Since its inception in 2010, Tri Angle Records has served as the crossroads where leftfield pop meets spectral R&B, cybernetic hip-hop meets atonal noise, weaving these distinct sounds into a fabric of avant-garde electronic music that eludes classification. Even the label's fan base exists in a realm of hazy abstraction.
Tonight, the label will celebrate its fifth anniversary at the Red Bull Music Academy Festival with a cast of its key players, including Lotic, Vessel, Rabit, Forest Swords, Holy Other, Evian Christ, and The Haxan Cloak. Besides the amusing side-note that the party will occupy the same monolithic limestone building used as the Gotham City Stock Exchange in The Dark Knight, it's hard to predict what the event will look like—mostly because it's just not the kind of thing Tri Angle usually does.
Hanz's "Capsule" was released on Tri Angle last week
"We don't have a lot of 'showcase' shows, I don't like doing them," says label founder Robin Carolan, sitting down in a dark corner of a sun-dappled café in Brooklyn Heights. A few streets down is Björk's studio, where he is currently immersed in the production of Holy Other's sophomore album. Shying away from these collective events means that Carolan seldom has a chance to see firsthand what his label's fan base is like. "I do get the impression at this point now that they'll follow me, so if I do release something that's kind of a curveball they'll go with it. Most of the time they seem to understand it as well," he says.
Carolan's faith that others will follow has been part of his ethos from the beginning. He launched the label in 2010 with Let Me Shine For You, a compilation of Lindsay Lohan cover songs by producers like Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never. "I kind of thought if you could actually be inside Lindsay Lohan's head, that's probably a really terrifying space to be in," he told the New Yorker. "So I thought maybe I could get some guys to remake her songs as if they're actually in her head."
When Carolan arrived on the scene, "pop" still remained something of a dirty word for the bastions of indie-dom. His next string of releases with Holy Other, Balam Acab, and oOoOO began to articulate new relationships to pop, inseminating its verse/chorus structures with a blasted, lo-fi rawness, and atmospherically layered, pitch-shifted vocal samples. The early success of Tri Angle had to do with subverting pop with a bedroom producer's take on the DIY punk gesture.
There is a sense that if you could pin down exactly what it is that Tri Angle is, that the magic would immediately dissipate. It's a notion that Carolan understands implicitly: "I'm really obsessed with this secret narrative I have in my head for the releases—that I can sort of add them all up. I can join the dots and say that this relates to that in this way and so on, but I can't really explain it. It's something that's very instinctual to me."
In a musical landscape oversaturated by remixes and regurgitated samples, Tri Angle stands out as a well-groomed garden in a desert of entropy. Carolan points out that he typically only signs producers with one or two songs to their names: "They're not part of the hype cycle, so I know when I'm into something, I'm into it and not because its like a hot new thing."
"I just went through this phase where I was super interested in getting guys working with a few big rappers or a few pop vocalists, and I just realized it wasn't for me," he continues. "I question how that stuff is made. I felt like I was in meetings with people who had no fucking clue about music and didn't even like it, and it made me feel gross. I didn't want to do it."
This is perhaps most obvious in the movement of Vessel away from the atmospheric, gauzy set pieces that mark his first album and into the mechanical jungle of Punish, Honey, where tracks seem to build themselves outwards rhythmically like teeth grinding gravel, throbbing bass-lines slathered over blunt kick drums-to-the-face and melodies played from assorted scrap metal.
Meanwhile, Lotic's Heterocetera embraces a brash, confrontational techno that welds biomechanical rhythms with microwaved hisses, to the effect of pushing raw beef through a cheese grater. References to pop here are divorced from conventional structure and shoved into the mash. Where layers of sound in Tri Angle's early productions often melded together in an abstracted, inchoate sensibility, the textures here seem stapled together in a way designed to pierce skin.
A producer I spoke to sets Tri Angle at the top of the pyramid comprised of similar labels like Uno and Hippos in Tanks. There's a sense that if you're with Tri Angle, you cast wider nets, you get heard. Evian Christ produced "I'm In It" on Kanye's Yeezus because someone at GOOD music was up on on Tri Angle when his mixtape Kings and Them came out. The Haxan Cloak worked as a producer on Björk's Vulnicura, and Clams Casino even soundtracked a ballet.
Though Tri Angle's discography is diverse and complex, most of its artists are currently working on their second albums. It's an exciting time for the label, the beginning of a new chapter. Carolan, with characteristic vagueness, describes both Holy Other and The Haxan Cloak's current projects as "huge sounding." But as he also points out, "you have to have those things, the strange, unknowable, icky things to think about."
When he was younger, Carolan would collect stamps and candy wrappers and bird eggs (already hatched)—anything that could be catalogued and obsessed over. It's this impulse that continues to propel Tri Angle's tight curation, the "secret narrative" that operates under the hood. The collection is not a closed system, and each new object re-constellates the catalogue with new shades of meaning. What keeps Tri Angle going is the existence of these new sounds and mutations—out there somewhere, forming on the horizon. As Carolan puts it, "If ever I'm feeling really shitty and I'm like I want to quit Tri Angle, then I'm like, well, no I can't do that. Because if I do, I'll miss out on this really amazing new record."