Over two decades ago, Thievery Corporation began plundering the recombinant DNA of modern consumer culture. That’s when the act’s founders, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, came up with the super-eclectic mix of soul, reggae, acid jazz, bhangra, bossa nova, and assorted exotica that virtually defined the downtempo lounge sound of the 1990s.
“I love all kinds of music,” declares Hilton, calling from his home in Washington, D.C. “But I could never tell you why I love it. I guess the search for that meaning keeps us going.”
The duo’s dogged eclecticism was launched in the laboratory of their own D.C. club, called the Eighteenth Street Lounge—also the name of their independent label. Over the years, they’ve added live musicians, cooked up their own compositions, and collaborated with artists like David Byrne and Femi Kuti. They’ve had a few semihits, like the sitar-driven “Lebanese Blonde”, but after 10 studio albums and twice as many remix sets, they’re still a cult fave, not a radio powerhouse. Still, each new record is eagerly awaited.
“Every album is different,” Hilton explains. “Saudade, the last one, was very much in one vein, with the bossa, easy-listening sounds from Brazil that Rob and I really love. Our albums used to be all over the place, but lately we’ve been enjoying keeping ourselves in a tighter genre box.”
He and Garza are now touring in support of The Temple of I and I, a fresh return to the dub-minded music they landed on when playing old Lee “Scratch” Perry records for their original club fans. This time, they plunked themselves down in rural Jamaica to record the basic rhythm tracks.
“When the Jamaica trip first came up, in 2015, we just liked the idea of going there because it would be warm, and it’s cold in D.C. in February. We didn’t have a set idea of what sounds we would use, but once we got down there, it only made sense to keep the music in a Jamaican format.”
In fact, they hit on so many disparate ideas, the guys wound up with a whole extra CD’s worth of alternate cuts and extras from those sessions, due out this fall.
“Instead of waiting three or four more years, we just figured, ‘Let’s release it soon, like a collection of rarities before they’re even rare.’ ”
In fact, Hilton thinks the whole notion of release strategy has come to look rather quaint.
“The older, more established groups—and I guess you can put us in that category—are survivors of a technological bomb blast that pretty much ended the record industry. It’s been an absolute apocalypse for creative people, like musicians, photographers, writers, graphic designers, and even publicists, to see their work given away for free. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a career in those fields anymore, but it’s just such a different world today. Companies like Spotify want to keep lowering the royalties to their artists, to be ‘competitive’. These days, it’s Instagram versus Kodak, and guess who wins?”