Tri Angle’s shadowy founder on obsession and the art of holding back
Every time Tri Angle founder Robin Carolan signs a new artist to his label, the internet explodes. With a shrouded aesthetic that flips off social-media saturation, the label's 17 releases to date oscillate in an elemental airspace between avant-electronics and pop, and while the label's dark imagery is often imitated, those that follow never seem more than parodic. Since the label's inception in 2010, Carolan has released debuts from then (relative) unknowns like Clams Casino and How To Dress Well, as well as Holy Other, Evian Christ and Balam Acab. Each of these artists has come to define a micro-scene of their own; just think about the genres invented in their honour. Carolan is British-born but currently lives in Brooklyn. When we make contact to talk about how Tri Angle has morphed into one of today’s most singular musical tribes, it happens to be the day that his latest release Excavation by The Haxan Cloak leaks, "which is great!" he laughs, drolly.
You recently opened a Tri Angle studio. How's it going?
It's really exciting. It's in Parsons Green in London, and it's about taking the guys out of the bedroom and giving them access to new resources, like if they want strings on a record or to record a vocalist properly. Some artists just feel more inspired when they go into those kinds of environments. I know James (Kelly, aka WIFE) gets super-creative, but Holy Other quite likes making music in his bedroom so it ultimately might not work out for him.
Does Tri Angle feel like a community?
There's a nice family vibe. Everyone gets on in general and they all hang out. But I think what's important is that they're competitive with one another, and I quite like that aspect of it. There aren't really any weak links on the label, and everyone's got to raise their game because if they don't, the other dude will start to outshine them.
How do you ensure that each Tri Angle release feels special?
The internet's taken down all the walls, and you can sometimes know every detail about an artist. I think pulling back from that is sometimes important. It can taint the way you hear the music. Like, I used to love Rihanna but I'm kind of sick of her now. Tri Angle is a mysterious label to an extent, but not in a kooky ‘we live in the woods’ way. If you keep giving away everything then ultimately there are no questions left to answer, so the guys hold back in interviews. The records that I've obsessed over in the past ten years have usually been made by artists who don't tell you much about themselves.
Which mysterious artists do you obsess over?
Boards of Canada. I definitely subscribe to the world they've created for themselves. I often find myself trying to find out where they live and where their studio is based. I know that's really creepy! I was obsessed with Siobhán Donaghy from Sugababes for ages. She refused to do any interviews, so I became obsessive and on a mental mission to seek her out and make a record with her. I am a classic example of someone who has totally fallen for that, and I hope we're creating that with Tri Angle.
Do advise your artists on how to present themselves?
Sometimes, if artists want to get to a certain place but they haven't felt the confidence to take the plunge and embrace what they've been working towards. But it's not a prerequisite that they have to look a certain way. Evian Christ looks like a normal guy from up north – he wears tracksuits and that's his thing. I would never say to him, ‘We've got to make you darker!’ (laughs)
When you started the label you used the tag word ‘religious’. How come?
It was because I essentially wanted to build up a cult. As a teenager I was obsessed with certain labels and producers and it was like a religious experience. I would collect Timbaland and The Neptunes' productions and I would buy the shittiest CD just because they had one production on it. That was definitely something that I wanted to create with Tri Angle and the artists.
Does Tri Angle have a different musical canon?
Totally. I said something like ‘Sugababes are more important to me than the Beatles’ on Twitter once, and I got completely hammered over it. People were horrified! But I wasn't trying to get a rise out of anyone. I grew up listening to Sugababes and their first album had a massive impact on me. The Beatles didn't. Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin didn't. They're just not relevant to me. I don't like the idea that a certain canon is forced upon a newer generation of artists.
Is the label an insight into your personal taste?
Yeah. It's very specific in that sense. You know, I still get asked about things like the Lindsay Lohan tribute record (Let Me Shine for You, Triangle00). That was a risky way to introduce the label back in 2010, but now it's almost trendy for indie and underground musicians to cite pop-culture references. There's an over-saturation of that now, and it's turned into a slightly vacuous conversation. It's almost like some people have been in therapy and can now see the validity in Rihanna or something. It's like, (slow claps) ‘Well done.’
A lot of your releases are obtuse, but the label seems cool rather than dorky.
I always feel there's a certain sense of melody that gives people an entry point. Some of the records are quite weird or slightly difficult, but I never think they're impenetrable electronic avant-garde records. With Holy Other, the structures are very weird because he'll fuck around with the tempo a lot and it's constantly shifting, but ultimately he's working with an abstract form of a verse/chorus structure. The Haxan Cloak album is probably one of the most difficult records I have released to date, but it gives listeners the chance to be a part of its world. The records may have a dark vibe, but I also think they sound really beautiful. Sometimes they sound like they're stuck between heaven and hell, and you're not quite sure which one. People talk about the Holy Other album as if it's the darkest thing. I don't really get that.
Was it ever your ambition to run a label?
No. I was more obsessed with the idea of making music. I make it when I can, and I've made quite a lot of my own. But I had this really crippling shyness, and I just wouldn't play it to people. I once tried to do a side-project with Jack (Bevan) from Foals and it totally fell apart! I just freaked out at the thought of someone hearing me sing or make music.
What happened to the record that you made as Lie (Ballad, Tri Angle10), which was announced last year on Tri Angle but never got released?
I have released that though! I pressed ten records and I put them in an antiques shop. I doubt people are going in and asking, ‘Oh my God, have you got that Lie record?’(laughs) And that's kind of why I did it. Actually, I read this really weird story about a woman who was wandering around the woodlands and found a diary in the hollow of a tree. Whoever had written this diary was obviously very eccentric and potentially troubled, but she was more obsessed by the fact that she had found it in that context. For her there was an air of mysticism and something magical around it. Everything's so tightly controlled when you run a label, but with my record I like the idea that I've given up any control over it.
Do you have any tattoos?
Well, I've got the Cassie tattoo (of ‘Me & U’), and then I've got the date Aaliyah died. (laughs) It's so morbid! Aaliyah was genuinely my idol, and although the stuff she had made was incredible – very weird and avant-garde – I felt that she was building up to something even more groundbreaking.
What ambitions do you have for the future?
I've recently set up a production company with some friends in New York who are music managers. I have all these producers now that want to be working with pop stars and rappers, and we've had a lot of really healthy interest in the last 12 months. Evian Christ and Holy Other have that ambition so they're on there, and there's a couple of other producers who aren't on Tri Angle that we're talking to right now. I realised a while ago that I'm good at finding producers and that's my strength. Hopefully this year the work will start to materialise.