When Frank Ocean released his visual album Endless last year, the credits were packed with familiar names. Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, R&B virtuoso Jazmine Sullivan, and electronic artist Arca were all on the list of cultural powerhouses who contributed. But among the names was one that was new to many: Joe Thornalley, a 23-year-old London-based producer who releases under the name Vegyn. When Blonde dropped shortly afterward, Thornalley’s name appeared in the credits again, and in February, he was one of the hosts of the surprise first episode of Ocean’s Beats 1 show, Blonded Radio.
If he’s fazed by this newfound visibility, it wasn’t apparent in a warm, relaxed phone conversation in early March. Speaking from a studio in L.A., Thornalley explained that the most exciting thing about the turn his life has taken is the freedom it’s given him to fund his own projects. As well as stretching the fabric of dance music with his enveloping, shape-shifting productions, he runs an independent electronic label called PLZ Make It Ruins, and a London-based hip-hop night called GAEZ.
Thornalley only began making music four years ago, while studying design at the London College of Communication. He’d never played an instrument before, but was spurred on by a friend and his love of J Dilla, and began teaching himself how to make crude boom-bap beats. Within the next year, he’d left university to focus on music. His favorite club, the now-closed east London dance music haven Plastic People, played a decisive role in both his education in electronic music and his success as a producer. It’s where he passed a USB drive full of his tunes to James Blake, who later played them on BBC Radio 1 in 2014. It’s also where he met Frank Ocean, as he explained to The FADER below.
How did your connection with Frank Ocean come about?
I met Frank in Plastic People, but I don't think I should say more than that. The man appreciates his privacy. I can say Frank is an amazing songwriter, and I'm constantly grateful to have the opportunity to work with him. His input makes me better.
Is there a song on Endless or Blonde that’s particularly meaningful to you?
"Slide On Me." I love that record. That was one of the first things that I worked on [for Ocean]. He'd flown me out, and I was suddenly there. We'd hung out for a day or two and then it was time to work, and it was just like, Oh, fuck. [Laughs] Like, I actually can't fuck this one up. I think something about that energy helped build the song into what it is. I was just so fucking nervous. It was make or break, you know?
Have you learned anything from working on Ocean’s songs that has informed your own dance music composition process?
Definitely. A hundred percent. Not only that, but some of the people that I've met whilst working with [Ocean]. It's just great to watch other people work. Working on songs, as opposed to instrumental dance music, it's way more fun, and it stands a chance of reaching a way wider audience. The whole thing is just trying to, like, spread positivity and make music that's going to connect with someone and hopefully change their lives for the better.
“I just want to move music along, I don’t want to be in this category of stagnation.”
How did the opportunity come up to host Blonded Radio, and what was that process like?
Frank had mentioned he was putting a show together, and wanted to know if myself and my eternal homie Roof Access would be up for hosting. We were both elated to be asked. It’s been very collaborative process. Frank, Roof Access, and myself have all chosen songs for the show. We wanted the project to be as eclectic and broad as possible, and so we spent a while sequencing and selecting which tracks we’d use and where, to give the music the most impact.
What’s the story behind your upcoming double single “Phone Phoneys”?
I just wanted to make some really melodious, or at least just fun and interesting, dance music. Because U.K. dance music takes itself super seriously. When I’m in [London record store] Phonica, I always just see black sleeves, black vinyl. That's the main reason I don't go out anymore — I just cannot stand techno. There's some techno and house tracks that are fucking amazing, but, like... why self-prescribe? Electronic music has opened up all these doors for possible iterations, and all everyone seems to want to do is stick to the "classics." Kick, snare, kick, snare. It’s just boring. I just want to move music along, I don't want to be in this category of stagnation.
You mentioned in an email that you’ve been waiting a long time to release these new tracks. Why’s that?
I don't wanna cuss anyone out, but [the tracks were] meant to come out on another label, and they just took way too long with it. Then, after the Frank stuff came out they suddenly got back in touch pretty eagerly, being like, “Let's put this out!” And I was like, ”Well, no, fuck you.” I’ve got a bit of money now. I'm in a position now where I'm keen to keep everything 100% independent. It’s super valuable to own all of your shit.
How else have things changed for you in the past few months?
It’s been good. Before the Frank shit, no one really gave a fuck — and people still don't really give a fuck about me, in terms of the general population. But in terms of artists I'm trying to work with, it's definitely opened up. That's the most exciting thing.
Why did you start PLZ Make It Ruins?
[It started with me] pursuing something I’d been consistently told wouldn’t work. Growing up, XL Records was super inspirational; from like 2001 to 2010, I honestly think they were the greatest record label ever. I met [XL boss] Richard Russell in like, 2012. A family friend linked me with him, and he was like, “What are you trying to do?” I was like, “Well, I'd love a label, I wanna have a club night, and I want to make music as well.” He was like, “Cool — pick one of those, and focus.” That's probably the right thing to do, but having other people say “It's impossible” or “You can't do it,” it kinda feeds that feeling of, like, I actually wanna do it.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I'm just going to see what happens. A few more releases for PLZ, a few little things that we've just signed. More music from me. Maybe some more radio, who knows? Onwards and upwards. I don't intend to take a backseat. I want to get in people's faces.