Spend a day with Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton and Rob Garza and you might hear them make reference to David Cope, the university professor who studies music and artificial intelligence, or mention Garza’s travels to Sudan and Nepal, or explain why The Clash’s London Calling may just be the best-produced album in rock history. So it’s not surprising that Hilton and Garza’s thoughtful curiosity about the world finds its way into their sophisticated, impeccably crafted musical soundscapes that reflect not only their broad appreciation for diverse styles of music (everything from Brazilian bossa nova and Jamaican dub reggae to vintage film soundtracks and psychedelic space rock), but also their take on the complicated times in which we live.
Since banding together 16 years ago, these two independent thinkers have taken a DIY approach to their musical and cultural interests, which has led to the formation of their own record label, ESL Music, through which Thievery Corporation release recordings by a slew of international artists, such as Federico Aubele, Ursula 1000, and Thunderball, as well as their own recordings. The label is run out of the basement of a Gothic-style three-level townhouse in Washington, D.C., that is also home to Thievery Corporation’s recording studio, which is filled with the latest high-tech gear as well as vintage guitars and Moog keyboards. The studio is where the two songwriters and producers have crafted their own output: six studio albums, three compilations, and numerous EP’s and singles — an impressive body of diverse work that has made Thievery Corporation one of the most influential and respected names on the electronic/dance music scene.
In June, the duo will release its sixth studio album, Culture of Fear — a cinematic-sounding inquiry into space rock that straddles the sweet spot between funk and soul, with a bit of dub and reggae thrown in for good measure. The title track, featuring vocals/lyrics by rapper Mr. Lif, comments on the fact that, nearly 10 years after 9/11, “everyone is afraid of everything,” Hilton says. “People are living like wimps. The terror level is always at orange. Now we’ve got body scanners in airports. Somehow the whole country’s been spun into this pointless web of fear.” Adds Garza: “People have learned to be subservient to the system, automatically taking their shoes off at airports. Our message with this album is that there really is nothing to fear. The things we’re being told to fear aren’t what we should fear. The intrusion into your day-to-day rights and privacy are a whole lot scarier.”
Culture of Fear continues to address the socially conscious themes that Thievery Corporation have explored since 2002 when they released their third studio album, The Richest Man in Babylon, which incorporated protest music into their sound. They followed Babylon with 2005?s The Cosmic Game, which featured politically minded collaborations with Perry Farrell, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, and David Byrne. In 2008, the duo paid homage to people’s resistance movements around the world with Radio Retaliation — setting a think-for-yourself agenda to eclectic sounds from Jamaica, Latin America, Asia, and The Middle East. The album, which questioned the profit-driven mentality of corporate media, earned Thievery Corporation a Grammy Award nomination for Best Recording Packaging. (An image of Mexican revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos appears on its printed cardboard sleeve cover.)
“We’re probably more radical in our political beliefs than most of the hardcore punk bands,” Hilton says, “but at the same time, we’re realistic about what we can actually do. We feel like our role is to be commentators.” Adds Garza: “The best thing we can do is try to open people’s minds.” For both Hilton and Garza, the seeds for their shared philosophy were sown while growing up near the nation’s capitol, which has spawned an abundance of progressive punk bands over the years, such as Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Fugazi. “We’re influenced by that mentality, but the music doesn’t need to be about super aggressive guitars or hard-charging beats to convey that feeling,” Hilton says. “Sometimes you can just break things down and be more subtle.” Instead, the duo reveal their globally aware mindset by setting their lyrical diatribes to a lush mélange of international grooves, inviting vocalists and musicians from around the world, including Nigerian Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti, Persian singer Lou Lou, and Jamaican reggae toaster Sleepy Wonder, to appear on their recordings. As the L.A. Weekly put it: “Thievery Corporation’s dance hall is a delectably subversive refuge for dissent, a multilingual broadside against complacency and the powers that be.”
Thievery Corporation was hatched in 1995 when Hilton and Garza were introduced by a mutual friend at Washington, D.C.’s Eighteenth Street Lounge — a popular gathering place for musicians and nightlife seekers that is co-owned by Hilton. Hilton had been producing parties and various music events before opening the Lounge with a fellow DJ in the top three floors of a turn-of-the-century mansion just below Dupont Circle. He also had a recording studio, where Garza had once done some music production work, but the two had never met until the night Garza walked into the Lounge.
“I was really impressed by what Eric had built,” Garza says. “The music they were playing and the whole mood of the place was very inspiring.” The two discovered that they shared The Clash and D.C. punk label Dischord as a formative musical influence, that they both loved ’60s and ’70s Brazilian music, “and that we were both interested in talking about stuff that other people aren’t interested in talking about,” as Hilton puts it. They decided to try to make some original music together.
In 1996, Thievery Corporation launched itself with two underground hit vinyl singles, “Shaolin Satellite” and “2001 Spliff Odyssey,” followed by their debut album, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, and soon became loosely associated with the “trip-hop” scene that had emerged a few years prior in the U.K. In 2000, they released Mirror Conspiracy, which introduced live vocalists, including Bebel Gilberto and the late Pam Bricker into the mix. (Bricker sings on Thievery Corporation’s breakthrough hit “Lebanese Blonde,” which was included on the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack to the 2004 film Garden State.) Following The Richest Man in Babylon and The Cosmic Game, the duo released 2006?s Versions, featuring their remixes of songs by such artists as Sarah McLachlan, Astrud Gilberto, Anoushka Shankar, and The Doors. By then, Garza and Hilton were itching to evolve past their reputation as ambassadors of the “downtempo” scene, and began to conjure up more subversive recordings that reflected their interests in social activism, as can be heard on Radio Retaliation and, now, Culture of Fear.
Over the years, Thievery Corporation has also become known for the carnival-esque atmosphere of their live shows, during which they bring out a 15-member live band of musicians and vocalists. The group has sold out shows at such famed venues as the Hollywood Bowl, London’s 02 Shepherds Bush Empire, and the Theatro Vrahon Melina Merkouri in Athens, Greece, among many others. “To see Lou Lou, a Persian singer singing in Farsi, as America debates on a war with Iran, on stage with band members from all corners of the earth singing in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and so on, it makes people wonder,” Garza says. “And if you can get people to question the things around them, even just a little bit, that’s not such a bad thing.”