Thrill Jockey's Bettina Richards on the Label's Shift from Indie Darlings to Weird Metal Powerhouse
The Thrill Jockey head honcho talks metal, jean vests and Mutilation Rites’ testicles.
For many, Thrill Jockey isn't the first label to spring to mind when you think of crushing, soul-smiting metal. For anyone who's explored the nebulous realm known as post rock, the label is more readily synonymous with bands like Tortoise, A Minor Forest and The Sea And Cake: complex, jazz-tinged stuff that tends to elicit a thoughtful chin-scratch rather than a Satanic command to bang your head against the stage.
Things, however, appear to have changed. Amid the drones, Krautrock jams, and splendidly obtuse Dan Higgs records, the label has quietly been belching forth thought-provoking metal releases that gnaw at the genre's outer fringes. Perhaps the perfect case in point is The Body – the disconsolate, genre-less duo that makes us all want to vomit up our own souls – though the roster also includes Aaron Turner's post-Isis space-warper Sumac and experimental metal outliers Liturgy, along with solo records from YOB's Mike Scheidt and Stephen Tanner of Harvey Milk's Music Blues project.
Behind all this strangeness is Bettina Richards: lifelong music nut, crate-digger extraordinaire and general font-of-knowledge. Here's what she had to say about her label and its strange forays down the left-hand path…
Noisey: What was your musical upbringing like?
Bettina Richards: I was really into Neil Young – still am. I was into a lot of bad music in high school like Styx, shit like that. I've played records since I was a little kid – I'd play DJ, make mixtapes and pretend I was running a radio station with my dad's records.
Did you have a "lightbulb moment" which led you down the path you're on now?
I think it was when I started to get into stuff that you had to make an effort to find, through fanzines and whatever. It was that sense of 'there are no rules, you make the rules' – that really appeals to me and still does.
You dealt with bands like the Lemonheads and Meat Puppets while you worked at a major label, so I'm guessing that was around the time of the grunge boom. What was that like? I don't think either of those bands had a particularly happy time of it…
Yeah, well I think the Lemonheads were their own undoing, to be honest. It was a very strange time though – I had my boss at London Records tell me that I had to get the guy from the Meat Puppets to learn how to sing. Umm. Then Nirvana had them on MTV Unplugged and they were suddenly the greatest thing ever.
What kind of gigs did you primarily go to?
I was up for whatever. I went to CBGBs a lot, I'd drive up to City Gardens – or as people called it shitty Gardens – in New Jersey. I'd see a lot of heavier bands there. I remember going to this weird high school gymnasium to see Sepultura. The parking lot was full of moms in Station Wagons. My friends and I were like holy crap! What's going on?! And then there were all these 15-year-old boys buying hundreds of dollars worth of T-shirts and taking them out to their moms. I was lucky to see a lot of great stuff in New York. I saw Sun Ra play the old Knitting Factory – that totally blew my mind.
So you always had an omnivorous approach to music?
Yeah, and you know, different people I've worked with, like Catherin Irwin from Freakwater, sent me on a tear for old-time music, and now I obsessively look for those records. Part of the fun of working with musicians is finding out what they love.
You get turned onto one thing and then it's down the rabbit hole.
For sure! And then, suddenly, you've been listening to dub records for five months straight.
While the label's largely associated with bands like Tortoise, it does seem to have undergone a bit of a shift. Are more heavy bands interesting you to the point that you want to sign them these days?
It's a combination of that and also bands being interested in working with us. When someone like Hunter [Hunt-Hendrix] from Liturgy saw a connection between what he did and what the Boredoms do it made it seem logical. We did well with Liturgy, so it started to make sense to other people as well. We know we're going to be seen as an outlier – or perhaps a carpetbagger, you can't predict or worry about what people are going to think – but hopefully one that'll do well by a band rather than hold them back. That emboldens us as well – it's a two-way street.
The label has plenty of bands that blur those lines – The Boredoms are a perfect example.
The last Lightning Bolt album, too, which got reviewed on tons of metal blogs. I've never been super fond of labels, because I don't think that's how too many people identify themselves. Sure, there are people who – especially in metal or hip hop – completely identify with the whole culture, but I don't think there are many people who only listen to that one type of music. I mean, The Body make the heaviest music around but Lee [Buford] and I bonded over being massive Fleetwood Mac fans.
There's a tendency for people – be they musicians, fans and labels – to mellow out with age but Thrill Jockey's done the reverse and seems to be getting heavier.
You say that, but we have a Mary Lattimore and Jeff Zeigler record coming out this summer, which is a soundtrack to Philippe Garrel's Le Révélateur, a silent film from 1968 – it's really beautiful harp music.
Do you think there's anything that unifies all of these disparate acts?
Yes! Really great melodies and really good – actually, I'm just gonna say it – this label has the best drummers on the fucking planet. Our drummers can kick your drummers' asses.
Thrill Jockey releases often have this odd sense of space as well. I mean, Sumac sound nothing like The Sea And Cake, but you can imagine there might be some crossover in their respective record collections.
For sure. Aaron [Turner] is into a lot of different stuff, and while those Sumac records are really heavy I don't think his approach to them is what his history might lead people to believe. We've actually been distributing his stuff for a long time.
Really? I think Hydra Head were quite a gateway label – I imagine their releases turned a lot of people onto things like noise rock and John Zorn.
I've read him talking about people like Mats Gustafsson as well – someone who's all about this very heavy posturing but plays… saxophone.
While it can be gloriously dumb and visceral, it used to piss me off that a lot of people would write heavy metal off as 'stupid' music. Did you have to wage any 'hearts and minds' battles with dyed-in-the-wool Tortoise fans?
No more or less than, say, when Oval came over the first time. We went to an office supply company and bought him a desktop computer for the tour – he wasn't touring with a laptop but a full office set-up, and people were wondering what the hell he was doing. The vitriol about him not playing an 'instrument' was way more than I could have imagined.
Have you ever copped any flak from metal fans who felt you're moving in on their turf?
I know Hunter certainly did. I mean, the amount of hate… I don't think it's an accident that Liturgy have a song called "Vitriol." I'm sure some fans feel that way, and I understand that – people being territorial about something they love and thinking that someone who doesn't understand it is getting into it. I just think a little more perspective is required.
I thought it'd be interesting to discuss your initial reaction to some of the heavier bands on the label. Let's start with Liturgy.
I was taken aback by Hunter's almost anti-charisma. It's hard to describe: he really puts himself out there and makes a strong statement with his art, but on stage he does the opposite. It's almost like he's stepping back and doesn't want himself to be anything. It was striking, because I expected a certain type of attitude onstage and it was exactly the opposite.
I guess because black metal is traditionally confrontational, making it an anti-spectacle is almost an extreme statement.
Yes – wearing a white T-shirt, staring at the ground and speaking like you're visiting your in-laws for dinner. It highlights your stereotypical expectations: why is this shocking? Why do you expect me to behave this way on stage?
What about Oozing Wound?
They're unrelenting and you just have a huge shit-eating grin the entire show – it's uncontrollable. Brian Chippendale [of Lightning Bolt and Black Pus] was friends with the drummer, and part of the reason I first saw them was because the bill was just too perfect: Black Pus and Oozing Wound. With that as the show poster, there's no way I'm not going to get there for Oozing Wound!
What kind of itch do Oozing Wound do scratch? Is there a denim jacket with a Testament patch stashed at the back of your closet?
I wish! Though I do have seven-year-old twins, and the first show I went to see after they were born was Judas Priest, Testament, Motörhead and Heaven & Hell down in Indiana. It was fucking awesome. There were plenty of people in leather and jean vests – it was everything you wanted a rock concert in Indiana to be.
Sumac, I saw them play the first time they came through. They were punishing but so complex – it was really a great show. I didn't have a shit-eating grin on my face, but I definitely had a sore neck.
Okay, let's close with something random: what's the weirdest shit you've encountered at a metal gig?
I guess the strangest thing would be sitting outside a club and having all the members of Mutilation Rites come out, sit down and start talking about their balls. It was like, hey, do you realise there's someone else sitting here?! That was pretty weird.
Alex Deller is jockeying for thrills on Twitter.