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Interviews

Thievery Corporation

Rage against the machine? They’d rather just unplug it

Thievery C Drop the needle on any one of Thievery Corporation’s productions, and their sound is recognizable within seconds. Their reputation for consistency is well-deserved, and yet it tends to obscure what’s most interesting about the band. Over the course of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton’s fourteen-year career, they have come to contradict a series of widespread ideas about pop music: that a band without a permanent lead singer has no identity, that live performances by electronic acts are nothing more than glorified light shows, and that it’s impossible to fight the power and chill out at the same time.

While the music on their new album, Radio Retaliation, features the soothing elements that identify their sound (including slinky, programmed breakbeats, gently roiling percussion, ethereal synth pads, dubby reverb, and hints of jazz and bossa nova), the lyrics, delivered by an array of singers including samba pop star Seu Jorge and Go-Go “Godfather” Chuck Brown, speak of revolution rather than relaxation. Moreover, the poster-sized booklet that dominates the CD’s Grammy-nominated packaging is adorned with incendiary quotes by everyone from Abbey Hoffman to Emilio Zapata.

As the title of their debut single, “2001: A Spliff Odyssey,” suggests, Thievery Corporation didn’t spark up their career as a political band. In their early years, they gained popularity by licensing their music to an array of generic “chillout” compilations. Over the phone from his Washington, D.C. home, Garza recalls: “It was exciting at that time: you’d [get] exposure for all these different electronic projects throughout the world, but over the years, it got to be just a flood of these silly ‘comps,’ [such as] Chillout for Babies – music to put your infants to sleep to. It all gets kind of ludicrous.”

Over time, as with most musicians who live in the charged climate of D.C., Thievery Corporation found the atmosphere of the city that Garza half-jokingly refers to as “the heart of Babylon” creeping into their work. The seminal local punk label Dischord, Garza says, exemplifies how “a real political awareness comes with the territory. If you live in Hollywood, you’re probably up on celebrity culture. Here, I think there’s a nice counterculture: people who see the negative side of world politics.”

Thievery Corporation’s polished grooves, Garza professes, are more than simply vehicles for slyly drawing attention to corruption and the misuse of power: “I don’t think we ever make music to appease people and then to slip a political mickey in [their] drink.” Their approach, he says, is “more interesting than just [saying], ‘Fuck the government!’ and creating really abrasive music. It can be musically very diverse, but at the same time talking about things that are a little more substantive than just going out and getting the party started.”

As partners of the UN’s World Food Programme, Garza and Hilton have played fundraising concerts and travelled to operational sites around the globe. Radio Retaliation’s song “Vampires,” sung by Nigerian firebrand Femi Kuti, arises directly from this experience; it critiques “Pirates and robbers, liars and thieves” in Africa, including the IMF – which itself was launched by the UN.

Says Garza, “There’s things about the UN that we like, and things that we don’t. For instance, you have the World Bank, and at the same the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are so many issues with things that seem altruistic.” Similarly, he describes himself as “hopeful but very cautious” about the results of the recent U.S. election.

“You have to be careful when it gets into a messianic state, where everyone’s like, ‘Oh, our leader!’ You can’t turn off your mind just because you have somebody in here that is very different from the last president; that doesn’t mean that politics as usual isn’t going to go on.”

Wary as they might be, Thievery Corporation have contributed to the “festive scene” in their hometown by playing a string of five sold-out concerts at D.C.’s 9:30 Club last month.

Their shows, like their ethos, have evolved over time: in the ‘90s, Garza recalls, he and Hilton started out “just playing a CD player and playing cards onstage,” while two collaborators, dancehall toasters Zee and Rootz Steele, sang in front of the crowd. Now, it includes a six-piece band and a rotating cast of five or six singers, whose energy has moved Garza and Hilton to play instruments and trigger samples instead of simply chilling out.

They bring their whole band and entourage on tour – a move that is generally only affordable by superannuated stars playing the casino circuit. Musicians nowadays, Garza says, “sometimes feel like coal miners, like you’re in a dying industry. But [we] invest more into the show just because [we] want it to come off really explosive.”

The live band is a dynamic extension of the shifting cast in the studio. For Garza, Thievery Corporation is “a revolving door,” and the most important type of consistency is change: “You could be working with The Flaming Lips, or David Byrne, or Seu Jorge, or Femi Kuti, or Chuck Brown. It’s a great feeling not to be stuck with four people. I think if we were that kind of band, we probably would have broken up a long time ago.”

— Originally published in The National Post, Feb. 7, 2009

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