It wasn’t that Robin Carolan necessarily saw a void that needed to be filled when he founded Tri Angle Records in the summer of 2010. He simply felt there was a misrepresentation of the peculiar style of music then beginning to morph and solidify around him. A former contributor to the British fanzine 20 Jazz Funk Greats, a publication known for plumbing the underground, Carolan created Tri Angle as a response to an emerging genre, one that straddled the line between pop and mash-ups without fusing itself to either.
“I didn’t really start the label to push that genre; it just kind of happened naturally,” he says on a recent day off. “When I started the label, I didn’t really have any big plans for it. It was kind of just put together almost as a hobby. It wasn’t supposed to be this thing that I’d be doing five years later.”
To commemorate its half-decade run, Tri Angle will showcase nine of its artists in an environment befitting the label’s unique aesthetic: inside the basement and vault of a former JPMorgan building off Wall Street. The show will offer rooms for both DJ and live performances, with interior decorations courtesy of visionary designer David Rudnick (whom Carolan calls a “mad genius”). For the founder, the event will be an encapsulation of Tri Angle’s past, present, and future, with a good mixture of artists and their sounds.
“Tri Angle seems to have always flirted with the slightly ridiculous, so it seemed like a suitably bizarre place to host a party like that,” says Matt Barnes, a/k/a Forest Swords, one of the event’s performers. “Wall Street has a lot of heavy connotations, and the venue itself looks suitably imposing.”
Tri Angle is split between New York and London, and previously completed a week-long showcase throughout major European cities in February 2012. Although those shows were met with positive reviews and every ticket was sold, Carolan looks back at them with disregard.
“I think I’ve always been very, very particular about how I want things done and how things come across, and I think at that time, because we were quite new, we weren’t really able to throw our weight around and really get things as we needed them to be,” he says.
Two and a half years after those shows, Tri Angle remains one of contemporary music’s more intriguing and consistent labels, one where talent is harnessed and progression is encouraged. The label has curated a complex roster in its short run, including How to Dress Well, the Haxan Cloak, Evian Christ, Holy Other, and oOoOO. Carolan grew up obsessively collecting and cataloging the works of certain producers (e.g., the Neptunes, Timbaland) and aimed to translate this devotion into his label.
“I wanted to create a space where fans could trust in the vision and would create their own narrative. With each release, I’ve always been quite careful not to put my own opinions on them,” he said. “When people ask me to define what the Tri Angle sound is, I know what it is, but I’m very reluctant to define that, because I think that’s something you leave up to the listener. I think that makes it more interesting as well, and it does add to the obsession. It’s like you’re constantly trying to figure out a riddle or you’re following a never-ending story and you wonder what the next sound is going to be.”
Carolan likes to shepherd and challenge his artists by either taking them out of the bedroom (Tri Angle opened its own studio space in London’s Parsons Green area two years ago) or by personally helping to produce their records. He’s currently in the studio with Holy Other (and says they’re incorporating elements such as string and woodwind instrumentation into an otherwise DIY, lo-fi aesthetic). This type of dedication and vision not only conducts the genre into further realms of possibility, but also inspires the artists in its orbit to follow suit and push past the point of complacency.
“Once a label gets a certain reputation, it’s probably easy to coast and put out things that re-tread similar ground. It’s a bit braver to go in deeper and harder,” adds Barnes. “I feel like my own path has followed a similar one to the label’s. It’s been pretty slow and steady. And I know from both sides that’s a conscious thing. You have more control over everything that way. It’s all felt very manageable. You see some labels burn bright for a couple of years and then fizzle out, but I know Tri Angle has a more considered long-term vision than that.”
Carolan says he’s been approached several times over the past few years to produce more showcases but has shied away due to suspicions involving shady promoters, as well as a general lack of interest. But now that the label is closing in on its official fifth birthday (its premier release was the Lindsay Lohan–inspired Let Me Shine for You mixtape, which debuted July 21, 2010), Carolan felt the time was right and agreed to collaborate with the Red Bull Music Academy.
“I wanted to find something we could put our stamp on. And I guess it makes it feel like less [of] a show and more like a gathering, if that makes sense,” he explains. Since before Tri Angle even released its debut, listeners and critics alike have been attempting to label the label, invoking terms like “drag” or “witch house” to categorize the sounds and aesthetic Carolan has fought so hard to keep fluid, open to individual interpretation. So when asked if that word — “gathering” — was used with a witch/coven reference in mind, he’s quick to laugh and scoff it off.
“I just hate that term,” he chuckles. “We came up at the same time as this supposed [witch house], and we just got locked into it for various reasons. It’s a funny one; there are some artists who would call themselves witch house, but I don’t think we sound anything like them. I think it’s the evolution of the label — where we were then and where we are now. And it never really comes up, but when it does, I’m just like, ‘Oh, my god — really?’ ”
Tri Angle Records will celebrate its fifth anniversary May 15 at 23 Wall Street. While the show was initially sold out, more tickets have been released and are available here.