Two Decades of Downtempo
At the nadir of the alternative scene of the 1990s, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton were looking for something different. Based in Washington, D.C., they had met in 1995 at a popular lounge co-owned by Hilton, an entrepreneurial sort who had been producing parties for the hotspot known as the Eighteenth Street Lounge, which was located in an old mansion with three floors renovated for DJ-driven music events. The duo decided to use the venue, drawing from the musicians it attracted, to create a collective entity that has been known for 20 years as Thievery Corporation.
What they were looking for back then, recalled Garza during a telephone interview from his home of seven years in San Francisco, was something new to inject into the electronic dance music scene. New hip-hop acts and ultra-hip sampling processors such as Fat Boy Slim and the Chemical Brothers were replacing the heroes of Pearl-Jam-landia. Digital drums jumped to the front like mighty hammers, smashing the primacy of grunge and noodling guitar solos to bits. The appropriation of beats and found sounds was all the rage, and Garza and Hilton, after rummaging through the record stores in Baltimore, bought old bossa nova albums, dub records and soundtrack music, and began incoropating those inspirational elements into recordings made at Hilton's studio.
Garza says it got to the point that they realized their love for Brazilian bossa nova from 30 years before might be updated with the new production values and the trance-like electronic vibe of the emerging age.
The duo drew attention with their first two 12-inch offerings, "Shaolin Satellite," a dark, intense, bass-driven and danceable electronic track, and "2001: a Spliff Odyssey," where dub meets a kind of spacey, atmospheric jazz. With their 1997 debut LP, "Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi," the duo showed a desire to break into more and more of what had at that point been known as world music.
"In '95 we were really just doing it for the fun of it, but then people really responded to the music," Garza says. "After the first two singles, people from all over were into us. It was at that point that we decided to create a business that was sustainable. The music we were creating had a trippy quality where you couldn't be sure if it was from the future or the past."
What they were doing has since been labeled "lounge" or "downtempo," but Garza says at the time the easy listening labels of those early years were just fads. What they wanted to do was put some old roots music on steroids, borrowing from Bollywood to Buenas Aires, especially from the bossa nova movement in Brazil in the 1960s, "and get a different take of some of this different music," Garza says.
Those early efforts were basic experiments. In the years since Moby's "Play" became a permanent monument on the radio and television landscape, beyond the go-go internet days of 2000, electronic dance music has taken over the night club scene in urban America. The recordings of this century by Thievery Corporation have shown the willingness to move into undefinable directions of sound accompanied by the voices of many nations. And more than having fun with samples, which got them into the game to begin with, their music has taken on themes of political and social immediacy on a world-wide scale.
Playing dub, acid jazz, space rock to the chill side of Pink Floyd, as well as a fusion of reggae, Indian classical, and Middle Eastern styles, all to the predominant, insistent beat of hip-hop, Thievery Corporation is a politically progressive act intent on opening listeners' minds to foreign sounds so they no longer feel foreign. Remarkably during their career, they have created songs with lyrics in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian and Hindi. Ranging from a kind of romantic elegance to dark and perilous tracks full of intricate details caught in a minimalist web, each album is a kind of urgent trek across many musical horizons, often to a dub or bass beat, then jumping into reggae or a cosmic jazz suite: music that can be played at low volumes but still make you feel like you are living on the edge.
"Having music that is coming from a global perspective opens people's minds, gives them a broader view of the world," Garza says. "It makes you think a little bit. I don't think our music is necessarily political. It is inspired by music from bands like Public Enemy, Fugazi, the punk stuff, bands like the Clash. There's something liberating about being able to say anything."
If recent records have contained, from track to track, multiple styles of music, the most recent album, "Saudade," released in 2014, sticks to the Brazilian and bossa nova side of things. Garza says it was a way of going full circle after 20 years.
"For us, we have always been influenced by Brazilian music and for that record, rather than jumping from style to style, we would take a break, choose one particular form," he says. "With the next album we are going to release later this year, we recorded it at Point Antonio in Jamaica. There's a Jamaican theme throughout and we are very excited about it."
Of course, to keep all of those musical influences under one band's roof, Thievery Corporation has grown beyond Garza and Hilton into a larger band of supporting musicians including Rob Myers, Loulou Ghelichkhani, Natalia Clavier, Frank "Booty Lock" Mitchell, Mr. Lif, Jeff Franca and Ashish Vyas.
"We have great musicians from all over the country, people from Argentina, Iran and Jamaica," Garza says. "It really feels like a circus with a great cast of characters."
But don't ever think it's chill or downtempo or lounge music, he adds, if you come to see it live.
"I hope people see it as Thievery Corporation music," Garza says. "A lot of songs might seem chilled out when you play them at home, but get it pumping into a live sound system, really gets the heart going."