ON THE CUSP of Thrill Jockey's 20th anniversary as one of the most eclectic producers of independent music in the world, obvious retrospective inquiries are expected of founder Bettina Richards. But according to her, the sterling reputation of her brainchild is still as much in the present as in the past.
"I didn't really think about what the label would mean," she says. "I certainly hoped that it would make an impact for the artists that we chose to work for."
Richards founded Thrill Jockey in 1992 after leaving a position as an A&R representative at Atlantic Records, around the time other influential labels like Merge and Matador were just beginning—and who were themselves disciples of the artist-forward tenets of DC's Dischord and Chicago's Touch and Go. Twenty years later (and with all but Touch and Go still in operation), it's clear this loud revolution of independent music is far from subsiding. To celebrate, Richards has forged a spate of anniversary shows in London, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Portland.
Thrill Jockey's catalog now spans three decades, including the accessible jazz-pop of the Sea and Cake, the enigmatic post-rock lullabies of Tortoise, and the genre-defying Matmos. All the way back to its first release by Austrian prog band H.P. Zinker, the label—which started in New York before Richards moved to Chicago in '95—represents a hugely varied and unpredictable slice of underground rock, electro, ambient, drone, bluegrass, and everything in between. It's a compulsive sort of roster that Richards admits is defined by her enormous fanaticism of new sounds.
"Our core value as a label is wanting to put out music we think pushes the boundaries and that we feel compelled to put out," says Richards. "We can't help ourselves! It's not really whether this is a good idea business-wise, it's more like, 'This record is so absolutely delicious that I can't stop myself.'"
That enthusiasm transfers over to releases of projects that feature hyper-complicated mash-ups of distilled, ambient noise and otherworldly soundscapes. It's the big risks that yield the bigger rewards, according to Richards, and besides, she says, "I'm not gonna tell you what to put on your record, because if I could make that record, I should make it myself."
Oregon has begun to play a significant role in the Thrill Jockey canon, with locals like Eternal Tapestry (and their side projects Tunnels and Plankton Wat), Golden Retriever, Jason Urick, and Eugene's Mike Scheidt of YOB rounding out a spectrum-spanning contingent. Each of those artists is part of the Portland 20th anniversary show at Mississippi Studios on November 9, along with Trans Am, Liturgy, and Barn Owl.
"All the bands from Portland have this quality of abandon," says Richards. "I think they clearly would be doing it whether anybody was listening or not, which is a quality that always has appealed to me—that someone is so devoted in exploring their craft."
A Snapshot of Some Recent Portland-Based Thrill Jockey Releases
Eternal Tapestry, A World out of Time
Portland's kings of the psych-jam séance are approaching a fertile renaissance: A World out of Time marks the band's third album for Thrill Jockey in less than two years. With that kind of output, expectations for overindulgence or shtick could be reasonably stratospheric. Instead, Eternal Tapestry's stream-of-consciousness meditations slither through fussy lead guitars, dynamic jam-rock noodling, and cosmic explorations of sound with a grounded chaos. Sure, the 12-plus-minute opener "When I Was in Your Mind" sometimes sounds like nine different bands playing at the same time. But when all the elements of these dark wormholes realign (like on the excellently meandering tripper "The Weird Stone"), it's a fantastic voyage into the heart of acid-house hubris.
Golden Retriever, Occupied with the Unspoken
On their first LP for Thrill Jockey, Golden Retriever (Jonathan Sielaff and Matt Carlson) stamps a new sonic high-water mark, achieving a symbiosis of intuitive symphonic composition and complex ambient layering. It's the kind of record that induces you to stare at the wall until paint speckles morph and dance around, a lovely cacophony of polyphonic music made from monophonic instruments. Industrial-sounding tracks like "Eudaimonia" percolate in tics and winks like an epileptic fever dream, while album opener "Serene Velocity" articulates a deep-sea weave of contrasting rhythms and textures, highlighted by modular dolphin cries.
Jason Urick, I Love You
Jason Urick's third release for Thrill Jockey is maybe the most consciously unstable of his career. Having written it admittedly during a time of transition, Urick's deconstruction of place and time manifests in oddly organic-sounding strokes of ambient wanderlust. Warm, humanistic tones spill out of laptop opuses like "Ageless Isms"; as such, a robotic hybrid of emotional drone and evocative noise comes together in a beautiful little dance that maybe only Urick knows the steps to.