ELECTRONICA 101: Revolution at 110bpm – an interview with Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza

For Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, founding members of the downtempo collective Thievery Corporation, juxtaposing sexy, slithering beats and melodies against strong political and social commentary has become second nature. Don’t sleep – this isn’t your run-of-the-mill raging against the machine. Thievery Corporation more subtle, and in some ways, more dangerous than that. Six studio albums, remixes too numerous to mention and a keen ear for finding the groove have made Thievery Corporation one of the foundation bands of the lounge and downtempo genres.

For the past 15 years, Thievery corporation have been creating electronica-as-art, deftly gliding from musical style to musical style to create rhythms that make you bob your head as well as check it. The Washington, DC-based crew is set to light the night on fire this evening when they take the stage at North Coast Music Festival, in support of their latest album, Culture of Fear, out now on ESL Music. Rob Garza was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to talk about touring, politics, insane shows they’ve played, and the Thievery Corporation live show in this exclusive interview for Indymojo.com

RK: It’s been 15 years since the release of your first couple of 12″ singles, “Shaolin Satellite” and “2001: a Spliff Odyssey”. Do you recognize the band that recorded those singles, since Thievery Corporation’s sound has evolved into such a complex entity now?

RG: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy to think about that. We started off as just two guys in the studio with, kind of very minimal equipment, making this records. I don’t think we ever intended to really have a career making music. We’re still here 15 years later and we travel around now. We’re like a 15-piece band when you consider all the singers and everybody, so it’s really grown and snowballed into something that we never expected.

RK: Wow – 15 members on stage at one time has got to be a bit hectic when you’re trying to put travel schedules together and such.

RG: It is, but it also makes it fun because it’s like a circus, you know, and there’s so many characters and people… from different parts of the world, different ages. It’s like a big family and it’s a lot of fun.

RK: You guys are from the Washington, DC area. As DC natives, your proximity to the seat of power in this country has had an obvious influence on the messages in your material. Talk a little bit about the creative climate in DC and how politics has affected the way you guys work.

RG: Well, I think we grew up in a time where the DC punk rock scene and bands like Minor Threat and Discord Records were very popular in that region, anyways. They sort of rubbed off on us. We always… want to take advantage of the fact that we own our own record label and can talk about issues that are socially conscious and kind of get people to reflect on what’s happening in the world. So, I think that we take the opportunity to present that throughout our music but that’s not the whole thing about our music. There’s so many different messages and styles and genres and things that people can jump into.

RK: Certainly. Thievery Corporation’s sound has evolved. You’ve taken some pretty strong political stances, beginning with “Richest Man In Babylon” through “Cosmic Game”, “Radio Retaliation” and now with “Culture of Fear”. Of particular interest is the IMF rant after the Vampires performance at Lollapalooza 2009. What was the catalyst for you and Eric to start making such bold statements through your music and continuing on to the social commentary present on “Culture of Fear”?

RG: Well, I think the catalyst was after 9/11 we started questioning why , exactly, are we going to war in these particular places and what is all this extra security about and who does the war on terror benefit? The military-industrial complex and things like that… Living in DC, you kind of get to see what happens behind the scenes. A lot of people think that all these big organizations are about doing great deeds for the world but there’s a big bureaucracy behind all that and a lot of money that comes into weapons and creating havoc in other places.

RK: Not to mention monitoring of our own populace, right?

RG: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. So, I think that just seeing that and being there, you’re more focused on what’s happening throughout the world. If you’re some place like LA, you’re probably more media-focused or if you live in other parts of the world – different cities have their attention pointed towards different things and in Washington, it happens to be towards politics and policy.

RK: As we talk about Thievery Corporation’s music, it’s really difficult to try and categorize or pigeonhole what you do because there are elements of boss nova, dub reggae, hip hop, jazz and funk sprinkled throughout your material. The question, as a DJ, that I have to know is how deep is your record collection and what artists do you tend to turn to for inspiration when you’re creating new material for the catalog?

RG: (laughs) Our record collections run pretty deep. and we have a big love for vinyl… I think we look towards a lot of older music for inspiration and I think that, probably in the late 60’s-early 70’s, you had a lot of cross-pollenating of ideas, and people were mixing styles and genres. Rock bands exploring eastern music, jazz, cinematic soundtrack writers experimenting with all these different sounds. For us, that open-mindedness has permeated what we do.

RK: Now, with the influence of technology in electronic music, do you feel like a certain amount of that is being lost because you just can’t get some of those big band sounds and live band sounds any more, or has it made the artistic process a little bit easier for you?

RG: I think it’s a combination of both. In some ways it makes it easier because, now, you don’t have to actually have an orchestra to do that. But, in a way, that’s also a negative thing because you used to have these orchestras that would just create these beautiful sounds – I’m talking about things that were in movies and soundtracks and things like that – that are just really triply and people don’t really even think of making records that way. So, it’s a lost art… Electronic music has enabled us to express things that we never would have been able to do without the technology, so it’s a plus-and-minus situation.

RK: You’ve collaborated with a number of very famous artists in the industry, such as Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Perry Farrell, and most recently Mr. Lif and Femi Cuti on “Culture of Fear”. How have you managed the process of inviting or granting these collaborative efforts that you’ve put on so many of these great records that you’ve done?

RG: Well, you know, it just kind of happens really randomly. Like, I think the first time we met the Flaming Lips, we were doing a festival in Iceland and we were all snowmobiling on top of a glacier. We kind of just met each other there, and then played some shows together. We just asked them one day if they’d like to collaborate on a song and they were into it. David Byrne is someone we did a remix for back in like ’97. People like Fem Cuti, we reached out to him, and he was totally up for it. Mr. Lif – someone who’s work we admired and we’d played with before, and so we just decided to give him a ring. You know, it can really come about any possible way.

RK: Yeah, that Mr. Lif track just lit that record on fire… I now you’ve done some really big shows, some of the biggest festivals n the world. One show in particular that comes to mind is, back in 2009, you opened for Sir Paul McCartney at Fedex Field in DC. How did that come about and what was that experience like? That had to be a bit crazy…

RG: That was a DJ gig and they called us last-minute and were like “would you like ot open for PaulMcCartney?”

RK: (laughs)

RG: You don’t even have to think when someone asks you a question like that. We were like “uh, YES.” (laughs)

RK: “let me check my schedule and see if I can pencil you in”

RG: Yeah. “uh, maybe not” (laughs). So, we did it but they were like “the day before, Paul McCartney is going to be there and he wants to meet you and say ‘hello'”, and we were like “uh… OK?” (laughs) We went, we met Paul McCartney. Never, when we started this, did we ever think that, you know, you’d meet a Beatle by doing this, much less opening for one. So that was a really… INSANE experience. It was very surreal.

RK: That’s some heavyweight shit right there (laughs).

RG: TOTALLY heavyweight shit.

RK: So you’ve got a big weekend this weekend, with a set at North Coast Music Festival in Chicago, and and after-party at the Congress Theater. You mentioned the 16 band members on stage, and that leads me into this question. How do you translate the Thievery Corporation sound from recordings to the live setting?

RG: Well, with a lot of the music, especially in the past 10 years, we’ve played a lot fo the instruments ourselves and it’s a very organic side of the music… It’s actually quite easy to translate that and you have all the electronic aspects and it’s just a way of making things even bigger and fuller and more explosive and energetic when we’re onstage.

RK: Is it more improvisational in the live setting, or do you try to stay pretty strict to the recorded material?

RG: No, it’s become more improvisational… During some songs, for instance, our bass player might drop in the bass line from Chuck Brown’s “Busting Loose”. On an instrumental jam we have, the band just might go off in a completely different direction, so it’s really fun… We have a drummer with us now, which is making it even more tight.

Thievery Corporation are touring currently, playing North Coast Music Festival this evening and the Congress Theater after-party with Lyrics Born featuring Lateef.

Rudy Kizer is the host and producer of “Hit The Decks”, airing Sundays at 10pm on X103.