Based in: Chicago, Illinois, as of 1995
Key Acts: Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, Trans Am, Bobby Conn, Freakwater
Thrill Jockey is a Chicago-based independent record label largely known for its work with Tortoise. In the mid-'90s, Thrill Jockey rose to fame through its heavy association with the nascent post-rock movement. Over the years, they've worked with a roster of challenging and wonderful acts of many different descriptions.
A&R Dame Unlike the Others
In 1989, Bettina Richards was a 24-year-old A&R just beginning a stint at Atlantic Records in New York. Her job was to uncover 'alternative' talent for the label's new 'Progressive' music department, and one of her first signings was Chicago psych-rock combo Eleventh Dream Day.
Three years later, Richards had quit at Atlantic, dismayed by the corporate practices of the major-label behemoth. "I wasn't happy," Richards recalled, to The New York Times. "I was making money, but I couldn't talk to anyone about the great show I saw last night or the great record I found. It was a job."
So, Richards quit, got a job working at an alternative record-store in Hoboken, New Jersey, and founded Thrill Jockey. Inspired by the staunchly independent approach of labels like Chicago's Touch & Go and Washington, DC's Dischord, Richards minted the imprint —named after a youth gang from an obscure B movie— as artist friendly and unafraid of new horizons.
Though Eleventh Dream Day were still toiling for Atlantic, Richards began working with two EDD side-projects: Tortoise, the experimental instrumental outfit for bassist Doug McCombs, and Freakwater, the heartbreakin' country combo co-founded by drummer Janet Beveridge Bean. Freakwater's 1993 LP Feels Like the Third Time and Tortoise's self-titled 1994 debut combined to put Thrill Jockey on the map.
Tired of the cost of rent and the logistical concerns of running a one-man label part-time, Richards made Thrill Jockey a full-time concern in 1995, by moving to Chicago. That's where Tortoise and Freakwater were based, and where Richards' latest flagship signing, soft-pop smoothies The Sea and Cake, were too.
Chicago: Seattle for Nerds
In 1996, Tortoise released their landmark longplayer Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The incredibly influential album was a meandering sonic journey, an exercise in experimental instrumentalism that, whilst drawing from many genres, founded a sound of its own. This sound was quickly anointed as a model for the burgeoning post-rock movement.
The unexpected success of Millions Now Living Will Never Die took Tortoise from cult to 'crossover' act, and drew an increasing amount of attention on Thrill Jockey and its bands. Noticing the obvious connections between Tortoise, Tortoise-related projects Directions and The Sea and Cake, and mysterious electro act Rome, both media and listeners latched onto the idea of Chicago as a buzz-worthy scene for adventurous listeners.
The fact that Tortoise, Directions, Rome, and out-of-town signings A Minor Forest (of San Francisco) and Trans Am (of Washington, DC), favored instrumentalism made Thrill Jockey the label-of-choice for post-rock's growing legions of followers.
In 1996, Thrill Jockey struck up a working relationship with German electronic act Oval, whose music —fashioned from samples taken from damaged CDs and computer errors— stood, then, at music's cutting edge. From there, came Oval side-project Microstoria, then German electro monkeys Mouse on Mars, and Japanese electronic composer Nobukazu Takemura. Releasing such adventurous sound kept Thrill Jockey at the forefront of the burgeoning digital-music movement.
Even at the dawn of the 2000s, Thrill Jockey continued to be defined by its association with Tortoise. They were not only the label's biggest act, but were a community unto themselves; and Thrill Jockey put out records by a seemingly ever-growing roster of Tortoise-related projects: Isotope 217, Pullman, Chicago Underground Duo, Brokeback.
But, at the same time, the label kept finding odd records in far flung places: experimental Austrian outfit Radian and their side-project Trapist, Japanese tribal-noise legends Boredoms and their girl-group flower-psych off-shoot OOIOO, English studio tinkerer John Parish.
The label also struck up relationships with long-standing, iconoclastic figures: former Television frontman Tom Verlaine, longtime Giant Sand leader and all-around weird-country oddball Howe Gelb, iconic Talking Heads founder David Byrne, and ex-Uzi/Come firebrand Thalia Zedek.
When Tortoise went on hiatus in 2004, and with once-fruitful acts like Trans Am, The Sea and Cake, and Freakwater having slowed right down, Thrill Jockey stretched out in many unexpected directions; its identity moving further away from its post-rock notoreity. As the '00s wound down, the label was now working with acts like English folktronic combo Tunng, Brooklynite flavor-of-the-month types High Places, American-Kenyan guitar-rock exchange Extra Golden, and insanely-prolific brother/sister rock-conceptualists Fiery Furnaces.
The label celebrated its 15 year anniversary in 2007 with a box-set of 10 seven-inches, Plum, and a series of shows in Chicago. With any luck, Thrill Jockey will remain alive and kicking for 15 more.