Always Organic: Cory Rayborn On 15 Years Of Three Lobed Recordings

By day, Cory Rayborn's a business and environmental lawyer, by night (often five nights in a row, packaging records by hand) he's putting out limited-run releases by the likes of Bardo Pond, Steve Gunn and Sun City Girls. As his label Three Lobed marks 15 years of operations, he talks to JR Moores

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Three Lobed Recordings, one of the US’ most respected underground labels. Still a one-man operation, Three Lobed is run by Cory Rayborn from his home in Jamestown, North Carolina, on top of his full-time occupation as a business and environmental lawyer. Despite his curiously un-lysergic day job, over the last decade and a half Rayborn has released some of the most mind-meltingly crazy-assed guitar trips ever pressed onto vinyl. They include cuts by the mighty Philly psych legends Bardo Pond (not to mention their various even-stranger side projects), the neo-hippy couple MV & EE, alt-songwriter extraordinaire Wooden Wand, guitar wizards like Jack Rose (RIP), Daniel Bachman and Steve Gunn, uncompromising experimental rockers Sun City Girls (and the Bishop brothers’ subsequent solo endeavours) and even a guitar/drums/bagpipe trio featuring Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo.

As well as standalone releases, the label is known for putting out the kind of lavish compilation boxed sets that you’d sell your own grandmother’s collection of antique Persian hookah pipes to get hold of. Two years in the making, the latest of these is Parallelogram, a mammoth five-LP comp featuring unreleased material by the esteemed Michael Chapman, Six Organs Of Admittance, Hiss Golden Messenger, William Tyler, Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn, Caught On Tape (Thurston Moore and John Moloney), the Bishop-Orcutt-Corsano Trio, Yo La Tengo and, naturally, Bardo Pond.

Live from his law office via the magic of Skype, Rayborn took some time out for the Quietus to talk all things Three Lobed, past, present and future.

What were the earliest stages of Three Lobed? Take us through the genesis.

Cory Rayborn: The easiest way to put an origin on the label would be the web work I used to do for Bardo Pond ages ago when, if you were someone about our age and you learned HTML code back in the mid- to late 90s, that was still a totally alien landscape to a lot of people. I had a sincere interest in the Bardo guys and what they were doing. I’d been cobbling together this little website, just out of the corner of the web, and it turned into a more significant thing for them, and we just got to be good friends. I think my initial desire to do something with them came from looking at all their stuff on the website and realising, "Oh, these guys don’t have a 10" anywhere in their discography" and then just asking Mike [Gibbons, Bardo Pond guitarist] one day, "Hey, would you want me to put out a 10"?" And Mike said, "Oh, yeah, sure that’d be great." So if the label had stopped at one record I would’ve been happy because I’d put something out for someone who was significant to me. Instead, it turned into lots of other things.

What mistakes did you make early on?

CR: I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know how to go about pressing a record so I would just randomly call a few plants up and the first 10" was pressed by Rainbo out in California. They’re who do, I think, most of the Sublime Frequencies things these days. I called them up and just talked to one of the account-managing sales guys: "Hey, I wanna put out a record." I had no idea about overruns or underruns. I remember faxing him LP labels and that’s probably not the best way. If you look at the centre labels on that first 10", they’re pretty much amateur hour. I think I just typed something on Microsoft Word and faxed it to him. My goal on the first 10" was to make my money back and I made a little bit ’cause they sold out pretty quickly, but at the same time I’m sure I underestimated postage, the cost of supplies and everything. The fact that it somehow made its money back was kind of miraculous. I had a couple of friends who had done a few pressing things who I asked some questions, but I’m kinda hard-headed and like to learn things on my own, so it was me wading through the waters and figuring out what worked or didn’t work. There’s still things I learn now. There are some things I do a lot better than before. There are some things that don’t surprise me as much. But there are still things that catch me at the last second.

What kind of things are you learning now?

CR: I’m constantly having to modify pressing times and things of that nature with everybody else, and the problems everyone seems to have with supply and demand as far as plants go and everyone wanting to press more records than before. Lag times are getting substantial. Four years ago, when I did my first Record Store Day record, I just figured that it needed to be at the distributor at the same time that any other record needed to be there, not realising that Record Store Day stuff needs to be there in hand with the distributor a little bit earlier than regular stuff because it’s just such a cluster of a nightmare. The Eight Trails, One Path matchbook thing – I was assembling those in my house from the moment I got home from work until I went to bed late at night for five straight nights to get them out my house at the last possible day to make Record Store Day delivery times. Then the next year, I pushed my dates back about a month. Then last year I pushed them further back. And this year even further back. And I still only got product about a week prior to when they needed it. Moving things back probably six weeks earlier than I’d done years ago, it still barely gets out under the wire. It’s hard now, recently, to figure out what these pressing-time issues are with plants, because they give you lead times and they aren’t always correct. 

How do you feel about Record Store Day? There seems to be a backlash now.

CR: The first couple of years, I didn’t do anything for it. When I did the Eight Trails compilation a couple of years ago, I decided I was only going to do Record Store Day stuff if I was putting out records that I would have put out any other time of the year, it just happened to be that day. So it wasn’t some gimmicky, stupid repress or glow-in-the-dark cover or some crap like that. Maybe I’m delusional, but I think the stuff I put out tends to fit that realm. The Eight Trails thing was a pretty special package and collection of music. The Golden Gunn record is a pretty funny and crazy thing that came together. The split 12"s last year. Then the Hagerty-Toth thing this year. They’re all very fun and worthwhile records that I would’ve put out otherwise. They just happen to come out on a certain Saturday instead of a Tuesday or whatever else.

As a consumer, the last couple of RSD years have been pretty uninteresting for me. I want the Bardo Pond stuff and a couple of other things here and there, but whereas years ago I had a list of 10 or 12 things that I was going to be freaked out if I couldn’t find, this year it’s like 3 or 4 things. With the exception of the Bardo Pond Fire Records things, which have been hard to find over here, the other stuff I’m looking for isn’t really that crazy so I’m just not in the mood to deal with the process. I like to think that the edition sizes I’ve done with my stuff have been reasonable enough so I’m not making somebody chase something.

Do you have an all-time favourite Three Lobed release?

CR: Yes. I do. This is not something I’ve talked about too much except with the actual musician, but Ocean Parkway, the second Gunn-Truscinski Duo record, it really speaks to me. The first track on there, there’s this point in about the last minute where you think the track has totally crescendoed and then Steve just pops on some pedal and just takes it up higher than it’s been the entire way. It gives me chills every time I hear it and the whole record’s the same way, and we’re going to reissue both of those Gunn-Truscinski Duo records, repackage them as a double-LP, because they fit pretty well together. While being recorded separate and apart from each other, they do fit as a cohesive whole. So we’re going to put them that way for people who are new to Steve and need to hear that stuff. I’m happy to have that back in print because that record is pretty special to me. If I had to pick from all the children, that would be the one.

Steve Gunn’s really broken through this last year or so.

CR: Yeah, the last 12, 24-ish months, there’s been a lot going on. He’s been working at it for a while and it was just the smaller audience who knew and really appreciated what he was doing and now that’s translating into a bigger pool and I’m really excited to see what comes from him having the power of someone like Matador behind him. He’s a great guy. He’s the nicest dude. He’s very earnest and humble and I’m just very excited to see good things come his way.

How do you decide what to put out?

CR: By and large, I work with people I know and not with people I don’t know. Sometimes people bring an idea to me. Sometimes I go to them, like the Golden Gunn thing a couple of years ago, I went to those two guys, "I think this would work well for both of you together", and when they thought about it they both agreed. It’s really a weird, nondescript, hard-to-define art ’cause it really is just a hobby for me. It’s a job I do after my other job. There’s only been so much time and money, so you have to keep it manageable. Sometimes you’re talking to people about, "Let’s do a thing but let’s plan to do it a year from now", ’cause then I’ll be at a point when things make more sense and I can clear some backlog. And sometimes there’s something that just makes sense to hop on immediately. There’s that five-LP thing [Parallelogram] that I sent your way. I’ve been working on that thing for two years. All of those big things, they just take longer than you think they will. They always do. In that case, you’ve got ten different musicians/artists/collectives, a graphic artist, manufacturing, mastering, there are so many variables, no matter what your timeline is, or whatever deadlines you set for someone, not everyone is going to make the deadline. There’s usually a list I have sitting around of things I want to do or things I’ve kinda committed to do. Some of them fall apart and just never happen. Some of them happen quicker than expected. It’s always organic.

Have you ever requested a project from someone and, on hearing the results, thought, "Oh, that wasn’t what I was expecting at all" or "that’s a bit disappointing"?

CR: No. Everyone I’ve ever agreed to do something with is someone who I really enjoy and trust, as a fan, and I’m interested in seeing what they want to do. I don’t really put my fingerprints on any of that side. If I tell someone we’re doing a record, what they give me is what the record is. There’s nothing that I’ve been unhappy with. I’ve been willing to move ahead with everything. There’s nothing I’ve said no to. I do trust them. There could be some bias on my side there. I defer to somebody on the outside, such as yourself, to say, "Ah, maybe that wasn’t as good".

Introducing Little Black Egg Big Band

How do you balance running the label with your day job?

CR: The last year’s been pretty easy because a lot of the label stuff’s been in the background and not in the forefront, it’s all been planning towards things that aren’t done yet or aren’t ready yet. It’s pretty manageable. I do all my own mail order. I don’t outsource that to anybody else. I do use distributors. I don’t try to do store stuff because that just doesn’t work for me that well. It’s too hard to chase a ton of invoices from a bunch of different places. It’s easier just to shift to one place and have one place pay you. It works out. As an offshoot of my day job, I’m pretty organised and I’m pretty good at staying on top of details. Since I’ve done so much stuff, I have a pretty good method of: "This is when I need to be writing to people about possible press things, this is when I need to have audio in hand, this is when I need to have LP labels in hand, this is when I need to have jackets in hand, this is when I need to have MP3 stuff into processing…". I’m pretty good at just clicking all that stuff away. It’s just part of the lifestyle now. It takes up some time but I still have spare time to do fun things, so it’s not just work and label stuff. It’s being conscious and mindful of your time.

What do your law colleagues think of the music you put out?

CR: Some people get it and some people don’t. I will not say that everyone here gets the music. When people ask me, "What kind of music do you put out?", that’s the hardest question to answer because there’s not one little neat bundle things fit into. "It’s avant-garde psychedelic rock", is what I usually say, "but it’s also all the way down to people doing solo guitar stuff." The biggest misnomer a lot of people think when they hear "he does this record label thing" is they think I have a studio or I’m a producer. You and I know this corner of the world of music and it’s a very different thing than a lot of what more mainstream culture thinks of as "music" and the machinations that go along with that. There are some people who’ve gone out and seen some shows from me every now and then, that’s pretty cool. Actually, one of my law partners is a second cousin to Steve Gunn! And I didn’t know that until two or three months ago. She and some of her other partners were at a dinner one night. She’s from Philly and she’s like, "Why do you know so much about Philadelphia?" I’m like, "Well, this music stuff, there’s a lot of it there, there are these Gibbons brothers and this guy Steve Gunn…" And she’s like, "Gunn? Like, Stevie? Stevie Gunn?" And we realised that, yes, we’re talking about the same person!

By and large, people don’t get it. If I played someone that Glacial record, that would not go over well. A 60-minute drum, guitar, bagpipe record? That’s not ready for primetime here at the office. But a Chuck Johnson record, people can get that. The fun thing is when I have a friend like Mike Taylor [Hiss Golden Messenger], who was on Letterman a few months ago. I emailed some people round the office: "Here’s one of the guys I know and do some work with, on Letterman." That was a safer entry point for some people. I did get a good question once – one of the paralegals asked me: "Oh Cory, you do all that music stuff, can you help me get some Miley Cyrus tickets for my niece?" That’s not really an area where I have a lot of pull!

I read that you were involved in the Pavement reissues as well…

CR: Kind of. I don’t want to overstate things there but a good friend of mine used to help them out with some of their web-presence stuff circa ’96/’97, a guy who does most of the design work on my records these days, Scott Caligan. We’re pretty obsessive fans and live music archivists. I probably have a couple of hundred live Bardo Pond recordings of various kinds piled up. Scott was pretty tied in with Scott Kannberg [aka Spiral Stairs] and I got to know Kannberg through him – Scott is kinda more the archivist side there and I don’t remember how it came about. He bounced some ideas for some of the Brighten The Corners stuff… he may have emailed Scott or myself asking whether we had some specific live material of a certain kind, ’cause he just knew we had a ton of stuff and that led to a conversation of different ideas of, like: "Don’t forget this thing, don’t forget that thing". I would not say by any stretch of the imagination that we drove the bus too far, but I think it would be fair to say we probably had a few ideas that may not have popped up on some of the reissues had we not mentioned them. We tinkered around the edges.

Who’s better: Pavement or Sonic Youth?

CR: [long pause] That’s a tough question. I have a very emotional connection to several records from both of those bands. Presently, I probably listen to more Sonic Youth than I do Pavement. But I would say on a bigger life impact, for me, maybe Pavement. That’s diplomatic, right?

What’s the best gig you’ve ever seen?

CR: Can I make it two or three? To go back to Pavement, one of the most fun shows I’ve ever seen was a one-off show that Pavement did at the Cat’s Cradle [in Chapel Hill in North Carolina] in ’96 when they were in the studio working on Brighten The Corners. They just announced it like a week in advance and they wanted to test out some of the material in the midst of working on the album. I think there were maybe 20 or 21 songs played that night and 17 of them were unreleased and it was just crazy. For someone who was very, very, very into that band, that was a fun experience.

A similar experience would be a Sonic Youth-type thing. They were doing a large stadium tour with, I think it was Pearl Jam, around 2000 or something, and they had a couple of dates, maybe two or three along the way, where they had a day between places and they did a show in North Carolina, actually in the same room as that Pavement show, in the Cat’s Cradle. That was not billed as Sonic Youth, it was billed as Perspectives Musicales. It was a 70- or 80-minute set where Thurston came out and did a couple of solo songs, then a couple of things backed by Lee. Then Lee did a solo version of ‘Mote’. Then everyone came out and did this weird improv thing and Kim did some stuff off the Ikue Mori record. And then they came out and did a full Sonic Youth set. It was like two sets. Jim O’Rourke did a couple of solo things too. It was just this weird travelling roadshow-like thing.

I really, really, really enjoyed the Bardo Pond set the one year they played at No Fun Fest. Everyone’s sets at that festival were pretty short, 25, 30-ish minutes. So Bardo Pond just let their set be one song: a stretched-out, 30-minute version of ‘Karwan’. That was really fun. Both the times I’ve seen the No-Neck Blues Band, the shows were very memorable and very immersive, in different ways. One involved a person taking off all their clothes, wrapping themselves in bubble-wrap and covering themselves in stage-blood. Another time involved a giant refrigerator box moving through a crowd… take your pick! It’s hard to choose.

What will the next 15 years of Three Lobed bring?

CR: It’ll be interesting to see how long the vinyl resurgence sticks and if some of the people who are more casual about it continue to stay interested or not over time. Things could always change, I have no idea, but I don’t see an immediate stop to me doing things. Now does that mean 15 years? It’s hard to say. I’ve got things I still wanna do. There’s still a few more of those Bardo singles and comp collection things that we’re working on slowly in the background. There are lots of other people that I’d like to work with, who I haven’t had the chance to work with previously. There’s a lot out there. It’s hard for me to think too much past things I have on my plate at any given time but I don’t see an immediate stop.

Which other acts would you most like to work with?

CR: I would really like to put something out for The Dead C, if I could find a way for that to work out properly at some point. They’re a group I have a lot of interest in who I have never had the chance to work with. I have been very lucky and fortunate that I’ve somehow been able to put out something for a lot of people who mean a lot to me, be it, like… you know, somehow I have a piece of the actual Sonic Youth discography, not just side project stuff, but actual Sonic Youth. Yo La Tengo in that new box set. If you were to tell college-aged me that I would be putting out, 15 years later, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo records, that would not make any sense. Putting out tons of stuff for Bardo Pond. Not just one or two things here and there but having been pretty involved with that. Around the time I started the label I was really interested in what Mike Gangloff, Pat Best and Jack Rose were doing as Pelt, and then getting to watch Jack evolve on his own and getting the privilege of putting out a couple of records for him. It’s hard to know in advance who some of those people I’m going to want to work with in the future are, ’cause I don’t know who it is yet. When the label started, Daniel Bachman was nine years old! I really like Cian Nugent’s stuff, I think he’s fantastic. I’d like to do something with Cian at some point in time.

Parallelogram is due to be released in September; for full details and pre-orders, head to Three Lobed’s site here

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