Backbeat: Thrill Jockey Celebrates 20th Anniversary In NYC With Future Islands, Liturgy, Tortoise, Matmos, Bettina Richards & Co.
Backbeat: Thrill Jockey Celebrates 20th Anniversary In NYC With Future Islands, Liturgy, Tortoise, Matmos, Bettina Richards & Co.

Merch Peeps: (L - R) Thrill Jockey publicist Jonathan Williger, director of marketing and digital media Jamie Proctor, Shipping and Mail Order Manager Josh Koonce, Shipping, Mail Order Assistant Doug Kaplan, Director of Sales and Distribution Erik Keldsen, and Thrill Jockey European label manager Anthea Leyland (Photo: Harley Oliver Brown) (Photo: Harley Oliver Brown)

Chicago-based independent label Thrill Jockey is celebrating its 20th anniversary in fitting fashion: with a run of shows -- more like a tour, really, especially since the whole team piled into a minivan along with their merchandise to drive across the country -- in cities that include Portland, Or., Baltimore, Los Angeles, and London featuring their best and brightest artists.

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This past weekend, they brought the noise to Brooklyn's Death by Audio on Friday night before culminating with a showcase at Webster Hall with Brooklyn countrified blues outfit D. Charles Speer and the Helix, jazz-inflected meanderers Tortoise, black metal outfit Liturgy, Baltimore electro-pop trio Future Islands, and the eclectic polyrhythms of Matmos, with The Black Twig Pickers playing between sets.

The sound was loud and clear, the crowd bounced so hard the balcony floor shook, merchandise flew off the table, and everyone was -- dare we say it? -- thrilled to be there.

Thrill Jockey founder Bettina Richards (right) with Thrill Jockey's European label manager Anthea Leyland. (Photo: Harley Oliver Brown)

Thrill Jockey was actually conceived somewhere between the L.E.S. and Hoboken, where label head Bettina Richards lived amongst the junkies and worked at Pier Platters record store, respectively. In an interview with Brad Cohan of The Village Voice, Richards said she got the name for her label while interning at Maxwell's booker Todd Abramson's label Telstar. Abramson collected juvenile delinquent movies and one of them, Speed Crazy, featured the name "thrill jockey" in its trailer.

Richards moved the label offices to Chicago in 1995, allegedly because it was cheaper than New York, even though she commutes back and forth. From there she continued to sign an edgy, and eclectic roster that included artists such as The Sea and Cake, Trans Am, and Sam Prekop. Newer signees include under-the-radar bands like White Hills (whose members conveniently bartend at The Darkroom on Ludlow Street, where the Thrill Jockey "afterparty" bumped and grinded to the DJ's '90s hit list), Guardian Alien, and Dan Friel who played at DBA on Friday night.

At Webster Hall, Richards seemed -- or did a very good job pretending to be -- relaxed and happy, pinballing between the merchandise table and the VIP area. She showed no sign of the wear and tear that must have accompanied the cramped, 20-odd-hour car ride that preceded the previous night's purportedly sweaty, hot, smokey show. Thrill Jockey's publicist Jonathan Williger, director of marketing and digital media J amie Proctor, Josh Koonce, Doug Kaplan, Erik Keldsen, and European label manager Anthea Leyland took turns selling limited-edition t-shirts, reissues, and posters by printers Ryan Duggan, Crosshair, Dexterity Press, and Sonnenzeimer. One ardent fan of Future Islands arrived for doors at 5:31 p.m., bought all her favorite band's merch, and promptly camped out at the very front and center for the next three hours.

Beam Me Up Scotty: Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring (right) and Gerrit Welmers (Photo: Harley Oliver Brown)

She was likely not disappointed. Future Islands, which Matmos' Drew Daniel equated to " Beach House meets Billy Idol," thundered through a penultimate set that shook at least one balloon loose from the ceiling, where it landed onstage. Frontman Samuel T. Herring, who could pass for an emo Henry Rollins (even though Rollins "never would have appeared that vulnerable," Proctor commented as Herring lay prostrate on the floor) body-banged through crowd favorites like "Balance" and "Give Us The Wind". It was just one of the evening's highlights, which started with D. Charles Speer's gently resonating blues. They were followed by Liturgy, whose two guitarists, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix and Bernard Genn, transfixed with endlessly sludgy riffs punctuated by Hunt-Hendrix's indiscernible yowls.

From left: Matmos' Martin (M.C.) Schmidt, drummer Sam Haberman, Future Islands' William Cashion (who said he almost named the band Future Shoes), and Matmos' Drew Daniel photobomb themselves.
(Photo: Harley Oliver Brown)

carried the torch for experimental variations in Afropop minor, rolling out polyrhythms and covering The Buzzcocks' "ESP" -- fitting, given that their latest The Ganzfeld EP was made using "parapsychological experiments" -- was made from with musical partner Martin (M.C.) Schmidt and bizarre instruments like something that changes pitch based on the heat and sweatiness of the hand holding it. They fell somewhere between Future Islands' blissful beats and Tortoise's freeform post-jazz noodlings, which closed the evening with a welcome comedown from Herring's sustained yet contained onstage meltdown. The night swung between opposing and surprisingly complementary poles, exemplifying why Richards and the Thrill Jockey team have done what they do so well for 20 years; and why they'll continue to do so for another 20.

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