In 1982, Minnesota native Charles Honorton, presented a controversial paper to the annual convention of the Parapsychological Association. He claimed to prove the existence of psi.
Psi refers to extrasensory perception — a transfer of energy from one being to another. Through a series of perception studies called the Ganzfeld experiment, Honorton believed he found proof that psi could act as a trap door between the human mind and the physical world. Thirty years later, two scholars of a different ilk carried out Honorton’s Ganzfeld experiment in their Baltimore apartment. The duo’s mission was to probe the existence of psi vis-à-vis electronic music. Of course, the pair did not belong to the Parapsychological Association. They belonged to Thrill Jockey Records.
Mr. Martin Schmidt lays down, blind-folded, wearing earphones that play white noise, while his musical lab partner, Dr. Drew Daniel, attempts to transmit “the concept of the new Matmos record” into Schmidt’s comfortably numbed brain. Schmidt and Daniel comprise the conceptually adventurous duo, Matmos. Hardly known by the mainstream yet revered within the indie world, Matmos’ past musical ventures have involved laser-ing live snail eyes, video montages of a “Germs Burn” scabbing over, and liposuction sound samples. Dr. Daniel notes, “One of the lessons we took from working with Björk was that you can’t assume that you’re too weird for people.”
For the rest of the Ganzfeld experiment, Schmidt responds to Daniel’s stimuli with images or sounds that he “feels” in his mind. Telepathy – or what telepathy might sound like – is where their newest music begins.
Think of The Ganzfeld experiment as a theme for Thrill Jockey’s 20th Anniversary: a celebration of experimentation. The Chicago-based record label has a respectable reputation for breaking bold artists. From the noise-pop skronks of Dan Friel to the superhuman drum kit transcendence of Greg Fox, from fried-Krautrock to jazz-tinged post rock bands, Thrill Jockey seems more like a sound lab than a record label.
Founder and prototypical music fan Ms. Bettina Richards is the intuition – the thought-transmitter – behind the creative decisions at Thrill Jockey. Her label’s success is inspiring, given that many (larger) record labels are breaking glass and pressing panic buttons. It’s enough to think Ms. Richards might be versed in the telepathic arts herself.
Seated, wearing a flowing Stevie Nicks-style shirt (“I love Mirage, Tusk … I love it all”) the wiry music biz veteran discusses her life’s passion project, but she’s interrupted by her other passion: “Mom that’s a picture of an alien,” Richards’ son Francis interjects. “And that’s a space astronaut. And the alien is shooting the electronic elf and that’s a little lady, and that’s a bad guy spaceship.” As it turns out, Francis is not the only one with a penchant for a fantasy story.
Richards speaks about music she loves through narratives, some her own and some not. She devours new bands as one might a western novel or sci-fi flick. So, it’s no surprise that Richards promotes characters from an array of settings: from dream-walkers (Arbouretum) to ocean-waders (Future Islands), mad scientists (Matmos) to jazz-enthusiasts (Tortoise), and Blue Ridge Mountains (Pontiak) to the Brooklyn Bridge (White Hills). They have cat-scratch black metal (Liturgy) and even a band from outer space (Guardian Alien).
“Every record has a story, at least to me,” Richards says. “You know, sitting and listening to Robert Barry, who was the original Sun Ra Trio drummer, and just listening to his story about going to these crazy barbeques with Sun Ra – those records were great experiences.”
For these reasons, Richards eschews “YouTube-trolling” and other easy fixes for accumulating listener-friendly talent. A little ironically, the avant-garde label favors the old school approach: “What you naturally come across by knowing a network of musicians. A lot of our bands come from musicians who recommend friends of theirs who are musicians.” It always seems that for Richards, the ‘friend-though-a-friend’ technique always yields her next beloved record. One time, it even led to a savory breakfast with the late “King of Bluegrass,” Jimmy Martin:
“A guy named George Goehl made a documentary about Jimmy Martin, so through George, I got access to Jimmy. [Goehl] had uncovered all these radio recordings of Jimmy’s that hadn’t been released. [I was] able to work on that record – able to know Jimmy Martin and actually see him play at the Bean Blossom festival in Indiana. [I had] Jimmy Martin cook breakfast – a “real camp breakfast.” Before I got there, I imagined a fire and a few fried eggs, you know. But I got over there, and Jimmy Martin had some special cooking coveralls on, some Chuck Taylors, and he had this huge fire pit. He made a couple of iron skillets worth of biscuits, scrambled eggs, gravy, bacon, sausage – mind you, the man was 74 at the time – and I didn’t know he had cancer. He just made this huge spread. Just talking to him and hanging out with this guy who was so generous with his time it was just – he was a legend – a real individual. Part of the reason they never let Jimmy Martin into the Country Music Hall of Fame is because he wouldn’t conform to what people thought a bluegrass musician should do. He did is own thing; he didn’t care.
“So [Martin’s] record came with a whole load of experiences. And his gravy turned out to be squirrel gravy from the squirrels he had shot. When he told me that (I obviously made a face), he said, ‘It’s not that city squirrel – it’s good squirrel!’ You know, there’s no amount of money that can replace experiences like that.”
Personal experience over price tag may be a smart way for labels to navigate today’s financially tenuous music industry. This hypothesis was echoed in a recent New York Magazine article, wherein critic Nitsuh Abebe interviewed Ed Droste of indie band, Grizzly Bear. “The biggest thing you can’t do is focus on money … It’s not a gamble. You’re doing it because you love it,” said Droste. Grizzly Bear hail from Warp Records, a UK-based, electronic-leaning label that is relatively the same age as Thrill Jockey. Both labels have seen emerging successes, but as Droste indicated in the article: “there’s no ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card” for today’s aspiring indie musicians.
Richards is aware of how the industry rainbow looks from inside the pot of gold. She began her career at Atlantic Records and then London Records in the mid-1990s – the dog days of record sales. But the sleek lifestyle of an A&R representative wasn’t a fulfilling one for a true music geek. Richards uprooted to Chicago. It was her paradise city: the rent was cheap and the pay was shitty. “I didn’t pay myself until probably ‘99 or 2000. I took too many jobs, because I had that ‘New York state-of-mind’ and worked at The Empty Bottle and the Rain-Bo bartending, and at this mail-order company. I made it so that my ability to pay rent didn’t depend on Thrill Jockey for a long time.” Richards says, “There were dark moments, but I never felt like I didn’t want to do it anymore. Maybe I’m an eternal optimist – it always seems like I can find a way.”
Some days were literally darker than others. The first Thrill Jockey office was inside a closet above The Empty Bottle. “There were no windows, and at sound check, my desk would vibrate.” Eventually, Richards and a few interns moved into the apartment across the way and functioned slightly more comfortably. “Sometimes we’d just pack and ship the records on the sidewalk outside the building. It wasn’t a commercial building – so it was only a matter of time before the city or the neighbors caught on.”
Richards’ DIY outlook in those early days informed Thrill Jockey’s commitment to audacious – albeit unpopular – art. “The music that I find enjoyable to make is solidly in the category of ‘unpopular,’” Mr. Schmidt says. “I’m afraid the road to hell is paved with people who are trying to sell out.”
A place like Thrill Jockey, however, seems to reward the weird: “There’s always that question of ‘are you going to become enormous?’ and I think Bettina’s question is always: ‘what do I love and what’s the right feel for that kind of music?’ Thrill Jockey’s operations feel domestic,” says Mr. Schmidt.
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