Tofu and Whiskey Arbiter of good taste, Thrill Jockey Records is officially 20 years old. In another era, in another business, this would merely be a back-slapping milestone. In the present stuck-barreling-downwards roller coaster of the music industry, it's an anniversary worthy of widespread jubilation.
"It's a mind-boggling number of years," label founder Bettina Richards says during a phone call from the main office in Chicago, where the label's been based since 1995.
And how else would a record label celebrates its birthday than with a series of familial concerts? There have been shows booked in key Thrill Jockey cities such as New York (where it began in '92), London, San Francisco, LA, Chicago. Those shows (some of which have already gone down) boast lineups packed with label notables Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, Trans Am, Liturgy, Future Islands, and Matmos.
The San Francisco version of the traveling Thrill Jockey rodeo will be headlined by the label's Bay Area acts: psych-rockers Wooden Shjips and drone duo Barn Owl, along with Liturgy, Trans Am, Man Forever, and Eternal Tapestry (Dec. 13, 8pm, $18. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF; www.theindependentsf.com).
SF is considered a key Thrill Jockey city for a handful of reasons; there's the aforementioned connection with Wooden Shjips and Barn Owl, plus, one of the label's earliest releases was a band from here called A Minor Forest. And there's another super-secret new signing set for 2013 (sorry, you won't learn more than that here). "We've had a long, fond affection for the way San Franciscans can create super individual sounds," Richards says.
Though they create different styles of music, Wooden Shjips and Barn Owl had some similarities that stood out to Richards when she was in the process of signing each. "They both share this transportive quality...taking you to an entirely different realm. With the Wooden Shjips, it's an active feeling of motion, and with Barn Owl, it's really an escape. It's hard to put into words, but they both do something compelling to me."
It's that compulsion that's lead Richards to many of her choices for the roster. She tells this story about one one the label's most beloved acts: "Trans Am, way back in 1993, were the B-side of a seven-inch that John McEntire from Tortoise had recorded, and he gave me the seven-inch. It just happened that a week later they were playing. I saw them and was like, 'oh my god, I love them.'"
While most of the acts have been found through musician friends and pals of the label, there's the occasional random encounter, like Sidi Toure, the gifted Malian singer-songwriter. His CD arrived via snail-mail to the Chicago office right before Christmas last year. "We don't usually get packages from Mali. I was on a drive to go see my folks, popped it in, and I just couldn't believe it." I tell Richards I had the same initial reaction to Toure's mesmerizing compositions. "And the weirder thing," she adds, "was that he sent it because he's a really big Radian fan, which is a band from Austria with like, atonal drums. You just wouldn't have guessed that, right?"
Austrian prog band HP Zinker was the first band she ever signed — at the time ('92), she was living New York City and was still bartending and working at a record shop. In fact, she did that for the first eight years of the label. The band lived in a decaying squat where White Zombie used to reside, and they all ended up moving in to Richards' studio apartment. Richards lets out a raucous laugh recalling those early days.
From signing HP Zinker, to the label's 330th release planned for next year, Thrill Jockey has maintained a comparatively sparkling reputation as a label that treats its artists well.