Q&A: Bettina Richards of Thrill Jockey Records On The 20th Anniversary Of Her Label


The iconic and staunchly independent label Thrill Jockey Records may be Chicago-based since the mid ’90s, but its roots lie here in New York and along the grimy Path train tunnel where Hoboken stands. Two decades ago, L.E.S. resident Bettina Richards founded Thrill Jockey while working the rounds at the legendary Hoboken record store hub, Pier Platters. Culling together loans and emptying her savings, she signed NYC-via-Austria prog-punk downtowners, H.P. Zinker (who also recorded for Matador Records) and thus her trajectory towards launching her label to seminal status—along with Sub Pop, Matador and Dischord—began. Ultimately, Richards moved to the more econo Chicago and stockpiled her Thrill Jockey stable with a mélange of trailblazers from a host of disparate genres. From the post-jazz stylings of Tortoise and The Sea and the Cake, Trans Am’s Kraut-rock pummel, sax giant Fred Anderson’s free jazz and the backporch country of Freakwater, Richards molded a label cache of ginormous proportions.

Recently the label has undergoing yet another dramatic resurgence by raiding Brooklyn’s stash of visionary bands. In just the last couple of years, Richards has swooped up Kid Millions’ percussive army Man Forever, psych-meditators Guardian Alien, electronic mashing machine and ex-Parts & Labor dude Dan Friel, twang riffers D. Charles Speer and the Helix, experimentalist space-jammers Rhyton, black-metal terrorizing crew Liturgy, finger-picking songsmith Luke Roberts and psychedelic monster rockers, White Hills. A bulk of these artists—new Thrill Jockey arrivals and vets like Tortoise—will be on hand this weekend to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Richards’ label.

Sound of the City spoke to Richard on the phone from the Thrill Jockey office to talk about her label, from then to now.

You started Thrill Jockey in New York before relocating to Chicago. You’ll be here this weekend for the anniversary shows, I presume. How often do you come back to NYC?

I get to New York the most often of anywhere, probably it seems like every other month out there. I lived there for a long time so I have a free place to stay and I have a desk and an office that I can use—so that makes it easier.

It must be major culture shock when you see what New York has transformed into since your time here.

I lived on the Lower East Side, yeah. It was junkie heaven.

And you worked at Pier Platters in Hoboken?

I worked at Pier Platters and I used to do some stuff once I started the label to get extra money with the people that owned Max Fish and they used to have a coffee shop next it and when people filmed commercials and stuff, I’d sit there all night so that they didn’t destroy the café and stuff. All that, like Ludlow Street and that whole area is nothing like it was.

Well, Max Fish is still there…

Not for much longer, apparently.

I used to shop at Pier Platters back in the day when I’d go to see shows at Maxwell’s.

Yeah, you know I think it’s hard now where you can find out about music pretty much with the Google search and I think it’s hard for people to understand like, and I’m blanking on the name of the ‘zine store I used to go all the time, I think it was on West 4th, it was down under and you had to walk downstairs.

Was it See/Hear?
See/Hear! Yeah, yeah. What a crucial world that See/Hear and Pier Platters played for people to find out about stuff and it’s hard to appreciate now.

Who did you work with at Pier Platters? I remember members of Das Damen, Pussy Galore/Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert…

Lyle (Hysen) wasn’t working there anymore, Susanne Sasic, she’s the person who does lights for Sonic Youth came in and out, Bill Ryan and Otis, who I think afterward Otis managed Secondhand Tunes—Otis Ball, he recorded for Bar/None, if I’m not mistaken.

Whatever happened to Bill Ryan? I think he used to drive Sonic Youth’s tour van also.

He’s around! He’s coming to the show, actually. I coaxed him out of Hoboken to come to the shows.

He’s still in Hoboken?

Yeah! Well, he lives in Jersey City.

You must have been going to tons of shows at Maxwell’s back in those days.

Yeah there and in New York. There wasn’t as many options and there wasn’t as many DIY spaces in Brooklyn so Maxwell’s had a different kind of show list.

So you came up with idea to start Thrill Jockey while working at Pier Platters?

I wanted to start so I quit my [other] job to work there, while I was getting it organized. I was interning at—actually the guy that booked Maxwell’s [Todd Abramson] record label—called Telstar and they had records by the Mummies and stuff. I was an intern for Telstar and that’s how I got the name for Thrill Jockey. He [Abramson] was a really obsessive collector of juvenile delinquent movies and B-movies. There was one that was called Speed Crazy. It’s harmless by today’s standards but it was kids like terrorized whatever, Mercerville, by driving too fast in their cars and being too loud and in the trailer for the movie it was like “Three Thrill Jockeys terrorize whatever Mercerville in Speed Crazy!” So, I liked writing the Thrill and also the disc jockey analogy for Thrill.

Who was Thrill Jockey’s first signing?

001 was H.P. Zinker, which is a trivia thing because it was also Matador’s 001 and a bunch of their records was put out in England by this guy Lawrence Bell, who then started Domino. Pretty funny—H.P. Zinker is the common thread.

H.P. Zinker were a NY band but from somewhere in Europe, right?

Yeah, they were an Austrian band, Tyrolean in fact, and they lived in New York. They lived in a squat on 13th Street.

At what point did you move to Chicago?

In ’95.

What other NY bands did you sign?

Sugarshock was from New York, even though they kind of broke up at the same time as their record came out and Melissa [York] went on to play with people like the Butchies. I never really had like a regional ever mandate for what I was gonna do.

Did you miss out on any bands you wanted to sign?

There was a band that I wanted to put out their record but I failed and that was Come. But I work with Thalia [Zedek] to this day and she has another record coming out next year [laughing].

Later on when you moved to Chicago and put out records by Tortoise, Trans Am and Isotope, did the perception of the label being synonymous with post-rock bother you?

Well, Trans Am, even though the New York Times said they were from Chicago, they actually are not [laughing]. Post-rock was from an article in your fine paper [laughing] by Simon Reynolds—that’s where the term was coined and it was coined at the time the second Tortoise record was about to be released–and it was a term to describe a collective of bands that he saw as having a common purpose. I don’t think he ever intended it as a musical description and I never really understood it as a description of music. It doesn’t make any sense, especially Trans Am is a rock band. If you’ve seen them play, they are a rock band. They just get lumped in there because they released a record about the same time as Tortoise [laughing]. But, you know, I don’t release records based on what other people might think, that’s for sure. So, it’s never really a concern of what might somebody think of this or “Does this fit into what’s popular now” or “Oh, jeez. Everyone likes this kind of stuff. I should get myself some of that.” That’s just not how I think about records. We put out records by, first and foremost, music that compels us, that we think is challenging and exciting and we can’t help ourselves, and secondly, that the musicians involved that we feel like we would be a good home for them and that they understand the model we have, which is 50% profit share, completely independent and that it would be good one for them in the way they want to work and the way we want to work. So, it’s really a combination of those two things and that’s the core of it.

We’re doing a show in Baltimore, we’re doing a show in Portland and in San Francisco, where we work with a number of bands there. For example, Trans Am lives there now, Barn Owl, Wooden Shjips. It’s natural if musicians that you work for are often recommending to you bands that they think are great, which of course is a compliment we totally appreciate that they would refer another musician to us. It’s a natural occurrence that you’re gonna get some kind of regional cluster sometimes.

Is that how Thrill Jockey operates somewhat in signing bands—bands referring other bands? Do you have an A & R team?

No [laughing]. Most of the stuff is decided by me. But there are other people that work at Thrill Jockey that certainly brought stuff to me. People here are just obsessive music consumers, a bunch of record junkies, for sure, and cassette junkies and everything else. So, it really comes through a combination of bands that are saying “Oh, you should really check out this” or just simply going to see shows or through buying self-released records–that’s really how it happens. We don’t look at YouTube plays…that’s how a lot of people sign bands but it’s not the way we do it. Just the way you would as music fan kind of come into new music.

Similar to how you have Liturgy and then you signed Guardian Alien? Greg Fox was in Liturgy and now drums for Guardian.

Right, right. Working with Liturgy, we obviously work with Greg and know Greg and he likes working with us and when he had some Guardian Alien he wanted to send, he sent it to us. I felt lucky to basically get the first chance. White Hills are from New York, Dan Friel is from New York and so is Man Forever and Dan got our email from Kid Millions. If someone thinks of it, they know of somebody and they know where to gain access—sometimes people are just daunted and they don’t know how to gain access.

Recently, Thrill Jockey has really raided the New York band stable: Rhyton, Liturgy, Man Forever, Guardian, Friel, White Hills…

…D. Charles Speer and the Helix, there’s lot of bands.

The NY presence is pretty evident.

It’s true, yeah. Probably the funniest way we came upon a band is Luke Roberts, who’s a great country singer, who sometimes—in what seems illogical—uses Harvey Milk as his backing band. He’s also quite a cook and he cooked at the Roebling Tea Room with an old friend of mine. So she was like “I cook with this guy that’s great” and sent me some of Luke’s music and that was pretty much it.

Thrill Jockey has released records by Daniel Higgs, solo and in Skull Defekts. How did that come about?

The way I met him was purely through my superfandom, my geekiness. The women that I just mentioned (Miliscent)—who’s a great chef in New York—she used to live in Chicago and we were both huge Lungfish fans and we were pretty obsessed with The Pupils, when that record came out and they had no plans to tour. So, I got Daniel’s email address from Dischord and sent him and Asa [Osbourne] basically a fan email saying “We’ll pay for your plane tickets if you just come out and play Chicago.” So, Miliscent and I got the money together and they agreed to do it and they came out and played a show. I think it was the only show The Pupils played out of Baltimore or D.C. It was crazy. It was so great. There were beardos that drove up from Texas to see them play—it was really amazing. That’s how I got to Daniel—by being a superfan. After that, Daniel sent me some music he was working on and I liked it. Then, actually, he referred the band from Baltimore, Thank You, to me, and then through them I think I got to know Jason Urick and Future Islands got my email through Jason Urick. There’s a lot of Baltimore stuff that all traces back to Mr. Higgs and we do ZOMES of course, too. Asa is just in the studio doing his first ZOMES record that’s gonna be recorded not on a cassette in his apartment. It’s gonna be great.

Higgs’s Say God is such a great record.

That’s a record that I think we got a lot of people wondering what that was, which I think is the best way to get a record–which is a total unexpected surprise. We have a really incredible record by Matt Friedberger coming up that is a soundtrack to an unmade low budget horror film and it’s equally polarizing. I think people get it and be like “What the hell is this?” but those are the ones that you’ll find yourself still pulling out twenty years later, I think [laughing].

Will Higgs do another record for Thrill Jockey? He records for so many different labels.

I think Daniel knows he has an open invitation [with us] to do something but that is entirely up to him. I think he functions best flowing with the wind. [laughs]

Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary shows are tonight at Death by Audio and tomorrow night at Webster Hall

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