Thievery Corporation, an inter- and outer-national sensation
September 1, 2011
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Rob Garza has outgrown punk rock, and the Washington, D.C., hard-core punk scene he was immersed in back in the ’80s. “I don’t listen to punk so much,” Garza said from San Francisco, where he moved last year. “It’s not my passion. I’m 41, so there are a lot of other things.”
But Garza points to punk as a main reason that he got tuned into the idea that there were so many other sounds to listen to. Hard-core punk may not have much in common with the jazz, Eastern European, Caribbean and Middle Eastern styles that Garza favors – nor with the worldly electronica music he makes in Thievery Corporation, the act he formed with fellow DJ/producer Eric Hilton, in 1995, in Washington. But being involved in the punk scene made Garza vividly aware that there was other music being made in the max ’80s outside of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, synth-driven New Wave and whatever else was in heavy rotation on commercial radio. So when Garza – who already had an inquisitive creative mind, evidenced by his dabbling in electronic music during his high school days in Connecticut, well before electronica was a music category – walked into a record store one day, it was not unusual that he headed toward a little-traveled aisle of the shop, and no surprise that his selection that day led to an even vaster sonic world.
“I grabbed a record by Antonio Carlos Jobim” – the Brazilian musicians who pioneered the bossa nova style – “and it opened up this door into jazz, electronic music,” Garza said. “When you listen to music like punk, it opens you up, because it’s not mainstream. There are whole other kinds of music to explore, and I started on that trip.”
Thievery Corporation, which performs Friday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, wasn’t meant to be a repository for music from all corners of the map. When Garza, an aspiring music producer, met Hilton, then the owner of a D.C. club called Eighteenth Street Lounge, in 1995, the idea was to create electronic dance music. But the two shared a fondness for Brazilian music, and some of the most interesting, cutting-edge electronic sounds at the time were coming from Japan, and that became an influence. Thievery Corporation debuted with 1997’s “Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi,” which included vocals by Bebel Gilberto, daughter of the Brazilian icon João Gilberto, setting the group off on a global course.
“I don’t think we set out to do that,” Garza said. “It reflected what we were listening to – Brazilian, Jamaican, jazz, soundtracks from the ’60s and ’70s, and that seeped into what we do.”
The global scope has now fully soaked into the Thievery Corporation sound, to the point where they coined a term to describe their music: outer-national. When the group – Garza and Hilton on turntables, plus a full band – performs tonight, they will be accompanied by a group of singers that might be mistaken for a U.N. mission: LouLou from Iran; the Argentinean Natalia Clavier; Ras Puma from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas; Mr. Lif, a hip-hopper from Boston with a Caribbean heritage; and Arthur “Rootz” Steele and Archie “Zee” Steele, brothers from the D.C.-based reggae group See-i.
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“D.C. is a very international city and we’d run into singers from Colombia, Iran, everywhere,” Garza, whose mother is Mexican, said. “It happened organically; we’d bring them in to work on tracks. So when you listen to a Thievery Corporation album, it’s very genre-jumping.”
“Culture of Fear,” the group’s latest album, released in June, is the usual tour through the exotic. LouLou and Ras Puma each appear on multiple tracks; Mr. Lif, Shana Halligan, from Los Angeles, and Kota, from D.C., each sing on one. “Culture of Fear” also represents the easier-going side of Thievery Corporation. Their music is sometimes referred to as “downtempo,” and the album offers a good reason why. Though Hilton and Garza sometimes dispute the idea that their music is chill-out music, this is heavy on the mellower vibes.
“It’s more space rock – the groovy, synthed, tripped out thing you had in the ’60s and ’70s,” Garza said, comparing “Culture of Fear” to past Thievery Corp. albums. “In the past, we’ve skimmed over that a lot. So it was time to get back to that.”
Thievery Corporation has pretty much covered the globe by this point, having collaborated with singers from India, Nigeria, Guyana and Slovakia, plus, on the 2005 album, Americans David Byrne, Perry Farrell and Wayne Coyne. So Garza, still searching for exotic sounds, travels in time, rather than space.
“I love discovering individual records, especially if it’s older music,” he said. “There’s a lot of buried treasure out there. So much older music is overlooked, waiting to be discovered.” A recent find: “Dreams,” a 1968 album by Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo.
Thievery Corporation might have picked up something else from Garza’s involvement with the punk scene. The group has a strong political aspect, most evident in their previous album, 2008’s “Radio Retaliation.” The CD cover included a photo of a Mexican rebel; the song “Vampires” was a direct jab at crooked politicians in Africa: “Don’t believe politicians and thieves/ They want our people on their bended knees.” “Culture of Fear” dials back slightly on the politics.
“I think we have some elements that are political,” Garza said. “But that’s not the whole thing. There are other types of sentiments and language and things that are going on.”
More than conveying political messages, Thievery Corporation intends to provide a venue for listeners to open up their thinking. “That aspect of opening people’s minds and ears is one thing you can take away” from a show, Garza said. “In mainstream culture, you don’t hear a lot of these sounds, these cultures.”
The mix of sounds, languages, personalities and viewpoints has played incredibly well in Aspen. Thievery Corporation made its Aspen debut, at Belly Up, in April of 2009, and they have returned numerous times since then, consistently selling out the club. Those are the rare club appearances for the group, which is more accustomed to festival stages. “It’s not a big chore to come out there,” Garza said of Belly Up, noting the beauty of Aspen and the relationship they have formed with Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg.
This time through, Thievery Corporation moves to the big, open-air festival.
“Festivals are fun because you get a lot of people who aren’t familiar with you,” he said. “You see them getting into it and you feel like you’re making new friends.”