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You’d never know from chatting to Joe Thornalley that he’s driven in supercars with superstars. Below is an extract from Issue 002 where Adam Heaton and Vegyn discuss newly opened doors, pop music... And inevitably Frank Ocean.
“I feel like pop gets a bad rap. It’s this thing that people assume just because it’s pop it has to be bland or uninteresting but really, true pop records will be around forever.”
I’d first met Joe, aka Vegyn, a few years back in London after hearing his music played by James Blake on his BBC Radio One show. The tunes I’d heard were very of that time – bass heavy, percussive productions designed for the club, but sounded just as good on headphones at home.
I kept up with his musical output when I got back to Dublin, but it came as a shock to me when in August last year he announced to Facebook – alongside Frank Ocean’s surprise dropping of ‘Blonde’ – that he’d spent months working on the album, as well as the visual album ‘Endless’.
How did this come to pass? A chance encounter with Ocean at London’s now closed Plastic People led to an unassuming friendship between the two. Soon enough he was being flown transatlantic from his native London to LA and NYC for recording sessions that would manifest as ‘Endless’ and ‘Blonde’.
When the chance came to book Vegyn to play at a District Magazine party in April this year, we jumped at it. On the way from the airport to the party in Shankill I hear stories about self-driving Teslas and McLaren F1s spinning around Los Angeles.
"Even if you’re making music for one in a million people, that’s still an audience of seven, eight thousand people."
I think it’s fair to say that the Volvo I pick him up in isn’t the flashiest car he’s been in recently, and the M50 might not be the most scenic surroundings he’s used to, but you’d never assume as much from his demeanour – he’s made the short flight over from London to Dublin in a Three Six Mafia jumper and comfortable looking tracksuit bottoms, and seems relaxed and looking forward to his set.
We make the most of the car’s soundsystem, blasting Kendrick Lamar and Kodak Black, and conduct an impromptu interview on the way. I ask him where he’d like to see himself a few years down the line.
“I guess the main thing now is to stay happy, stay focused. It’d be really great if I could work with a few other acts that I really respect. Trying to branch out is my main focus. This Frank stuff has opened a lot of doors, so collaborating with people, working with new artists, getting some cuts on some cool records would be amazing.”
And after working with Frank Ocean would he have any gripes with working in the pop world?
“Not at all. I feel like pop gets a bad rap. It’s this thing that people assume just because it’s pop it has to be bland or uninteresting but really, true pop records will be around forever.”
Deliberating on the credibility and relevancy of pop music, it’s a balancing act. “Pop music usually stands the biggest chance of reaching the widest audience, and if people don’t want their music to be popular, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I just think, what’s the point in being completely underground? On the other hand though it’s not exactly that sick to go full pop machine either.”
I tell him that he toes that line quite well, and he quickly replies with a laugh, “Because I put out dance records that don’t sell and I also end up on a platinum album?”
Joe’s dad has been involved in the music industry since he can remember, but more behind the scenes. He produced ‘Pornography’ by The Cure, and earned some songwriting credits for pop artists, including Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Torn’. I ask him about his dad’s influence on his career choice.
“Growing up and I was listening to the hits of the 60s, and always having the radio tuned in to BBC Radio 2. Whatever you listen to as a kid really informs everything you do later on. My pops definitely made sure me and my sister got that musical education growing up. I’d hear soul records whenever we were in the car. It’s like, I’ll hear a song now and know the lyrics and melody, but I won’t know what it’s called or who it’s by, because I’ve heard it as a kid and it’s somehow still locked in up in my brain somewhere.”
Coming from a musical background opened Joe up to a huge array of different music, and it’s helped him in making music today. “I try not to make the same thing twice, so it’s good to take references from as many different genres as possible, because you’re only going to strengthen your creative ability by indulging in new things. You can only learn more, and you take the best things and make something new. I just always think it’s best to be open minded and pull from as many different genres and styles as possible.”
I put Joe on the spot and ask him to sum up his label PLZ Make it Ruins in five words. After a serious deliberation on choice of words, he arrives at “eclectic, consistent, futurist, explorative classics”. And despite any struggle to come up with something, he’s not far off. The label primarily puts out forward-thinking electronic music – for lack of a better word, weird club shit.
PLZ started off in 2014 helmed by Vegyn, and curated with the aid of his friends, fellow musician ERSATZ and visual artist Greedy Goons. “Being an independent, you have to make it up as you go along. I think my whole thing is I’m bored of traditional formats. I think an independent record label has to offer something different to really establish itself.”
The label started off releasing music digitally, and on cassettes, CDs and records. Recently they’ve evolved by manufacturing custom dog tags and bullet shaped USB sticks containing music files, and even releasing music on a fortune cookie.
“The fortune cookie came from an anti-materialist sentiment. You have to break open the seal of the box, open the cookie wrapper, then break open the cookie, and all you’re left with is a download code – there’s something kind of zen in and of that. I’m also a real sucker for a good pun.” The fortune cookie includes a download code for four tunes. “A friend of Greedy Goons is training to be a surgeon, and they managed to scalpel the whole thing open without breaking any of it. Hats off to him.”
I wonder what are the limits to PLZ’s physical output: “No limits. If it fits the music, the artist, the aesthetic, then no limits. Your imagination is the only thing holding you back. Why limit yourself? Especially if it hasn’t been done before, that’s one of the most exciting elements – being on the cutting edge.”
This mindset has garnered the label a niche following – enough to grab the attention of James Blake, who played some early PLZ productions on his BBC Radio 1 show a couple of years back.
“The internet opened up so many options and opportunities to get your music out there. It’s definitely created a ‘drop in the ocean’ effect, but good music will still resonate with people.”
“The internet opened up so many options and opportunities to get your music out there. It’s definitely created a ‘drop in the ocean’ effect, but good music will still resonate with people. Even if you’re making music for one in a million people, that’s still an audience of seven, eight thousand people. And you only need a thousand fans to buy every release, and you’re good.”
As we’re approaching the mansion in Shankill, the location for the party, we inevitably turn to the topic of working with Frank Ocean. He says he can’t go into too much detail – there’s an air of mystery to the album that needs to be maintained. So instead of details, I ask him had he any favourite memories from the recording sessions.
“Yeah, plenty!” He replies with enthusiasm. “I’m just constantly grateful for the opportunity Frank afforded me, he took a really big risk in inviting me out, so when I got there I just wanted to try as hard as I could. I wouldn’t sleep a great deal, because I thought ’this is where I want to be, this is what I want to do, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’” He laughs again.
“My favourite thing was definitely meeting Michael Uzowuru whilst working on ‘Endless’.” You might not recognise the name dropped here, but he’s racked up production credits on tracks for Vince Staples, Kevin Abstract, and Domo Genesis.
“Michael’s one of these guys who only makes songs better. He’s got this ability to cut through all the bullshit. It’s crazy, because Michael’s only two years older than me, but I feel like he’s got decades on me.” This age gap seem like an innocuous detail, but it puts Michael at 25 years old and Vegyn at just 23. How many critically acclaimed albums had you produced before you hit 23?
Both of Frank’s recent projects had a small army of producers, artists, and writers working on multiple iterations of songs. I bring up Kanye West’s ‘The Life of Pablo’ and how it received some criticism upon its release for “not being a Kanye West album” because so many other people worked on it. Joe disagrees entirely.
“At the end of the day he’s the one overseeing it, making the creative decisions. This stays, this goes. You’re only worth the sum of your parts, and so if you include as many talented people as possible then hopefully you’re only going to make what you’re doing better.”
Before we’re out of the car and into the party, I ask Joe if he has any advice for aspiring future-Frank-Ocean-collaborators.
“If you’re just starting to make music don’t be afraid to go through the clichés. Get it out of your system. There’s no wrong way to make music. When I started making tunes I had no fucking clue what I was doing – I still don’t! Just practice. Make as much music as you can as often as you can! Practice makes perfect. You’re only an expert at something once you’ve done something for 10,000 hours, and I’m far from there.”
Let’s give Vegyn some time to hone his craft further and check back in a few thousand hours time.
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Photos by Mimi Wade, Rachel Honeybone & Matthew Durrel.