20 Years of Three Lobed Recordings

This article was originally published on the Duke Performances blog

Ahead of the Three Lobed Recordings 21st Anniversary Festival April 14–16, Will Atkinson ’20 spoke with Three Lobed’s founder and manager, Cory Rayborn, about the label’s journey to this point and the impressive lineup of artists who will take up residence at indoor and outdoor venues around campus next month. Single performance tickets for all three days of the festival are on sale now.

When I last spoke to Cory Rayborn, the founder of Three Lobed Recordings had put a pin in his plans for the label’s 20th anniversary celebration. It was October 2020, and though the first vaccines were around the corner, live music was still little more than a dim light on the horizon. 

A year later, that celebration has finally arrived — even if it’s a bit behind schedule.

“Everything I’ve ever done regarding the record label with anniversaries tends to fall a year late, somehow,” jokes Rayborn, who has single-handedly run Three Lobed out of his basement in Jamestown, NC — when he’s not working his day job as a business lawyer — since 2000. When he set out to create a box set in 2010 for the record label’s 10th anniversary, he explains, it arrived a year late; the next landmark anniversary, at 15 years, quickly turned into a “sweet 16.” The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year has turned the 20th birthday into yet another extended-release affair that will have entered its third calendar year by the time it arrives at Duke’s campus in spring 2022.

Co-presented with Duke Performances across three venues from April 14 to 16, Three Lobed Recordings’ 21st Anniversary Festival showcases the left-field sonic experimentation that has been a hallmark of the label. With its emphasis on one-off collaborations, extended improvisation, and carefully-packaged vinyl releases, Three Lobed tends to give artists something of a sandbox for their weirder, wilder impulses. It’s a strategy that has made this one-man operation a destination for heavy-hitters in the indie rock world — hosting projects by Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Kurt Vile, to name a few — while carving out a niche for a certain strain of the avant-garde, a line that runs from Philadelphia psych-rock to American Primitive guitar and crosses nearly everything in between.

The festival’s lineup is a who’s-who of the core group of acts that have made Three Lobed a home for the last two decades: a Thursday evening performance at East Campus’s Duke Coffeehouse features a slate of virtuosic guitarists in Daniel Bachman, Danny Paul Grody, Marisa Anderson, and William Tyler; an outdoor set on Saturday afternoon includes a collaborative tribute to the late guitarist Jack Rose, who released several albums on the label; two evening performances at the Rubenstein Arts Center’s von der Heyden Studio Theater feature a set with visual projections from former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, the voice and harp duo of Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore, and Three Lobed stalwarts Steve Gunn, Bill Orcutt, Chris Corsano, and psychedelic outfit Sunburned Hand of the Man. Nearly every artist performing at the festival in April has released a record with Rayborn, who enjoys a unique trust with the musicians that work with him.

“He’s just so psyched and so excited about what he is presenting, and you can tell he loves every single thing on his label. It’s just Cory, doing what he loves and supporting you as a musician, and you don’t have to jump through a million hoops,” says harpist Mary Lattimore, who has released two collaborative records (with Meg Baird and Mac McCaughan, respectively) on Three Lobed. “You’re in really good hands when you agree to put out something for Cory.”

For Rayborn, who graduated from Duke in 1998, the festival commemorates the past in more ways than one. As an undergraduate, he regularly booked concerts for Major Attractions, an early incarnation of the student committees (Duke University Union Campus Concerts and LDOC) that now run music programming for major student events. He was introduced early on to the world of independent music, often traveling to Chapel Hill to see shows by the likes of Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, and Polvo, catching the tail end of the area’s hype as the “new Seattle.” One show Rayborn programmed at Duke Coffeehouse in 1997 featured The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle in his first show in the Triangle, well before he made Durham his home.

The story of Three Lobed began when Rayborn started law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. (“The best time to start any record label is when you’re insanely busy,” he once quipped.) His first, limited release — 500 copies of a ten-inch EP by Philadelphia psych-rockers Bardo Pond — was originally intended as a one-off project. But as the years went on, what started as a hobby turned into a full-fledged label, even as it remained confined to Rayborn’s basement. An annual day party at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival — often hosted in collaboration with Duke’s campus radio station, WXDU 88.7 FM — has served as a meeting point for the network of like-minded artists surrounding Three Lobed, embedding it in the local music scene.

That the anniversary festival will go on, despite the many months of waiting, is an important milestone for a label where the spontaneity and community of live performance has been so central to its character. For Rayborn’s part, he hopes that the world’s gradual return to live music serves as a reminder to value the artists who make it happen. “People have hopefully re-examined the dynamic between the performer, the venue, and the audience, and what goes into making a show. It’s a complicated affair,” Rayborn says. “Hopefully, people can remedy that situation a little bit, and realize this is not something to take for granted.”