Twenty years ago, Bettina Richards lived in a cramped fourth-floor walk-up in a particularly heroin-infested section of pre-Giuliani Manhattan. Out of that apartment, Richards, a self-professed music geek and former major-label talent scout, launched Thrill Jockey Records—literally, she walked into her living room, where the members of powerhouse trio H.P. Zinker were crashing on the floor, and asked if the band would like to be the label’s first signee.

Although it's since graduated to more professional environs, with offices in Chicago and London, Thrill Jockey doesn't run much differently two decades later than it did in those New York salad days. Its day-to-day operations are overseen by only eight paid employees (and "an army of interns"), and Richards still seeks out artists the old-fashioned way: through networking and obsessive record buying. It's that dedication to strict anti-corporate principles that's made the label one of the most respected independent record companies in America—that, and the adventurous, indefatigable ear of its founder.

Even among its boundary-testing contemporaries, Thrill Jockey's catalog is particularly borderless, spanning the so-called post-rock of Tortoise, the riff-heavy krautrock of  Trans Am, the howling black metal of Liturgy and the dramatic synth-pop of Future Islands, with excursions into alt-country, Afro-pop and hip-hop in between. (In the last few years, Richards has taken an interest in Portland's fringes, releasing albums by symphonic noise duo Golden Retriever and lysergic astro-travelers Eternal Tapestry.) From the moment she recruited her houseguests into putting out Thrill Jockey's inaugural record, the only requirement Richards has ever had of her artists is a willingness to break conventions.

"I wanted to work with people making challenging new music," she says by phone from the label's Chicago headquarters, "and who would be making it regardless of who was watching."

Willamette Week: What was the impulse to start the label?

Bettina Richards: I moved to Australia after college because I didn't know what to do. I got a job there at Warner Bros., and when I moved back to America a year and a half later I got a job at Atlantic Records. I learned a lot there, but I also learned a large corporation wasn't really compatible with how I viewed music and treatment of musicians and the general way to approach the art form.

What was it like being a woman running a record label back then?

It's still pretty unusual. I certainly had encounters with bands who maybe thought I was just a super-fan, geeky girl. But I am, in fact, a super-fan, geeky girl. I just happen to be a hardworking one who can hopefully help you.

How has the label been affected by the Internet?

If you look at my release schedule, 10 years ago we weren't putting out the volume of records per year we put out now, nothing close. In order to maintain all the services we provide for our artists and cover our bills, we have to put out a lot more albums. But I feel like our core audience understands what they're doing if they download something for free from some site. If they don't, then they really need to study how these artists survive and feel crappy about what they're doing.

What's the worst Thrill Jockey album?

[Laughs] I don't think that's fair to whomever I would say. We laugh about certain records where things didn't go as we planned, but it's really only funny after the passage of a huge amount of time. It's kind of like laughing about the time you were so epically sick: It's not funny when it's happening, but in retrospect, if you're talking about lying on the bathroom floor with food poisoning, you can make it funny. 

SEE IT: Thrill Jockey's 20th Anniversary Show, featuring Trans Am, Liturgy, Eternal Tapestry, Barn Owl, Mike Scheidt, Golden Retriever and Jason Urick, is at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., on Friday, Nov. 9. 7:30 pm. $12. 21+. See here for an extended Q&A.