Thievery Corporation

November 18, 2016 - New York, NY Portrait shoot with Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza and Eric Hilton credit Jen Maler

Treasure Chest:
Thievery Corporation Open Up a World of Love

Rob Garza can’t recall ever seeing a fight break out in the audience during a Thievery Corporation performance. On the other hand, their shows have been the setting for onstage marriage proposals, and in fact near the end of the group’s October 2017 concert at Atlanta’s Tabernacle, they officiated the onstage wedding for their soundman and his bride.

“[That] was just such a beautiful moment. He’s part of our family, and has been traveling with us for a while,” Garza says. “People tell me that they conceived and made children listening to our music, ha ha ha! I think [our] music is just a spectrum of different moments in people’s lives.”

And clearly, the evidence verifies that it’s music for making love, not war. But before you go lace up those granola sandals and start wavin’ a peace sign in our faces, note that this ain’t no noodle-dancin’ meandering jam-band shit. Their hard-to-pin-down sound has been tagged many things – trip hop, chill-out, lounge-friendly, etc. – but it’s fuller and more varied than any such constraints suggest. Garza and musical partner of over 23 years Eric Hilton draw from a myriad of sources, regions and eras (cultural appropriation at its finest, baby, which is fitting considering their name), yet amid their soothing fusion of acid jazz, reggae, dub, hip hop, bossa nova and other genres they’ve managed to carve out a certain presence that’s all their own. It’s one that’s based less on a specific section of the record bins and more on the sort of ambiance or mood Garza, Hilton and cohorts create. I know that sounds vague, but if you delve into their catalog (now standing at nine albums – all on their own independent ESL label – plus loads of singles, remixes and compilation contributions) you’ll begin to understand.

“Yeah, I think Thievery definitely has its own musical fingerprint,” Garza agrees. “Why that exists, or how that exists, is more really a result of my and Eric’s musical tastes coming together. There’s just something underlying about the sort of vibe or mood, like you described, that sort of permeates the music.”

Garza was introduced to Hilton in 1995 at the Washington, DC nightclub Hilton co-owns, the Eighteenth Street Lounge. (In the years hence, Hilton, now 52, has expanded his empire, so to speak, and currently holds interest in several other DC cafés and lounges.) Bonding over their far-reaching passion for music from around the globe, they soon began collaborating on their own compositions, releasing their chillaxing debut album Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi in 1996. Though it’s not the vocalist showcase that subsequent albums would be, the basic musical cornucopia that comprises the Thievery approach is all right there in the grooves, if a little tentatively.

From there, Garza and Hilton’s studio project blossomed with the steady addition of singers and players of various ethnicities, some of whom – such as vocalist LouLou Ghelichkhani and guitar/sitar player Rob Myers – have stuck with them since the recording of their second album, 2000’s The Mirror Conspiracy.

“When me and Eric were starting out, we would hang out in a lot of bars and cafés and clubs, and DC’s a very cosmopolitan city. There’s embassies from all around the world, and with that usually comes communities,” Garza explains. “So on the street where our studio was, you had places where you might have an Argentinian restaurant, and next door there’s a West African café, and then a place that has Brazilian music, and so we would find these musicians from all around the world, and we’d ask them to come to the studio and record. A lot of people said yes, and it just sort of created this musical community.

“We definitely have our core at this point. People that are part of the touring band and people that also contribute to the albums,” he continues. “We’ve been working with LouLou for quite a while. [Vocalist] Puma Ptah has been on a lot of records now. Same with Rob Myers, [drummer] Jeff Franca and [bassist] Hash and [vocalist/rapper] Mr. Lif, and [vocalist] Natalia Clavier. It’s kind of crystalized.”

In contrast to the comparatively downtempo vibe of the records, Thievery Corporation performances are tremendously lively, fun, vibrant and celebratory occasions.

“I think it speaks to the audience in a different way than it comes from the records,” offers Garza, who reveals that he and Hilton never really considered presenting the music in a live setting when they started out. “It was more of a studio project. And then, after the first record we started getting all these invitations to come play places in Europe and the States. So we started to put it together as we went along. At first we had [vocalist] Pam Bricker, and Robbie Myers the guitar player. And just off the core of those four or five people, at that time, we’d just meet other singers, and include them on the records, so then LouLou would come, and we’d bring percussionists, and another drummer, and other singers, and it just really sorta snowballed into what it is today… It’s great when we can have everything happening on stage. When we can, we try and bring a horn section, things like that, [adding] a whole other dimension to what’s happening. Everything from sitar to live bass, live drums, percussion, and different singers, you know, it all just creates a real live experience.”

Indeed, with a revolving door of different singers being given the spotlight at different junctures during each performance, it’s more like a big revue, a variety show.

“I think it keeps it fresh for the audience, and also for the vocalists as well, to come out and do a few songs… it just feels special,” says Garza. “That’s one of the things I like most about being part of a production duo, is that was have the opportunity to work with so many different people in different genres and styles. If you’re just a rock band – which, I have nothing against rock bands, at all! – but you’re kind of limited to guitar, bass, drums and vocals, that sort of thing. But this way, we’ve been able to work with people like Seu Jorge and Femi Kuti and David Byrne and Flaming Lips. It’s all part of the Thievery sound.”

Not exactly what one would expect from what is often referred to as an “electronic music” act. What Thievery Corporation does is in another realm altogether than what most people would consider electronic or DJ music.

“People associate electronic music now with very sort of mainstream, EDM, those sorts of things. But we started out as very different. We were using samplers, and drum machines, [but] it still had this very warm, organic quality that we brought to the music – and is still part of what we do,” says Garza, who has recently been indulging his electronic side on a series of solo EPs, the latest of which, Dissolve, was released over the summer.

“Thievery does have a very organic quality about it, these days,” he says. “And when I started out, I was actually interested in very electronic, ambient music and things like that. So, in a way, doing that [solo] project gives me a way to sort of scratch that musical itch. I just love listening to all different types of music, and when I DJ, it’s nice to be able to play music outside of what I do with Thievery. The Dissolve EP was an expression of that, and it’s made with other artists more in the electronic world.”

Still, he’s not really on board with the whole EDM scene.

“I mean, I’m 48 years old,” he laughs. “So, I don’t have the same response that I would if I were 21. You know, we play a lot of festivals, and I’ve been able to see some of these artists, and I understand why people dig it. It just fills up those speakers in a way that people have never heard music, in that sort of bombastic way. But that’s not really what we’re about. Our thing, we come from appreciating traditions of jazz and old bossa [nova] records, and old dub music, and soundtracks from the late ‘60s and things like that. It’s a very different aesthetic.”

Listening to Thievery Corporation’s music, one could easily picture them globetrotting from locale to locale, soaking up the indigenous cultures and recording with native musicians, yet it all been recorded in their home base of Washington, DC. All, that is, until last year’s album The Temple of I and I, which was mostly tracked over a couple of weeks in Jamaica.

“Eric called me up – he was on holiday with his girlfriend at the time – and he said, ‘We’re down here in Jamaica – what do you think of coming here to record an album?’ I said yes immediately. We brought our rhythm section down, and set up at a hotel that also had a recording studio. So in the mornings we would go out to swim, hang out, have lunch, and then just sort of lock ourselves in the studio for the rest of the afternoon and evening, and [drink] Jamaican rum, smoke weed and just try and come up with different musical ideas, you know. It was a really fun process.” Undoubtedly.

Compiled from outtakes from those sessions, along with new material recorded afterward, this year’s “companion piece” LP, Treasures From the Temple, is, to my ears, even better. It’s trippier, dubbier, more sensual. “Yep, I hear ya” replies Garza, who adds that they’d love to record future records in other corners of the world, if possible.

“I mean, when we started, we were just doing this as a hobby. We had no idea we would ever be able to make a career out of making music. And that was back in 1995. We definitely feel that’s a huge blessing, to have a career in music, and be able to do it for over 20 years, and survive the music industry, and be able to travel all around the world, and make friendships, and connect with people through our music. We feel very grateful. And this tour’s been going great. I feel like it’s probably better than ever. It’s going on all cylinders, and I’m pretty psyched about it.”

Photo by Jen Maler.