by Stephanie Amy Collazo
Fifteen years later and DJ duo Thievery Corporation are still on top of their game. The group is known for their carnival-esque live performances featuring a 15-member live band of musicians and vocalists. Having sold over 1.2 million albums in the U.S. over a decade and a half, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton continue to mix space-rock, hip-hop, dub, reggae and downtempo trances in their trademark fashion. The pair kicked off the release of their sixth studio album, Culture of Fear, with a live show at Williamsburg Waterfront in Brooklyn last month and will continue to tour with a full live band throughout the summer.
YRB: As cliché as it sounds, how did you meet?
Rob: We met back in 1995. Eric was opening up a bar in D.C. called 18 Street Lounge. I went in there with a mutual friend of ours, and me and Eric met, and we just started talking about music and records we liked and different artists and genres and things we were into. He was aware that I was producing music at the time, and he was also working on records, so we decided to put our equipment together and see if we could make something happen. The first week we came up with a few songs so we realized that it might be a good partnership.
YRB: Did you think you would still be together so many years later?
Rob: No. I mean, at the time we did it we had no kind of dreams of doing this for that long. It was more of a hobby and we were just kind of like – oh, we are making these tracks – and we didn’t realize how we would even put them out, and that’s why we started our own record label. I think we were really surprised when we started hearing back from DJs and producers in Europe who were really into our music. And then that kind of just gave us a lot more momentum and fueled the fire and stuff, and we realized that we could actually put out records, sell music and have a career. It was really a surprise.
YRB: How did you decide on what to call yourselves?
Rob: Well, I had a record label and it was called Ju-Ju Thievery Corporation, and I’d been putting records out as that, and at the time Eric was like, ‘Why don’t we just shorten it and call us Thievery Corporation?’ And that’s how it came about, really.
YRB: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?
Rob: Music is, for us… I think it’s easier to make then it is to describe. We jut do what we do. But, you know, I think if anything we like to use our own term of “outer national music,” music that kind of transcends nationality and culture and boundaries.
YRB: What inspired you to start writing music about political issues?
Rob: Basically, I think after September 11 we were kind of just disheartened with everything that was going on in terms of the political atmosphere in the U.S. and the way people just took up this blind patriotism without asking any questions and things like that. We’re from Washington D.C. so I think that we see a lot of what really goes on there and we are aware of how it affects people around the world. So I think a lot of things grew from that and we were inspired by a lot of political music whether it’s The Clash or the old discord scene or bands like Public Enemy. And just people being able to say what’s on their mind really influenced what we do.
YRB: Do you think your music would be so heavily influenced in politics if you weren’t based in D.C.?
Rob: Maybe. I think it’s probably a combination of all those things. I grew up with the discord scene there, and I think being in Washington and being part of the counterculture there and not being part of the political establishment – I think it kind of creates a little more angst when it comes to political messages and things like that.
YRB: What has been your biggest challenge choosing politics as your topic?
Rob: Sometimes we run into political protest things in Washington, and we’ve run into times where someone told us if we did this one event we would be audited by the IRS and, lo and behold, a week later they’re knocking on our doors. But we’re an independent artist on our own independent label, and I love the fact that we can talk about what we want.
YRB: In what city are you guaranteed to pack the house? Why do you think that is?
Rob: Athens, Greece is usually just pretty insane. We usually go there and play for about 8,000 people. That was the first place that we played live in Europe and I think they have an affinity for what we do, especially now. I remember last time we were there and we were playing a song about vampires, and it’s a song about the IMF – the International Monetary Fund – and they really understood what that was about. And if you look at what’s happening there right as we speak, you know the riots in the streets and everything, you know the song has a lot to do with that whole situation. I think that there’s a certain resonance there. Places like San Francisco, the house is always packed and people just really feel what it’s about.
YRB: What artists inspire you?
Rob: Well, a lot of older stuff, like Jorge Ben, is somebody that we love. Artists like Jackie Mittoo, old soundtracks, library music, just a lot of obscure things, too. Our record collections are very broad.
YRB: Are there any artists you would like to collaborate with?
Rob: The one that I just mentioned, actually, would be one that I think both of us would really love to collaborate with – Jorge Ben from Brazil. He’s probably, like, one of the most covered living artists right now.
YRB: What can listeners expect from your Culture of Fear album?
Rob: It’s just another musical trip. I think we kind of explore some more kind of space rock scenes, and like I was talking about earlier, soundtrack kind of library music. Music that was created for movies and television shows back in the ‘60s, and we have a collection of these things where you put them on and it’s these kind of instrumental vignettes, and that’s one of the things that seeped into this record as well.
YRB: Does the new album focus on recent and current issues in society?
Rob: Well, on the title track, for sure, you have “Culture of Fear,” and I think that really touches what’s happening with our society and everything from going to the airport and people being concerned about the government infringing on our privacy and liberties. You know, it seems like we give up a lot of liberties for security, and I think that’s what that song is talking about.
YRB: How is this album different from your previous ones?
Rob: I think it’s different in the sense that it’s just an expansion of what’s come before. You know, in terms of our musical partnership we’re on a set path and it kind of grows, but I don’t think you’ll ever hear us [say] we’re gonna make a dub step album or anything right now. It’s kind of moving forward and exploring things that inspire us.
YRB: After being together and putting out so many albums, what are your goals for Thievery Corporation moving forward?
Rob: I think to do just more music we love and to work with some more great artists and keep bringing the sound in terms of playing live. For us, it’s a surprise and a real blessing in a sense you know that here we are over 15 years later and able to travel the world and make records and work with great artists, and it really started off as a hobby.