Conversation with Robin Carolan Founder of Tri Angle Records

05/19/2015 02:00 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016

Interview Recorded at Sunset Diner in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on March 21, 2015

On the occasion of Tri Angle Records 5th Anniversary as part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York, I got the chance to interview the charming Tri Angle Records founder Robin Carolan at my local neighborhood diner.

MN: Where you from?

RC: I'm from London, but I've lived here for quite awhile now. Originally Northeast London.

MN: To me, some of the stuff that is on your label could have grown out of the stuff coming out of London in the 90's. It reminds me of that moment when Hip-Hop started to get kind of gothy with Tricky.

RC: Yeah.

MN: When I was in college I loved Tricky and Portishead and all that stuff. It seems like your stuff is coming out of that in a way, do you see that at all?

RC: Yeah, I definitely see that. I can't say I grew up with it. Maybe it was something I discovered in my late teens, early 20's. It wasn't he stuff that initially formed my taste. My main influences as a teenager were hip-hop. Stuff like Lil Kim and a lot of Warp electronic stuff. Bjork was a big deal. It was always like whose that producer she's working with, then get into that sorta thing. Then discovering a lot of music off the back of her records. At the same time I wouldn't say Tri Angle was a 90's inspired label.

MN: I see it as forward looking. Certainly it's not looking back, I'm just saying I see a thread. Starting from there and like a few other things. I could be totally off the mark.

RC: Oh, no your not. I just never think to specifically about influences or certain eras. I know some artists and musicians are indebted to their influences and I hear that. I always viewed what I do as more vague. Not intentionally. It's just a mish mash of things that I try not to analyze too much. Not to get put into a box. But yeah, I can see the bridge between trip-hop and what we are doing.

MN: It's funny when we use these words like "trip-hop", because there is a lot of grey area in there. I too grew up with hip-hop. So the moment it started to happen for me was in 92. I was in high school when Wu-Tang came out. That was the entryway. Before that Public Enemy and stuff.

RC: I never really listened to hip-hop in that way. I also didn't listen to a lot of Wu-Tang which would probably surprise people because there have been a lot of comparisons to what we have done and what Wu-Tang have done. The kind of way I listened to music as a teenager, which sounds funny to say out loud I was really obsessed with female musicians. They were my gateway into everything. Whether it was hip-hop, rock, or electronica it always seemed to stem from a female artist. So with hip-hop my big obsession was with Missy and Lil' Kim. What would happen is that I would find out whom they worked with and then I would expand my knowledge.

MN: when I did my research on you, I realized I had never heard the SugaBabes before. (laughs) I don't think they had a real moment in the US.

RC: No, they didn't really.

MN: I really like it. It's catchy as hell.

RC: its really good songwriting. They went through different incarnations. Some of them not so good, but the first incarnation I was the same age as them I think. Maybe a little younger so it felt really relevant to me at the time. It sounded like a low-fi pop record that could have been made in a bedroom. I guess utilizing some of the same things I had been listening to like UK Garage and American R&B that made something that very much sounded like them. But yeah, they never really had a moment out here. That first record was huge deal for me.

MN: I just discovered it and I love it. I love pop music. I hate when people use that term "guilty pleasure" that it doesn't apply to me. I don't have guilt.

RC: It's bullshit. If you like something why not enjoy it. It's not to say everyone has good taste. It's a very subjective thing. Yeah, I hate that term.

MN: Taste is funny because, in a way it's so circumstantial. I don't know if you do this but I will listen to something and I know its bad. But I like it anyway. I know something is uncool, or bad. I just don't care.

RC: Me too, there was definitely things I listened to growing up that at the heart of it I knew was really bad but it still didn't stop me from being into it. I was a massive pop music geek so I've been completely unapologetic about that. I think as I've grown up I've swayed a little further away from that. That could have something to do with how pop music is marketed now. Maybe I just don't find the sounds as interesting as they once were.

MN: I don't know if you are finding this, but I'm finding I'm excited about hip-hop again and I haven't been in years. Like a lot of these younger MC's I think are really good and bringing craftsmanship back. There are a number of years where I think rap became very lazy. You know mush mouthed. I really like Joey Bada$$ and Azaelia Banks. I think she's a damn good MC.

RC: I think what I'm missing in hip-hop right now is really innovative production. You know, I was a teenager when Timbaland was doing his greatest stuff. To me that material still has a really future shock vibe that I don't hear anywhere. When it comes to hip-hop I must admit I switch off a little bit when it comes to the lyrics. The lyrics and the voice become another instrument. Just another sound. Not all always, but most of the time. So the thing I really focus on is the production. That's how I tend to judge hip-hop tracks. I just don't hear anything that grabs me.

MN: That's interesting. I look at it in this totally different way as if I'm always first hearing the articulation of what the MC is trying to do, and I've always appreciated really wordy MC's. But I also appreciate the rhythmic element. Much in the way an instrument would be. If you listen to Slick Rick or something, he has a lilt in his voice that is musical.So what do you listen to now?

RC: Oh god, umm, uh...

MN: That's a stupid question actually. I can never answer that on the spot.

RC: (laughs) I can answer that, I just need a moment to think about it. There are a few things I'm really into at the moment. I've developed an obsession with 80's avant, this is such a wank term: avant pop. That was a bit left of center. I'm really into the last two Talk Talk albums; I've always had a huge obsession with David Sylvian.

MN: Me too. Especially Japan.

RC: Absolutely.

MN: I don't know the solo records so well just the ones he did with Ryicho Sakomoto a little bit but man I love those Japan records like Quiet Life. Not to go off on Japan, but I crazy for that record because Duran Duran came out and stole everything off of that Quite Life record.

RC: I don't know I sorta prefer the David Sylvian records solo. Its not that they are all great, it's just that he has had this really interesting career where you can tell he did exactly what he wanted to do. So one record would be really pop, then he would make another record that's super abstract. You would have to be a fan of very specific jazz, which is very specific. Some of the solo records are amazing.

MN: I will have to dig in to those; I'm not that familiar. I just loved the Japan stuff and didn't dig any deeper. Plus he reminded me so much of Bryan Ferry and I'm such a huge fan of Roxy.

RC: Right. Brilliant Trees is a really great album and Gone to Earth. Secrets of the Beehive is probably one of my favorite records ever. It kind of reminds me of Talk Talk in the sense that it doesn't sound like anything else. I seem to get things from that record I can't seem to get anywhere else. So yeah, I've been listening to a lot of that stuff like Blue Nile. I listen to a lot of new stuff obviously but I can't say that anything has really grabbed me at the moment. A few things but nothing that has shook me up and made me feel like "wow what the fuck is that." Aside from people I've signed and might be working with. That sort of thing.

MN: I'm not familiar with all the artists on your label, but I have been digging through a lot of it. The Haxan Cloak really grabbed me. That stuff is wide like cinema. Do you know what you are looking for or do you just hear it? Do you know what you want?

RC: Yeah I just hear it.

MN: An aesthetic emerges.

RC: I find it a hard question to answer. When other labels are asked that question they can go towards big high concepts. It seems to be a philosophical approach. For me I just don't really have that. In that sense its an abstract thing to explain. Then again I'm obsessed with tight curation. Everyone I choose to work with, all the records have to make sense as a whole. I don't expect them to make sense to everyone, but for me I can connect the dots. I can see why I was thinking like that at a certain time. That's why we made that certain record. I also think its because I'm super restless which is why I think Tri Angle has probably lasted for 5 years. When we started I thought maybe we would be a record label that would survive for 2 years because we kind of emerged as part of a trend that I never really wanted to be a part of. I had to think outside the box to avoid that. I seem to have an obsession with not doing the same thing twice and having everything make sense as well.

MN: I think all artists think that way if you are at all going to challenge yourself and be relevant to the times you are living in. My favorite artists are of the David Bowie mold. The kind that are moving and looking at the next thing.

RC: Right.

MN: Forward, sideways, maybe not always first but can read a moment.

RC: I'm super into that too, those are my favorite artists, which is an ethos I take to the label. About a month ago I was chatting to Bjork about this. We were talking about how Tri Angle was part of this whole alternative R&B explosion. We were definitely at the forefront of that. She was asking my why as soon as that became vaguely popular. I moved on almost immediately. That is because I'm restless and I get bored. She was asking if I regret not hanging in there to capitalize on the moment and a more kind of commercial way. I said to her, "not at all, I have no regrets about doing that." Because I would rather do something that feels like its first like what you just said about David Bowie and then just move on, than just stick around and just see how it goes. That's what I'm trying to do as well. I always think its funny when people refer to Tri Angle as the home of the weirdoes and outsiders. Because there is probably some truth to that, I just wouldn't term it like that. Whenever I work with certain artists, they seem weird at that time. Very like, "what the fuck is this?" Then a few years later what they were doing is considered the standard and common.

MN: Your artists seem to start to fall in the pocket. They seem to make sense alongside one another. It's interesting.

RC: yeah

MN: One guy I find interesting is Sd Laika. That stuff is really far out.

RC: I'm glad you like it. I feel like. He's a good example of someone that would be referred to as a weirdo and get bemused reactions.

MN: That's kind of what I go for. If it makes me think something I've never thought before, then that's what I'm after.

RC: That's one of the things that informs how I'm signing people. If something really confuses me I find that intriguing. Even if it's to the degree that I may not be sure I even like it. If something confuses me and I can't quite figure out what that it, then that makes me obsessed. It makes me feel like there is something there and needs to be developed. Yeah, Sd Laika, his stuff is insane. If some people don't like it or don't get it at all I don't think its music people are supposed to get. He's off in his own world His album got a really good reaction actually I think in a few years when he has got more work behind him he will be seen as someone who had done something that people weren't really doing at that time.

MN: I think there is a misconception with people that listening to music means listening to music for pleasure. That music listening should always be a pleasurable experience. When an old person says, "how can you listen to that?" I think that's a good question, how can I listen to that. Then I think well how can I not listen to it? It's like watching a car accident sometimes. How can you not be intrigued by the uglier aspects of life?

RC: Yeah definitely.

MN: We look for that in other art forms, we look at crime in films and books. The things that humanity tends to shy away from. For some reason music is supposed to be a pleasurable experience only. I think its also and can be an intellectual exercise.

RC: It's like that saying, "One man's pleasure is another man's pain", the way I do a lot of things is to constantly remind myself that everything is subjective. I might feel a certain way about something but that doesn't mean it's definitive. Which is why for the most part we get really good reviews and reactions to everything we do. When there is an instance when someone doesn't get something it doesn't annoy me or offend me. It's very subjective. I'm not afraid to release stuff that is challenging or complicated and doesn't make people feel great. I think I'm kind of comfortable doing that. Of our noisier releases, I happen to think they are quite poppy.

MN: I think your noisier records are quire poppy. I can always find a thread that makes them accessible. Then again I listen to a lot of extreme metal and I find some of it quite beautiful.

RC: I like noise music and extreme forms of music. It probably goes back to me just being a huge pop geek. I'm kind of obsessed with melody and hooks. However vague or abstract they might be. All our noisy albums have an entry point they are not impenetrable.

MN: Like Merzbow or something.

RC: Yeah, I don't mind some of that stuff but its almost like taking elements of that and smashing it together with more of a pop construct. Somewhere in the middle it becomes a thing that may or may not succeed. I don't know.

MN: Want to take a break to eat your soup?

RC: Yeah.

MN: Tell me a bit about what you are doing at the Red Bull Music Academy. I'm gonna go.

RC: Cool, we are celebrating 5 years of being a label.

MN: You were telling mea earlier you didn't expect to see five years?

RC: When I started it I didn't think of it as anything too serious. It was a hobby or something fun to do. Then it quickly became a thing. The suddenly I had this label. I had the instincts of a curator to maintain the release of some records. But I think that but I thought most people didn't think Tri Angle would last too long. I get the impression Tri Angle surprised some people on where it has gone. Kind of like I was saying earlier about that conversation I had with Bjork, why didn't I stick around to cash in on the trend and I imagine that's what a lot of people have done.

MN: You probably would have failed if you had done that because you would have pigeonholed and filed into people's brains.

RC: Music is cyclical. Some people when there are in the eye of the storm are a part of a thing and are really hot think its going to last forever and that never happens. The moment someone calls a genre dead and gone it comes back around. I think people thought Tri Angle was just this alternative R&B whatever the fuck people were calling it label and I just had no interest in that. So we took a sharp U-turn from that and over the years and confounded some people. Even Tri Angle fans were not having it. Now I think people know to expect something unexpected from Tri Angle.

MN: So this showcase, who is playing?

RC: Haxan Cloak, Forest Swords, Evian Christ, Holy Other, and there is another room with Lotic, Rabit, Clams Casino like a lot of the newer guys.. This guy we haven't released a record by yet called Hanz. We have some special guests coming as well. It should be good. I was nervous to do it, because we haven't done a showcase in a long time and it's the first one we've done in the US and I always want things to be a certain way. When you are doing a showcase that big there is lots that can go wrong. It sold out very quickly which was super encouraging, everyone is excited to play, and so it should be good.

MN: How did you figure out the business end of running a label? The reason I ask this is that being a filmmaker I had to be tutored. When I got my first movie deal, nobody had given me that much money to make anything before, so I had to figure it out how to manage money. Fortunately I had a great executive producer to teach me these things. What I'm getting at is that I learned from having to do it.

RC: I learned the same way. Trial by fire. I didn't have a clue. It quickly turned into a business and I just had to learn really quickly. I never worked at a label before, I had no idea how it was structures. It was just something I had to learn really quickly. I think I finally go there after a year. Yeah it was pretty tough realizing that you all of the sudden had a business when it wasn't your intention to set one up.

MN: You were young, like twenty something years old right?

RC:I was 23 when I decided I wanted to do it and had to opportunity to do it but I was 24 when we actually started releasing music. Yeah I was pretty young and didn't come from any label background. I think that's the other thing as well. The other week I had to go through the back catalog because Haxan is creating this sound installation using everything. There was a lot of stuff I haven't listened to in awhile. It was interesting because it forced me to be reflective. How have I kept the label going for 5 years having had no experience and still doing everything myself pretty much. You get through it; common sense plays a big part in it.

MN: It's probably like any other business. You have to have an accounting structure. Make sure your taxes are paid. and most importantly have a good lawyer.

RC: (laughs) yeah that's pretty much what I did. I knew some people who were doing it all themselves. They do their own accounting. I thought, "Fuck that I'm not doing this."

MN: (laughs) You'll fuck it up.

RC: No one wants to spend the money but there is no way I'm doing that. So I just made sure I had those things in place. I think I do things pretty stripped back. I don't have huge overhead because I don't need them it means I work a lot because I'm doing the job of most people.

MN: yeah, I relate however I have great partners.

RC: It allows me to invest in things I really want to invest in. Which is just making new records.

MN: So how many people are in the company?

RC: (laughs) me.

MN: (laughs) that's cool. Interns and stuff? I'm always hiring interns.

RC: I can't deal with interns. Not because they are bad, I'm just not very good at delegating. I think I have a guilt complex with interns, which I probably shouldn't have. I had one intern for one day and that was it. I just used to doing everything myself even if it's a lof of work and I'm sure at some point very soon it will need to change. If I'm doing it, I know it's being done and if something goes wrong it's my mistake

MN: I think we did a nice interview. Anything else you wanna mention? This one I was winging it because I mostly wanted to talk to you about music.

RC: Sorry, I am not always so comfortable in interviews.

MN: You spoke more than I thought you would.

RC: I tend to ramble a bit.