It’s been less than a year since Tri Angle Records‘ first release, but in that time the New York/London-based label has established itself as a widely respected and acclaimed imprint. Set up by 24-year-old Robin Carolan – formerly a contributor to Brighton-based music blog 20jazzfunkgreats – the label found itself interlinked from an early stage with the much-maligned ‘witch house’ craze of last year. This was perhaps understandable to a certain extent: Tri Angle artists like Balam Acab and oOoOO shared certain elements with the prevailing witch house aesthetic, whether it was pitch-shifted vocals or odd typography. However, while ‘witch house’ was soon discounted as a one-dimensional, over-hyped example of style over substance, the genuinely interesting stuff that found itself under that unfortunate umbrella has endured (this includes not only Tri Angle’s roster but other acts like Sleep ∞ Over, Tearist and Dream Boat).
On the surface at least, Tri Angle’s first release – Let Me Shine For You, a mixtape featuring various artists covering Lindsay Lohan songs – seemed to hint at the kind of shallow gimmickry that turned so many people off the occult-referencing ‘drag’ scene. However, the re-interpretations, such as Laurel Halo’s haunting take on ‘Something I Never Had’, had surprising depth. The brace of EPs that followed it, Balam Acab’s See Birds and oOoOO’s self-titled record, crystallised Tri Angle as a label of substance and quality: the former was characterised by ghostly, hypnotic vocals and heavy, sluggish, quicksand-like beats; the latter was more ethereal, combining airy, stately synths with R&B hooks that recalled the likes of Cassie. Other artists added to the expanding roster included Nowa Huta and Stalker.
So far in 2011, Tri Angle has continued to expand its palette, with the label re-releasing How To Dress Well’s much-praised album Love Remains, which originally came out on Lefse Records last year. Following that, last week saw the release of With U, the excellent debut EP from Mancunian producer Holy Other, whose spectral, Burial-esque atmospherics take influence from house (albeit slowed-right-down), dub and two-step. There’s more to come as well: an EP from Clams Casino (a New Jersey-based producer who has so far made his name providing instrumentals for the likes of Lil B and Soulja Boy) will be released on June 27th, while Balam Acab has a full-length album due in August.
You started off writing for the 20jazzfunkgreats blog before deciding to set up Tri Angle. How did you find the transition?
It was probably a little bit weird at first, I think, just because it suddenly felt like a slight conflict of interests – because obviously with a blog you’re promoting music for no other reason than because you like it. But then when you have a label you’re promoting music not only because you like it, but also because you want the records to sell – there’s a commercial element suddenly involved. I just suddenly felt that if I was to discover something I really loved, and then blogged about it, and then ended up signing this guy – it would make the readers kind of question my motives: am I still writing about this in a sincere or honest way, or am I writing about this because I suddenly want to sell records? So in the beginning I found it a little bit tricky, and it kind of ended up with me basically just having to stop writing. Because the blog isn’t just me, it’s me and a few other guys. I’m so busy with the label now anyway, I couldn’t really imagine having the time to blog.
Is it just yourself involved in the running of Tri Angle?
It’s just me, basically, it’s like a one-man show. I have people who will sometimes help me out very occasionally, but generally Tri Angle is just me, so yeah – I’m pretty stressed out a lot of the time! But it’s fine.
Do you feel that the character of record labels has changed with the internet and the diminished importance of geographical barriers?
Yeah I think it’s easier to be exposed to things that you may never have been exposed to. Maybe in the past record labels were very much about a scene, and a label would operate with a bunch of artists who lived around them or in the neighbouring areas, whereas now…I have guys on my label who live all over the world. It’s not like we see each other all the time, because oOoOO, for example, lives in San Francisco, and I live in New York and London, so it’s not possible. So yeah I think it’s changed in that, as someone who runs a label, you have all these options and you’re suddenly exposed to so much more. I think it also feels like there’s more labels out there than ever before, and again that’s a symptom of the internet – which in a sense makes it harder for labels to stand out and make their mark, when there’s so much else going on around them. So in one sense it’s easier in that you can find all this amazing music without actually being in the area where it’s made, whereas at the other end of things it’s also made it slightly harder because there’s suddenly so much more competition. It just feels like there’s so much music out there now, and you have to work really hard to make sure people are listening to your guys and what they’re doing.
How would you describe the overall Tri Angle aesthetic? Has it changed in your mind over the last year or so?
I mean…I tend not to go in for genres or buzzwords. I like to keep things a bit grey. As far as I’m concerned I put the music out and then it’s up to the listener to decide what it is or what they can kind of hear in it, so I’m reluctant to make statements. I guess the one thing I’ve noticed about the label and the stuff we’ve released is that it feels like the voice is a very intrinsic part of the sound…There’s always some element of vocal manipulation or distortion. Some people would say that one of the binding elements to Tri Angle is that it’s dark, and even though I get where they’re coming from, I wouldn’t really agree because I feel like when I listen to a Balam Acab record – I can hear some dark elements, but I wouldn’t call it ‘dark’, I think it’s a bit more complex than that.
One of the things that’s been exciting about Tri Angle has been the progression in sound of your releases – there’s a real sense of other genres being absorbed, from Holy Other’s glitchy 2-step influences to Clams Casino’s background in hip-hop instrumentals.
I think if someone was to hold a gun to my head and say ‘what kind of music do you like?’, I would say electronic music, ‘cos that’s just generally what I go for, but I’m very open-minded. Obviously when we first started Tri Angle I was very conscious of the ‘witch house’ thing. It happened almost immediately and I didn’t really like it to be honest. I didn’t really understand or didn’t really ask to be associated with it. I thought it was stupid. There were a few months there where I kind of panicked, and thought ‘oh no, are people gonna put us in this box, and this is where we’re going to kind of live and die?’ So I just made it my mission to basically make sure the label didn’t fall into that trap. It was the same with the artists, they didn’t really like the witch house thing, so we all just kind of disengaged with that and almost didn’t acknowledge it. We just went about doing our own thing.
I feel like, again, it’s all about talking in the grey…as soon as you put yourself in that box and you fly a certain flag and basically declare ‘yes, we are witch house’ – you give yourself like a year and for that year you’ll be very fashionable and trendy, but being fashionable and trendy isn’t the be all and end all. What I want to try and create with Tri Angle is something that has longevity. I’d like to feel that in 10 years time people will still be listening to the records and still finding something interesting.
“I think the witch house thing was just too vague. It didn’t really say anything about what the music was supposed to be.”
Witch house seemed to be more of a message board/forum phenomenon, where people wanted to kind of put all these acts in a box. It’s like a media concoction. Journalists will band together and say ‘okay, what are we going to call this?’. And then anything else that sounds vaguely similar, they all just get lobbed together. So yeah, last year, SALEM and Balam Acab were being compared all the time, and when I look back on that it seems so ridiculous because they come from such different places and they make such different music. If they maybe share a few influences here and there, I don’t think that’s enough to constitute saying that they’re part of the same genre. But then again, I know that some labels and some artists did embrace the witch house thing. And that’s their prerogative, but for myself and everyone else on Tri Angle that was just never really an option.