Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Features

Who’s Vegyn? And How Does He Make Such Subtly, Utterly Beautiful Electronic Music?

Interviewing Vegyn isn’t easy. After three months of back-and-forth, I’m finally given a time to meet him on a gray day in early March at a coffee spot in east London. I’ve been eager to make this happen. Vegyn’s career is one of the most impressive in modern music, distinguished by collaboration, style, and a fair amount of mystery. 

What, for instance, is his relationship with Frank Ocean, for whom Vegyn produced songs on both Blonde and Endless? What is it like working with Travis Scott, Dean Blunt, and JPEGMAFIA? And who is Francis Hornsby Clark, the semi-anonymous writer who did the lyrics for last year’s The Head Hurts but the Heart Knows the Truth, a spoken-word/ambient-house album made with the help of AI? 

Alas, I won’t get to ask him any of these questions. Or not in person, anyway. The day before we’re due to meet, Vegyn cancels, citing illness. More than two weeks later I’m told he’s free, although only for a video call. He answers with his camera switched off and offers up his thoughts between coughs and apologies about persistent brain fog. 

We’re here to talk about The Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions, Vegyn’s second proper album, 45 minutes of lovely electronic music that will soothe your ears in much the way a good meme can soothe the eyes after a few minutes of reading the news. It follows The Head Hurts… and his 2019 debut album, Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds, which was sandwiched between two enormous demo dumps comprising more than 70 tracks each.

Joe Thornalley started publishing music on his Bandcamp account under the name Vegyn about 10 years ago, after growing up in Kilburn, northwest London, the son of music producer Phil Thornalley (whose credits include the Cure, Pixie Lott, and Natalia Imbruglia’s “Torn”). His breakthrough came in 2016, when he was credited as a producer on several Frank Ocean songs. He met Ocean at Plastic People, a semi-legendary electronic nightclub in London, which is also how he came across James Blake, handed him a USB stick of songs, and soon heard some of them being played on Blake’s BBC Radio 1 show. Since then Vegyn has produced music with Scott, JPEGMAFIA, and various others, as well as co-hosting Ocean’s sporadic Beats 1 radio show, Blonded

One thing that makes interviewing Vegyn a challenge is that he’s not sure he sees the point of it. “I try not to read these things once they come out, to be honest with you,” he says. “I don’t know how much this sort of stuff seeks to actually … aid anything, really. Obviously, it’s nice to answer some questions from somebody that has an interest in something I do, but I’m not sure if it’s, like, that helpful to anyone really.” 

It’s not uncommon to encounter a musician who thinks the entire music journalism industry is a waste of everyone’s time. Vegyn somehow manages to do it while still seeming like a nice guy. “I do music because that makes me happy,” he says with a sigh. “I do graphics because that makes me happy. I make clothes because that makes me happy. I like cooking, and I like reading and I like watching films and all these other things, but to share all of that is sort of besides the point.” 

Vegyn’s brand of vaporous electronica is not so much genre-agnostic as genre-indifferent, gesturing vaguely toward various subgenres like a pensioner giving directions to a tourist. It’s making music because you can, listening to it because you might as well, then moving on with your life. And it’s often subtly, utterly beautiful. 

I don’t know much about anything really
But I do know how life makes me feel
It makes me feel both dead and alive

Those are lyrics from “Truisms for Dummies,” a song on The Head Hurts but the Heart Knows the Truth. One of 2023’s more unusual albums, it’s officially credited to Headache — an opaque moniker for a project with no previous releases — and listed as “produced by Vegyn, with all lyrics written by Francis Hornsby Clark, and then performed by AI,” according to the official line on Vegyn’s Bandcamp page.

Thornalley won’t reveal much about his lyricist. “He’s one of my best friends,” he says. “People get really obsessed over who he is, if he’s real or not, but he just doesn’t have Instagram. That’s kind of it.” 

It should be said that there is precious little evidence of Clark’s existence anywhere else on the internet, except for a few deeply hidden morsels. A short film that premiered at Cannes last year called The Call of the Brook credits someone of that name as a producer, while there’s a Francis Hornsby Clark with a couple of bylines in the music magazine Bonafide, interviewing Big Sean and reviewing a Wiley album from 2014. (I’ve made numerous attempts to get an interview with Clark. No luck.)

Thornalley plays down any suggestion of the project’s purpose: “There’s no great mission behind Headache. We were never going to be sat down like, ‘OK, and now we’re going to make this.’ It just happened very quickly and very easily. We just thought it was really funny.” The voice you hear on the album comes from AI. “It is a human voice,” Vegyn says. “It is an AI, but it’s a human voice. It’s not like a dog’s voice or something. You know, what’s the difference?” 

AI use and a quasi-anonymous writer aren’t even the most interesting collaborators in Vegyn’s contacts. You’ll see his name in the credits for several songs on Endless and on Blonde’s immortal centerpiece “Nights,” including that famous beat switch at the precise midpoint of the album. What was it like working with Frank Ocean? 

“It was a very, um, useful moment, in my life and career,” he says. “I really feel like I got to play my part in, you know, a little bit of musical history, I guess. I always think people want to know if there’s a special piece of equipment or if all you need to do is x, y, z, but really, I dunno …” Brain fog apology. “Well, Frank wanted me there for a reason, and I was happy to be there.”

That’s all we’re getting, but if you’re looking for something else in Vegyn’s oeuvre resembling the beat-switching divinity of “Nights,” try the deep Bandcamp cut “The Promise.” It’s an absolute gem, a darkened downtempo dirge built around a warbled vocal sample lifted from an unspecified source. 

“It was originally going to be on Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds,” says Vegyn. “But we couldn’t clear the sample.” Can he reveal the sample? “Um, probably not, because I don’t want to do myself in. They were going to charge me a lot of money. It was some ridiculous amount to clear it, and then I would have had to give them like 90 percent of the song, so it didn’t really make sense.” Fair enough. What about his penchant for the devilish beat switch? “I’ve kind of stopped doing that now, the radical tempo changes. Some people might like it or some people might hate it, but I just can’t really be bothered anymore.” 

Another of Vegyn’s most impressive children is “Astrothunder,” from Scott’s maximalist, era-defining Astroworld, the modern musical equivalent of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City: It turns out if you put loads of supremely talented people in the same place and pay them well, eventually they’ll start doing some good stuff. 

“I respect what he’s doing,” Vegyn says of Scott. “He makes music for stadiums. I didn’t really understand that until I saw it performed live.” What about actually making the track? “I think I just did my thing, man. Sometimes you just get given a song, or whatever, and someone’s like, try this, and then, you know, you do that, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” 

Perhaps it’s foolish to ask him about the many artists he’s worked with. But it runs in the family. Did he get used to rubbing shoulders with music industry A-listers thanks to his father?

“No,” he replies. “It’s like he’s a bad teacher, and I’m a bad student. In terms of connections and meeting people, other than my lawyer and my first accountant — which were both very helpful, but other than that, I didn’t get, like, put in the room with anyone. What he was working on and the sort of stuff that I wanted to work on were completely different. In the area where I grew up, they were making boom-bap, hip-hop, and smoking really terrible weed, and I was like, ‘This is what I want to be a part of.’”

Vegyn is an underrated hip-hop producer, his credits including excellent tunes with rappers like Scott and JPEGMAFIA, as well as Blunt’s experimental U.K. rap outfit Babyfather and — twice on Road to Hell — the emerging British iconoclast John Glacier. Could he see himself producing a whole rap album one day? 

“I think it’s just one of those things where you have to wait and see,” he says. “I find if you try to make something happen, usually it doesn’t happen, or it just ends up being really crap. I just sort of wait. Sometimes people will ask me to come out and do things and that’s a cool experience, but there’s no point trying to force something to happen.” 

Just as beguiling are Vegyn’s instrumental works, songs like “Stress Test” (from the new album), “Fresco Dome,” “Debold,” “Recursiveingloops,” and “Phone Phoneys,” each of which plays like an ambient daydream propelled by beats that fall like raindrops on a hot day. “Who else sound like this? They don’t sound like this!” Ocean exclaimed during a 2019 broadcast of Blonded Radio over the sound of Vegyn’s “It’s Nice To Be Alive,” a wispy plastic bag in an updraft of a track that sounds like something Moby might make if he was still good. Like many of his best productions, it recalls the sedate mind-food of ’90s U.K. producers such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada, and Luke Vibert. Bearing in mind Ocean’s well-publicized love for the artist, I dare to ask for Vegyn’s favorite Aphex Twin song. 

“I don’t know,” says Vegyn. “He gets a lot of love, doesn’t he?” 

Too much? 

“Yeah, probably.” 

Wasn’t expecting this. 

“I mean, there’s a lot of good stuff there,” he continues. “I’m not going to go on record and say that he’s overrated. I think I would be crucified for that. But I think it’s just techie drums. People could just program drums on a computer for the first time …” 

He trails off. I wonder if he’s ever considered retreating from the public eye, refusing interviews, and guarding his privacy in much the way Ocean, Blunt, and various other contemporary enigmas have done. 

“I’ll probably do that after this album rollout, to be honest,” he says. 

I consider a final change of tack, deigning to ask about something other than music. As a Londoner who has spent time in L.A., Vegyn has dual citizenship and the right to vote in the U.K. and the U.S. With both countries anticipating elections this year, which way does he see the political state of the world going in 2024? 

“I’ll pass this question,” he says. 

Back in 2018, Ocean took to Blonded Radio to try and encourage his listeners to vote in the upcoming midterms, celebrating the subtle radicalism behind his own music and much of the music he loved, declaring: “I think you can be political often without trying.” Does Vegyn think his own music has the power to be political? 

“Pass.” He invokes a Norm Macdonald bit in which the comedian chastises an interviewer for asking him about politics rather than going to an expert. 

Political or not, many have credited Vegyn’s music with a kind of contradictory feeling, of finding happiness in spite of things. In his new album’s press materials, Vegyn himself calls it “a sort of happy melancholia. It’s like, you’ve finally gotten to ‘acceptance’ in the stages of grief.” 

The faint presence of death occurs more often than you might expect in his work. In the Headache track “Business Opportunities,” Francis Hornsby Clark — or the AI, or whatever the fuck it is — crafts an oblique description of a suicide attempt. “I took my shoes off/I got ready with how I was feeling/I ate the apple and lost myself to paradise,” intones our narrator, imbibing an excessive amount of some untold drug and settling down by a tree before being saved by someone called Monica and her netball team. Is it based on real life?

“I don’t know,” says Vegyn. “That’s a good question.” 

Finally. 

“I don’t think it is, but maybe it’s based on somebody’s life somewhere in the world. Headache isn’t based on a true story, but it does pull from our lives. But neither of us OD’d and then ended up in a field and got kind of nursed back to health by, like, the worst woman in the world.” 

That failed suicide — whether fictional or not — captures something about modern life. Like much of the Vegyn listening experience, it matches the attempts of each and every one of us to find some semblance of peace while the world around us makes doing so as difficult as possible. I conclude my conversation with Vegyn by asking him, perhaps naively, if he’s happy. 

“Depends,” he says. “I don’t know. Sometimes.” 

What does the future hold for him? 

“Probably just making more music,” he says. “And, er, yeah, continuing to do that.” 

Devastatingly, a few weeks after our conversation, Vegyn cancels a number of shows, including one at the Outernet in London. No explanation is given for the cancellation, and Vegyn’s representatives offer no further comment.

Trending

I have seen him before — at Boiler Room HQ, playing a set that, he tells me, he only agreed to on the condition that it would never be published online. “I basically just don’t want a DJ set I did in 2018 being the thing that if somebody googles my name for the first time into YouTube, then that’s the first thing they experience,” he says. “The older I get the more I realize I’m a very private person.”

He says he and Clark have made more Headache songs that they hope to release soon. Whatever he does, he’s one of the most interesting artists of his era, whether he likes it or not. He’s making a soundtrack for a confusing world, all while leaving us with more questions than answers. 

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like

News

The family of Ezra Blount, the nine-year-old killed in the crowd crush at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival, has settled the last outstanding wrongful death...

News

The last remaining wrongful death suit tied to the Astroworld Festival crowd rush is scheduled to go to trial in September, the Associated Press...

News

All but one of the wrongful death lawsuits tied to the deadly Astroworld Festival crowd rush have been settled, lawyers confirmed in a court...

News

First of potentially many civil trials against rapper and Live Nation to begin May 6 Travis Scott will face a civil trial stemming from...