Jun 2, 2015
Prophecy Fulfilled: Robin Carolan of Tri Angle
Robin Carolan has been wearing black coats over black shirts with black shorts for years.
“About a year ago someone started calling me ‘health goth,’” he says. “I was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Then I looked into it. Great. Now I’m just going to have to embrace being health goth.” The dubious lifestyle trend—seemingly centered around grappling with your own eventual death on an elliptical machine, clad in sportswear as dark as a hangman’s soul—peaked last fall with a blip of media coverage and resulting online bafflement. It’s not the first trend Carolan’s been ahead of. Five years ago, he founded Tri Angle, a small record label that’s had a major impact on underground music. He moved from blogging about left-field artists to releasing challenging work himself. Now, established and acclaimed, he’s moved on to smuggling Tri Angle’s distinctive tics into huge releases by one-name icons like Björk and Kanye, while at the same time inching the label back from its early pop fixation to terrain that’s much darker. His ideas for music’s future change much faster than his wardrobe.
Over coffee, the Englishman turned Brooklynite calls himself a “geek” more than once, citing a childhood affinity for birdwatching as proof. He grew up in a house dominated by strange British pop music. As he tells it, the canon of guitar-band standards from the 1960s and 70s were almost entirely absent from his youth, the Beatles and Stones replaced in heavy rotation by his parents’ more esoteric 80s vinyl—The The, Cocteau Twins, David Sylvain, and Kate Bush. With no real affinity for guitars, his interest veered toward hip-hop, Warp Records electronica, and sparkly radio hits. “If I did like rock music,” says Carolan, “it was usually only by women.” He calls a cassette tape of Björk’s “Army of Me” his first “adult” music obsession, even though it was given to him by his mother, worn out as she drove him around town. (“It just completely made me crazy,” he remembers.) Though it’s a description often attached to him now, Carolan was no teenage goth.
In the late 2000s, when the phrase “influential music blog” still made sense, Carolan was a contributor to 20 Jazz Funk Greats. The site, named after a misleadingly titled 1979 album by British industrial giants Throbbing Gristle, features electronic music obscurities past and present. It was on its own wavelength in an MP3 blog environment that tended toward buzz bands and group think, presenting music that rarely overlapped with any other sites’ posts. Like his fellow contributors, Carolan described the stuff he loved with language that matched its oddity. The bouts of flowery prose now make him wince. “It’s like reading poetry you wrote when you were a teenager,” he says. Unlike his co-bloggers, he often made space for pop star productions alongside the obtuse electronica. “It would always be really obvious when I was writing, because suddenly there’d be a post about Cassie or Amerie. Readers of the blog were not fans of that,” he says, grinning. “They were not having that at all.”
That anti-snob and slightly troll-ish philosophy carried over to Tri Angle’s early days. The label’s first release was a download-only compilation called Let Me Shine For You. Each of its seven tracks restructured a song from starlet-on-the-skids Lindsay Lohan’s would-be pop career. Like purplish blog writing, it’s something else Carolan considers “a youthful folly.” As a label launch, it was an unquestionable success. He estimates the album was downloaded from MediaFire around 80,000 times within a month of its first posting. Several artists who appeared on it, like Laurel Halo, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Autre Ne Veut, have grown into figures of deep critical respect. And for such a transparent novelty, it’s still weirdly formidable. “I Live for the Day,” a 2005 Lohan song that was scrapped from a single release and subtly reworked by the San Francisco producer oOoOO has aged better than almost anything else from the so-called “witch-house” genre. (Which, for the uninformed, was a slow moving synth-pop subset based on dark beats and mysterious web personae.) It scrubs off the junky studio-hand guitar riffs of the original and medicates the palpable effort of Lohan’s vocals away, emerging on the other end as a detached cold wave classic. Hearing it now puts you in mind of Purity Ring, Chvrches, or a dozen other acts who’ve gotten big since by shading their bubblegum black. There’d never be another Tri Angle release as easy to reduce to a basic conceptual hook.
The label moved on quickly from spectral synth-pop. Their records began brushing up against more beat-centric but equally alien genre blips like “cloud rap” (dreamy, abstract hip-hop production) and so-called alternative R&B (fraught ballads given rough, far away production, ending with a much lower rate of sexual satisfaction). In both instances, more popular artists have followed Tri Angle’s lead. Clams Casino, a New Jersey musician whose debut Tri Angle released, has changed the sound of current hip-hop directly as producer for A$AP Rocky and Lil’ B. Early records from How to Dress Well and Holy Other form a straight line to The Weeknd and FKA Twigs.
Hearing his label’s sounds achieve commercial success elsewhere has occasionally made Carolan feel protective, but feeling ripped off isn’t something he’ll indulge. “I don’t believe in 100% originality… ever,” he says. “No one has a right to get on their box and say, ‘That’s my thing, how dare you take that?’ I guess, yeah, sometimes I would hear something and just think alright maybe that’s just a little bit too close to what we are doing. But you know, if I was so bothered I would have just stuck with that sound.” Growing bored of the sounds that made his label influential has pushed his more recent releases in a darker direction. Records from The Haxan Cloak and singles from Rabit and Lotic have been more aggressive and nightmarish, less likely to become someone else’s chart hit with a couple careful tweaks. But weirdly, every point of diversification has made it easier to pinpoint the label’s core attributes: echo, distance, a focus on stark and mysterious iconography over any individual personality, and sounds that disorient but don’t punish. “There should always be a bit of enjoyment in hearing that stuff,” he says. “It shouldn’t be so brutal that you’re just like, ‘Fuck off, I don’t want to hear it.’ ”
Though the dark aesthetic and restless philosophy of Tri Angle is clearly Carolan’s, his role in making the music his label releases has been less obvious. His involvement seems to shift shape with each LP. Sometimes, as with Holy Other, he’ll play a direct part in production. More often, his creative contribution seems almost Socratic, holding long discussions with artists that slightly alter, or at least refocus, their direction. (“Sometimes it would get so in-depth we’d literally be writing essays to one another,” he says.) He uses Excavation, the acclaimed 2013 record by Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak, as an illustrative example.
“We had it mastered, it was done, it was just completely electronic,” says Carolan. “I felt like it didn’t sound right. There was just something about it that wasn’t working. So I said, ‘There are a lot of electronic producers out there, but they can’t write the strings. They can’t do that, that’s the thing that makes you special.’ He went back and took it in again and decided that was a thing that needed to happen. He ended up kind of remaking the whole album.” As released, Excavation is a triumph of tonal dread. The low, churning weight of those strings are crucial to its effect. It’s the sort of album you hear in your stomach as much as your ears.
In mid-May, in the basement and vault of the old JP Morgan building on Wall Street, Red Bull Music Academy hosted most of Tri Angle’s current roster for a massive fifth anniversary tribute as part of their annual New York festival. Established label acts Haxan Cloak, Evian Christ, Vessel, Forest Swords, and Holy Other were joined on the bill by less-known label newcomers mssngno, Lotic, Rabit, and Hanz. Half academic expo, half rave, it was the sort of large-scale avant garde spectacle that the benevolently hip energy drink consortium is eager to put their name on, and the sort they are almost uniquely able to pull off in 2015. Red Bull only released enough tickets to half-fill the space—certainly not enough to cover the cost of talent and production involved.
There was a movie set surreality to the night. To be inside the built-out basement was to inhabit a dance club set-piece in a 90s vampire movie, strobe lights bouncing off leather in a crypt wired for bass. In the back room, LED lights wound up a corroded concrete ceiling to a DJ deck. Smoke machines stayed mostly on blast. At the molar-rattling peaks of volume in Haxan Cloak’s set, the pervasive murk might well have been dust kicked up from the walls disintegrating. The artists were uniformly good, strange and indefinable in ways that rock bands rarely are in 2015. Their impact was extremely physical, though, too brutal to be entirely computer-made. This wasn’t proof of Tri Angle’s music as some dormant popular force, but a boutique presentation for a self-selected cult, the “underground of electronic music” made into a real life physical location.
Even as Tri Angle has grown to a stature that befits such an ostentatious tribute, Carolan remains his label’s only employee. He has a hand in design and marketing, manages select artists, and dispenses life advice to others. He’s been able to successfully shepherd the producers he represents to participation in two of the most adventurous pop-icon records of the past few years. Evian Christ, a young London producer whose first official releases came out on Tri Angle, was one of a small army of cutting-edge producers tasked with pushing the sound of Kanye West’s Yeezus beyond what was current, into scene-setting futurism. Carolan was there, in the Paris studio where West recorded his brilliant, brutalist statement album over six months before its surprise release. “For the record, he was always super nice,” says Carolan. “Very polite.”
Björk’s wrenching post-breakup chronicle Vulnicura is another big-deal record that absorbed the influence of Tri Angle, in ways direct and indirect. The Venezualan producer Arca, not a Tri Angle artist but one who shares definite aesthetic similarities with its roster (he’s collaborated with a few for remixes and the like), was its main producer. Björk’s become a close confidant of Carolan’s recently, a key resource and critical ear. (Our cafe meeting place was chosen for its proximity to a personal studio of hers where Carolan had been busy recording the new Holy Other record.) She was in that Wall Street basement as early as 10:30, recognizable behind a sparkly sequined mask, spinning tragic Portuguese ballads that bled into break-neck techno. She danced next to Carolan at stage front for the rest of the night.
It’s a sweet prophecy fulfilled for the kid who wore out his “Army of Me” cassette. “She knows that I’m a fan but we don’t really talk about that stuff,” he says. “It might be a bit awkward. She knows that people like myself and Alejandro [Arca] and Bobby [Haxan Cloak], all these people who are of a similar age who worked on the last record, she knows we’re huge ‘stans’ for her. Sometimes, if we’ve had a drink we’ll get a little bit nostalgic.”
Carolan rejects the idea that out-there sounds need to retain their obscurity to remain powerful. “When Yeezus came out, some people said ‘Oh, he’s a vampire, he’s sucking the life out of underground music,’” says Carolan. “I just thought, ‘Oh, like fuck he is.’ Because how do you think these underground weirdo producers get anywhere? They need people like Kanye West, or like Björk. They need those people to give them that exposure.” Carolan’s goal is get his weird little artists to a place of stature where they’re positioned to collaborate with megastars if that happens to be their goal. If productive anonymity and a small cult following is more in line with an artist’s style? That’s fine too.
But from a lifelong pop fan’s perspective, Carolan believes the mainstream is in desperate need of a jolt. “I don’t really like a lot of pop music now,” he says. “A lot of pop music production at the moment is really boring and really uninspired. Too many songs are trying to cater to meme culture.” Instead of following along with a critical culture that aims to dissect mainstream music on a molecular level just to confirm why it’s totally great and important, his love is more conditional, his standards common sense. When pop is interesting, don’t be a snob about it. When it’s boring, turn away until it starts embracing new ideas again.
“I always have total faith in weird music and where it could go.” ♦
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