As far as electronic music goes, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation have already etched out their place in the history books. Use whatever cliched phrase for prolonged accomplishment and achievement that you want. Canonized. Gold-standard. The “bar.” Thievery is all of these things and more.
The Washington, D.C. based DJ collective is celebrating 20 years in the game this year, and do not appear to be slowing down any time soon. 2014’s Saudade marked Rob and Eric’s ninth studio album together, with at least twice as many compilation albums to their name. Like the rest of Thievery Corporation’s catalog, Saudade does a remarkable job of — for lack of a better word — incorporating the worldly sounds that inspire them into their music in order to create something fully unique. In this case, Saudade is a return to some of their bossa nova inspired roots.
JamFeed CEO Cameron Gibson was able to sit down with Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza last month, right before he went on stage for a solo DJ set at The 1up in Denver.
Rob touched on everything from not forcing music onto his son, to Thievery’s original influences, to their current influences, to beginning to record their upcoming album in Jamaica (I told you they weren’t slowing down), and more.
Thievery Corporation is a group out of D.C. Are you born and raised in D.C.?
I was born outside of Chicago but grew up around D.C. I was there most of my life, I live in San Francisco now. D.C. was very inspirational because of the whole punk scene going on, the Dischord record label, the indie bands coming out of there. It’s where I met Eric and where we started Thievery Corporation.
You have a kid now, congratulations!
Yes, a four-year-old son.
Is he getting into the music scene?
I don’t know about the music “scene,” but he’s definitely getting into music. I try not to force anything on him, I just let him experience music as he feels comfortable. I’ve seen a lot of kids whose parents try to make them do music and then they wind up wanting to have nothing to do with music. I’d rather have my son come to it on his own.
How did you come to it on your own?
My family moved to Connecticut for two years, so I went up there and they had an electronic music fest, one of the only ones in the country. This is 1984. I was working with drum machines, analog synthesizers, step sequencers, things like that… old school stuff.
So what brought you back to the solo DJ scene?
I started out making techno records before Thievery. This is like, 1991. I had a record label called Juju Thievery Corporation. We were about 19, 20 years old making techno records. And then with Thievery we started incorporating organic forms of music with electronic and then over the years it’s just become a lot more organic. But electronic music is part of my roots… Well, it is my roots.
So I was living in San Francisco and people were just asking me more and more to DJ. And I also have a bunch of clubs in Mexico, so we had a lot of DJs coming through our clubs, the BPM Festival, you know, people were asking me to do remixes a lot, asking me to DJ, so I started doing it and found that I really enjoyed it. It’s a way to be excited about modern music again and to travel.
Do you do solo stuff while you’re on tour with Thievery?
Sometimes I’ll do some after parties, things like that. Or I might do a gig if we’re in a town for a couple days.
How do you feel about Austin, TX?
I love Austin! It’s always been one of our favorite cities as a band. We definitely have a special connection. But Colorado has kind of become our second home…
Where do y’all get the most response from outside of the U.S.?
Probably Athens, Greece. People love us out there. Same with Lisbon, Portugal.
I know that Thievery incorporates lots of worldly sounds and uses lots of different languages. How many languages do you actually speak?
I speak English, some Spanish, and music, my third and most universal language! I’ve been able to connect with people from all sorts of cultures and societies through music.
Is there any place that stood out to you outside of the U.S.?
I definitely want to spend more time in Asia. Hong Kong, Thailand, Bali, Japan… I’ve never been to Vietnam so I’d love to go there as well. That whole region is just fascinating. I really enjoy traveling and exploring.
Could you speak on your influences a little bit? Who inspired you?
Well, I was inspired by a lot of punk music back in the day. A lot of people during the late-80s and early-90s who experimented with electronic music like Renegade Soundwave, Big Beat Manifesto, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, all these different kinds of people. And then jazz, reggae, dub, Brazilian music, there’s so many influences. What really brought me and Eric together is our appreciation of lots of different types of sounds.
So how did you and Eric meet originally?
We met back in 1995. This May it’ll be 20 years. We were listening to a lot of music from Japan and things like that, guys who were experimenting with electronic and jazz. So we both had this mutual appreciation of all these different styles — jazz, bossa nova, dub, Indian sounds. We just started talking about all these styles of music that we love and trying to figure out if there was a way to incorporate them all into electronic music. So we decided to get our equipment together and see if we could get anything cool sounding.
I think you did a good job.
Yeah (laughs). The first couple days we came up with a few songs and it went from there.
So what inspires you at this point?
I think one of the interesting things about what’s happening today is that sound systems are so much better and the ability to express different frequencies and things like that… and electronic music to me is really exciting right now. So I feel like it’s a very interesting time musically. People could say a lot of negative things about “mainstream EDM” and everything, but people have always said bad things about mainstream culture in general (laughs). Every era had its mainstream, or “lame-stream.”
During the 80’s there was a lot of horrible music, but also cool stuff happening in the underground. Same thing with today. There’s lots of cheesy stuff, but there’s also some pretty cool stuff going on — you just have to dig.
Were you and Eric friends before Thievery? And how does your relationship go today with you doing independent stuff?
I would say we became friends at the time we started and as we kept going we became great friends. I think at the end of the day me and Eric have a mutual respect for each other and we admire each other as friends, as musicians, as artists. I think we both feel grateful that we can have a career that’s lasted 20 years.
Do you guys have anything special for year 20 coming up?
We just finished recording in Jamaica. We’re working on a new album, so hopefully it’ll be out by the end of the year or early next year.
Is that the first time y’all have recorded in Jamaica?
First time, yeah.
How was that?
Amazing. We’re super excited. We were down there for ten days. We still have some ways to go in the recording process.
After all of this time, did you ever see yourself getting back into independent music again?
Well, in a way I never felt like I left. We put all of our stuff out ourselves and have always done things independently. So I think the thing is that we’ve never really had any roles. When it comes to my own career I’ve never felt like I have any roles I have to abide by.
You guys have taken a lot of political stands in your music. How did that evolve?
Because we’re from Washington you had a lot of politically outspoken artists. But within the art scene, people like Fugazi, you know, any of that whole scene, they were always speaking on what’s happening in the world. And we were also influenced by people like Public Enemy and The Clash. And because we’re independent we never had to answer to a major record label, we could do what we wanted.
That freedom in your music and your musical choices really shows. How do you recommend that to young musicians going forward?
The first thing I would say is that it’s very difficult out there, so it’s hard to really think of it as a career [at first]. When we started Thievery we just did it as a hobby. We never had any idea that people would pay us to buy records or play concerts. So I think that kind of passion has to be the underlying thing — you would do it even if nobody bought it. That’s how much you love it.
Be sure to follow both Thievery Corporation and Rob Garza on JamFeed to stay up-to-date with all of their latest releases, tour announcements, and general news. Congratulations on 20 years, guys!