On May 15, 2015, Tri Angle Records celebrated its fifth birthday in New York as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s month long festival. The party took place in the basement and vault of the former headquarters of J.P. Morgan on Wall Street, in the center of New York’s financial district.
Label mainstays like Evian Christ, Holy Other, Forest Swords, and The Haxan Cloak performed alongside newer additions like Rabit, Mssingno, Lotic, and Hanz. Björk showed up for a wild, mind-altering surprise DJ set. There was a disused bank vault with a video installation by Lucien Smith and an immersive sound installation by The Haxan Cloak. Shit got weird.
It was a celebration like no other, befitting of a label that is like no other. After only five years in the game, and without having altered his vision one iota, Robin Carolan’s Tri Angle Records is sitting comfortably—but never still—in a strange position that is based on difficult to categorize, boundary pushing electronic music but touches the worlds of rap and experimental pop, too.
“I never tell people on the label to give me what everyone wants,” Robin explains, but still, a lot of people want a piece of what he and his artists are building. Whether it’s Kanye West working with Evian Christ, Björk with The Haxan Cloak, or Holy Other’s niche but incredibly dedicated fan base, Carolan has proven time and time again that by trusting his own instincts and refusing to compromise, he can succeed.
While Carolan himself may say that he is simply trying to put out the best music possible, his label is more than that. The merry band of artists whose music has been released on Tri Angle Records provide a place for fans of all stripes to join together and lose themselves in music. And that’s important. As one of the flyers at the party stated ominously: “You will need music more than ever.”
We talked to Robin Carolan about Tri Angle Record’s genesis, big plans for 2015, and not giving major labels what they want.
What were your thoughts and goals when you put together your debut release—the Lindsay Lohan remixes project—in 2010?
At that time I was really obsessed with pop music and the idea of—I think at that time, people were a bit more judgmental of pop music. There was definitely more of a divide between what was considered indie or underground music and the pop commercial stuff. For a long time I had been frustrated with those lines.
There was an element of me wanting to fuck with that a little bit and also make a pretty strong first statement. But saying that it was also a very quick process. It was done on the hop, I didn’t think about it that much. I just remember thinking one night, “Oh that might be pretty cool.” And then I asked friends and they did it. Suddenly, we had this mini-album or whatever it was.
Was there already a larger, long-term vision for Tri Angle at that time?
Probably a little bit. When the label was announced there was this immediate wave of hype that I hadn’t really been expecting because I didn’t have a press person. But I hadn’t put any any music out, and that just felt really, really weird to me.
I already knew the first release was gonna be Balam Acab [the See Birds EP] but it wasn’t ready. So the Lindsay Lohan thing was also me feeling that I just needed to get something out there to justify what was going on or to at least give people an idea of what Tri Angle was going to be. It was the weirdest thing, like hyping up a label that hasn’t released any music?
It’s very Internet.
It is, yeah. I wasn’t really comfortable with it because I’ve never really been a huge fan of hype. I’ve just seen so often, the hype backfires. It put a lot of pressure on me. I just started the label as a hobby. I didn’t really think of it as a business for a while, but then it took on a life of its own.
Has running a label changed how you interact with music? Do you listen to new music in a different way?
No, not really. I never really sit down and think, “Okay, I need to find something to sign.” It’s still something that happens pretty organically. I’ll stumble across something and that will be the beginning of me working with a new artist. I find when you try to force it, it doesn’t really work. So no, I don’t really listen to music in a different way. I’m not listening to it more critically or trying to figure out, “How does this fit into Tri Angle?”
I just started the label as a hobby. I didn’t really think of it as a business for a while, but then it took on a life of its own.
You’re from the UK originally. When did you move over to New York, and was that related to the label?
Well, I actually started the label in New York. That’s when I had the kernel of the idea. A lot of my friends at the time were running their own labels and I was watching what they were doing and asking them how it worked. I had never worked at a label before, I had no—I was completely, like, clueless.
I started the label in New York and I’ve been here on and off, maybe for four years or so? I went back to Britain at one point at the beginning of the label because it felt like we had to put a little more work into establishing what we were about over there. Plus, we signed—I always say “we” but I mean “I”— I signed a bunch of British artists after the first wave of signings were all Americans. So I went over to spend time with them.
So it’s just you running the label by yourself, no one else?
Yeah, it’s stupid. [laughs] I’m always told that by my friends who can’t believe I still do it alone. It is kind of crazy but I’ve gotten so used to working by myself that I think I would find it really hard to bring in someone new and delegate. I will at some point because it’s unavoidable but for the moment it’s still just me.
You have a pretty packed release schedule!
See I don’t think I do! I don’t think I release that much music! I’ve never really put out more than five records a year
But when it’s just one guy…
True, true. It’s funny—I always think I don’t do anything, that I’m moving at a snail’s pace, but when you put it like that. But yeah, that’s probably why I still do everything by myself. I don’t think about it that way.
So it’s important for you to actually spend the time with the artist in person?
If it’s possible, yeah. But sometimes it’s not practical. Like Fis lives in New Zealand and SD Laika lives in Milwaukee, which I guess is a little more possible, but also a slightly strange place to go. I like to spend time with the artists because I get very involved in the process of making the albums and releasing them. It’s never a case of, “Okay, make me an album and give it to me when it’s done and I’ll release it.” I’m very involved in all stages, especially the creative stuff. It just always makes it easier if you know the person and you know how they operate.
You make it sound very easy, the transition from being a writer to running a label. But what kinda obstacles have you faced?
Well, I never really viewed myself as a writer. I never would have said I was a journalist—[the websites] 20jazzfunkgreats was just something I did for fun and the style of writing on that website was so out there, you know? It wasn’t like normal music reviews where you explain, “Oh, there’s a nice guitar part,” it’s very flowery. So it was just a funny thing that I did.
The one thing that I was aware of was; if I was going to start the label I would have to immediately stop writing for the website because I didn’t want people to have the opinion that I was feeding them stuff with an agenda. I feel like you do have a label you have to make a bit of a separation because it makes it so easy for people to question your motives. People wonder, “Why is he saying this is good? Is this to sell records or does he genuinely just want me to hear it.”
You’ve said before that you don’t want to define a “Tri Angle sound,” but to me a common thread is that the music challenges the listener in some way. They have to actually actively listen as opposed to putting it on in the background. Are you attracted to music like that?
I definitely don’t want to be releasing music that just fades and is just there. I’m definitely not worried about challenging people and giving them something that they don’t think they want. I think as the label’s progressed it’s possibly gotten slightly weirder or some of the records have gotten more confrontational and I quite like that. I wouldn’t want to feel like I was just releasing music that was easy to categorize.
I do totally get why people say there’s a “Tri Angle Sound” because there kind of is, but at the same time I would hate for someone to really, really easily break it down. I feel like people will try but they will never really get there, and I’m quite happy about that. Because that would be shit! If they could express it in such a black and white way, I would feel like I failed or something.
I think as the label’s progressed it’s possibly gotten slightly weirder or some of the records have gotten more confrontational and I quite like that.
Within pop and rap it seems that artists are looking to work with more experimental producers and are open to more interesting sounds. When Kanye West works with Evian Christ or Björk works with Haxan Cloak, do you feel a certain sense of satisfaction, like, “I told you so!”
Maybe a little bit. I’ve always had a habit of signing and working with artists who have literally just started so they haven’t had huge back catalogues, no hype, nothing. Yeah, I do have a habit of signing producers and the initial reaction is, “What the fuck is this? Where’s this going?” I always have total faith in weird music and it’s potential to cross over and be something else.
I’ve never been that interested in existing in the underground indie ghetto or whatever, but it’s nice when people like Haxan Cloak get a chance. Haxan is a really good example—when I signed him, even Tri Angle fans weren’t sure about him. They were like, “what is this weird druggy shit?” but I always thought he could be a really big producer and he had the potential to take his sound into really ambitious territory. Now, to see him producing for all those people—he has all this stuff coming out over the next year or so, collaborations and his own record as well—it’s very validating.
At no point did I ever think, “oh, this is weird, this isn’t gonna appeal to anyone.” But at the same time, with the pop landscape, I used to be more interested in dealing with that world and I’m not as bothered any more. I’m kind of going through a slightly over-it phase with that world.
You’re not focussed on staying underground, but working with pop stars can be difficult.
Yeah. I’m always open for whatever but I often find that major labels want the aura of cool but they don’t want to go all the way in, sonically. So they end up wanting the watered-down version of what we’re doing and I just think, “What’s the point, go get someone else to create that!”
So it’s always slightly frustrating. I’m open for whatever, though, trying to create these interesting, crossover collaborations. Every situation’s different.
Now it’s been five years and you’ve had the anniversary party it seems like a good time to look to the future. Are you still excited running the label? Do you see Tri Angle running for a long time?
Yes, for as long as I find it satisfying, I’ll do it. And as long as I keep hearing music that interests me and fits in with what I’m doing, I’ll keep going. The day that doesn’t happen, I’ll stop doing it because I’d rather keep Tri Angle at a certain standard than just see it drop off or turn into a parody of what it was.
I’m getting more interested in producing other people’s records, too, which is what I’m doing now. Holy Other and I are working on these records together, and I’ve been slowly easing into that role a bit more. Like with Bjork’s album I was involved in the sense that I was basically creative consulting on some of the songs. It’s been a slow process realizing that’s what I’m a bit more interested in.
I always say, ‘Go nuts! Experiment! Do what you want, as long as it’s good.’
I’m really excited about the label; we’ve got a bunch of new signings that nobody knows about yet who are incredible and again, I think they’re different for Tri-Angle but they make sense. A lot of the artists who have been on the label are now just starting to move into second album territory. That’s interesting to me because I’m really obsessed with back catalogues. When you have an artist who has a whole discography, it’s really exciting to look at it and see what space they were in, follow that whole arc.
So that’s exciting for me to start moving into that territory and build a body of work. I’m really keen for everybody on the label to just not be predictable, to not try and remake what they’ve done in the past. I think that’s what I’m trying to instill in anyone. I never tell people on the label, “give me what everyone wants,” I always say, “Go nuts! Experiment! Do what you want, as long as it’s good.”
That’s really all there is to it.
Do you have a studio space of your own?
We almost did. It’s a bit of a shame, really, because we were thaaat close and then the practicalities of it didn’t come through. It’s still something that I want to do at some point but I’ve re-evaluated how I want to do it. Originally we were going to do it in London because a lot of the artists now on the label are from Britain, but if I were to do it now I would probably do it out in the countryside or something.
I live in the city so it’s kind of stupid saying that but I’ve gotten more anti- about cities, especially when making records. I think going out to the middle of nowhere to make a record is really special and helpful. We were going to do the Holy Other record in this church upstate because we just wanted to get the fuck out, but all the moving parts on that record—strings, woodwind ensembles, and vocalists—getting them upstate would’ve been a nightmare. So we ended up doing it here, but it’s been nice because we’re in this studio nearby. It’s very comfortable and isolated, for the city at least. I would still like to get a studio, it’s just about creating a creative space. That’s the most interesting part of the label.
I wanted to talk about Mssingno because he’s such a sick producer. You haven’t officially announced a release but I assume something is on the way?
I guess we’re probably being a bit secretive. Kind of for some good reasons. We’re doing some stuff—but we’re also doing some other stuff. [laughs]
I mean, I manage him.
I can’t really say too much about Mssingno but he’s got some big stuff that is going to surprise people.
How do you pronounce the name?
m’see-no. Yeah, everyone always asks that. I’ve just been super-involved in what he’s been doing. He’s going to have some new stuff coming out soon but he’s been taking his time and that’s kind of my fault. Maybe he’s taken too much time. But it’s almost there. He’s definitely got something.
So… it’s still all a bit secretive.
Yeah, yeah—it’s funny I can’t really say too much about him but he’s got some big stuff that is going to surprise people. You know the score—confidentiality, all that shit!
And the Tri Angle party is his first New York show.
Yeah, it’s great. I forget how little people know about him. It’s not like we’re trying to cultivate mystique, we just haven’t had the time. We haven’t done any interviews or photoshoots cos we just want to wait until we have some more music out.
Did you reach out to him around the time of the Goon Club Allstars EP?
It was around the same time, I’ve been there since really early on. I’ve seen him grow but it’s been cool because I’m not one to really rush shit. It has been a long time since he’s released anything and I guess that would unnerve some people because they’d be thinking, “Shit, strike while the iron is hot,” but I think taking some time out is a good approach sometimes. You can think about what you’re doing and what you’re presenting to people next.
I just believe that if the music is good, it’ll be interesting. It feels like he’s right on the slow build, like we got a write-up in Pitchfork and that was cool because we hadn’t had that kind of exposure. He’s going to have a good year.
And it’s interesting because he’s got a very different sound to Rabit or Lotic, for example. It almost feels like a new sound for the label.
His stuff is very melodic and Rabit has got this more violent, abstract sound. Mssingno makes music—I’m trying to figure out how to explain this properly—but he’s kind of like a party dude, he just likes having fun. That sounds so cheesy but he doesn’t have any sort of huge ambitions to make a statement. He’s just trying make music that makes people dance and feel good. It’s different to Rabit and Lotic, they’re both dark and politically motivated. You can still dance to their music but they definitely make it harder.
Talk a little about the space for the party.
It’s in a disused bank. It’s in the basement, it’s huge. It’s going be split into two room with the live acts in room one and DJs in the other. My friend David Rudnick, who is a designer I’ve worked with quite a lot, has been working on the interior and he’s coming up with typically crazy, weird ideas that’ll hopefully come together. We’ve got a video installation by Lucien Smith, which is playing an actual vault that you can walk into. I just want it to be super immersive. I want people to lose themselves in there.
Haxan Cloak’s designed the sound installation, which is this weird mash-up of every artist on the label, ever, thrown into a blender. It’s actually really disorientating. It’s nice for me because I haven’t had a showcase in America. It’s not because I haven’t had the opportunity, I just have been really reluctant because I worried it would be shit, not because of the artists but because those things are hard to put together. But five years just felt like good symmetry.
In this day and age, music is such a vital way for people to connect and interact. Do you have that sense that what you’re doing is important in a larger sense than just putting out good music?
It’s a question I can’t really answer. I feel like people have to make their own minds up about that. When you try and do something and convince yourself that it’s important, things get a bit…trippy.
If people do feel like that, that’s great. I just don’t know if I’m comfortable saying it. I guess I do feel confident saying that we have had a little bit of an impact on electronic music, a couple of interesting crossover moments, I can hear certain artists and their sound in commercial music now. Like Clams beats, or the whole warped-R&B Holy Other type shit, and thats cool. That’s nice to see.
The most important part for me is feeling like whenever I stop the label, whether that’s in twenty years time or whenever, I can look back and think, “yeah, a lot of this stands the test of time and that really ushered in something different.”
That would be great. Whether I’ll do that, I don’t know.