Happy birthday, Thrill Jockey!
The single absolute for Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records is that there is no absolute. The record label turns 15 this year, and while retrospectives are inevitable -- the label is issuing a box set of seven-inch recordings of its artists covering each other's songs -- the label refuses to stay in one place long enough to get nostalgic.
No other U.S. independent label has been more successful with establishing an identity without any regard to genre or sound. Thrill Jockey artists run the gamut of styles -- jazz (8 Bold Souls, Fred Anderson), classic rock (Trans Am, Bobby Conn), electronic (Oval), alt-country (Freakwater), pop (Sea & Cake), rock (Eleventh Dream Day, the Nerve) -- but none of them rest comfortably therein. Like hybrid collectives Califone and Tortoise (Thrill Jockey's biggest seller), the label releases music by an international roster of artists that both tweaks and embraces genres while at the same time remaining accessible to the casual listener.
Thrill Jockey -- a reference to an arcane B-movie street gang -- operates out of Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood with seven full-time employees and an army of interns. Starting tonight, the label hosts a two-night blowout featuring back-to-back sets from its roster artists. Earlier this week, label founder Bettina Richards talked about running Thrill Jockey and why, for her, it's remained a labor of love.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q:You worked A&R for Atlantic Records in New York City before starting Thrill Jockey. What about that job led you here?
A: Corporations by nature are pretty inflexible and unable to adapt to artist relationships. They are fundamentally responsible to shareholders. So the relationship between artist and label is not set up as partners in any regard. Artists have to work for record sales in a pretty directive kind of way and I didn't like any of that. I much more admired labels like Touch & Go and Dischord that set it up so it's a partnership of equal financial returns.
Q:Do you tap into your A&R background in your current position?
A: Well, it's a pretty organic process. After 15 years, I have a pretty good network of musicians I work with. So a lot of it comes through that and sometimes it comes through the old demo bin, but not as often. Sometimes I see a band open for another band I went to see ... Usually I like to see the band play, get a sense of them and make sure their goals and ambitions are really something we would work well to achieve. We have open contracts, which is pretty unusual. So we only work (record by record). Many of the bands on the label have been here for 15 years, which is a lot of them, and they have chosen to stay.
Q:Many labels are conscious of promoting a specific sound that becomes their brand. Did you have a sense of what Thrill Jockey releases would sound like in the beginning?
A: I had no idea what it would sound like. A lot of people have (a single) area (of music), which is not how I listen to music. I'm really a geeky music fan so I put out stuff that I think is really exciting and that's not easy to put into any one or two categories. I'm really lucky I can be really selfish. Really, I think that is our sound.
Q:Maybe what connects the bands is that they are left of the genre of their choice.
A: Usually I think it's that they have a desire to be inventive and challenge themselves musically. I think they have a strong sense of melody, no matter whether it's in band like Oval, which was definitely a pioneer of laptop music, where the melody is real disjointed, but it's there. Or Fred Anderson, who takes melodies and breaks them down and rewards you by returning to them in his compositions.
Q:Many Thrill Jockey bands are from Chicago, from Eleventh Dream Day to the Fiery Furnaces. Was working with bands here a goal of moving the label from New York?
A: I moved here to be around them. I didn't try to be Chicago-centric but I think again, if it's an organic process and you know a network of musicians and you are going to see shows, you're likely to see shows that are in your area. I think in the last couple of years, all our new bands have not been from Chicago. I think that morphs over time. The last couple of bands were English -- Tunng and School of Language. And Arboretum and Human Bell have been from Baltimore.
Q:Even though Thrill Jockey is here, you managed to release music from two New York City icons: Television's Tom Verlaine and David Byrne of Talking Heads.
A: Tom Verlaine, I'm a huge admirer of all his records. What he's done to be able to reissue (1992's) "Warm and Cool" and put on all these extra tracks and be able to put out all these new records, he's an extremely down-to-earth guy. Like a kid, he's interested in creating new music. There's nothing "rock star" about him. David Byrne, he was a fan of Thrill Jockey, and he had this instrumental record he thought we would be a good home for. And of course we were really flattered and amazed by the phone call. And I loved the record. He's similar in his youthful enthusiasm. He embraced the idea of the seven-inch box set wholeheartedly and even added extra lyrics to the Fiery Furnaces song (he covered) … He wrote on his blog he'd never made much per record as he did with us. He obviously made more money off of other labels! (laughs) So I think he appreciates what we offer him. I hope one day he finds something else appropriate for us.
Q:Many Thrill Jockey bands -- particularly Tortoise -- get pegged with the label "Post Rock." I always thought the term was pretentious and wonder if you or your bands ever found it constrictive.
A: It doesn't define any kind of music to me. I understand where it comes from. It really came from a Village Voice article where someone was trying to categorize bands that are fundamentally (made up of) musicians that come from rock but are doing things that don't incorporate elements of rock. I don't think it was ever intended as a musical description. I think it was always intended to be used as a description of an approach to music, which is quite a different thing. So I think, when it is applied as a musical description, it's pretty much misappropriated and it doesn't mean much to me. I read a European review of Arbouretum that called them post rock. Give me a break. They're a great classic rock band that has '70s influences, there's nothing "post" about it.
Q:I was at Bonnaroo and was surprised to find Tortoise embraced by an entirely new generation of jam band kids. Considering that young music fans seem more open to bands that cross-pollinate styles, must be good news for your bands.
A: Yeah, I definitely think bands like Tortoise and Trans Am, even bands like Califone, they bridge a couple different approaches to music. It's fantastic to see those bands embraced. And to see the influence they've had on other bands. Tortoise is a big influence. I think when they first started having some success there really weren't many instrumental bands that had any kind of level of success that they were able to achieve. They definitely opened the door for a lot of people.
Q:Is the digital downloading revolution good or bad for an independent label?
A: It's a double-edge sword. It definitely added a lot of challenges to the independent retailer. And the independent retailer is our biggest supporter. Therefore, when they're pinched, we're pinched, no doubt about it. We do have the benefits that they don't have with the revenue that does come from download sales. And with our own store, we try to embrace that way of acquiring music. It definitely forces you to adapt and to shift your resources in certain ways. As a print writer, you know what it's done to the print media. And it's a similar thing. Print media critics have always been the way most people find out about our records because radio play is fairly restricted to college radio with a few exceptions like NPR. So when those outlets are pinched, then it pinches us as well. Like all those outlets, we have to adapt and reconfigure. You have to be much more conservative with what you manufacture because the percentage of downloads versus physical sales is rapidly changing.
Q:A few years ago you suffered a brain aneurysm and were came very close to dying. How did that change your perspective when you returned to the office?
A: I vowed to not work as hard and to enjoy a little more of life outside the record label. That didn't last too long! (laughs) I think it teaches you to really not sweat the small stuff. Something may seem like a crisis on one day, just let it go because in the long run, it doesn't mean anything. So you should enjoy what you do because you spend all your days doing it. It definitely reinforced that for me, 100 percent.
Thrill Jockey 15th Anniversary Weekend
Where: 7 p.m. today and Saturday
When: Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago
Tickets: $25 (773) 252-6179
Tonight: Arbouretum, Archer Prewitt, Bobby Conn, Brokeback, Fiery Furnaces, Fred Anderson, School of Language, The Sea and Cake, Thalia Zedek
Saturday: ADULT, Eleventh Dream Day, Frequency, Pit er Pat, Califone, Trans Am, The Zincs