In 2010, a small underground label announced itself with an EP of dungeon-ready re-imaginings of Lindsay Lohan tracks. Releases from gloomy electronic shape-shifters Balam Acab and Holy Other followed and briefly earned the label the popular-at-the-time tag "witch house," meaning vaguely occult-referencing dance music that skirts the shadows of pop and R&B. Five years on and there's no more pigeon-holing of Tri Angle Records: in its first half-decade, it's released everything from the spring-loaded pop of AlunaGeorge to the post-metal electronica of WIFE to the grime machinations of SD Laika. At this stage, the only label you could honestly slap on such a diverse catalogue of music is "uncompromising."
"I'm always telling my artists, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should," says founder Robin Carolan down the phone from his home in New York. "I never want my artists to do the most obvious thing. Which, sometimes I think, as a guy who runs a label, that's almost the opposite of what a lot of label people do. If they have an artist and they have a certain sound that's popular, they don't want to change that, because that's taking a gamble. But I always want everyone I'm working with to take risks, because that's the only way you can really evolve."
Carolan still runs the label entirely by himself, and while that leaves him swimming in admin, it also makes his own personal instinct the backbone of Tri Angle's A&R strategy. With total disregard for how things are done at majors and bigger independent labels, the London native releases whatever excites him, whenever it feels right. "I don't think anything is ever too straight with Tri Angle," he says. "There's always a grey space. I like those question marks." With signings like doom-laden soundscape composer The Haxan Cloak, Berlin-based club revolutionary Lotic, and unpredictable noise artist Boothroyd, Carolin has stretched his label's sound to its most experimental and abrasive corners. On the other end of the spectrum, with A$AP Rocky's beatmaker Clams Casino and Evian Christ, who produced the beat for Kanye West's "I'm In It," Tri Angle has found in-roads into mainstream hip-hop without sacrificing a more experimental approach to production.
It's this exploratory attitude that has fostered some of the weirdest, most difficult yet most enjoyable releases of the past five years from Tri Angle's ever-expanding roster; in an economic climate and a constant media hype machine that makes it more difficult than ever to take artistic risks, Carolan and his artists pull it off every time. Ahead of Tri Angle's fifth anniversary party this Friday as part of RBMA's New York Festival, The FADER spoke to eight of the label's artists about how they make music without compromise.
EVIAN CHRIST: After the whole Kanye thing and all the press around that, I probably could have made a certain type of record, rushed it out, and then gone and played these horrible big American dance festivals, if I'd wanted to. But [I said] no to 95% of things that came my way. It's not why I started making music. I'm just constantly trying to hone in on my sound and what I want that to be. When I'm done with all this music stuff, I'd really like to be able to look back on it as an amazing time in my 20s, traveling around; I don't want to look back on it and think, "You stopped making music that you believed in just to get a couple of hundred quid extra."
Best advice: After the first mixtape, Kings and Them, I was getting certain opportunities to produce for developing acts on major labels, and remix offers, and show offers, and a lot of things. Me being new, I just wanted to do everything. But a lot of these things, especially remixes, always result in some kind of compromise of your ideals. I remember Robin saying to me, "We can just say no to the vast majority of things that come your way. And make sure that the things that we do agree to do, we nail them." That's something that's stuck with me since.
LOTIC: I never set out to make any particular kind of music. Boundaries were never considered. The thought of looking back at a career full of compromises was always more terrifying to me than possibly having limited reach.
Best advice: I've always had amazing support, but I think the best encouragement just came from watching the people I admire continue to do what they do without compromise and succeeding by being so singular.
FATIMA AL QADIRI: [Before WARN-U], I hadn't released music since 2004—I was young and naive and got taken for a ride with my first record. I felt wronged by the label and lost my trust completely in the process of the music industry. Then, because I knew Robin first as a friend, I just sent him Ayshay for fun, and he was like, "Actually, I really want to put this out." I wouldn't have started releasing music again if it wasn't for him; none of the records that came after Ayshay would have come had he not been my friend first and re-established my trust in the music industry. He never pressured me to do a single thing. Even though I had a lot of offers come my way after the record was released, and I declined all of them, he never said "you have to do this," and I really appreciate that. Our friendship always came first, business was second. Not a lot of label owners operate that way, even small ones.
Obviously the bigger you get the more compromises you have to make. Luckily for me, it's rare that I lose control over my work. Because I say no. When I work with a label, the first thing I tell them is, "There's one thing you can never tell me, and that is what to do with a track. That is one thing you have zero control over." I get very aggressive about it; I'm not going to let anybody fuck with that aspect of things.
Not everyone has the luxury of not compromising. There's two conversations here: one about making a living, and one about artistic integrity. And I'm going to be frank here, the more money you have, the more you can not compromise. That's it in a nutshell. We're in a situation where the music industry is economically unsustainable for everybody that's working in it. The only people that are really going somewhere in music are doing something very commercial or they started out wealthy.
Best advice: Robin told me something from the very beginning, from the release of Warn U; he said, "Fatima, your work is polarizing." And that has been the case for all of my records. He predicted something that was very real. One thing Robin definitely has a talent for is predicting the future, like, damn.
RABIT: I never make any piece of music with the intention of it doing a certain thing, or it having a specific purpose. For me there's no trying, just doing. I feel like if you are taking into account what multiple people want, then you already fucked up, and it's too late.
Best advice: People don't give me advice about that kind of stuff. Most people that are fans or friends of mine know that I'm going to do what I want regardless.
THE HAXAN CLOAK: I try quite hard to be unconscious about decisions that I make. I have a very distinct idea of what I think the project is, and aesthetically what fits into that and what doesn't. There definitely comes a point with most people when you quit your day job, and you tell yourself that you're doing music full time—hopefully forever—and for lot of people that I know, myself included, there are certain decisions that you have to make because you need to live. But even that has a limit. For me, I've spent so long crafting [the music] from nowhere and building it up and figuring out what it is, it's almost like having a child. It's all I ever think about, apart from relationships and family and stuff—it's on that level. So there's only so much compromise you can have before you just say, it's not worth it.
Best advice: When I was 19 or 20, and I'd just started doing the Haxan Cloak stuff, I was doing a few other music things at the time as well that were a little bit different—a little bit more electronic, some that was a bit more folky. I was working with Leila at the time, doing some sound for her. One time I was round at her house, and I'd brought a CD of stuff that I'd done to play her. I was really worried because I didn't think it all fitted together, it was all quite different. She just said, "Look, don't worry about trying to make everything sound a certain way. If you're true to your own instincts, then everything that you make will still have an essence of you in it, and that's the most important thing you can try and do as an artist."
WIFE: You've got to do what you do for yourself and nobody else. What I did with the WIFE record is incredibly stupid, if you want to look at it that way—it was uncompromising in the sense that I was in a band that was becoming increasingly more successful, and I decided to draw a line in the sand and begin something completely new, in an arena in which I had no fan base whatsoever and in a place in which I hadn't proved my worth. It was quite a reckless endeavor.
Best advice: When I was making my own record, I'd hit this rut, and I was explaining to Holy Other what was going on. I was in this situation where every other day I felt like I wanted to do something different. He asked me if I was listening to a lot of new music, and I said I was, and he said, "That's your biggest mistake. When you're getting deep into the record making process, you have to shut out everything musically that's going on in the world and just focus in on what you're doing yourself."
FOREST SWORDS: I've always believed that if you do something in an honest and pure way then someone out there will respond to it, however weird or obscure it is. I think people can often hear in the music when someone is unsure of themselves or conflicted about what they're trying to do. A thread that runs through artists who've released on Tri Angle is a tight consideration for what they put out into the world, either visually or musically—it's a nice thing to feel that it's actually okay to be of that thinking, particularly nowadays when there's so much noise to sift through and a pressure to be constantly making "content." Artists on the label right now aren't the type who'd be knocking out remixes to post on Soundcloud every week—it's all made at a slow pace, and I think people respect that approach, even if it does potentially mean waiting years between records.
Best advice: I toured with Mogwai last year and it was inspiring to see them 20 years down the line, still making thoughtful, heavy instrumental music and with a passionate fan base. I generally don't like the idea of seeking out nuggets of advice from people though—I much prefer just watching, learning, soaking in. Quite often a lot of that learning will just come to yourself naturally through trial and error, so it's a lot more potent and powerful than trying to bolt on somebody else's advice to your own life.
BOOTHROYD: Robin had only heard very skeletal demos when he asked me to make a record for him. I explained what I wanted to do and he just let me do it—I basically carried on working the way I was before, but with more focus. I reckon Tri Angle is probably one of the few labels that would have allowed me to do that, or would even sign me in the first place. I don't sell many records or get many bookings or have many fans that aren't just cool producers (except the Neo-Nazis who turned up to my first few gigs but they've gone off me now), so that's kind of the compromise! I eat a lot of beans on toast.
Best advice: When I first met Evian Christ, we had a really long chat; I was talking about how I feared that some of my creative decisions might potentially end up alienating people and I remember him stopping me mid-sentence and saying, "No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise." And that kind of stuck with me.