There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
With a silver pistol flashing inches from his face, Rob Garza was nothing but cool.
It was late on a warm night in mid-January, and Garza was on his way to his girlfriend’s house in Mount Pleasant. He parked his 1998 navy-blue Mercedes sedan. The doors locked, giving off a crisp, loud chirp in the quiet street. Garza wore a mod three-button suit, a triangular goatee, and Dolce & Gabbana glasses. He walked toward his girlfriend’s front steps, carrying milk from 7-Eleven.
The man in the alley noticed him and quickly made his approach.
“Give me all your money,” the man muttered, waving his gun. He eyed the bag on Garza’s shoulder. “And the bag, too.”
Garza emptied his pocketsa couple of bucks, his keys. He turned over the bag. “This is all I have,” he said apologetically. The guy dashed off with the stuff. Garza called the police.
The next day, when Garza retells the incident, he is blasé. His voice is quiet but well-fed, and when he talks, his words come out slow, poised, polished. Garza lets the details hang in short sentences that reveal nothing. The mugger didn’t get much. It was a simple safety-for-money transactioneasy.
What matters most is making something out of it.
Garza, along with his partner Eric Hilton, is a producer of an electronica band called Thievery Corporation. The two also run their own label, Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) Music, named after the club Hilton co-owns south of Dupont Circle. They have become known throughout the trans-Atlantic music industry, with two videos in rotation on MTV Europe and good copy everywhere from Details to Spin. Major labels have courted them. David Byrne hangs with them when he’s in town. Hole’s management called them to do a remix of that band’s latest single, “Malibu.” This past year, they toured Europe four times. They are at work on three projects, among them a new album, and they are continuously refining their image as international recording stars. In D.C., they have less of a profile than most bands that open at the Black Cat.
On the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 13, the day after Garza’s mugging, it seems that the crime could help advance Thievery Corporation’s image. The band’s office manager, Kalani Tifford, places a call to the band’s overseas label, 4AD, in London. Within hours, Garza is taking calls and e-mails from Los Angeles, London, Germany, and Greece. Industry folks he doesn’t even know phone him to express their shock and sympathy. By the end of the week, Lewis Jamieson, head of A&R at 4AD, places a call to the band’s London publicist, Ed Cartwright. They talk about how to handle the news of the mugging.
The following Monday, Thievery gets its answer by way of a fax to ESL’s studio and headquarters, which is located in the back of the Eighteenth Street Lounge. Cartwright sends the band a rough draft of a news release to be sent out to all media. Thievery will report that the mugger ran off with “numerous DATs and demos of songs to appear on the band’s second album.” The loss, the fax bemoans, will push back the album’s release until September.
It doesn’t matter that none of the details are trueno songs were stolen. The publicist wants the band’s approval and a quote from Garza.
He demurs with a little humor. “It’s unfortunate that they got our remix of ‘Riverdance’ and our new ‘bluegrass record,’” he writes onto the fax. He checks his words carefully, as if he were dry-cleaning each in his mind before stringing them up in the sentence. Garza is savvy enough to plug the band’s two other projects coming out this spring, a remix collection and a DJ Kicks compilation he and Hilton are organizing. Garza sends the fax back; it is tweaked further and finally approved for release.
Two weeks later, Jamieson boasts that the mugging has made headlines in New Music Express, Melody Maker, and at least three DJ magazines, including the influential Dazed and Confused. Melody Maker’s Jan. 30 issue has Garza’s mugging as the third item on its news page, above the fold and in bold: “Thievery Corporation have become victimsof thieves.” Not exactly original, but
Hearing the news, Garza looks pleased. He is sitting at a bar in the Lounge, dressed in his typically sleek evening clothes and sipping a Sapphire and tonic. For the moment, Thievery Corporation has gone from just a band to an object of intrigue. Garza looks grateful and relieved. He simmers on his stool a moment, staring off into the mirrored wall of booze bottles. He turns and offers a toothy grin between sips. Today, the Corporation is newsworthy.
I first meet Thievery Corporation in late November. Hilton, 33, and Garza, 28, are preparing to leave for a DJ tour of some of England’s trendier clubs. They sit in their office sharing some down time between packing and working on a track for their upcoming album, which as yet has no name. Above their Gateway computer, fax machine, and laser printer hang four clocks displaying the current times in D.C., L.A., Tokyo, and London. A UPS calendar opens below them. Hilton and Garza sit facing each other. This afternoon, they are guarding their world just a bit. We are meeting to “talk about talking.”
I’m not sure who is playing whom. As a group that bases its songs in samples and drum textures, Thievery creates its own elusive reality; you wonder if Hilton’s and Garza’s personalities are as synthetic as their recordings. They produce mood music, their specialty being the moods. Today, the mood they sell me is one of strident confidence about their standing in the world marketplace, in which they have fashioned themselves as music’s answer to the Euro.
They mull over what it means to be a successmore important, what it means to them to be a success. They are quiet and thoughtful. Brows furrow. Hands conduct the stale air. They deploy their words carefully, giving me a multiple choice of answers: Hilton works up equations of units sold; Garza talks about moving forward with his music; they both talk about reaching the stature of celebrity producers the Dust Brothersthe wizards behind albums by Hanson, Beck, and the Beastie Boys.
Since starting up their label and their band in the summer of 1995, Hilton and Garza have built a quiet little multinational empire in D.C. with an annual operating budget of $120,000. The money pays for equipment, salaries, record manufacturing, long-distance phone bills; roughly $900 a month goes toward leases for the Mercedes (sunroof, tan leather, heated seats) and Hilton’s 1998 Land Rover (two sun roofs, tan leather seats). There are also three cell phones, the fax machine, e-mail, a Web site, a lawyer, and an accountant to pay for.
ESL Music has used its budget well. It has put out Thievery’s 11 singles; an album, Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi; and three compilations, the ESL Soundtrack, Dubbed Out in DC, and Covert Operations, as well as the work of other artists (locals Avatars of Dub and Thunderball, and New York DJ Ursula 1000). Along the way, Thievery has signed a deal with the worldly 4AD label, appeared on the soundtrack for Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, produced more than a dozen remixes for artists such as Stereolab, Black Uhuru, the Ben Folds Five side project Fear of Pop, and David Byrne. Hilton and Garza didn’t rest when their album, Sounds, sold more than 100,000 copies. They expect more: They plan to re-release Sounds with a couple of additional tracks. There is so much talk of packaging and concepts that the music itself often seems beside the point.
Somewhere between the Dust Brothers and talk of their new album, Hilton brings up Germany. He explains that he doesn’t want to work his ass off hawking 500 copies of his record to Eighteenth Street Lounge’s patrons. Hilton says it’s easier and more economical to ship 5,000 units to Germany. They would sell all of them. They do well in Germany.
Sales in D.C. aren’t worth the hassle, Hilton argues. So far, they have paid little attention to the District, playing only a couple of live shows and doing no promotion locally for their efforts. They are not a hometown band. They don’t want to be.
“It’s a little bit more than a hobby,” Hilton explains, not to dis the locals.
Among most musical acts in D.C., context is almost as important as the music. The two major music scenes, punk and go-go, insist on maintaining the early-’80s values of leftist politics and community solidarity. The bands in those scenes are rooted in D.C.’s neighborhoods, down to specific blocks and specific crews, and much of their magnetism relies on the phenomenon of live performance. Local audiences like to hear themselves in the music. That’s why punks always write songs about Mount Pleasant. It’s the reason go-go bands do shout-outs to area crews and neighborhoods at shows. It’s also why few local bands are ever asked to leave in the stretch limos of major labels.
But Thievery Corporation has almost no context. The band makes a distinct break from local tradition. Its background runs only as deep as its members’ record collections and fine suits allow. Thievery Corporation has created its own placeor, as the principals see it, its own ’60s spy film. Hilton and Garza are jet-set James Bonds pulling in pop riffs from all continents: misty bossa nova, Indian chant ‘n’ drum, African hollers, heavy dub, easy listening (would you like an olive or a lemon twist?), and fried kitsch. They have conjured a world that’s placeless and timeless as wellwhich may or may not explain why they don’t put dates on their record sleeves. In the process, the two are doing something no one in D.C. has ever attempted successfullygoing global without leaving the recording studio.
Their timing is auspicious. Music buyers are opening up to concepts that go beyond the masculine guitar-bass-drums trinity of rock music. Newer sounds, whether they be the fey French pop of Air or the beats and loops of Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers, are gaining higher profiles. Alanis Morissette warbles, “Thank you, India” on her latest single. Madonna quoted subcontinental culture for her latest makeover. Even Shania Twain wears a bindi. It has become almost passé to have a context. At least, it’s not how pop musicians these days are choosing to authenticate themselves.
David Byrne, the former Talking Head and owner of Luaka Bop, a label known for messing with global boundaries, has seen the changes from the beginning.
“People have expanded over the years,” Byrne explains. “[Global pop] has become part of their grammar, [part of] what’s inside their head. If their tastes are broader than guitar bands, then naturally they are going to incorporate what they listen to. And most people’s tastes are broader than guitar bands. For me, it’s great stuff. It’s exciting. It has an energy of exploration and innovation that’s contagious.”
A few days after their tour of England, Hilton and Garza are busy back in their studio looking contagiously anxious. They aren’t in good moods. It is mid-December, and Hilton wants to finish up some last-minute Christmas shopping. But at the moment the two are stuck in orange-padded plastic tulip chairs, continent-hopping via layered drum loops. The Corporation is working on “Indian Film Track,” a sitar-blessed instrumental piece corrupted by a pounding beat and a dopey, scary sampled female wail.
Maybe it’s just the Christmas blitz, reality seeping in, but Hilton has doubts about Thievery’s moment-to-be. The band’s recent Hole remix has been rejected. Hilton isn’t sure he even wanted to fuck with Courtney Love, anyway. He complains that her vocalsminus the song’s extensive overdubbingwere so scratchy they were practically unworkable. Today, the barometer has dropped. Everything sucks.
“I don’t think we will ever be commercially viable,” Hilton says from his orange pod. “I think that what we will be doing will be over enough heads. We’re just trying to do our own thing….In a way, there’s pressure. It would be a lie to say there is no pressure.”
It is just past happy hour in London.
Hilton and Garza both grew up feeling displaced. They are members of a generation raised by the remote controla wave of latchkey kids from broken homes, with constant idle moments to explore. As wannabes who didn’t know what they wanted to be, Hilton and Garza sampled everything they could.
Garza was born outside of Chicago, moved to East Lansing, Mich., and then relocated a few years later to Walkersville, Md., a small farming community outside of Frederick. He spent summers shuttling between the cornfields of Walkersville and his mother’s hometown of Juarez, Mexico, a rough, crime-ridden border town. His father was a law enforcement official and instructor, and his mother was a nurse. Before Garza started high school, the family moved briefly to Hartford, Conn., where he started producing music at his new school, making up beats for teenage rappers. When his family moved back to Walkersville just before his senior year, Garza enrolled in the local performing arts school and decided he would become a classical pianist. He knew very little about the piano, but began to practice five hours a day, seven days a week. “I thought it was a cool idea,” Garza explains.
It was a cool ideafor about a year. By the early ’90s, Garza had discovered electronic music and had given up any ambitions for college. Between a series of odd jobs, he started his own label, Ju-Ju Thievery Corporation, and came to D.C. from Walkersville to perform under various monikers (Jedeye Mind Trick, Dopamine) at places like the Fifth Column and the Insect Club. D.C.’s techno music scene became his passion.
But after a few years, he soured on techno. So he did what many bored suburban 20-somethings doheaded to Tower Records. It was in 1994, he remembers, at Tower’s Vienna store, that he discovered bossa nova and Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, and his ennui turned to epiphany.
“It was the closest experience I have [had] to love at first sight,” Garza admits. “I had to keep buying this music.” Part of Jobim’s appeal was that his music made Garza believe he belonged to something bigsomething globalfor the first time: “I’ve never felt at home anywhere,” Garza says.
Like Garza, Hilton grew up outside of D.C.in Rockvilleand dabbled in musiche played guitar. By the time he was 14, he had discovered D.C. and gotten into New Wave; he went on to ska, mod rock, and neo-jazz. He was also a regular at hardcore shows.
While enrolled at the University of Maryland in the late ’80s, Hilton gave up the guitar and started to work as a DJ for parties, spinning rare Motown and Stax tunes. Then he played house music during stints at the Fifth Column and Perry’s. His record collecting and spinning led him to the roots of his favorite sides: dub reggae, Blue Note jazz, and Brazilian music.
The warehouse parties and hosted gigs soon grew tiresome. Without a fixed venue, Hilton was constantly scrambling for money and a place to spin. He and his friends were tired of relying on stingy bar owners to rent them space. So with cash saved and backing from three partners, Hilton opened up the Eighteenth Street Lounge in the summer of 1995.
Hilton’s path crossed Garza’s about a month after the Lounge opened. They met at the bar over drinks and bonded over their knowledge of bossa nova. As they became friends and began to experiment in recording tracks together, they reinvented themselves with the conviction that, as Thievery Corporation, they would choose sounds from any continent, any scene.
Thievery Corporation’s success started anonymously enoughon a distribution sheet. All that stood out was the band’s name and the title of its second single, “Shaolin Satellite.” Tim Haslett, then a buyer for a Boston record store, noticed “Satellite” on the order form. He was curious.
“I thought to myself, ‘At least this is someone that is trying to not do something formulaic,’” Haslett remembers, adding, “The name was appealing.” He ordered it. Soon a single arrived, its cover emblazoned with Chinese characters, its flip side a picture of old Kung Fu fighters. The single sold out of his store in a week.
Luckily for Thievery, Haslett was also a writer for the College Music Journal (CMJ). He quickly spotlighted the single in a column: “[A] miracle made of crackling, whiplash breaks and minor-key synth swells.”
“[Thievery’s] stuff was prescient,” Haslett asserts. “It anticipated a lot of what was going on at the moment.”
In March 1996, Hilton and Garza noticed that they were becoming known outside of their little studio. At the Winter Music Conference, the DJ equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival, the two went to watch the Austrian team of Kruder and Dorfmeister spin at a party. The two groups met. Kruder and Dorfmeister, who are regarded as the godfathers of easy-
listening-styled triphop, told Thievery that they had a copy of “Satellite” in their crates of vinyl. That night, the Austrians spun “Satellite.” The song would appear on their DJ Kicks compilation. Thievery was the only American act to make the record.
After financing their first two singles themselves, Hilton and Garza were able to release two more singles by the end of the year without dipping into their savings. Both sold out. Thievery by that time was getting calls from small labels and soft-sell inquiries from Warner Bros. and the ffrr label, one of the biggest electronica recording companies, whose artists include DJ Shadow. No one, however, offered a bona fide contract.
Hilton and Garza got set to release their first album, Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi, on their own. The tracks are loose, hooking in their entire cultural compass: Hiphop beats jump-start the tunes. Sitar and Brazilian mood music weave throughout the down-tempo numbers. The dubby bass operates as an anchor while the bossa nova brightens up the music.
As designers creating their own sound landscapes, Hilton and Garza mined their real estate carefully. On Sounds, they relied on a simple formulabeefy hooks, exotic flavoring agents, repeated loop-de-loops. The album basically compiles all the band’s singles and some extras, all delivering a similar structure. It feels safestudied even, as if they were kids toying with a View-Master.
If the songs have a certain gee-whiz factor about themwhere did that Rasta toaster come from?Sounds is still filled with stale, textbook riffs. The exotica sounds contrived, not gorgeous. Hilton wants the band’s next record to sound more complete, more organic. He and Garza want to write songs, not repetitive dance tracks, and have begun to write lyrics. They want their world to be complicated. The two can’t be tagged mere poseursthey are passionate poseurs. Poseurs who like a good challenge.
For the Sounds album sleeve, they wanted the artwork to reflect its jet-set eclecticism. They scouted locations throughout D.C. looking for the perfect spot that could conjure sophistication and glamour. The album’s designer, Steve Raskin, explains: “The whole idea is to create a new universe out of something that exists already.”
For one shot, they settled on Chinatown and went low-angle. “You just find a corner you like and hide the rest of it,” remembers Jimmy Cohrssen, their photographer. They chose 7th and H Streets NW. The photo, used in the album’s inside sleeve, makes the Gallery Place Metro stop look like your typical Asian cityit could be Bangkok. The album came out in February 1997, packaged with liner notes whose most telling touch is not the Chinatown shot or the close-ups of mixing boards and turntables; rather, it’s the dedication to “the memory of Antonio Carlos Jobim.”
To promote the record, Thievery enlisted the help of Eric Moss, a college-radio promoter, and Brittany Somerset, a publicist in New York. Moss hit up college radio, while Somerset worked the music magazines. Spin gave Sounds a positive review. The author even compared it to Massive Attack’s groundbreaking Blue Lines. The majority of the media coverage chooses to focus on the band’s image. The album landed at 13 on CMJ’s RPM chart. It was such an underground success that one L.A. label, Thrive, made cassettes of the album and gave the record to various major labels in hopes of getting a deal, according to Hilton, who adds that this was done without the band’s approval. Once the music industry found out, Thrive stopped.
In July of 1997, ESL Music put out a compilation, Dubbed Out in DC. This time, its record debuted at the top of the RPM chart.
By then the senior director of A&R at Warner Bros., Meredith Chinn, was following Thievery’s career. She had heard its stuff since “Shaolin Satellite” and wanted to sign the band. “I started to talk to Rob early on, the first time I met him,” Chinn remembers. But Hilton and Garza weren’t interested in signing so quickly. They had their label, and they were already showing a little profit. “I think they are incredibly original,” says Chinn. “I think they need to get their music out there.”
Chinn helped a bit. She was impressed enough to pass on Sounds to David Byrne, with whom she works through Warner Bros. “He listened to it right away,” Chinn reports.
Byrne got on a train and came to see Thievery. While Garza was away, Hilton showed off the bar and their small studio. He acted professional. He dressed like a corporate raider. It worked. Byrne remembers being really impressed with the Loungeimpressed that they had created their own little scene. He trusted Hilton and Garza enough to ask them to remix one of his songs, “Dance on Vaseline.”
“I thought they are kind of a corporation,” Byrne remembers. “They are very businesslike. They are pretty together that way, which is kind of amazing for musicians.”
On a mid-January evening, days before the mugging incident hits the music press, the Corporation shows signs of wear. Hilton and Garza are stuck behind the keyboards and the MPC 3000 working over a remix for an Austrian band, Waldeck. Despite its severe name, the group plays pure, heady soul music the way Patti LaBelle would if she were Austrian. Their mood is already angrythe fax machine is out of paperwhen the phone rings. It’s their lawyer, Jay Rosenthal. He has bad news.
Thievery retains Rosenthal, who also works with such artists as Mya and Rare Essence, mainly to guide it through contracts. The band is currently in negotiations with Caroline Records, a subsidiary of Virgin and the label responsible for breaking the Smashing Pumpkins, for a distribution deal in America. It’s biga contract to go over carefully.
The Caroline deal, Rosenthal informs them, is not what they were hoping. It’s the usual label penny pinching.
“You know what, Jay?” Hilton says, growing agitated. “How are we [supposed] to do this deal? It’s a big commitment on our part. It should be a big commitment on their part.” He gets up from his pod and paces the office. “This is a big deal for us,” Hilton bellows. “This is no joke. We’re a small company.” He changes his mind about the proffered $40,000 advance. He wants $50,000.
Rosenthal quickly resolves their questions, and Hilton hangs up. He and Garza just want to get the deal finished. The contract has been tossed back and forth for two months.
For tonight, though, they are left with the Teutonic soul of Waldeck. The female singer, Joy Malcolm, belts out the lyric “I don’t want to be alone and defenseless” in a perpetual loop. Garza gets a Red Stripe from the bar. He comes back and adjusts his MPC 3000 and his ASR 10. He turns his Roland JP-8000 into a string section. Hilton is lost among his records.
Hilton gets up from a stack of spilled vinylfrom Henry Mancini to Shirley Bassey. Finally, he pops in a CD called Virtual Band and scans for worthy samples. The song swirls around atmospherically. The strings sound like dolphins. Garza continues punching in codes, digits, and samples. The song whizzes and whirls in MOOG-like underwater-sounding stretches. They are drowning their remix, and they know it.
Hilton gives permission to leave the song alone
for now. “I’m kind of burnt on it tonight,” he
In the studio, Hilton and Garza barely speak to each other; by now, they know what sounds good and what doesn’t. Garza is the techie in the Corporation; Hilton is the driving force, the pusher. Hilton inspects each line of music and every press photo like a zealous detective. Garza is casual in everything he doeshe smokes, but only a few Marlboro Lights per day. He drinks his share, but rarely acts like it. He doesn’t sweat the details.
The two seldom hang out except when they are in the studio.
Twenty-four hours later, they will have changed the Waldeck remix completely. They strip the song down and turn it into a straight hiphop atmospheric wonder. The two lean into their twin Tandy speakers and study the sounds, the parts of sounds, the tweaks and creeks. They like the song enough to stop. It sounds like Thievery by way of Berlin.
Hilton is gunning his Land Rover through traffic south of Dupont Circle. Weaving and jerking between lanes, he shows no patience for the late-night party congestion flooding downtown. Garza is in the back seat chilling; he can ignore Hilton even at his most tempestuous. Hilton tries to avoid the tangled reality of angry cars and bar-hopping pedestrians. He pops in Saint Etienne, a British dance-pop band that sounds like Blondie with softer beats. He transforms his car into a plush listening pad and gets into the groove. “Forget people yelling,” he says, calling the record the best album of the ’90s. The mood they sell tonight is cool sophistication.
We are heading to the Carlton Hotel’s bar. About a week after finishing Waldeck, they have completed another remixthis time for Ursula 1000: conga-driven kitsch. They joke that their mix could be huge in England. For tonight, the two dress well, in dark suits. (When on the subject of their clothes, they give props to their tailor, “Fast Eddie” from London.) They are in good spirits for this trip, a rare jaunt out of the studio.
The two like hotel barsthey have studied and haunted them from here to Chicago to Miami. Hotel bars offer an escape into anonymous, placeless pampering. The Carlton, which requires men to wear sports coats, is one of their favorites. When we get there, the place is dead. Two white men sit on a couch puffing on thumb-sized cigars; an older guy and his trophy girlfriend sit one couch over. We move to the opposite end of the room and take in the scene.
They don’t necessarily relax at first. Hilton scans the walls, which are filled with colonial portraits and rich, dark-wood moldings. His ears pick up Miles Davis’ “So What” smoldering on the cheap bar speakers. He digs this stuff. He likes to wear the suits, too.
“This is not Home Depot,” Hilton jokes, referring to the bar. “It looks grand.”
They and their environment become one, in a Jay Gatsby moment. “It’s called the full package,” Hilton explains. “I feel so sad. You look at all the young guys making music today. Miles Davis in the ’50s, he looked sharp.” Hilton wants to emulate that mix of personal style matching musical style. “I know it sounds superficial. It has a lot to do with where we are coming from.”
Yet Hilton grows angry when asked about his suits and style. Garza occasionally punctuates Hilton’s sentences, but he’s mostly content to sit back, chow on bar nuts, and sip his Sapphire and tonic. “It’s not a shtick,” Hilton continues. “In a suit, you can go anyplace. We’re living in a global marketplace. You’re hurting yourself…” He trails off, forgetting his thought. He picks it back up on the next beat: “We are jet-setters.”
Not exactly. Thievery goes overseas to do press tours, not lunch with the elite, let alone with pop superstars. Hilton and Garza play dress-up because they like to, not because it fits any job description. As audiophiles, they have no allegiance to any set musical style. When Hilton spins records, he doesn’t play more than 30 seconds of each. He points out a warm horn part here, a smoky vocal there; he is drawn to the textures and tones of parts of records, not the whole effect. He even hops between song parts.
Sometimes, Thievery’s stylings come off as carpetbaggingat their worst, as mixed messages with insensitive racial overtones. For their next single, “DC 3000,” scheduled for release this month, Hilton and Garza wanted artwork that reflected an “urban” edge, recalls their designer, Steve Raskin (who also plays in Thunderball). The two producers scouted locations in Southeast looking for the perfect picture of urban blight. But their camera didn’t work, so they settled for a silhouette of a black woman with a ’70s-style Afro. It seems as if they are trying to eroticize Aunt Jemima.
Thievery’s take on worlds they don’t completely understand can seem foolish and superficial. Even in their hotel world, they don’t necessarily fit in. Toward the end of the night, a true modern jet-
setter is sitting at the hotel bar. He wears a fat gold watch, heavy jewelry, and a dark suit. He sits back alone at the bar to smoke a tiny cigar. Garza doesn’t feel any affinity with this man. “A lonely high roller,” he jokes, sizing him up.
Hilton couldn’t pass for a high roller if he tried. “I like cigars, but they burn my throat,” he says.
Frank Sinatra croons from the speakers: “That’s life, and I can’t deny it.”
Soon, the two are back in the Land Rover. Saint Etienne comes back on. They head back to the Lounge and park on a side street cluttered with panhandlers; Garza looks disgusted. “Night of the living dead,” he mutters.
Hilton worries that Garza’s comment will make it into print.
Serendipity helped Thievery Corporation win listeners in the U.S.; it helped them conquer the European market. The band first got to London through a DJ named Leon Kemp. He is a medium-sized Icelandic immigrant with a face as pale as a honeydew melon and medium-length hair. I catch him before he goes on for a set at Hilton’s new downtown sushi bar, Dragonfly. He graciously takes me aside to a quiet corner of the restaurant to give me the scoop. Without Kemp, Thievery’s label, 4AD, would never have noticed the band.
Jagermeister in hand, Kemp, 26, starts from the beginning: In 1995, he came to America from Reykjavik. Through an old neighborhood friend who was working the door at the Lounge, Kemp got a steady job as a DJ at the club. It was there he discovered Thievery. He then passed the band on to Chip Watkins, a Baltimore-based DJ and producer who was working with 4AD.
The label had hired Watkins to remix a single by 4AD artist Gus Gus (also from Iceland), and he wanted Thievery to do a track. He thought 4AD should hear the band. Watkins sent Rich Holtzman, 4AD’s vice president, some of Thievery’s stuff. Holtzman was impressed enough to forward the records to the label’s London office.
Jamieson, 4AD’s head of A&R, took a listen. He immediately thought he should sign Thievery. “It was a bit of a no-brainer,” he says. He wondered why nobody had signed the band. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing….I knew. I remember thinking quite vividly it was done with such fucking style. It oozed cool. The right kind of cool. It sounded natural.” Thievery signed to 4AD in the beginning of 1998.
4AD soon released “.38.45,” a dub track containing toasts by local reggae singers Archie and Arthur Steele, who perform under the name See-I. With this song, Thievery made its first video.
The band hired Charlie Puritano, 32, the owner of the Alexandria-based Puritano Media Group, to direct the “.38.45” video. When he met with the band to discuss art direction and the video’s content, Puritano says, he was politely informed that the two had already worked out themes and stylistics. Hilton and Garza made it a point to mention that they were an international band. “One of the most important things the guys will say is [that] they don’t want to be identified with D.C.,” Puritano remembers. “They wanted a very international look. It was important to them that [the video] doesn’t look like it’s shot in D.C.”
He adds that Hilton and Garza had a list of specifics: They wanted hot women and karate fight scenes. The storyboard they had created detailed a narrative of the two lost in a world of intrigue, chased by an Asian villain and saved at the last second by See-I. Once on the set, Puritano says, the two called the shots. “They were very good about dictating,” he recalls. “They would approve props; they would [place] set decorations,” he remembers. “They have a phrase: ‘It’s not really Thievery….It’s not really Thievery enough.’”
On the set, Hilton and Garza made their philosophy clear. Everyone got itexcept the make-up artist, Lola Lombard. She was told to dress up the Steele brothers as shamans. Instead Lombard, who had just come off working for a circus-themed parade, thought to make them up as Rastafarian drag queens, with lighting bolts jutting from their eyes, glitter everywhere, and tons of gold lamé. “It was dumb,” Puritano remembers. “We just had to stop. Everyone had to try to relax before Rob killed somebody.”
Hilton complained that the Steeles looked like a pair of gay Jesuses. After some wrangling, they were put into tan military-style uniforms.
The video’s final cut features Hilton and Garza wearing dark suits and sunglasses and carrying metal briefcases. They walk through Ronald Reagan National Airport, make some quick cuts through Dupont Circle, meet up with the Steele brothers at the Children’s Museum, and encounter an Asian mob-boss figure. At the end of the video, the Steeles karate-chop some henchmen, and the Thievery men run off with two women dressed in casual Eastern garb. Something like an old-school comic book.
When “.38.45” hit and their video played on MTV Europe, the song sold roughly 2,500 copies.
By the end of 1998, Thievery had released “Lebanese Blonde,” a sitar-laced swish of a song with vocals by local chanteuse Pam Bricker. Thievery also did a French version of the song; Hilton and Garza went so far as to rent a professor from George Washington University to translate and to correct Bricker’s French diction.
They made another video, this time hoping to turn Dupont Circle and the Lounge into La Dolce Vita. Instead, it ended up with a lot of embassy shots, gaudy dresses, a weird jam session, and a younger blonde playing Bricker. Hilton and Garza look tired but very high-society. Still, the video worked well enough to get on MTV. The song became their biggest seller.
Although they proved in 1998 that they could make successful videos and singles, the year was tough on Hilton and Garza. By spring, Thievery had become the subject of label bidding. Two labelsPalm Pictures and Mojo Recordsoffered them contracts worth six-figures. Both labels told them not to proceed with any releases until they were signedwhy put out records when we could do it for you? Hilton and Garza agreed.
Bruno Guez, Palm Pictures’ director of A&R, says he saw the band’s potential to break out of the electronica underground. Guez had known the band a while; he had helped promote its first releases and had watched Thievery mature. “I really liked their aesthetic,” Guez maintains. “They are producing more and more with a pop sensibility. If you look at some of their remixes…they are crossing over. It has to have the potential of selling. I felt their music could, so I went on that instinct.”
After nine months, both deals were dead. Mojo’s deal fell through when Palm made its offer. Guez stopped negotiating because the label and the band couldn’t agree on terms for a contract. “It was going to be a deal that was too heavy to recoup,” Guez explains. “We just decided that it wasn’t the right thing to do. They were pretty demanding; they wanted more and more money. It wasn’t a humble approach,” he adds, “but I respect their aesthetic.”
Hilton and Garza think they simply wasted a lot of precious studio time. “During the negotiations, we always thought the signing was imminent,” Hilton remembers. “In the end, we were like, ‘We really can’t sign this.’ I’m still trying to figure out if it was smart or not [to decline the contract]. I don’t always feel like it was.”
ESL Music released one compilation in 1998, Covert Operations, and Hilton and Garza made several remixes. But mainly they lay low and operated at a loss for the year. Garza’s bank account closed with an overdraft of $500. But he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Garza says he feels as if the Corporation weathered a bad year, but at least they got through it.
In late January, Mojo’s Erik Jarvi flew from L.A. to D.C. to meet with them. Jarvi wants to manage the band informally. He helped break Korn and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and he still sees Thievery’s future as going beyond just putting out another record. Jarvi and the band met to discuss the possibilities of doing more soundtracks, maybe scoring films. Jarvi talked about getting some more solid distribution in Japan and Australia.
“I would love to sign them now,” Jarvi says. “In a lot of ways, Thievery is D.C.’s best-kept secret. I think they would get lost with a major label right now. They are doing the right thing.”
4AD’s Jamieson isn’t worried: “The thing with Thievery is that they give you so many good tools [to work with],” he says. “They are naturally interesting. You want to be in their gang.”
When asked if the new album could make Hilton and Garza the stars they want to be, Jamieson doesn’t hesitate with his answer: “Things will break,” he asserts.
At the end of January, Thievery is back on track and has started writing an actual song. Hilton and Garza are seated in their orange pods, sitting among spilled records and DATs. Bricker has just finished a session with them, scatting over the rhythm track. Throughout the rest of this Thursday afternoon, they will be recording two musicians. The mood is all work.
At 2:30 in the afternoon, Rob Myers walks in with his sitar. Myers, a diplomat’s son, thinks the instrument is no big, exotic deal. He just opens up his cracked leather case and sits down to jam. They get down to business.
The recording goes well, and Myers takes off. Roberto Berimbau, a Brazilian drummer, shows up around 4 p.m. He has played the congas, or some variation of them, since he was 5 years old. He has played with many of the most famous Brazilian rhythm sections. They set him up to record conga loops. Every three minutes, a new loop.
Hilton air-conducts from the studio. They want to get his rhythm right. They lean into their Tandys. It doesn’t sound right. Hilton goes and has a talk with Berimbau. The musician slows down and works into the groove rather than on top of it. He gives off a big grin. Hilton and Garza like it, too.
They then have Berimbau record a half-minute of triangle, another half-minute of a shaker. This big Brazilian with huge weathered hands sits patiently, stinging a triangle over and over. Finally, the sound fits.
Unfortunately, Hilton has a problem with the shaker. Hilton says he likes it OK, but he wishes Berimbau had brought a smaller version, the one that’s shaped like an egg. By Saturday afternoon, Hilton will have decided he must have the egg shaker. He will tell Berimbau he needs to come in for another session the following week.
The next week, Garza and Hilton decide to change their new song completely. This time, they write an African chant for one of the Steele brothers, which takes the track from a more Brazilian tropical feel to pan-African mysticism. Garza just takes a minute and scribbles down some chantlike syllables on a piece of paper. That’s it. Garza reports that the song is a killer. This time, Thievery manages to take Africa out of context and incorporate its into its synthetic palette.
The night after Berimbau’s first session, Hilton and Garza are at the Lounge. Hilton has to work the door. Garza gets to sit at the bar and down a few drinks. He watches the dance floor with a bemused look. He doesn’t like to dance. He would rather watch the collection of corporate ties and black minidresses gyrate to the big beats.
Near 1 a.m., Kemp, who is spinning this Friday night, puts out a new Thievery number, “Meeting With His Majesty.” It’s a dub rocker with Archie Steele toasting hard over a bouncy synth riff. No one on the dance floor realizes it’s Thievery. They just keep on dancing. In the world of electronica, the song’s utter placelessness is compliment enough.
“It’s pretty cool,” Garza admits coolly.
A few minutes before closing time, Garza heads for his Mercedes. He is beaming. I ask why, because it’s one of the few times he has shown off his big grin. He replies that Caroline Records has just sent a fax to the studio ordering 10,000 units of Sounds: Thievery’s biggest order to date. The contract with Caroline hasn’t been signed, but it looks as if the industry is caving to the duo.
“I’m happy, you know,” Garza admits, before zipping off to Mount Pleasant. The night’s news couldn’t have come at a better time. His bank account is closed. He owes $500. CP
Role: Journalist who first “discovered”
Thievery on a record-
On Life in the Corporation: “It’s amusing. They definitely have fun with
[their image]the way they will do [for example] wardrobe credits by Pierre Cardin. I think
they do it in good taste.
I think that adds to their hipness factor. It never seems like they’re
marketing themselves like a product. They
do it because it’s fun
to dress up.”
Role: Part-time New York publicist
On Life in the
Corporation: “One of Eric’s concerns [was whether] it would be cheesy to have a publicist. They didn’t want to force themselves on people. I had to sit Eric down and tell him that a publicist isn’t a cheesy thing.”
Arthur (left) and Archie Steele, aka See-I
Ages: Arthur, 38; Archie, 36
Role: Reggae singers
On Life in the Corporation [Archie Steele]: “It’s like, to be honest with you, almost like mafia, man. More of a mafia of music….Sometimes it’s hectic; sometimes it’s cool. It’s almost like family, thoughsometimes you’re at their throats, sometimes not. Eric is passionate about the music….He doesn’t want us to sound R&B.”
Role: Office manager
On Life in the Corporation: “It’s…fun. [I] have to do everything. It’s just prioritizing everything and setting your goals and doing themdistribution, the scheduling, everything, [and] Rob, keeping track of Rob.”
On Life in the
Corporation: “[They’ll say, for example,] ‘Pretend that you are in a French spy movie from the ’60s.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Sing kind of mournful and wistful.’ They’ll have little descriptive adjectives….I could sort of get in the mood from the words that they wrote. Most of it tends to have a dreamy quality, so I tend to get into a dreamy mood.”
Role: Attorney for the band, with the law firm
Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe
On Life in the Corporation: “They are listening more than they are talking….When we go over things with them, they are looking for good advice, not coming up with their own conclusions, which I find is the best kind of client….Usually, a lot of young musicians look to me to enhance their business. With them, they’re rustling up the business. When they call me, there’s a deal to be made. That’s how you get out of the local level and into the national level.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: James Watts.