Thievery Corporation’s Party Politics
ERIC HILTON (LEFT) AND ROB GARZA OF THIEVERY CORPORATION.
“No-hit wonder” is a term you rarely hear when talking about successful musicians, but Thievery Corporation’s barometer for success has little to do with radio play. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, with the help of their extensive underground fan base from all over the world, have been able to create a musically diverse empire.
The trip-hop trance duo stole the stage at the first Williamsburg Waterfront ticketed show of the summer last Friday, in anticipation of Culture of Fear, their sixth studio album, out this week. Fans have been anticipating this one for quite some time: it’s the duo’s first release since 2008’s Radio Retaliation. The DC-based group’s organic mix of reggae, dub, afro beat, psychedelic rock and bossa nova was complemented by the guest performers—Sista Pat, Sleepy Wonder, Mr. Lif, Natalia Clavier, LouLou Ghelichkhani, R and Z, Organic Chemistry, and Frank Orrall—who aided in the band’s truly memorable performance. Afterward, we had a chance to speak with Rob Garza about the politics of being one-half of Thievery Corporation.
ILANA KAPLAN: Your new album is out this week. How is Culture of Fear different from your other albums?
ROB GARZA: We work with some different people on this record. Some of them you saw in Williamsburg; Mr. Lif is a rapper on the title track called, “Culture of Fear.” I think this record kind of explores different influences that we haven’t really explored this deeply before, like “space-rock” and soundtracks and music from the late ’60s. There are still influences that both myself and Eric have that keep creeping into our music. Also, we did that track with Mr. Lif, and that’s a straight-up hip-hop track. So, it’s great to have him on this record. We’re fans.
KAPLAN: Is he going to be on a lot of tracks on this record?
GARZA: We just got him down to DC one weekend. We just got to do one song so far. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to do some more.
KAPLAN: So, you had Organic Chemistry perform with you in Williamsburg, are they featured on your new album as well?
GARZA: We collaborated with them on a song called “Free.”
KAPLAN: Is this album politically motivated as your last?
GARZA: I don’t think that it’s more politically motivated than the last record. I think that it definitely touches on socially conscious themes having more to do with—the name of the album is Culture of Fear—just the whole idea that we live in a society that is very driven by fear: whether it’s going to the airport and through security and surveillance cameras, or people tracking your every move through Google, and things like that. Just questioning what that’s all about and just trying to maintain your own liberty. Some of the ways to combat all that is through art and music. I think that is what this record is all about.
KAPLAN: When and how do you remember getting your name out there in the music world?
GARZA: I remember after me and Eric met, we started getting together in the evenings and getting in the studio and recording. We weren’t really sure what were doing, and we started putting out records ourselves. All of a sudden we started to hear back from DJs and producers from Europe, from places like Germany and the UK. All of a sudden we started to get on compilations. By the time we put out our full-length album about six months later, I remember we were going to press 500 copies and we decided to be brave and process 1000. The next week we got another re-order of 2000. For independent artists, it’s a huge deal. We’ve been doing it ourselves ever since. I think right around that time period, we knew we were onto something.
KAPLAN: Were you a musician prior to meeting Eric?
GARZA: I didn’t really grow up a traditional musician. When I was in high school, I got involved in this electronic music class randomly, then we moved. I learned a lot about electronic music. With electronic music, you’re only limited by your imagination. It never let it stop me, that I’m not really talented in the traditional sense of musicians. I know enough about a lot of different instruments to come up with ideas, and Eric’s the same way.
KAPLAN: What has been your biggest challenge as a duo?
GARZA: I think the biggest challenge and existing for this long is being able to survive your success. I feel like we’re lucky we’re not a “one-hit wonder,” and we’re actually kind of like a “no-hit wonder.” It’s great that we can play all of these places and we don’t really have radio hits. We have managed to build a very strong fan base of people that respect and love our music.
KAPLAN: You just kind of have to be in the know for Thievery Corporation. What’s your inspiration for incorporating these different world sounds into your music?
GARZA: The inspiration really comes from our record collections. I think our common tangent where we really connect is from the late ’60s, when it comes to soundtracks and the way that people were experimenting and cross-pollinating musical styles like you might have jazz musicians exploring Eastern rhythms and composers mixing up all different types of genres. It’s really about taking these different ideas and melding them.
KAPLAN: Would you consider yourselves a controversial band?
GARZA: It depends. I think that there are different layers within the music. Some people listen to the music and are not really aware that there’s anything being talked about that’s politically or socially conscious. If you read the lyrics, there are [lines] that really are relevant to things that are happening in society and the world. It’s nice to have those different strata of messages happening. We have been involved in the past with a big protest contest against the Iraq war, about six years ago. We try to do things that reflect beyond music.
KAPLAN: How did you choose your guest performers on your records, like Sista Pat or LouLou?
GARZA: A lot of the people that travel with us, we met in DC at the local bars. Since Sista Pat performs at this club, or it’s just a bar, about a block from our studio. We heard her one night and we’re just like, what if we invite her to come and try a song on the new Thievery record. That was a song called “Wires and Watchtowers.” LouLou was working at the café just a couple of doors down. She was hanging out in the studio one day and we heard her sing. So, it all really depends. Sometimes we meet people randomly like that and sometimes we’ll call people up specifically to work on tracks.
KAPLAN: Are you and Eric still living in DC?
GARZA: Eric still lives in DC. I live out in San Francisco now. I moved out here a year ago. I’m really enjoying it. I have a kid. He’s almost a year old. It’s been a really fun change of pace being on the west coast.
KAPLAN: Great place to grow up, I’m sure! Personally, what are your favorite tracks off of your new album?
GARZA: I love, two right off the top of my head. “Web of Deception,” the first one, I really enjoy and another track with LouLou called “Where It All Starts.”
KAPLAN: Why those two in particular?
GARZA: I think the trippiness of both of them. The first one kind of reminds me of space-rock, 1970s-ish, tripped-out rock song. The other one just has this eerie, space-jazz kind of thing. LouLou’s voice just seems to hauntingly float on top of it.
GARZA: If you had to, how would you self-describe your music?
KAPLAN: We use this term a lot. I would say it’s almost like “outer-national”: transcending nationality and stretching beyond borders. We have a compilation called The Outernational Sound.
KAPLAN: What does the future hold for Thievery Corporation?
GARZA: In the immediate future, we’re working on a new album called Saudade. It’s a Portuguese word. This record is very mellow a little more melancholy. A lot of Brazilian bossa nova and cinematic tracks. It sounds like something from an old soundtrack. We’re working on that right now. I think that’ll be out in July. Beyond that, just playing a lot more shows and doing more music. Something we always do.
THIEVERY CORPORATION’S CULTURE OF FEAR IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.