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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Interview Thu Dec 20 2012

Interview: Thrill Jockey Founder, Bettina Richards

Chicago-based indie record label Thrill Jockey turned 20 this year and celebrated with a series of concerts in cities across the nation featuring their bands. In advance of tonight's final show at The Empty Bottle featuring The Sea & Cake and Tortoise, Gapers Block caught up with label founder Bettina Richards and asked a few questions about the label turning 20, and what the future holds.

What is Thrill Jockey's "origin story"? How and why did Thrill Jockey Records come into being? What was your motivation, or what "void" did you see that prompted you to start Thrill Jockey Records?

Thrill Jockey started mostly because I wanted to continue to work in music — but the way I had been did not make any sense to me. I modeled it on labels like Dischord and Touch and Go — and their 50% profit share model. I wanted to advocate for bands that I loved in an equitable way. It was not a calculated move to fill a void and capitalize on it. It was youthful/ musical enthusiasm jumping into the void, with abandon.

Fairly early in its history, Thrill Jockey moved from New York to Chicago. What was behind that move? How has Chicago, the city, factored into the growth and development of the label? Do you see the city reflected in how the label operates or in its philosophy, and if you do, how does that manifest itself?

I moved to Chicago because New York was too expensive, because many of the bands I was working for were based out of Chicago — and because I wanted to be distributed by Touch and Go. It is a great city and I do not regret it. John Coltrane said, "It all has to do with it," so I can not see how it could not have effected the label, however I lack the distance, perspective to properly evaluate it. Fred Anderson was a force of Chicago music. I hope that his spirit stays with me. He was a tireless advocate, he was possessed of a cool head, and he had the deepest well full of love for making music. I would not have had all the time I had with him — had I not moved to Chicago. Douglas McCombs is a Chicago man through and through. He is all about music — playing and watching people play. He never tires of either. I love him like a brother. I would not know him like I do had I not moved to Chicago. I like to run by the lake in Feb. — or go for a swim ( in a pool ) very early in the morning — it is really bleak. All these things help me run a better record label.

Who chooses what ends up being released on the label, and what thought process goes into the selection of artists/projects/etc. to be released? What's important in terms of maintaining the label's "message" or quality of output?

I get to choose. It is a dictatorship. I also get to clean the bathroom. We are a humble kingdom. There are lots of music fans who work for Thrill Jockey — and they certainly have brought a few things to my attention — and I am sure their taste has shaped my taste as much as mine has theirs. We release records because we are compelled by them — we just can not help ourselves. I am straight edge (well, I drink coffee ) but I get ridiculous when I am enamored by some music. Giddy. The most important thing is that we do all we can to advocate for the musician in a manner that fits their musical message. The politics of a 50% profit share are also very very important — and will never change.

Describe some of the challenges or forks in the road that have arisen in 20 years of operating an independent record label, and how Thrill Jockey has surmounted them. Conversely, what do you consider your greatest achievement over the past 20 years?

There is always a challenge. For example this question is a challenge — how can you answer this question when the entire way of doing things and of earning a living in music has changed radically and continues to change?

We get through the same way we started — just diving in — working hard and trying to do our best creative problem solving.

I worked for Jimmy Martin. He was a legendary blue grass musician. His work with Bill Monroe literally helped create the form. He had made his headstone long before he passed. He already knew what he wanted on it. I am not ready to mark my stone with my greatest moment just yet. I hope it is in the future.

Thrill Jockey has historically done a lot with packaging, being creative and offering interesting extras, and has over the past few years been big on limited editions or interesting limited runs of certain LPs, etc. What's the story behind that, and how do you think that that helps connect with the customer?

It is fun. It helps, at times convey the message that the musicians intend to communicate (Matmos headphones and eye covers etc. are useful for the home Ganzefeld experiment), it looks cool and makes us happy.

Do you think that the label has (or should have) an influence on the artist's creative process, and how do you see Thrill Jockey fitting in this relationship? Put another way, do you see the label as a partner, active in the process in any way, or simply as a facilitator that serves to disseminate the artists' product?

it is not my record. it is the band/artist's record. I am there to help them articulate their vision. If I have a vision, then I should put it on my own record. I did that once. Lucky for me, it was an edition of 75 CDRs. And you will never find it.

Some bands ask what I think, others do not. That is how it should be. Up to them.

What are you excited for as Thrill Jockey moves into its next 20 years? What can we look forward to on both a short- and long-term horizon?

There is a lovely lovely new album by Brokeback one of the groups that Douglas McCombs is involved in — Coming To Warm Up Your Winter. We will be doing a 12" and DVD for record store day that is a documentary about Double Dagger and really in a much broader sense about DIY and it's thoughtful politics, it serves as a great example of the joy that you can bring to others and that you can receive — when you jump into the void — with total abandon.


The Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary show gets underway tonight at the Empty Bottle (1035 N. Western Ave.) starting at 8pm with Tortoise, The Sea & Cake, and Man Forever. The RSVP list is now full.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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