Thievery Corporation: Power Of Two
The deliciously chill beats and subversive lyrics of the lounge band Thievery Corporation have been a mainstay of nightclubs and lounges around the world for a decade and a half.
Eric Hilton and Rob Garza started Thievery Corporation at a Washington, D.C. nightclub in the mid-1990s, and the two producers are still experimenting. This summer, they released their sixth album, Culture of Fear. It features collaborations with six artists from a range of genres, multilingual (and sometimes politically charged) lyrics, and, underneath it all, the intoxicating beat-making on which the duo made its name.
Garza tells Weekend Edition Sunday guest host John Ydstie that having just two core members, each with a range of talents, has afforded the group a lot of versatility in the kind of music it makes.
"If you come to our studio, we'll be working on songs, and maybe [Eric] will be playing bass and I'll be playing guitar — or we'll switch off and he'll do beats, I'll do keyboards," says Garza. "And we'll bring in friends to play percussion, or do horns or sitar. The thing about Thievery Corporation that's great is we're not limited to four guys in a rock n' roll band. We can kind of work with whoever we want to. It's a production unit, and we can collaborate with many, many people."
JOHN YDSTIE, host: The entrancing beats and subversive lyrics of the lounge Thievery Corporation have been a mainstay at night clubs and lounges around the world for more than a decade and a half.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEB OF DECEPTION")
YDSTIE: And 16 years after Rob Garza and Eric Hilton started Thievery Corporation, at a Washington, D.C. nightclub, the two producers are still experimenting.
This summer, they released their sixth album, "Culture of Fear." It features collaborations with six artists from a range of genres, and at times politically charged lyrics, and, underneath it all, intoxicating beat making Thievery Corporation as addictive as ever.
Rob Garza and Eric Hilton join us in our studio. Welcome.
ERIC HILTON: Thanks. Good to be here.
ROB GARZA: Yeah. Nice to be here.
YDSTIE: This song is "Web of Deception" and it seems like a pretty fair representation of the kind of music you create. We called you a lounge band in your intro.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
YDSTIE: How do you label your music?
GARZA: It's hard to label us. I mean, I think that's kind of one of our things, is any time anybody puts a label on us we're kind of like, whoa.
HILTON: Yeah. We usually recoil at the lounge or chill words. Categories are, you know, they're a box and you don't like to live in a box.
YDSTIE: It's been about two decades now since the two of you met and began making music. You've collaborated with a huge array of artists and I just wonder whether the way you approach music has changed over time. Eric, what do you think?
HILTON: Well, when we first started we made all of our music on very simple machinery, very early machinery like an Akai MPC 3000 which is pre-computer. I mean, we weren't using computers at all, and it was all electronic. And then we started adding live musicians and playing instruments ourselves.
And, of course, using, you know, software and computers. So the technology has opened up a new field of recording for us and I think we've gotten better as musicians, too, over the years.
YDSTIE: Do you play specific instruments as well as do the mix?
GARZA: We're playing a little bit of everything but we're not great at any one particular thing. If you come to our studio we'll be working on songs and maybe he'll be playing bass, I'll be playing guitar, or we'll switch off. And in addition, we'll bring in friends that play percussion or horns.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GARZA: The thing about Thievery Corporation that's great is we're not limited to four guys in a rock n' roll band. We can kind of work with whoever we want to. It's a production unit and we can collaborate with many, many people.
YDSTIE: How do you develop your songs? I mean, what where do they began and how do they come together?
GARZA: For each song it's very different. Sometimes he may have an idea or I might have a sketch or sometimes we just sit down and write together. A lot of times we'll do that. Other times we'll collaborate with vocalists or maybe different players. So there really is no one set way for a Thievery song to start.
You know, I think the thing that puts it all in common is that, you know, we both get on the same page in terms of where we want to go and where we want to take it and what type of singers we want to work with and from there it takes its own direction.
HILTON: I think, you know, usually when we're starting songs the number one thing we try to do is catch a groove, you know, just something. You know, like beats, keys, baseline, something that really feels right to us, and then we take it from there. And, you know, we can invite any singer we want, you know, depending on what we feel would be best.
YDSTIE: And when you tour you bring in people to play guitar, bass, and so you have a full band on stage, right?
GARZA: Definitely. Yeah. We like the more heavyweight musicians to come out with us, like, you know, Hash on bass who's phenomenal. I mean, neither of us would try to play bass through the whole show. You know, our hand would fall off, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HILTON: We need, you know, pretty heavy hitters on the road.
YDSTIE: We called you a lounge band. You've also your music has also been called funk. It's been called trip-hop.
YDSTIE: One thing that it hasn't been called up to now is rap, but the title track on this new album "Culture of Fear" is just that, rap.
GARZA: Mm-hmm. That's the first song we ever did with an MC.
GARZA: After all these years.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CULTURE OF FEAR")
MR. LIFF, RAPPING WITH THIEVERY CORPORATION: (Rapping) ...stressful life that I see every day. I'll just speak about the culture of fear. It's up in your ear. They telling us terrorists about to strike, maybe tonight. Right. You can just back up slowly. The critical analysis of those who control me have yet to see they just had a break in the brig on the TV but now we carry (unintelligible) when we see rap. Not smart though (unintelligible). But on the road it's the program.
(Rapping) And you want to watch your favorite show because it's so slamming. Hold hands and let's gaze into the beautiful glare while we're here so immersed in this culture of fear. Fear, fear, fear.
YDSTIE: And who's the rapper?
HILTON: His name is Mr. Liff. We met him at a protest called The Sorry State of the Union back in the early 2000's and he was just, you know, performing in the cold, you know, during the State of the Union on the Mall and he blew us away. And we kept in touch ever since.
YDSTIE: This kind of music, though, at least the kind of music you began with, isn't usually associated with political lyrics and I wonder whether your fans have come along with you as you've moved into that area, Eric.
HILTON: Some, yeah. Quite a few, actually. It depends on where you go.
GARZA: Because some places you go people don't even know exactly what you're singing and the music because they don't speak the language.
HILTON: Right. Like Eastern Europe.
GARZA: You know, but the music kind of transcends culture and people, you know, really love the sounds and the rhythms and the instrumentation.
YDSTIE: Have your influence changed as you've matured? I mean, there's a lot of bossa nova in your early stuff, certainly reggae. Are you moving into different things now, do you think? Are you fascinated with different things?
HILTON: The space rock element is something we've been experimenting for a while and I think it's started to creep in a little bit more on this record and...-
YDSTIE: Space rock?
GARZA: Well, like two tracks, like the "Web of Deception," and then the third one, "Take My Soul" are kind of like they're, you know, they remind of us this sort of late '60s era where people are using strings and lots of effects, studio tricks, and it blurred the lines between soul and rock.
YDSTIE: Let's listen to one of those tracks. Track three, it's called?
HILTON: "Take My Soul" with Lou Lou.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TAKE MY SOUL")
LOU LOU: (Singing) Such strange ways to show who we are, what you know. Put the love back in your heart. Let's try forgiveness. No self-deceptions. Little less reaction. Little more reflection. New trails are blazing in. City shows no love tonight. All the sounds come crashing in; inside and outside. Running through your mind, all the words collide. Nothing left to hide.
YDSTIE: That's a track called "Take My Soul" on the new Thievery Corporation album "Culture of Fear." Eric Hilton and Rob Garza are with us in the studio. That features a singer that you use a lot, Lou Lou, and she's been with you a long time, right?
GARZA: Long time. We actually met her through Roots.
HILTON: He's a performer with us and they had a child together and they were boyfriend-girlfriend at the time and she happened to be in the studio one day in another room and she was just humming melodies and singing and to me it was pretty obvious that she was trying to catch the attention of us.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HILTON: And she did. It sounded really good. And then, you know, I told Rob, hey, I think we should give her a shot, and we gave her one shot and we've done stuff with her ever since.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "TAKE MY SOUL")
LOU: (Singing) I don't need it anymore. Don't let go.
YDSTIE: Do you have other favorite artists that you work with a lot?
GARZA: Well, Sleepy Wonder is one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARGAZER")
SLEEPY WONDER: (Singing) Late at night, I will stare up in the skies forever.
HILTON: He's a Jamaican artist. And Roots and Zee.
GARZA: Roots and Zee. Of course.
HILTON: They have a group called CI and they were on the first Thievery record. They had a song called "3845" and they tour with us to this day. And, you know, I mean, the thing is traveling with these guys it just feels like it's family with all the musicians.
WONDER: (Singing) Late at night I will still look up in the skies forever. Late at night, I will look in the skies forever.
YDSTIE: Rob Garza and Eric Hilton are Thievery Corporation. Their new CD is titled "Culture of Fear." Rob, thanks a lot.
GARZA: Thanks for having us.
YDSTIE: And Eric.
HILTON: A pleasure. Thank you.
YDSTIE: Thanks for coming in. You can hear more songs from Thievery Corporation's new album at NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION. From NPR News, I'm John Ydstie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.