes, "This is house, this is techno, this is that new wave."
Any parting words?
I consider myself very lucky to be in the situation that I am. I'm really, really grateful for all the opportunities I've had presented to me throughout my life. I'm trying not to take it for granted. In the same way, anyone that's ever bought something from me or told their friends about my music, wears a piece of the merch, that is so nice. It's so nice to see it be a real thing. I'm really excited to get these files off of my Dropbox and to give it to other people so they can enjoy it.
Photography: Alec Martin