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Taken from Balkanrock (Jul 02, 2024)

Rob Garza (Thievery Corporation): "Music has always been a powerful tool for social change"

by Nikita Sestak

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Thievery Corporation hardly needs an introduction to the music connoisseur. Active since the mid-90s, the authors of the legendary track "Lebanese Blonde", Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, have been responsible for many a trippy, hi-fi exhibition, with an approach to sampling that not only borrows a piece of regional music but also transforms it into a focused and rich narrative experience. A cut above their peers in the downtempo game, they have also made a name for themselves with terrific live performances, utilising a rich arsenal of live instruments.

But where did it all begin? How did the band go about creating their trademark psychedelic sound without the perks of modern technology? How did they lose possession the master tapes to the second album? And what's in store for their performance at Kalemegdan later this June? To find it out, Nikita Sestak delves into the thick of things with none other than Rob Garza.

BR: It's always good to start at the beginning. So, what is the meaning behind the name Thievery Corporation? And what do the numbers .38.45, known as the "Thievery Number", have to do with this?

Rob Garza: The name "Thievery Corporation" actually came about as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek commentary about the seedy corporate world and its sometimes questionable practices. We wanted something that reflected our rebellious spirit and our desire to challenge the status quo while acknowledging our love of sampling, like hip hop and electronic acts like Public Enemy and Meat Beat Manifesto.

As for the numbers .38.45, that came from Rootz [Arthur Steele] and Zee [Archie Steele], known as See-I. It was their tribute to Toots and the Maytalls' 54-46. They used the numbers to create a song which has become like a theme to some people. So, in a way, the name and the numbers are both a nod to our roots and a reflection of some of our influences. It's about embracing the unconventional, the DIY spirit, and carving out our own path in the music biz.

BR: How did you two meet? And why did you choose electronic music in particular as your means of expression when you first started?

Rob Garza: Ah, our origin story. Eric and I actually met through a mutual friend in Washington, D.C. back in the day. We bonded over a shared love for music and a desire to create something fresh and innovative. As for why we gravitated towards electronic music, it was really a natural evolution for us. We were both making electronic sounds and influenced by the fact you could create music based on inspirations from your record collections, and we saw it as a canvas to explore a wide range of influences and styles. Plus, electronic music offered a level of freedom and experimentation that appealed to us as curators and lovers of different styles. In those early days, we were inspired by the burgeoning electronic scene and the possibilities it offered for blending different genres and pushing sonic boundaries. It felt like the perfect medium for us to express ourselves and create something truly unique.

BR: Was it difficult to produce before the advent of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and modern equipment? Is there a piece of recording technology that is widely available now that you wish you had back then?

Rob Garza: Before the advent of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and modern recording equipment, the process of producing music was definitely more challenging in some ways. We had to rely on analog gear, samplers, and synths, which had their own quirks and limitations. It required a lot of patience and working within those limitations to achieve the sound we were after. I remember it being a lot of fun. There was also a certain magic to working with analog gear. It had a warmth and character that's sometimes hard to replicate with digital technology. There was a hands-on, tactile quality to the process that added to the creativity and spontaneity of recording.

As for a piece of recording technology that I wish we had back then, virtual instruments and software synths have been game-changers. Having access to a wide range of sounds and textures at our fingertips allows for endless experimentation and creativity. Having access to any sound at your fingertips. Also we would have to load like 15 floppy discs for a song, so we would not turn our gear off for weeks (laughter).

BR: Your biography mentions that the 2nd album ended up being delayed because the tapes were stolen in a mugging. How did that happen? And does this mean that an unreleased Thievery record exists somewhere out there?

Rob Garza: That was a crazy experience. It was back in the early days, We had just finished recording our second album, I was walking back to my girlfriend's house and it was late at night around 3 AM and I passed this guy in an alley who looked suspicious. I get around the corner and I heard running behind me. I was thinking, "oh shit!" and then I turned around, and this guy was holding a gun to my head and he wanted the bag, so I gave it to him.

In truth, we had another copy as a safety back in the studio, so I wasn't worried. Our label at the time, 4AD, thought it would be a great story to get press on the upcoming record which it certainly did.

BR: Early on, the band has often been associated with this pacified notion of a "chill out" scene. Does this sound like a bit of a stigma to you, given the more radical context of your newer work? How did you manage these associations?

Rob Garza: The association with the "chill out" scene was something that emerged in the early days of Thievery Corporation, as everybody tried to put us in a musical category.

I don't think that we ever felt a real affinity for it as we don't really resonate with any musical categories. Our music blurs the lines of many genres, and we work with lots of different types of artists and styles, so I don't think it's something that either of us have put too much attention towards.

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BR: In what way did your direction and messaging evolve over the years? What are some issues you are trying to address with your work now?

Rob Garza: We've always been deeply influenced by social and political issues, being inspired by bands like Public Enemy and The Clash. Our music has been a way for us to engage with those themes and provoke thought and discussion.

In the early days, our focus was on creating a vibe, a sonic escape from the chaos of the world. But as we've matured as artists and as individuals, our music has taken on a more conscious and intentional tone. We've become more vocal about the issues that matter to us. Music has always been a powerful tool for social change, and we're honored to be able to contribute to that legacy in our own way. At the end of the day, our hope is that our music will not only move people emotionally but also make people think.

BR: How do you view the practice of sampling now, as opposed to the late '90s? And did you ever have any feedback from the artists you sampled?

Rob Garza: Sampling has always been a fundamental part of our creative process, allowing us to weave together a rich tapestry of sounds and influences. In the late '90s, sampling was still a relatively new and fresh technique, and there was a sense of excitement and experimentation surrounding it. These days it's not a huge part of our recording process.

We heard a little feedback, and in some instances, those artists became fans. At the end of the day, our approach to sampling has always been about paying tribute to the artists and music that inspire us, while also putting our own unique spin on things. It's a delicate balance, but when done right, sampling can be a powerful vehicle blending the new with the old.

BR: A lot of these samples those of musics across the globe - for you, notably, Jamaican and Brazilian. But, aside from this re-contextualizing approach, at the time, there was also this, I think justifiably dated, idea of "World music", which ultimately comes down to reducing a multiplicity of approaches to one marketable, homogeneous lump of foreign exotica. As producers and label owners, what was your opinion on this "genre" as it was unfolding?

Rob Garza: Our goal was never to simply exploit exotic sounds for commercial gain, but rather to honor and celebrate the sounds in our record collections. We wanted to create music that was rooted in tradition yet forward-thinking and innovative, blending different influences in a way that felt organic and authentic.

You have to remember when we started the Internet didn't exist the way that it does today. Getting pieces of vinyl from other parts of the world was extremely ear-and eye-opening. We wanted to continue and share the legacy of these great pieces of vinyl making music that sounded futuristic.

In many ways, our approach to sampling and recontextualizing music from across the globe was a response to the limitations of the "world music" label. We saw it as a way to break down barriers and challenge stereotypes, to show that music is a universal language that transcends borders and genres. So, while we never liked the term "world music", music from around the globe played a role in expanding our musical horizons and fostering a greater appreciation for all sorts of global sounds while honoring the traditions that inspired us, while pushing the boundaries of what's possible with sound.

BR: Speaking of labels, tell us a bit about your ESL imprint. Are you still releasing new music and scouting for new talent?

Rob Garza: ESL Music was a labor of love for us-a platform to showcase not only our own music but also the work of other artists and genres we loved. We're not as active on the label front as we used to be.

It's a totally different world in the digital days, but we were excited to be part of the golden age of physical product.

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BR: I'm sure you're well aware of the strong following cult you have here in Serbia. Do you have any fond memories of previous shows or interactions with fans from these parts?

Rob Garza: Serbia is one of our favorite places to play. We have had a strong connection with the people. I've done various DJ gigs around the country, and Thievery has played Belgrade and Kragujevac a few times.

We love the people and vibe here. One of my fondest memories was playing on Tasmajdan! What an epic night, great fans, great music, and the few shots of rakia didn't hurt either! ;)

BR: What can the public look forward to with your Kalemegdan performance?

Rob Garza: We are excited to play in the fortress! The audience can expect another unforgettable musical journey filled with hypnotic grooves, lush melodies, and infectious rhythms. We have some songs we've introduced to the live show and great new musicians and singers that we are stoked to introduce to you guys. Its going to be a fun evening!

BR: Lastly, what does the future hold for the Corp.? Can we look forward to a new album soon?

Rob Garza: There are more shows on the horizon and we are talking about making new music!




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