Through 10 remarkable studio albums spanning over the past 22 years Washington D.C. duo Thievery Corporation have created a unique (though much-copied) electronic chillout sound peppered with influences ranging from bossa nova to dub reggae, acid jazz to hip hop, and Middle Eastern and Indian elements.
This writer first heard Thievery Corporation in a trippy-hippy shop in Cambridge, England, on a rare day off from chef work in 1997. I left the shop, but the music was so beguiling, so hypnotic, that it drew me back in to ask who was responsible for such cool tunes. I immediately went next door to HMV and bought the album – the duo’s debut, Sounds From The Thievery Hi-Fi.
Rather than hearing the band’s blend of electronica, DJing, cool vibes and world music on the radio, Rob Garza, with a warm and appreciative laugh, confirms that more people get into the band as organically as I did.
“You know, it's always just some sort of weird connection that people have with the music and it isn't that they got it from some sort of mainstream source,” he says down the ‘line from San Francisco. “People discover it just randomly through friends or situations like that. It's interesting.
“I was at a music festival not too long ago and this guy comes up to me and he was telling me he had a brain tumour - he's fine now, but they thought he was going to die. He introduced me to the doctor who operated on him and saved his life. The doctor told me, ‘the whole time I was operating on him I was listening to Thievery Corporation’. It was pretty amazing. There’s all these really interesting stories that go along with the music.”
Garza and Eric Hilton teamed up in 1995, bonding over a shared love of music, and over those 10 albums the project has evolved to the point where they now record and tour with a full band.
“It was never a plan,” Garza reveals. “I have to say, it was never planned even to do music professionally! It was just something... Eric had a venue called the 18th Street Lounge in Washington, D.C. We would make music in the liquor room – we’d just do it for the fun of it. We started just putting out records and we never thought anybody would really get into it, but we started getting calls from the UK, from Germany.
“These guys put us on their DJ Kicks compilation,” he continues, “and that introduced us to a big European audience. We never even really thought we would do this as a profession, much less develop into a touring entity with live musicians. We were always really inspired in checking out live musicians in Washington, D.C., so it was just sort of natural to start pulling in different singers and different instrumentalists.”
A song created in the studio by two people must surely evolve into a different kind of animal when played live night after night by a band of up to 20 musicians and singers?
“It really does!” he laughs. “I think some people have the association, like, ‘it's a chill out, trip house, lounge-y sort of vibe’. Then when you hear it on the stage there's a different intensity. There's a different vibe. When you see the singers and you hear the drummer banging it out, and the sitar player, and the lights and stuff - it's a very different experience. It's not really laidback at all.”
Touring with around 20 bandmates must pose its own challenges, not least in keeping the entourage harmonious.
“It's never a dull moment,” Garza chuckles, “but everybody is pretty road-tested. They know how to do what they do professionally. There isn't a lot of emotional drama - knock on wood! It's a really good touring party. People come from so many different places, there's different age ranges, and people from different styles of bands. It's really fun to just hang around people that might not ordinarily hang out together.”
So how do a couple of guys from D.C. access such a diverse range of world music in their formative years? In Garza’s case, it started with his mother – who is of Mexican descent – and father’s record collection.
“There was definitely Latin sounds in the house, and my father loved a lot of soul music and also rock’n’roll - The Beatles and Roy Orbison and the Drifters, things like that were played in my house as a kid a lot,” he recalls. “As I grew older, towards the end of high school, I studied a little bit of classical music and jazz and things like that. I was checking out weird Bulgarian records, or things from Steve Reich or David Byrne, and all these eclectic jazz things and hip hop and industrial and techno and things like that.
“You know, I think that the spectrum was just very wide, and that we thought anything was possible if you do it electronically. We just started melding all these different sounds into electronic music. We didn't really know what we were doing - it just happened naturally and it sort of created a template for a certain style of music.”
It goes without saying that Garza and Hilton have pretty impressive record collections.
“Yeah,” he says proudly. “One of the things that we really, really bonded over was our record collections, and how they were very eclectic. You'd find things from Ravi Shankar, old jazz soundtracks from Italy, and music from Jamaica and music from India. That's really kind of what we had in common.
“We used to go record shopping around the world whilst on tour. I have a seven-year-old now so a lot of the times I get back and Skype my son and things like that. There's a lot of other things going on. It's great to end up in a really great record store but it doesn't happen as much these days.”
From their humble beginnings Garza and Hilton have gone on to be very influential throughout the spectrum of electronic music, and have branched out into other businesses. Garza, for instance, owns several bars down in Mexico, and has a premium Mezcal brand, Papa Diablo, as well. How does he find the time?
“Basically, I have no idea,” he says with an amused sigh. “It's juggling, you know? Just trying to just focus on the big picture and doing what we love. For me, that's doing music, and then some of the other stuff - the bars in Mexico - that's also a labour of love - and I have great partners. I'm focused on big picture stuff rather than hiring and firing employees or picking out what plates we're going to use in the restaurants and things like that. I just like diversifying into things that I'm passionate about.”
Despite working together for over 20 years, Garza says he and Hilton have no trouble keeping their ideas fresh.
“You know, I just think that the inspiration is limitless. There's so much great music from the past and there's so many things to meld the things that are happening in the future. I never feel like we run out of inspiration. The other thing is that a great song is a great song, no matter what genre it is. If we continue to push ourselves to create the music that we really love that's inspiring enough.”
Recent albums have seen their focus be more specific rather than genre-hopping throughout each record. Saudade, released in 2014, explored a very Brazilian theme, whereas 2017’s The Temple of I & I had much more of a reggae flavour.
“Yeah. You know, one of the unique things about Saudade is we said, ‘okay, instead of bouncing around from too many genres where we have a bossa-nova song, a reggae song, an Indian and Middle Eastern song, let's just concentrate on one particular type of music we love’. The theme of that record was sort of bossa nova and cinematic jazz, soundtrack-ey kind of sounding things.
“Then with this next record we recorded it in Jamaica,” he goes on to explain, “and so overall it has a Jamaican, reggae dub inflection throughout the thing, even though there are glimpses of other styles of music. Like the Loulou track, for instance, or some of the tracks with (Boston hip hop artist) Mr Lif. Yeah, we just tried to centre it mainly around one particular sound, which was nice.”
Having explored so many different musical elements over the years, one wonders if there is a style or genre on their bucket list to delve into at a later date?
“We talked about maybe doing some kind of old school hip hop sort of thing, with old style drum machines, older synthesisers, things like that, which could be kind of cool,” Garza muses. “We never know what we’re going to do. Sometimes it'll be something like, ‘oh, let's play around with things that sound like space rock from the '70s,’ but try to make it a little bit more modern. There's different things that pop up at the most random times.”
Garza and Hilton have taken a strong political and activist stance on many issues over the years, including combating world hunger, economic crises and anti-war issues. Garza feels he has a responsibility to be aware of issues, not only as an artist, and tries to stay up to date as they travel the world.
“I think I do, in general,” he says thoughtfully. “That might be because I grew up in the D.C. area - we're both very aware of international politics as well, not just things happening in the United States, which I think is kind of rare, because a lot of Americans don't even have a clue of what's happening domestically on the political front. For me, it's something I feel as someone who is born on this planet, I kind of want to know what's happening on this planet.”
Thievery Corporation (full band) performs at Metro City on Thursday, March 8. Ticktes via https://tickets.oztix.com.au/?Event=79940