The slate gray walls of Cory Rayborn's fourth-floor High Point law office are mostly empty. When he looks left, he sees through a wide, curtainless window, and when he looks right, he stares at a cluster of framed diplomas and certificates: from Duke, UNC School of Law, and the N.C. Bar Association. But when Rayborn looks straight ahead—just over the heads of his clients as a general business and environmental attorney at Wyatt Early Harris Wheeler—he's smiling at a framed, colorful concert poster from Pavement.
Clues of Rayborn's double life as lawyer and independent record label president abound in his office: He hangs his navy blue sports coat on the back of his door, leaves an e-mail application open on his PC and sits comfortably behind a wooden desk in a leather chair. Cardboard boxes are stacked high in the corner closest to the window. Across the room, a small iPod stereo breaks the Thursday afternoon silence with faint acoustic guitar music. But those boxes in the corner aren't full of financial records and legal documents, and Rayborn isn't listening to mood music, exactly. The boxes are packed with sturdy, black 180-gram vinyl records that arrived last week from a California manufacturer, and the iPod is tuned to Jack Rose, a Virginia guitarist who bends raga forms from John Fahey's ghost and shapes acoustic drones with his band Pelt.
"When I'm in a work situation where people ask me what type of records I put out, I try to make it a quick answer so I don't get too many follow-up questions," says Rayborn, laughing and listing the adjectives he typically uses—psychedelic, noisy, weird, improvised—to brush off the inquiries of his peers. "They just don't get it. Everyone that knows about it thinks it's 'neat,' but they don't get it."
Since 2001, Rayborn's split lives—superficially, at least—couldn't have been more different. Being a lawyer pays the bills, but running an experimental, niche record label called Three Lobed Recordings keeps him fascinated and excited. He's purposefully modeled it so that his job allows for his hobby. And, over the past six years, that hobby has steadily emerged as one of the leading syndicates of a cadre of musicians that British music magazine Wire once dubbed "New Weird America."
Rayborn decided to start Three Lobed on a whim: As an undergraduate at Duke, he was into the essential indie rock, though his tastes slowly broadened. He started taping live shows (his archives have been tapped for a recent spate of Pavement reissues) and traded those tapes with like-minded listeners across the country. He booked shows at Duke Coffeehouse in the late-'90s, even landing the first two Mountain Goats gigs in the Triangle. He ran a music zine. Then, in 1998, Rayborn latched onto the music of Bardo Pond, a heavy psychedelic ensemble from Philadelphia. "It was a different angle on listening for me," he explains. Like most bands a decade ago, Bardo Pond didn't have a Web site. Rayborn and a friend bought a domain (www.threelobed.com) and built them one. They didn't know Bardo Pond, and they weren't being paid.
"I called Mike [Gibbons of Bardo Pond] one day and said, 'I'm the guy building this Web site thing. You have no idea who I am. I'm just some kid down here in North Carolina,'" Rayborn remembers. "He was like, 'Oh my god, we love that thing.' And here we are almost 10 years later."
Three years after the conversation and a month before he started law school, Rayborn released Three Lobed's first album—a Bardo Pond recording on 10-inch vinyl—as an experiment. The edition sold out promptly, so he decided to do it again, slowly expanding his sphere of artists through connections with other bands and through a decade of taping bands he found interesting. Three Lobed has released almost 40 albums, and, next year, Rayborn has 15 on the books; nine of them will comprise Three Lobed's just-announced third CD series—a small run of nine CDs from nine bands that can be purchased only as one unit.
When he released the first series in 2002, he simply e-mailed a dozen bands he liked, asking them if they'd be interested. For this latest series, several stars of the American improvised scene—Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore's duo Bark Haze, Brooklyn chameleons Magik Markers and California fuzz-anthem band Howlin' Rain—volunteered.
So how do some of the country's leading avant-garde musicians—those who don't bend rules as much as pretend they don't exist—feel about a small record label whose head is a lawyer? "A lot of the people I know music-wise are intrigued by the law side," Rayborn says.
Surprisingly, Rayborn's easygoing with the records he releases. He's never rejected an album from a band he's wanted to release, never said something wasn't good enough. And he allows bands to break the skeletal contracts they sign with him if it will help their careers. For instance, prolific New York songwriter Wooden Wand released Horus of the Horizon, a six-track EP, as part of Three Lobed's second CD series. The run of 550 discs is one of the few things in the Three Lobed catalogue not yet sold out, but a British label asked Wooden Wand if it could re-release the album in England. Even though Rayborn's contract said otherwise, he said go for it.
"If I wanted to say, 'You shouldn't put that out yet,' I could. But it doesn't matter to me," Rayborn says. "I know how musicians make money. And I'm not going to stop someone from trying to make a little bit of money on this stuff."
Rayborn doesn't stress over the label. Financially, it's self-sufficient, and not how he wants to pay the bills. The model for most small labels is to grow by signing more artists, finding better distributors to get those wares into more outlets, and selling more of those titles to promote future releases in bigger numbers. But Rayborn's model has been to slowly expand his circle of artists and to release small runs of new material that quickly sell out. Three Lobed doesn't have a major distributor, and it's not looking for one.
Rather, Rayborn and his wife, Rebecca Mann, pack hundreds of orders for individuals and experimental music outlets around the world and, on weekdays, cart them off to a post office in High Point. He's not losing sleep over the remaining copies of the second CD series sitting in his basement. The second record he ever released finally sold out last week. It will all sell soon enough. He trusts these bands, he says: "I know people who have burned out on what they were once extremely passionate on musically. If this was my full-time job, it wouldn't be this much fun, or as special, if it's the way the bills were paid."
Three Lobed band Magik Markers plays Two Art Chicks in Greensboro Monday, Oct. 22; another Three Lobed band, MV & EE, plays Duke Coffeehouse Friday, Oct. 26.