Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary: Bettina Richards “We appeal to the musical omnivore.”

Thrill Jockey built its cache on sterling albums by Chicago groups like Tortoise and The Sea And Cake in the mid-1990s, but over the course of 20 years, the Chicago-based label’s reach has expanded much further, encompassing jazz (Fred Anderson, Rob Mazurek), metal (Liturgy), punk (Gaunt, Nerves, Bobby Conn), folk/Americana (Freakwater, Catherine Erwin, Black Twig Pickers, Jack Rose), electronic music (Oval, Mouse on Mars, Nobukazu Takemura), and forward-looking rock (Eleventh Dream Day, Fiery Furnaces, A Minor Forest) from all over the world. Starting this month, the label is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a slew of reissues, a poster series, a comedy LP, and a handful of shows (hosted in Portland, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and London). We thought we’d join in the celebration by talking extensively with several new Thrill Jockey signings and chatting with label founder Bettina Richards. [Previous: Guardian Alien]

For our final 20th-anniversary installment, Thrill Jockey founder Bettina Richards talks about the history, state, and direction of the stalwart independent label, which has been based in Chicago for most of its 20-year existence and has grown to a catalog featuring over 200 releases. Thrill Jockey’s recent batch of anniversary shows concluded over the weekend, but this fall and winter will see plenty more, including celebrations in Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, and London, thus giving further proof to the idea that their reach has extended well beyond the Windy City.

One linchpin of the conversation about Thrill Jockey has been the perceived geographical fixation of the label to Chicago. You’re naturally going to be surrounded by the musicians there and would want to give them an outlet for their work, and I’m curious how that has changed over the years.

Yeah, I think it’s really not too complicated. It comes down to what is the mechanism of how I stumble upon new music. There are a couple different ways – one, I’m a hopeless and incurable record collector, and also I’ve worked with a lot of musicians for a long time; they’re my friends, and I respect their tastes so naturally when they refer something to me I’m going to listen to it right away. Also, people just send us stuff. Nobukazu Takemura and Sidi Touré came through the mail. Interestingly, because Touré and the guy who recorded his record were into Radian, they sent something in, and I wouldn’t necessarily have expected musicians from Mali being into this band from Austria, and I think sometimes the fascination with the region comes from being able to explore in depth the musicians from that region, who live and work there.

Gaunt was a case where I went to see another band at CBGB’s and they were playing early on the bill. I went up to their van and bought a 7-inch and became obsessed with them, and sent a letter. Oval was the same thing – I bought an import of their first record and wrote a fan letter because I was so into it. It really is just that simple – it’s not trying in any conscious way… I like to listen to all kinds of things both old and new, country and metal – whatever. We really aren’t trying with any kind of conscious effort to shape how the label is perceived.

The artists and their directions shape it as much as anything.

Exactly. Also, there are people who have worked here a long time and they are interested in various things, and they play music at the office – so that’s how I found out about Barn Owl and wanted to release their music. It really is through pretty simple methods, rather than deciding, ‘Hey, we really need to have something like that on the roster’ and so forth. When we put out Liturgy, it wasn’t because I decided that we needed something really heavy – I listen to music like that anyway, but most heavy bands aren’t interested in being on our label, so that was a case where a mutual friend involved with the Boredoms sent me some of Liturgy’s music.

It’s interesting because a lot of metal and black-metal bands are concerned with the entire context surrounding the presentation of their work, and I understand why they might want to be label-specific in some ways. That goes for a lot of music, I guess.

There are values to it, no doubt. If you’re into heavy music you’ll buy things that are on a certain label because you trust that they know what they’re doing. That’s one of the costs of not being at all focused on branding or restricting what the label’s going to do. We appeal to the musical omnivore. If you’re really into only one thing you may dip your toes into Thrill Jockey’s catalog, but you won’t necessarily follow our releases because they’re all over the place.

It’s fascinating in that regard, too – when I was first exposed to the label back in ’95 or so, it seemed like you were capturing a musical moment of very spacious and open-ended instrumental music like Tortoise and their peers. That was a door to a lot of other things for me at the time. Now in 2012, it’s quite different – I took breaks to explore other kinds of music, and coming back to the catalog and looking through the recent output, it’s quite different.

It’s one of those things – consciously, people do try to be prescient and hop onto a trend they might see, but I can assure you everyone ignored the first Tortoise record. Suddenly people decided this was the next big thing. I worked briefly for Atlantic Records in London, and I can tell you that a lot of people spent their time trying to react and jump on stuff, and that’s not interesting to me. We put out music we’re compelled by and we figure we’re not so special – if we like this stuff other people probably will too, you know? I love the label Drag City because they have a similar attitude – we really don’t care what people think, on the whole, and I’m simply beholden to the musicians and the people who work here. Of course you can’t be in a rabbit hole either, and I’m proud that we were one of the first labels to have a download store of our own and send out digital promos, saving fans money and so forth. What I mean is more from a curatorial perspective.

I worked briefly for Atlantic Records in London, and I can tell you that a lot of people spent their time trying to react and jump on stuff, and that’s not interesting to me.

The label has moved somewhat toward limited-edition releases, right?

I’d say it’s a pretty balanced mix of multi-format releases and vinyl and digital releases. We do more fixed-edition vinyl than we did a few years ago, and part of that is because we have a number of artists who are purely about documenting each project and moving on. The best way to deal with that is through smaller runs. The most recent Zomes record is an example of that; it was the first time Asa Osborne had gone into a studio as Zomes, and he wanted to document that period of Zomes, but he was already thinking beyond. It’s a good way to do a specific kind of release. For a band like Pontiak who are very prolific and have their own studio, it allows them to put out a few releases a year without over-saturating their market. There are fewer record stores now, and you have to be balanced in what you can expect from people, too.

How do you reconcile the presentation of the music – the artwork, which has been so important throughout the label’s existence, and so forth – and the changing delivery system for the music?

If your goal is to break even or make the artist at least a bit of money, you have restricted resources to realize what their vision is for the art. But really, you can do a whole lot with very little. It’s often a matter of time – spending the time to hand-make something or realize the idea someone has. That’s part of what makes this stuff interesting – finding a way to put the puzzle together and make it happen. On the D. Charles Speer & The Helix LP, it’s got a cutaway sleeve so you can have different images from the inner sleeve showing. I think it’s part of the fun – all of our artwork is generated by the bands themselves, and we work with them to get it into a printable format. We don’t have someone designing for them, usually.

I remember the A Minor Forest record with the slide-like cover [Flemish Altruism, 1996].

Yeah, that was rad – we’re hopefully going to reissue their catalog next year. We’re trying to figure out how to put it all together into a package that’s as equally ridiculous as the first one.

And, like we were saying before, assembling something like that shows that not only is the music important, but also the value system that surrounds it. Like, you have Sam Prekop’s artwork on The Sea And Cake records as well as his own, and that could lead one to appreciate his paintings and photographs.

And he took that to the ultimate level by hand-painting 1,000 covers for his most recent record [Old Punch Card, 2011]. That was taking it to the mountaintop, I think. Daniel Higgs handmade a bunch of covers and it took him a while to do it, and we had mail order customers who were patient enough to wait a year for jackets from him because he did each one really differently.

That’s rare in terms of a label that’s as successful as Thrill Jockey has been, to be able to carry that impulse forward.

Yeah, I think part of it is refusing to grow up or something – we really love it. We have a Thank You 7-inch coming up and it’s in an edition of 300 with covers in sets of 20, hand-made by different people in Baltimore. We’ve got silkscreen artists doing them, as well as Beach House, Asa, and I’m making 20 as well. This is a band where it was the last thing they recorded and they’re beloved in Baltimore. It’s an example of their community doing something for them, and it’s super-fun to look at the different interpretations of the song “Mother’s Nose” and what people have come up with for artwork. That keeps it interesting and for the band it’s affordable and really exciting. It’s probably going to be something that will help sell the records – there will be Beach House fans that will buy the 7-inch just because they want one of the jackets that Victoria [Legrande] made. But ultimately, it’s a fun and personal project. Why not make it extra ridiculous?

I really felt that while I appreciated the history of those labels and many things about them, the reality of working there day-to-day was sucking the joy out of music for me, and the bands that I worked for – I didn’t like how they were being treated.

How did you get into this path of starting a label, and how did you get interested in music in general?

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with records – I stole all my father’s old records and also my sister’s albums, and as soon as I could buy my own records I went for it. The thrill of music never went away, and when I finished school I didn’t know what to do so I went to Australia. I ended up getting a job at Warner/Elektra/Atlantic in Australia, which ended up being really fun at the time, and when I came back I started working at Atlantic and London Records in the US as an A&R representative. I really felt that while I appreciated the history of those labels and many things about them, the reality of working there day-to-day was sucking the joy out of music for me, and the bands that I worked for – I didn’t like how they were being treated. Through pure ignorance I decided, “Well I’m just going to do it myself, and I’ll do it the way Touch & Go and Dischord do it, because that seems like the fairest way to me.” I dove right in thinking I could do that as well as a lot of other things. But of course it absolutely takes up all of your time if you’re going to do it right.

I read that you didn’t take a salary while getting the label off the ground.

No, I bartended for a long time.

It seems like you’ve been able to keep the label an extraordinarily independent venture, even as some peer labels have become part of larger operations. That’s pretty incredible.

As much as I talk about all the fun we have, part of the stuff that you have to find a way to make fun for yourself is doing budgets, not over- or underestimating a pressing run, paying attention to things like that. I’m reliant on five or six people who work very hard and could make more money somewhere else. I benefit from the fact that they’re as rewarded as I am working for musicians. We have a slew of interns who stay for a really long time as unpaid help, for free records and tickets to shows and stuff like that. Part of the success is the result of not having any normal business plan and part of it is that you have to pay attention to the bottom line.

You have to be able to say no if you’re going to lose a lot of money on something, and you have to be clear and if something is a risk, go all in on that risk. Otherwise you won’t be able to sustain what you want to do. For example, we left Touch & Go a few years before they stopped being a distributor partially because the market had changed, and we felt we could manage it without their help on manufacturing, because we didn’t want to give up that margin. At the time I did it, people said, “What are you doing?” but we needed that extra piece of the pie in our favor.

I remember the blow up with Touch & Go surprised some people.

It was really unfortunate because people didn’t know it was coming, but there have been far worse situations than that – distributors collapsing and not paying anyone, and all of that is a peril of doing business and you have to be prepared. One of our CD manufacturers shut their doors one day and we found out because a master we had FedExed to them for production was returned. We lost a huge amount of print because of that. They mis-shipped stuff all over the place and there were ten thousand Tortoise jackets I couldn’t get back, either. You can’t plan for things like that and you just have to adapt. Our distributor in London burned in the riots and that was the day before the Wooden Shjips record was coming out, which was unfortunate because they do quite well in England. About three thousand records were lost and though we eventually did get insurance money, in the meantime you have to remake three thousand albums and get them back over to the UK, and the band still had to go on tour. That would be much more difficult if we’d had all our eggs in one basket, and that’s part of the reason we try not to.

You’ve had a London connection for quite some time, right?

We’ve had an office there for seven years, and we worked with a company there who would deal with distributors on our behalf prior to that. In the early days I licensed records to City Slang, but there were some records that we licensed into Europe directly. You can’t really do that unless you have someone over there on the same time zone.

Will there be a special release coinciding with the 20th anniversary?

I consciously decided not to create a five-hour documentary or a huge boxed set, but last year we did help Matt Friedberger in his insane undertaking of a six-album-plus-two project. That is not yet complete, but it is intended to be done by the Chicago show in December. There is a comedy record – the A-side is basically people being told an off-color joke, and we’re not going to record the joke, just the reactions. The B-side is just more like a classic joke (à la “take my wife, please”) and then people reacting to those. It’s definitely not a record for everybody, listening to people giggling and groaning, but that’s our brilliant plan for success.

We also reissued a lot of stuff, so that was a big undertaking, especially because some master formats have become obsolete or have degraded, or the artwork files are in formats that are unusable. I definitely didn’t start the label with an idea of how to archive material so it would be intact 18 or so years later. We do periodically upgrade and re-archive, but I’m not a librarian and I don’t have a system for doing this. There are a lot of short-lived formats from that mid-90s period, and it’s quite a challenge because, say, DAT tapes were the master of choice and those degrade, plus the machines are unavailable. Zip disks, all that stuff – to archive everything onto hard drives is a big expense and you have to evaluate whether or not it makes sense. Some of it just comes down to also saving crap along with the good stuff we actually need, and having to weed through.

These 20th Anniversary festivals that are popping up all over the country, could you talk about how the festivals were planned and give an idea of what, perhaps, to expect?

It’s in Baltimore, NY, Portland, San Francisco, L.A., London, and Chicago. The latter will be a big party wherein bands will play but not as themselves – I begged Tortoise to play as a metal band and we’ll see if they do it. The Sea And Cake played at a comedy festival as The Flea And Rake, wearing ski masks and singing through vocoders like a hardcore band. You can imagine what that was like – pretty hilarious. We picked Baltimore and Portland because we work with a lot of people from those areas, and New York has two shows, one at Webster Hall and one at Death By Audio. We tried to get a balance between bands we’ve worked with for a long time as well as newer bands. Tortoise, Trans Am, or Sea and Cake – if you can sustain a band for that long, it’s pretty remarkable. It’ll be a diverse experience throughout; Baltimore has Arbouretum and Pontiak and Dan Friel, as well as Tortoise and Future Islands, for example. Nolan from Double Dagger and Ed Schrader will be there to roast everybody.

At the New York shows, we have this amazing band we work with called Black Twig Pickers, and they’ll be wandering around the floor and going up to people and playing. It’ll be really cool for people to see what they do, and the best way to see them is up close. They were up for doing 10- or 15-minute performances between the bands; they are the only musicians I’ve ever seen do “fiddlesticks,” and it absolutely blows my mind every time. You have to be close up to appreciate the insanity of someone playing the fiddle while someone plays the rhythm on the fingerboard while you’re playing.

I’ve heard the records but I got the feeling they were a band to catch live.

Absolutely. They play at this place in Virginia regularly and people dance to them, so they’re something of an institution. You can’t wander around Death By Audio so they’ll be in the back playing in between sets, and they will be quite a contrast to bands like White Hills, Guardian Alien, and Rhyton. On the West Coast it will be the bands that are based out there, for the most part. We’re almost done planning the show in London, which should also be a good one, too.

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