Cory Rayborn, Trinity ‘98, works as a business lawyer by day, but for the last 17 years he has also single-handedly run a record label out of his home in High Point, N.C. With Three Lobed Recordings, Rayborn has incubated a roster of experimental musicians that spans from Philadelphia to the Triangle area, and he’s remained close to his alma mater with an annual day show at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival co-presented by Duke’s radio station WXDU. I got on the phone with Rayborn to talk about his years at Duke and his experiences with Three Lobed. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Chronicle: I wanted to start by talking a little bit about your experience at Duke as an undergrad. You’ve stated that you’re not a musician personally, but what was your experience within the music scene when you were at Duke?

Cory Rayborn: A lot of trips to the Cat’s Cradle, a lot of trips to what is now Nightlight but was then the Skylight Exchange, the Lizard and Snake Cafe, which was a place in Chapel Hill—a live venue that has since deceased. So I was going places like that, catching stuff, just getting to know people, doing things along those lines. I did some work with Major Attractions [a former DUU committee] as well, which did some Coffeehouse booking my junior and senior years. And I got some experience and involvement that way as well.

TC: Three Lobed started out with a sort of one-off record from Bardo Pond. At the time, did you think it was a one-off thing? Can you point to a specific record where you realized Three Lobed could actually be a successful venture?

CR: I’d done a bunch of booking, I’d done a zine at one point in time...I’d done a bunch of things in and around music at the time, and I decided, well, I want to release this record. If it stinks, I won’t do it again. If it’s fun, maybe I’ll do it again. So that was the nature of that first release, that Bardo 10-inch. And I was in law school—you know, the best time to start any record label is when you’re insanely busy. 

Actually [when] the first record came out, I mailed most of those about a week before my first days of law school. So I didn’t really put a lot out until the next summer, then something else the next summer when I had a bit more time. But then once law school had kind of passed, and I was still interested in doing it and therefore wasn’t constrained by something that was gobbling up my [time] the way that school was at that point. Probably, like, four or five years into it I realized—this probably is a thing. This is something that’s ongoing and has some legs to it, and I’m enjoying doing it, and people are wanting to do it with me. And I keep going, you know, 17 years later. 

TC: Is there a specific artist or record you worked with that you could point to as a turning point for that realization?

CR: So the label started in 2000. And I put a project out over the course of the year 2006 that was a nine-CD collection, and one of those albums was from a collaborative project, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth. The fact that they were wanting to do something with me—I was like, okay, this is pretty cool, this is working out. That was about six years into the endeavor, and since then I’ve worked with both of them on several other projects and live shows in the area. Like, Kim just wrote liner notes for a record that I have coming out in November. So it’s weird how some of the relationships that have developed have kept on. 

You know, I think back to as a high schooler or as a Duke student, things that I was really into and things that I was really interested in musically. If you go back and told me at that age that I’d be releasing proper Sonic Youth records or proper Yo La Tengo records or whatever else, or over 10 Bardo Pond records, that would be a real pinch-me kind of thing, because it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. It’s kind of crazy that it’s actually worked out that way.

TC: The narrative I see in a lot of stories about you is the “lawyer by day, record label owner by night” thing. How have those two spheres of your life benefited from one another or fed off of one another, as opposed to being totally compartmentalized?

CR: I’m a transactional-slash-business attorney by day, so I’m pretty organized. I’ve got people who expect things from me on a pretty quick turn time and keep things on schedule and keep things moving along pretty quickly and in an orderly fashion. That helps inform the label side of things, because once something’s moving along...nothing really falls apart, and things stay pretty orderly and on schedule. So it’s not a whole lot different than some of my day job. I’m just asking clients rather than asking musicians: What’s your outcome? What steps do we need to get from here to that outcome? I think it keeps things pretty whirly. That’s nice because [the label is] something I don’t have a million hours a day to dedicate to. The degree that I can keep it non-chaotic makes it much more manageable and fun.

How does music influence the day job side of things? Well, I’ve got some show-related prints, including some of the things related to the past Three Lobed-’XDU day shows up in my office, which probably makes mine one of the more occult-themed offices in the law firm. But it’s a thing where most of my colleagues find it interesting that [Three Lobed] is a thing that I do, but they don’t understand what it is. The question is usually, “Oh, you have a studio in your basement?” And that’s not what a record label means. It does make an interesting conversational point, but I’m not sure how much it necessarily influences my day-to-day operations at work.

TC: Three Lobed releases seem to emphasize artwork and the physical LP/CD format. What is it about the physical format that is important to you?

CR: To start with, when I was getting into music, that’s what it was, it was physical formats. It would be CDs and tapes and everything else, and that was just what I got used to doing. The first time I saw anything encoded in MP3 was when I was in my senior year at Duke, and that was not a widespread file played at that point in time. A lot of the musicians who I work with, they’re around my age or a little bit older at times, and I think that their expectations and experiences as to how music changes hands and how music flows in one market to another are kind of similar to mine in that these are the avenues we’re used to. I don’t have a problem with digital stuff, but I do feel that if things were to totally drift away from physical and exclusively to digital, I’m not sure I’d do the label anymore. Because to me, [digital music] seems more like vaporware, to a degree—at some point in time, it’s just this intangible thing. 

When I get a delivery of a new title, and I get to open the box for the first time and see the first copies, it’s exciting. I spend a lot of time with how things are presented—I like things to be presented in certain ways, and I like to put a title out in a way that I would be happy to buy it if someone else was putting it out. It’s kind of hard to define. I realize that while there are generational shifts within the medium, and different age cohorts like different things, there’s certainly younger folks [who may] be into vinyl, but maybe less so than folks my age and older. And I’m just gonna keep turning the wheel as long as I can.

TC: How have you seen the North Carolina experimental or underground scene evolve in the last 17 years?

CR: I was in college right after the major label’s quote-end-quote “alternative boom,” where everyone was trying to find the next Seattle, and for a while Chapel Hill-Raleigh-Durham was considered one of those next hotspots. So living through that, college for me was Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Polvo, all of them—those were the hot local things then. Some of them are still functional and going concerns now, others less so. That was more of what would now be called indie rock-type stuff, college/alternative rock then. And that stuff is still around—Merge hasn’t gone anywhere, some of those bands like Polvo faded away and then came back and then faded away again. But as far as more experimental type scenes, that’s been newer. There was not as much of that when I was in school, and watching that develop over time has been fun. 

TC: What does the future of Three Lobed look like?

CR: I don’t have any indication that there’s a curtain on the horizon right now. I’m deep in planning on some titles for next year already. I was swapping emails with someone earlier today about studio time later this week for something we’re working on for next year. The thing with a label is they’re kind of a year out of their time, because I’m trying to figure out what I can do, with vinyl lead times being what they are and studio time. I don’t think much more than a year or so ahead at any given time, but I don’t see any reason of stopping this any time in the near future.