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Go ahead, call them chill-out. Deride them as background music. Thievery Corporation is having the last laugh. Now three nights into an epic sold out five-night stand at 930 Club it’s quite apparent that if the group does indeed dwell in the slow-groovin’ coffee shop of electronic music, well, it’s a coffee shop that everybody is waiting in line to get into. And why wouldn’t they? The DC-based duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton keep pretty good company—Femi Kuti, Anoushka Shankar, and Seu Jorge all drop in for appearances on Radio Retaliation. By adding a little bit of third world flavor to electronic music more than 10 years ago, Thievery Corporation inadvertently started on a journey that’s carried them out of DC and through the world’s clubs, concert halls, and DJ booths. Rob Garza took a moment to talk to City Paper about the group’s new record, its hometown, and how the heart of the band’s live show beats much faster than 95 bpm.
Washington City Paper: So, this didn’t start out as a five-night run, right?
Garza: Yeah, it started off just doing a couple nights. Then they kept talking about adding another date, then another, and now it’s five. It makes it easier for us because we don’t have to break down any of the equipment and go through all that hassle and it’s nice to play in our hometown.
WCP: You play with a whole band right?
Garza: Yeah we have about 12 or 13 musicians—six singers, a percussion section, a horn section, bass, then myself and Eric. It’s grown to be quite and operation. It’s a big production. It should be a lot of fun.
WCP: When did you guys complete Radio Retaliation?
Garza: We finished this past summer. We recorded it pretty much summer of 2007–summer of 2008.
WCP: Around here?
Garza: Yeah we have a studio here in DC, so we recorded it here and we brought in guest artists who were here as well like Seu Jorge, Anoushka Shankar, and Femi Kuti. They came to the studio for a few days, hung out.
WCP: Did you know these people before, or did you just phone up their management?
Garza: It worked more that way, talking to their managers. They’re familiar with the work decided to collaborate. Seu Jorge and I met years ago in a club in Lisbon. We had met and we always talked about maybe using him on a track to get some vocals. We did the song “Hare Krishna”, about his experience when he was homeless, after he kind of had to flee the favelas and he was living in a Hare Krishna ashram situation.
WCP: You guys also got Chuck Brown to come out and play on this record?
Garza: Yeah, Chuck, he’s somebody we wanted to work with for a long time. We did a tour back on Richest Man in Babylon with his horn section so on this record we kind of asked them to get in touch with Chuck for us. We have this song called “The Numbers Game” and he came into the studio for that. That was just one of the highlights of making this record, working with Chuck and I mean he just has so many stories and so much history—he’s in his 70s. He’s just a real legend.
WCP: Before this I was reading over Jason Cherkis’ cover story that he wrote about you way back in 1999, do you remember that?
Garza: (Laughs) I do remember that.
WCP: There was a point in the story where he was talking to one of your publicists and they were saying that you guys really wanted to establish this image that was apart from DC—that you didn’t want people to look at Thievery Corporation and think Washington DC. It seems like its changed. When did DC become a part of Thievery Corporation’s identity?
Garza: Well, I think first of all, it was never that we wanted to separate ourselves from DC in terms of who we were. I think musically we didn’t want it to sound like it came from any one particular place. I think that throughout the years, as Thievery Corporation has become more popular throughout the world, people kind of know we’re from Washington DC. I have friends in different countries and when they think of DC they think of a few bands like Fugazi, Thievery, Chuck Brown. Over the years people have identified the band with the actual place which is a great thing. The audience here has grown to respect what we do and find out what its about. In the beginning a lot of people here didn’t really know what was happening. Before, a lot of people in Europe knew about Thievery—now people here [in DC] recognize what we’ve been doing throughout the years.
WCP: You seem to think of your music as conscious and political. Does it bring you down when people constantly write about it and talk about it using terms like “chill” or “coffee shop”?
Garza: (Laughs) I think you have to laugh at it if you take it too serious it can drive you crazy. I’ve seen CDs in places called Chill out for Babies and stuff like that. The way that people perceive music you don’t really have a choice in that, you just make the music. There was this big movement with all these big Buddha Bar comps and things like that. It is frustrating sometimes when people associate your music with just stuff that’s like ‘we’re just making music for the background’ or whatever, but there’s many layers to what we’re doing. Lyrically there’s some things going on there as well. A lot of people think it’s chill out music just because of the fact that it isn’t techno electronic music—because the beats aren’t that abrasive and aggressive. They immediately tend to label it one thing.
WCP: You don’t feel like the music is kind of chill?
Garza: No, not really, I think if you come to the show you’ll have a really different experience. I think we surprise audiences that way. Some people think of Thievery Corporation like, you know, we’re going to play this show and it’s going to be downtempo beats, but the show itself can be quite explosive. I think you know if you really listen the music isn’t really about that.
WCP: So did you read that Pitchfork review? Do you read reviews? Do you care?
Garza: I heard about it. When we started back in ’95, I remember our first trip to England people were telling us that the style of music we do was dead ‘and that drum & bass was the new thing. [speaking in a British accent] ‘Drum and bass is the new soul music mate.’ Then we’d go back a year later it’s like ‘What’s up with drum & bass,’ and they’re like, ‘It’s UK-garage, it’s broken beat.” it’s changing all the time. We’ve been together 15-years. The music industry and trends are really fickle; I think if you really start reading all the reviews and get too emotional it can get to you.
WCP: What was the scene like when you guys started doing Thievery in terms of electronic and dance music?
Garza: At that time you had a lot of house DJs—places like the 5th Column were popular back in the day and The Vault. When Eric and I met we were about different musical forms like Indian music Jamaican music, and music from Brazil—taking all these forms and doing something modern and electronic with it. At that time you had a few people doing things like that. In Austria you had Kruder and Dorfmeister, in Japan you had kind of a big scene with United Future Organization, Kyoto Jazz Massive—all these bands using sampling and beats and kind of not so obvious musical genres that they were experimenting with. That was kind of the musical landscape of that time.
WCP: And you guys dropped into that?
Garza: Yeah, we dropped into that, but it wasn’t like a real genre at that time the way that it is now. We didn’t really know what we were doing it started off as just a hobby and we would get together in the studio, which was above 18th St. Lounge. We would hang out in the evenings and just kind of make tracks. We put out our first CD in ’96 and we thought should we press 500 or 1000. We pressed 1000 and we thought it would take us a long time to go through those cds. But the week after we got a reorder from Germany for another 2000. It just started as a hobby, I don’t think either of us expected to have a musical career—to be selling out five nights at the 930 right when we started.