Living in the belly of
the beast, the D.C. duo hands down an indictment.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
Oppression, repression, and partisan politics are not the
sort of thing you’d expect from Thievery Corporation – that is, unless you’ve
actually been listening to them and not just looking at their suits.
“Richest Man in Babylon,”
from the 2002 album of the same name, discussed current political policies, as
did “Amerimacka” and “Revolution Solution” from The Cosmic Game (2005). And, most notably, each of
producer/instrumentalist Rob Garza and Eric Hilton’s records utilized an
“outernational” sonic ideal as if they were music’s United Nations. Brazilian
bossa nova, Jamaican dub, African high life and ripples from Asia and the Middle East made their palate wide-reaching.
But the duo who own Eighteenth St. Lounge – the label and
the swanky lounge of theirs- are Washingtonians; wise punk rock guys from the
days of Discord Records who understand the politics of anarchy as well as those
of D.C.’s capitol steps. So their fifth studio album, Radio Retaliation, on ESL
Music, was 2008’s sleeper sensation, conveying as it did sharply conscious
lyrics ripe with the notion of change the world some months before Obama got
elected. Food wars, fuel wars, immigration wars and torture -not the flowers of
romance – are what come out of the mouths of Thievery Corp’s klatch of
vocalists that include Nigeria’s
Femi Kuti, Brazilian actor and songwriter Seu Jorge, Indian sitar-ist and chanteuse
Anoushka Shankar, and Washington
D.C.’s go-go go-to-guy Chuck
BLURT: Do you think
the new record worked in regard to its goal of getting the word out – lyrically
– about the division within? All divisions within? You think that now that the
election is done and the decision’s been made that you made a difference?
Eric Hilton: No. I think everyone is going back to sleep.
Rob Garza: If they haven’t already.
EH: I don’t think we were trying to get people ready for the
election. Radio Retaliation touches
on so many colors of the spectrum – musically. So what’s going on in our minds
is just another color. We’re not trying to wake people up. We’re just socially
RG: We’re still trying to wake up ourselves.
By no means do I
think this is you guys pulling a Joan Baez, standing on top of the hill
preaching. And it’s not even like you guys haven’t written with cultural heft
before – this just seems denser. Was there an idea going in of “how can we do
this without seeming or sounding heavy handed”?
EH: We just take it song by song. Simply we talk about
issues and feelings close to us, pick up instruments and write it all down. Not
to sound cold about it – it’s about the moments. A song like “33°”? We wrote
with Ze (the singer) sitting in the studio based on our conversations. The
lyrics may be a bit symbolic. Sometimes I think we’re the only ones who know
what we’re talking about.
Are you both on equal
footings of confidence when it comes to lyrics?
RG: I think so. Depends. It’s all about sentiment and what’s
happening while in the studio. “Vampire” and “Beautiful Drug” are good
You’ve been around
for more than a minute and have lived in Washington
for all the time we’ve known you. Does living in D.C. put you in the belly of
EH: I think so. You feel the politics of the city closer
toward its center. Money meeting power – it’s pulsating. Sometimes it gets you
down. And sometimes it amuses you. We exist in a world outside of that. But the
neighborhoods we live in are about creativity and drinks rather than lobbyists
and federal buildings.
Is there something
within you guys that makes you want to express a polemic that’s reminiscent of
your days as fans of Fugazi and the whole Discord Washington scene? Famously, you’ve mentioned
being punk rock kids ages ago.
RG: Both of us were inspired by that scene. Those bands were
big for both of us growing up. I think those acts even inspired our label, how
we operated. We’ve had the chance to sign two major labels before. We looked to
DIY labels like Discord. And the fact that it was possible gave us the impetus
to make it our way, speaking out and saying what you wanted, just resisting the
whole big media and corporate culture [thing] that permeates everything –
that’s been us.
EH: Also because we’re independent we don’t have to censor
ourselves in any way. We’re not going to get dropped because we own our label.
We have no one to please but ourselves.
Ever think about
dropping yourselves? These are the jokes.
RG: At least one time.
Where is the label at
this point? It’s fourteen years strong. Sometimes we hear a lot. Sometimes it’s
RG: We put out our record and a few others in 08. Same with
2009. ESL is a vehicle for us and those artists we respect. We’re small and
efficient and can get around the changes in the business. Always have been.
You know how to deal
Rob: I don’t know about that. (laughs) We see ourselves this way – the other labels are ocean
liners. We’re more like a speed boat. We steer a course rather quickly.
Forget about the
label and the club. You guys have been together for while.
Eric: Fourteen years.
How has the
relationship held up?
EH: It goes really smooth since we don’t load each other
with the expectations. Lower the expectations and you lower the stress. Do what
you do best and everything works out. Between us they usually do.
I’m playing devil’s
advocate. I don’t think you guys are Sean Combs. The last record (Cosmic Game) had a lot of name guests –
this one does not. Wayne Coyne. Perry Farrell. That record signaled to some a
way of looking in.
EH: With this record we’re happy to have worked with high
profile records or people down the street. That’s the fundamental.
RG: I think with Cosmic
Game when we worked with those artists it just happened that we were
hearing from guys who had wanted to work with us. Perry was a fan. Flaming Lips
liked our stuff. We’d worked with David Byrne before. The new record has guests
– just not as household names. Not everyone knows Femi Kuti or Chuck Brown even
though they should.
Dag. There should be
a second Washington
Memorial to Chuck Brown.
RG: He should be the president.
EH: Though we are working with Sting next.
Are you serious?
Both: No. (laughs)
Wow. I think I actually
tasted throw-up in my mouth. Let’s talk about Chuck Brown. He’s adored.
RG: We’ve toured with Brown’s horn section before. That was
our in. Those guys forever said we should record with Chuck but the idea just
seemed too crazy to be true.
EH: Then one day, we recorded this great jumping
instrumental track and realized he’d sound great on it. Everybody worked the
liaison card. We were intimidated. He’s Chuck Brown – he’s 72. He’s seen it
all. But he came in to the studio and was the nicest gentleman; fun and sweet.
RG: He may be the coolest guy we ever met. We did a video
with him and people from 9 to 90 knew him throughout the shoot. He’s a legend.
Did Seu George
understand… grasp the language of your collaborations?
EH: We met him at one of our shows. He just sat down
immediately after hearing a track and started writing the lyrics about Hari
Krishna and temples. When he was homeless, he lived in a temple; it was second
nature to him. The lyrics were out there… but really great. It was strange too.
We know him from City of God, that gangster film. There we were,
though, later that day, shopping with him for his kids at Baby Gap.
RG: But we shot a few people at Baby Gap and stole their
personal and romantic politics in your previous work. How did you gather steam
for this? What was the tipping point? Why now?
EH: The timing was like a lot of peoples. It came down to
frustration. Like every one else we watched the negativity of the last eight
years. And we wondered why people put up with this; we couldn’t. We haven’t. I
don’t want to sound depressing but we killed about a million people in Iraq. We’re
going to have to answer for that one day. That people went along with that is
amazing. Up until recently, people only cared about buying which expensive car
or which flat screen TV – living in that kind of consciousness is scary. For
us, that life looked absurd. We wanted to point that out.
RG: It’s more about saying something… anything… that
mainstream radio and culture is too silent about.
How do you consider
what it is you’re talking about – the have-nots, when the first way in which we
knew you was as devil-may-care gentlemen, living high on the hog with pricey
cocktails in lounge culture. Not that you can’t wear beautiful clothes and be
conscious. But we think of you as THE HAVES.
EH: That’s a little bit of people’s imaginations. See them
and develop a narrative. It’s often pretty off-base. Like that Seu George thing.
Our first record – 1995 we talked about Babylon.
We developed Thievery Corporation [during] post-rave culture where kids were
wearing company-manufactured baggy jeans and we wanted to rebel against that by
looking back to the time as and music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Miles Davis.
Rebellion can look
RG: Our clothing suggested that era. Not so much a posh
lifestyle. We were taking the piss of the rave generation.
So you’re broke (laughs)
EH: We have no money.
RG: Plus, we recorded that first album for 5000 dollars –
real guerilla style. We would be broke if we signed to a major. We only kept
our nice chunk of change – not wealth – because we didn’t have to give it to
anyone. We prove you can make a nice living making music. We don’t play that
rich guy game.
EH: We live in a culture that validates music when you
flaunt it like Jay Z. We’re not flaunting.
Do you think in five
years people we look at this record beyond being a pop record?
RG: I hope people think it’s important. I know that sounds
pompous. But we think it is.
[Photo Credit: Andrzej Liguz/ moreimages.net