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Thievery Corporation: Rob Garza, right,  Eric Hilton, left / Photo by Jen Maler
Thievery Corporation: Rob Garza, right, Eric Hilton, left / Photo by Jen Maler

BEST OF 2018: Q & A with Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation: Straight outta D.C.

By LISA HELFER // How Thievery Corporation, one of the world’s most-loved Electronica duos emerged from Washington DC’s Punk scene and political culture.

Rob Garza Q&A

We're running OMN's Best of 2018. We asked our writers and editors to choose their own favorite posts. Lisa chose this, even though it just ran last month. That's ok with us. Maybe you missed it. -- TVD

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Since 1996, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton have released 8 studio LP’s, 2 remix collections, 2 DJ mix albums, and continued to perform live on 5 continents. Their unique musical journey has virtually defined an entire sub-genre of electronic music. Collaborations include David Byrne, Perry Farrell, The Flaming Lips, Anushka Shankar, Femi Kuti, Notch Howell, Mr. Lif, Puma Ptah, Racquel Jones, Lou Lou, Natalia Clavier, Sitali, Zeebo and Elin, Seu Jorge, Bebel Gilberto, as well film soundtracks such as Garden State and others. Garza and Hilton have headlined Coachella, Lollapalooza and other top music festivals—their work has influenced a whole generation of electronic producers and DJs.

Recently, Thievery Corporation released another auditory journey with their new album, Treasure from the Temple. The LP is a companion to their chart-topping 2017 album Temple of I & I which has original recordings and remixes from their time at Gee Jam Studios in Jamaica.

The duo is currently on tour to support their latest album and will play Portland, Oregon at Roseland (sold out) on December 29, 2018. Rob Garza and I talked about the group’s history, DIY ethos, political foundation, and composition process.

You started with large dance parties in Washington, D.C. nearly a 25 years ago. I remember first hearing your music when I lived in New York in the 1990s—you have continued to produce incredible music for so many years. Can you speak to innovation and how you’ve continued to engage your audience?

Well, when we started it was really just a hobby. Our studio was in the liquor room of the Eighteenth Street Lounge. We never had any idea that people might actually like what we were doing. We were influenced by old records, Italian film soundtracks and Jamaican, Indian and Brazilian music. We tried to incorporate all of these more modern electronic sounds and things like that. Basically, it’s grown organically and been a really slow burn. There are a lot of artists who rise to the top really fast and you don’t hear of them again. We think ourselves as a “no-hit” wonder, we don’t have radio hits, but so many people have heard our music and know it well; they tell us it has permeated different facets of their lives and how deeply it has impacted them—they’ve heard us in so many places whether they know it or not.

So, we’ve been able to grow steadily over time. The fact we are independent makes a big difference. We can make a great living selling 200k-300k records, which would mean nothing to a major label, but we have been able to cultivate our sound and really build a career without that.  Many artists are expected to sell a million copies, which is a recipe for disaster and they tend to burnout quickly.  

 Was that a choice from the beginning? To continue without a major label?

Yeah, we are from Washington, D.C. and we grew up with the hardcore punk scene and the Dischord Records label who signed Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and Fugazi. We were influenced by a DIY ethos—we had a couple of major-label offers but liked doing it all ourselves.

Along the way has your audience impacted your approach? Have certain songs influenced your direction or does technology do that? How does that run in parallel to the way you produce?

The music tends to lead us on a path; we are never sure quite where it is going. We haven’t ever made records for audiences in particular. Eric and I respect each other’s taste in music and attention to detail when it comes to producing music. So, for us, it comes from something more personal. When we play live, we have the chance to connect with the audience and get to feel how it resonates how with other people. That is quite infectious as well!

Some people say Thievery Corporation is genre-less, but electronica seems to be the most agreed upon. How do you feel this category has evolved since you started making this type of music?

Well, when I started working with electronic music, I was 14 years old. My family moved to Connecticut and I was in a high school that had an electronic music class. I was first working with modular synthesizers, step sequencers, sampling drum machines, and samplers. At that time, that was considered electronic music. Now everything is recorded on software—so technically, everything now is electronic music. If you record a country album with Pro Tools you do that in the computer. So, in many ways that’s a really good question. In terms of E.D.M. (electronic dance music), we were really influenced by hip hop, which I think people often forget is electronic music. It is recorded with drum machines, samplers and keyboards.

When we started Thievery Corporation, we were just using the tools we had and tried to squeeze the most juice out of them to get sounds. In our studio, we had synths and drum machines and we tried to combine something old with a sound that was more electronic and progressive. I feel like the electronic music scene has come to mean something totally different today. It’s now a mainstream festival environment with a big sound stage experience. Our beginning was very different.

So, let’s talk about the message in your music. You have consistently included mentions of a call for a revolution. Your guest artists frequently talk about changing the world and convey a “one world” philosophy. You often take on progressive political stances on various issues, such as opposing war and exploitative trade agreements, while supporting human rights and food programs. You were also ahead of your time in terms of bringing multiculturalism front and center in your songs and this dialogue has changed a lot since the 1990s. What has this creative process been like?

We were influenced heavily by the Washington, D.C. punk environment and the punk and rap scenes in general. For example, the Dead Kennedys and The Clash, and also artists like Public Enemy, and musicians in the reggae scene. Overall, we are inspired by very socially conscious music and people who are changing the world, so naturally we wanted to talk about what’s happening. This comes out in our music and we are not afraid to do it. If you are assigned to a major label, you might have some push back to that, because you are not supporting and selling an industry standard of “let’s party all the time” music. Coming from Washington, D.C., we’ve always been very aware of politics and policies that are often pushed in place and the affect that they have on all of us. A lot of people in America don’t really understand the level of power that is wielded in places like in Washington, D.C.. Growing up, we were exposed to a lot of artists speaking out about what was happening, so we are carrying on that tradition.

Can we talk about the technological aspect of your work a bit? Your pieces are often long, as in five, seven minutes or more. When you are producing, are you writing songs in a traditional sense or is it more a jam style?

It really depends. At the beginning, we were into producing songs that lasted 10 minutes. We were excited by the fact we were making music to begin with and so we let the songs go on and on. It’s nice to be able to stretch out, but it really does depend on the album and where the vibe is with things. For example, if you look at an album like Saudade, many of the pieces are two or three minutes long.

You’ve worked with top reggae artists and vocalists, and also David Byrne, The Flaming Lips, Femi Kuti, Bebel Gilberto, and Perry Farrell. Do they write their own vocals and come and drop in? How does that work?

This also depends on the individual song, there are so many different scenarios. Sometimes we have a track we’ve recorded ourselves and think of different potential singers and then send the music to them and they write the lyrics. Other times we are directly in the studio with them and another situation is us creating both the music and lyrics and then we reach out to somebody to perform it. That’s the cool thing about being in a production duo, because we are not really limited to one way of creating the music. We are also able to work with many different vocalists and musicians from sorts of different genres. We are not tied to sounding a rock band or a jazz band for instance. In that way it’s very liberating to do what we do.

 What’s your favorite gear to use?

I love old synthesizers, old Rolands, Korgs, especially the Roland JP 8000, Moogs, the Korg MS2000 has also been a favorite keyboard. Sometimes it is great to pull out old drum machines and guitars as well. We have used an old Wurlitzer we got from a school auction—that one has been on many records. We sometimes just pull up a lot of random things gear-wise as well.

Do you have a particular sample that’s a favorite? Something that stands out with the combination of other sounds you might have used in a particular piece of music?

Well, yes, actually. We have this shaker from an old sample CD and it’s called “Shaker #4” and a lot of times we will be in the studio listening to a track and it needs a movement and so we say, “let’s pull up Shaker #4” and it just adds that little swing and gets the song going a bit more!

 What about your own solo work? What are the differences? Similarities?

Well, I like to say that Thievery is the main feature blockbuster film and when I do other projects or make other types of music it’s like making these little indie films. It’s a way for me to scratch a musical itch and I’m able to include other forms of music that I love, but don’t necessarily fit in what we are doing Thievery-wise. I had a record that just came out this past summer called Dissolve, it’s more sort of deep house, disco vibes, and a lot more electronic. It is cool to work with other musicians in very different ways.

We touched a little bit on this when we talked about your political message, but let’s go back to the idea of many cultures in your songs. From the beginning, you have incorporated the music and sounds of many cultures. Brazilian, Latin, Middle Eastern, African, and Jamaican, to name a few. Why were you drawn to these styles?

My Mother is from Mexico and I remember hearing a lot of Latin music in the house. My Father was very into blues and rock and roll and soul, so there was a lot of that happening. I studied a little bit of classical music in High School and played in a jazz ensemble and became interested in different forms. Washington, D.C. is a very cosmopolitan city and for such a small city, there are a lot of embassies and many communities from around the world who live there.

Eric and I would go out to Rhumba Café and hear Argentinean music, or go to a West African joint or a French café and they were playing Bossa Nova. We listened to everything! Dub, reggae, punk, hip hop, jazz, and these cool old Italian movie soundtracks. We would hear all of these sounds and somehow it felt natural to start mixing all of it together.

So being products of D.C., your music is a reflection of your personal history.

Yes, I was in Kansas recently and a childhood friend came to the gig with their parents who babysat me a lot as a kid. They are an Indian family and played a lot of Indian music when I was with them. I always wonder, “why do I like the sitar so much?” That’s something that I never really thought about, but I was in the space with the family hearing the music they played back then. You never know how things creep into to your psyche and inspiration. I’m sure there are many ways music has seeped into my life and it all comes out through Thievery Corporation.





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