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The timeless wisdom of Vegyn

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Vegyn appears in our Spring 2024 Issue with cover stars Liam Gallagher/John Squire, Kevin Abstract, the Marías, and Palaye Royale. Head to the AP Shop to grab a copy. 

Within minutes of meeting him, the spiraling mind of Joe Thornalley becomes evident. The London-based producer and songwriter, otherwise known as Vegyn, will take a simple question and run tangentially afield, before miraculously circling back to punctuate the point of origin. A discussion that begins with the crossover power of French house traverses the file-sharing wasteland of the early 2000s and lands on the future of music. 

“Music has always been so tethered to technology,” he says. “I think people will really have to adapt, whether it’s their listening habits, or consuming habits, or how these products are being generated. If you stick your head in the sand and pretend that change isn’t inevitable, then, ultimately, you’re dead as a dodo.”

Read more: 11 songs that Horse Head and fish narc are playing on the road

Thornalley’s practice has become all about adaptation — as much to the musical landscape as to his own wisdom and desire. In the past, Vegyn put out club records so varied — and sometimes so long — that if you ever needed time enough to run an errand while spinning at your local DJ night, one release might allow you a duck out to the shop. However, his new LP, The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions, distills the diaspora of his influence into a more cohesive and consistent sound. 

Brian Karlsson

“We have a habit as listeners or fans to overcomplicate,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older and changed as a producer, my focus has been on streamlining things. How can I just make sure things sound good straight away? This album has caught the tailwind of that.”

On this record, Vegyn’s work becomes downright biblical. “Give us strength,” one voice prays. “Help us accept the things we cannot change,” says another. In the video for “A Dream Goes On Forever,” a dancer wears a crewneck sweatshirt with the phrase “Jesus Loves PLZ Make it Ruins” (Ruins being the name of Thornalley’s label through which the album is released). 

I wonder if there are any samples on this record that make him laugh. “There’s probably some that make me cry,” he responds. The aforementioned opener starts with a field recording Thornalley made of a street preacher extolling the virtue of developing a rich spiritual life. “I thought it was important to start the record with this concept of, ‘We’re all sinners. We’re all doomed,’” Thornalley shares. “And really, I think that song is about this thing of, ‘The wheel keeps turning. Things will keep happening. The world keeps changing. The water keeps moving.’” 

At times recalling the best of Balearic beat, the bit-crushed glory of Eno’s Windows ’95 theme, and the subliminal tickle of Beethoven, The Road to Hell, despite its title, brings a sense of promise through its 13 tracks. It’s a smart record with big features: two from John Glacier, as well as contributions from Ethan P. Flynn, Lauren Auder, Léa Sen, and Matt Maltese throughout. 

“Eyes wide open/I never miss a dream,” Glacier sings on “In the Front.” Elsewhere, the track “Last Night I Dreamt I Was Alone,” along with the opening track’s homage to Todd Rundgren, makes the somnambulist the main character of the club. I wonder if he remembers his dreams. He responds with a grateful “often not.” He ruminates on the self-medicating tendencies of himself and society and the nightmares he endured when he stopped smoking weed. “I understand that I used to do it all the time, but the only way to really move through these things is to feel them for what they are and to try and get a better understanding of yourself… whatever the fuck that means.”

But he believes in the power of dreams. “I’m very interested in the subconscious,” he says. When producing, he overcomes the anxieties of daily life. “There’s the voice in the back of your head that’s always telling you that you’re not good enough, or something isn’t working, or it’s not right. I think that too much of life is spent having to second-guess everything that you do.” 

The philosophy becomes thinking less and feeling more. “The more you can free yourself from self-doubt and allow the subconscious to just speak through you,” he continues. “I’m just a conduit, you know? The less that I think about the music that I’m making, the better it always turns out. I used to spend hours and hours working on certain songs, constantly finessing them, trying to produce my way out of these different ideas. And then I found all my best work was the stuff I made in 25 minutes.”

With that brevity in mind, the expanse of Thornalley’s thought can be world-historical. He points out that the time between when the Egyptian pyramids were built and the Roman Empire is the same amount of time between the Roman Empire and the present day. 

“I’m constantly trying to look back into the past,” he says. “Because I really believe that we have the same cognitive abilities that we did 2,000, 7,000 years ago. We’re the same kinds of people. Obviously, education and technology have changed. You know, we’re really specked out to have to deal with these very complicated and complex worlds. But it’s always been like that. We just didn’t know about it. Things have always been on the verge of collapse. Things have always been as bad as they can get.”

vegyn

Vegyn playing a DJ set and a field in Pennsylvania 20 years ago / Brian Karlsson

Going back to other Vegyn interviews, he’s done a decent job of not saying much. But what is there to say? You either understand the music and the context for which it was made, or you choose not to. 

“It all happens so naturally and so quickly [that] the ideas become a lot more succinct,” he says of his process. “Then as a result, I hope that there isn’t that much thought that’s actually involved in listening to it. The ideas are there for people to listen to and engage with. But it doesn’t need to be this complicated process. Especially in the chords that I try and work off, it’s very much [like], ‘How do these make me feel?’ And if they make me feel something, then maybe they’ll make somebody else feel something.”

As his resume stacks up — with productions for Kali Uchis, Frank Ocean, JPEGMAFIA, Shygirl, and more under his belt — it’s become evident Thornalley’s work moves the needle for the top echelon. But he professes no strong desire to be a superstar at this point. Rather, he’s dialed his ego way back. He expresses a need to shake off delusions of grandeur while recognizing he makes music as a means of interfacing with the world, processing his small place in the tumult.

“Even if you’re one in a million, there’s still 8,000 other people exactly like you. That’s the truth. I think you can make stuff for a very specific audience. And thanks to the ways in which music is distributed now, you can reach those 8,000 people a whole lot easier. And if these 8,000 people are buying your records, if that work then goes on and helps other people through a similar process, then that’s a very beautiful thing. It can just be this specific art for these specific people.”

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