An oral history of Thrill Jockey Records
Published: September 11, 2012
Thrill Jockey records started in New York City in 1992 after Bettina Richards quit her corporate A&R job. Soon after, the label moved to Chicago and has put out some of the most consistently exciting and forward-thinking independent music in recent years. It’s also acted as a champion of Baltimore’s music scene. On Sept. 13th the label puts on a show at Ram’s Head Live as a part of ongoing 20th anniversary celebrations. The show features a bevy of Baltimore bands, including Future Islands, Matmos, and Arbouretum, with Ed Schrader (also a City Paper columnist) and Nolen Strals of former Thrill Jockey band Double Dagger, as MCs. They are joined by post-rock legends Tortoise, Dan Friel, and (erstwhile Baltimoreans) Pontiak. City Paper caught up with some key members in the scene and asked them to talk about the label’s history and its future.
Bettina Richards, Thrill Jockey founder: It was 1992. I had been working at Atlantic Records and London Records, and I really wasn’t happy with the systems at those labels and the way musicians were treated as commodities, and I really admired labels like Dischord and Touch and Go. So using their model as a stepping point, I decided to start my own . . . Certainly as a business you have to be aware of the ability to make a profit in order to self-sustain, but when you view creative human beings as a commodity and treat them as products—there’s a certain culture and certain way of behaving that I had a lot of discomfort with.
Douglas McCombs, Tortoise: I knew Bettina before Thrill Jockey and we’d been friends and she had sort of offered to put out something for me if I had anything I wanted to do, and she told me she was starting a label. So when we got Tortoise going, I contacted her to see if she’d want to put it out. She put out one of our first 7-inches, and from then on we just continued putting things out on her label.
Bettina Richards: I guess the Baltimore stuff all really started to happen through knowing Daniel Higgs . . . I was a geeky super-fan and I contacted him through Dischord and offered to pay for a flight for the Pupils to come play Chicago because I really wanted to see them play. They accepted the offer and stayed at my house . . . I’m pretty sure that it was Daniel that pointed out Thank You to me, and through him I met Jason Urick, and I think it was through him that I met Future Islands. I just had bought a Double Dagger record on my own and was obsessed with it.
Dave Heumann, Arbouretum: In 2005 we were on this tour and we passed through Chicago. A friend of ours was with us that had known Bettina from back in the day, and she invited her to the show. So she came to the show, bought a CD, and then a year later we were getting a record together and I remembered her, and I was like, “Oh hey, I met you like a year ago and would you be into listening to our stuff?” and it turns out she had been listening to that record a lot and was into the idea, and the rest progressed from there. She was actually one of the only five people who came to that show.
Bettina Richards: I think—and this doesn’t just include the people I work with, I would include Beach House and Dan Deacon and a lot of the people from Baltimore, Wye Oak, all of them—it’s the same thing that appeals to me for what we want to do; it’s not a city that’s known as a media city or an industry city, and the people who choose to stay there aren’t focused outward, they’re focused on their music and therefore, by doing so, they come up with utterly unique things. For a city of its size there [are] so many really successful musicians coming from there. When you spend your time looking at what other people are doing or hypothesizing [about] what might make you successful, you’re not likely to come up with anything interesting. You might get lucky and imitate something on a new trend and have a flash in the pan, but I don’t think it’s the way to interesting music.
M.C. Schmidt, Matmos: I would have to characterize the people at Thrill Jockey as stoked. Which I think is a particularly Midwestern characteristic as opposed to [Matmos’ previous label] Matador, [which] had much more of a New York-cool thing going on.
Drew Daniel, Matmos: I think Baltimore has open-heartedness and enthusiasm, and I think that that’s the opposite of cool, and I like that a lot about Baltimore. Baltimore people don’t fold their hands and stand at the back of the room. They want to get sweaty and they want to go off and they want to have fun, and I think that’s been so inspiring and so different for us, coming from San Francisco, where people are much more critical in good and bad ways. I think the risk with a town like Baltimore is that standards can be low because there’s backslapping and everyone wants to be friends. The benefit is that there’s so much more of a participatory spirit here and there’s so much more of a willingness to collaborate . . . This new record that we’ve done, there’s so many people from the Baltimore scene that helped out, took part, and made it what it is. So I’m really pleased to get to take that on the stage. Members of Horse Lords are in the band, Dan Deacon’s going to join us onstage for one song.
Bettina Richards: Every label is different because of the personalities that run them in general. Certainly there aren’t too many women involved; I wish there were more. We’re a 50 percent profit share. At the time we started, that was rather uncommon, I think it’s much more common now. And we really don’t have any musical mandate that we feel like we need to adhere to, we just put out records we really love . . . that compel us, that make us exceedingly happy. Really fundamentally that’s it: We believe that if we really like it, why wouldn’t someone else?
Dave Heumann: I think that one of the things that has contributed to their longevity is they’ve always had a knack for what’s good, which is different sometimes from what will sell. It’s also a matter of maintaining a certain kind of aesthetic continuity between all the artists, even though the styles and genres can be a lot different. Everything they put out has some kind of taste tying it together.
Bettina Richards: I really do think [Thrill Jockey bands] all have a love of melody, no matter how obtuse it might be in there. But I’ve said that to other people and they think I’m crazy, but I hear it. And we have a lot of really great drummers. I think that’s the main commonality; these are people who aren’t looking outward, they’re real woodshedders, they’re working on their music. That’s the only way you can arrive at something like Zomes. That’s purely him and so unique.
William Cashion, Future Islands: We were doing it [all] ourselves for seven years, booking ourselves, all that stuff. All that changed since we got signed to Thrill Jockey. Shortly after we got signed, we got picked up by a booking agent and both of those things have been a big help: little things like printing out posters and sending posters to all the venues we’re playing at so there’s proper promotion; and trying to get us interviews if possible; pushing stuff in all directions. Stuff we couldn’t do ourselves . . . It’s like night and day, having that kind of support, having that kind of network behind you. Especially after doing it ourselves for so long, it was totally a game changer for us in a lot of ways.
Bettina Richards: Hopefully we’ll keep going. It’s very hard to have a crystal ball. I’m having as good of [a] time as I ever did doing it, and I think the creative challenges of the music business today add to the excitement of it all. You have to try to make the same margins for the company and make money for the artists. It’s an exciting challenge, so I think we’re going to strive to continue to be creative and continue to be excited by what we do. And I think when you’re not excited about what you do, then it’s time to do something else. So until that day comes, this is what I’ll keep doing—plus I’m not really sure what I’d be qualified to do otherwise.
The Thrill Jockey 20th anniversary show will be at Rams Head Live Sept. 13. For more information visit ramsheadlive.com
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